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2023 Season Review: Gangwon FC



Following a year full of ups-and-downs, Gangwon FC secured their K League 1 survival with a 2-1 win over Gimpo FC in the second leg of the promotion/relegation playoff. But before the Bears prepare to play in their eighth consecutive season in Korea’s top flight, columnist Nathan Sartain looks back on the provincial club’s eventful 2023.


A Slow Start

Unfortunately for Gangwon, early season form was hard to come by. After a 2-0 opening round loss to Daejeon Hana Citizen, the Bears would go on to taste defeat in three more of their first eight matches, and remain winless. They’d be scoreless in five of those games too, showing signs of the attacking bluntness that would be present in parts of the year.

Still, there were some positive signs. Despite an xG underperformance of 4.24 in that eight game period, Gangwon began to display defensive improvements as they searched for their first victory of the year. For example, between round five and eight, the Bears limited their opposition to an average of 10 shots per game, and recorded an average xGA of 0.8 while maintaining their already decent numbers in metrics like duels won and recoveries.

So, with that in mind, once the attack began to click, would Gangwon be ok?

The Turning Points


For a short while, it looked that way. After nearly snatching three points in injury time away to Gwangju FC, Gangwon would finally get their first win in round nine, a 3-2 home victory against FC Seoul. And, while the performance was a more frantic departure from the relatively sturdy defensive displays that had been present in the early part of the year, it certainly highlighted the team’s character, and their ability to deliver in vital moments.

Following that, came one of Gangwon’s most efficient displays of 2023. Away to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, the Bears would register their lowest match tempo ranking of the year at 12.69 (this means there was an average of 12.69 team passes per minute of pure ball possession), but find different ways to deal with the threat of their opponents. For example, only six of Jeonbuk’s 46 positional attacks resulted in a shot, and only four of their overall shot total of 11 were on target, whereas Gangwon’s only counter attack of the match resulted in the winning goal courtesy of a lobbed Yang Hyun-jun effort.

Unfortunately, however, this upturn in results would soon fizzle out. A 2-0 away defeat at the hands of Suwon FC was a disappointing reminder that sometimes you can create plenty of chances without finishing them, before subsequent losses to Ulsan Hyundai and Suwon Samsung Bluewings exhibited a more urgent need for a rethink. Just how could Gangwon get back firing?

This question was one unable to be answered by Choi Yong-soo, who resigned after five more winless games (two draws, three losses). At this time, Gangwon’s league record was 2-6-10, which left them in 11th place with 11 goals scored, and 23 conceded. Still, it’s worth noting that the task for Choi Yong-soo’s replacement was not going to be an impossible job, and that despite the Bears’ disappointing 2023 form, there was evidently a talented group of players in the side, they just needed to find their confidence, and would perhaps benefit from a fresh setting to do so. That, and there was room for hope that once attacking reinforcements were able to be brought in during the summer window, the lack of goals issue could be solved.

A New Manager, and Busy Summer


Moving forward, on June 15, Yoon Jong-hwan was appointed as Gangwon’s new manager, marking his return to Korean football, and the new era of the provincial club. With him came Chung Kyung-ho as head coach, in addition to the crucial task of keeping the Bears in the first division.

Initially, a more proactive style was implemented. In a 1-1 draw with Suwon FC, Gangwon would have 16 shots on goal (their highest number of the year at that point), blend their more typical counter attacking style with a front-footed approach, and although this left the Bears more open to conceding, it showed a willingness to be ambitious.

With that being said, a 1-0 loss to Incheon United the following week, where Gangwon had actually dominated possession and tried to build from all areas of the pitch to no avail, led to some tactical tweaks. Buoyed by the signing of centre back Marko Tući, who instantly solidified the defence, Yoon Jong-hwan appeared to start favouring a more pragmatic approach centred around remaining competitive in games, and keeping to a noticeable structure. It wouldn’t always work - FC Seoul and Jeju United would peg Gangwon back after the Bears had taken the lead in matches - but it did begin to bring with it some positive results. Nevertheless, a win was proving elusive for the provincial club’s new manager, who hadn’t yet figured out how to get an inconsistent attack firing on all cylinders.

