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The Repeating Woes (and New Ones) Facing Gangwon

Injuries to key players, inconsistent performances, patchy recruitment, some tactical instability, potential for relegation. Sound familiar? If you’ve kept track of Gangwon for the last 18 months, it certainly should, as so far this season they’re repeating the same mistakes which left them playing for survival against Daejeon back in December. Given they’re also creating new problems, KLU columnist Nathan Sartain takes an in-depth look at these issues, and why they require solutions should the Bears want to avoid a full redo of 2021.

The Uncontrollable: Injuries

Before going into the (mostly) self-inflicted or as yet unresolved difficulties of Gangwon’s season, it’s worth mentioning a problem which has plagued the provincial club for a while now: injuries. They’re part and parcel of the game, sure, but it does sometimes feel like the Bears come out on the unlucky side given the profiles of who ends up sidelined, how long they’re out of action for, and how frequently it occurs.

Most notably, the injury to Dino Islamovic put a massive dent in any ambitions for a Final A finish, with his two early season goals the catalysts for 2/3 of Gangwon’s victories so far this campaign. For further context, 46.7% of the Bear’s current points haul of 15 came in the five games the Montenegrin was available for. Given that means only eight points have been picked up in the ten matches post-injury, the target-man’s importance to Choi Yong-soo’s system is obvious, thus highlighting that perhaps present woes could have been avoided should full fitness have been maintained.

Furthermore, it hasn’t helped that Han Kook-young, a vital and dynamic midfielder, has only just returned from the ankle problem which kept him out of action for the opening months of the season. It also isn’t ideal that, despite some underperformances, Lee Jeong-hyeop’s own fitness issues have meant that Gangwon are playing in a system that requires a constant battling presence up front with Kim Dae-won and Yang Hyun-Jun, two more technically minded players who would benefit from more freedom. Add to that some other sporadic absences in all areas, as well as the fatigue affecting the squad due to the general lack of depth, and there’s quite a cocktail of sympathy that could build up given how things have turned out.

But the cocktail shouldn’t fully manifest, when the other, more preventable issues, are considered.

A Repeating Problem: Patchy Recruitment

With captain Lim Chai-min departed, and squad players Shin Se-gye and Rustam Ashurmatov also having said goodbye to Gangwon, it’s understandable that Choi Yong-soo wanted to bolster his defensive options. It’s even more unsurprising that he’d want to do such a thing when you remember that the former FC Seoul boss took over the third worst defence in the league for goals conceded. So, with those two factors in mind, the additions of Lee Woong-hee, Kim Won-kyun, and young Swede Kevin Jansson, seemed smart enough.

What is quite surprising, though, is that not one has managed to play a significant part of any first team game. In fact, the trio of centre-backs have racked up just 26 minutes of league action between them, out of a possible 4050. Now, all this would be fine if the current back three were a settled, consistent outfit, but they’re not, and the Bears statistically have the fourth worst defence in the division.

Furthermore, midfielder Yuki Kobayashi has so far failed to add that extra bit of creativity to the team (granted he has seen his opportunities limited as of late), and previous summer additions like Momchil Tsvetanov, who had shown flashes of quality in 2021, now find themselves restricted to cameo appearances. Quite what Gangwon have/had planned in terms of a recruitment strategy is hard to fully grasp, especially when the lack of quality options in midfield and up front was never properly addressed in the winter. These inconsistencies then end up negating the genuinely good transfers like Dino Islamovic and Yu Sang-hun, which ultimately translates to a lack of balance on the pitch too.

However, with the summer window fast approaching, and the Bears already looking like they’re ready to get business done, there is some hope that the recruitment problems of the last 18 months will subside.

A Repeating Problem: Missing that Winning Feeling

One of the key reasons Gangwon ended up where they did last season was because, put simply, they seemed to forget how to win. Their three notable winless runs - 5 matches at the beginning of the campaign, 9 during the period leading up to the ACL break, another 5 at the tail-end of the year - all played a hefty part in seeing top-half ambitions soon give way to worries of an unwanted return K League 2 after five years away.

These stretches were often slogs, too. When the Bears stopped winning, it was easy to begin wondering just how long it’d be before they’d return to any sort of form, or if indeed each phase of rotating draws and losses would be longer than the last. Now, that’s not a knock on the players. They were obviously left without confidence, but at the same time fans would have been bitterly disappointed to see the team they love afford them diminishing returns.

This year, sadly, has seemed to continue the trends of last. Before the 1-0 win against FC Seoul, Gangwon managed eight games without a victory, a disappointing fact given that number is over half the games played so far. However, just how this run came about, and why it’s conceivable more of a similar ilk could reoccur, is a slightly different story this time around.

A New Problem: Losing Leads

Last year, Kim Byung-soo’s Gangwon endured their rough patches largely through individual inconsistencies and arguably poor game management, all mixed in with some genuine hard work which just didn’t pay off with points. The games were difficult to watch, because you could see both a lack of playing to the side’s strengths as well as an absence of the type of quality that separates the top teams from those that struggle.

In 2022, it’s not like that. Although there are still sporadic thrashings, a portion of the Bears’ woes seem at least partially self-inflicted. There’s a repeating tendency for Gangwon to go into the lead, invite too much pressure through sitting deep, and then lose said lead. It’s so drastic that Choi Yong-soo’s side have already dropped 11 points from winning positions, compared to the one they’ve gained coming from behind. Should they have those extra points, they would be level with second-place Jeju.

So, the way Gangwon currently manage games is actively harming their season, and potentially their chances of survival should they fail to rectify their issues. The Bears currently sit 10th, treading water in the promotion/relegation playoff section of the table along with Suwon FC, so you may think that the fact they could be 2nd if they had found a better way at maintaining leads may be a surprising enough one for some tactical tweaks. But Choi Yong-soo is persistent with his 3-5-2 style in the absence of a target man, one which seems to increasingly dwindle in the success it brings due to the lack of attacking fluidity, in addition to the absence of any noticeable defensive improvements with the extra body in midfield.

Of course, the easy argument is that not every lead can be maintained. That’s true. The 3-1 loss to Ulsan was a game unlikely to ever go in the provincial club’s favour, but both matches against Suwon Samsung Bluewings felt like missed opportunities, while draws like the one away to Jeonbuk only required a few more minutes of the defensive commitment which had allowed them to go 1-0 up in the first place. There has to be some middle ground, and squandering a large portion of leads (Gangwon have only won this season when keeping a clean-sheet, so could be deemed to buckle whenever there is an opposition response) is not that.

The Positives: The Kids are Alright

With all that being said, it’s far from the end of the world (or season, in this case). For one, younger players such as Yang Hyun-jun, Kim Dae-woo, and to a lesser extent Kim Jin-ho, are all proving themselves capable of playing important roles, whilst also ensuring that the impact of the club’s small budget can be lessened through showing the established pathway for talented young players to reach the first team. Such a strategy may end up being Gangwon’s best chance at maintaining their status in the division if all else fails, too.

Plus, for as rigid as Choi Yong-soo has been tactically so far this year, he is a manager who has proven success, including with how he turned around Gangwon’s fortunes in the December playoffs. Now that his back is against the wall, it may be time for him to take a risk, implement the attacking style he talked about before the campaign’s beginning, and potentially find the winning formula the whole team are still in search of.

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