Amidst all of these tactical changes, there was plenty going on in relation to transfer activity too. After a quiet winter, new manager Yoon Jong-hwan found himself fully backed when it came to adjusting the playing squad in the summer. Out went starlet Yang Hyun-jun, Rim Chang-woo, and Jung Seung-yeong, and in came the aforementioned Marko Tući, as well as hefty attacking additions in the form of Yun Il-lok, Lee Jae-won, Yago Cariello, Vitor Gabriel, and Welinton Junior. Truly, this was a refreshed team, but would the potential need for adaptation cause teething issues?

*Regarding Yang Hyun-jun, a talent who truly did burst onto the scene in 2022, this piece goes into more detail about his career at Gangwon, and move to Celtic.

The Turnaround Begins

In due time, the new-look Gangwon would begin to show greater progress. And most importantly, after 15 league games without a win, the Bears would score a victory against opposition they hadn’t bested for 11 years: champions Ulsan Hyundai. It was by no means a plucky performance either, with the Bears registering 19 shots and an xG of 3.14 in spite of having 28.23% possession. Organised, defensively resolute, yet still a constant threat when going forward, this truly was Gangwon at their best, and it would give fans firm reason to believe their team could stay up.

Even with some setbacks - namely a Lee Seung-woo injury time winner completing a Suwon FC comeback on Gangwon’s home turf - there were glimmers of hope, and a sense that this was a team with the ability to survive should an extra bit of consistency be found. Key players like Kim Dae-won and Seo Min-woo were attaining their best form of the year, for example, so it certainly wasn’t time to hit the panic button.

Nevertheless, Gangwon may have found themselves disappointed that a 3-1 away win over Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, where they were comfortable in creating high quality chances, didn’t become a springboard to a stronger set of results. Instead, the provincial club finished the regular season with two 1-1 draws and a 1-0 defeat, meaning they would be heading into Final B sat in 11th.

The Final Push


Eventually, though, it clicked for Gangwon, and the positive signs seen throughout the year manifested as positive results. Following a 2-1 defeat away to FC Seoul which started their Final B run-in, the provincial club would go on a four game unbeaten run to end the K League 1 season, and move up to 10th place in the process. A 1-0 away win at the Daejeon World Cup Stadium was a real highlight in this short period, as was a final day stalemate against Suwon Samsung Bluewings which was tactically excellent in how the team managed such a big occasion with both confidence and calmness. Suddenly, this was a Gangwon team being rewarded for digging deep, and a side with a clear competitiveness to them.

Be that as it may, it would all come down to a promotion/relegation playoff for Gangwon to seal their fate. Or to be more precise, after a first leg 0-0 draw against Gimpo FC, for the second time in three years, the Bears needed to win in Gangneung to ensure their first division survival. But win they did, in part thanks to a fantastic Vitor Gabriel double, and similarly through sheer endeavour and a readiness to match the atmosphere in the ground. Gangwon were safe, ready to usher in an eighth consecutive season of top-flight football.

Conclusion

With Yoon Jong-hwan stabilising a team down on confidence (and arguably luck), Gangwon do now have a template to build from as they aim to avoid a similar fight for survival next year. But in the meantime, and although everyone deserves some level of credit, it's worth concluding by giving a nod to some of the players who were prominent in keeping the Bears in K League 1.

In the early parts of the season, it was goalkeeper Lee Gwang-yeon who began to show his importance to the team, with his string of strong performances cementing the 24-year-old's case to be a regular fixture in the starting eleven. Then, in early summer, Marko Tući came in and helped solidify the defence (Gangwon would enjoy their best goals conceded record over a 38-game first division season in 2023), while Kim Dae-won would let his quality shine through towards the end of the regular season, and furthermore in Final B. Additionally, Hwang Mun-ki would prove somewhat of a revelation in his full-back role during the latter stage of the season, whereas Yun Suk-young benefited from having trust placed back in him on the left side of the defence. As for Ikromjon Alibaev, he would add some beneficial creativity in the centre of midfield, but would also contribute well in the defensive parts of his game which certainly helped during the Bears' end of year six-game unbeaten stretch. And of course Lee Jeong-hyeop and Vitor Gabriel must be praised too, for their sharp form in Final B and beyond which helped address the side's generally underwhelming 2023 goal returns when it mattered most.

With all that considered, then, perhaps there is room to be optimistic about Gangwon going forward. They are a better outfit than the one that started 2023, and with the right additions over the winter, could well push themselves up the table in 2024.


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