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2024 Season Preview: Can Pohang pick up the pieces with Park Tae-ha?


After a 2023 season that saw Pohang challenge for the title until the closing weeks of the season, finish second and win the FA Cup, spirits were at one of the highest points they've been at in recent history at the Steelyard. In the weeks following the season's end, Pohang's house of cards came crashing down. Key players left and eventually, club legend and manager Kim Gi-dong took the vacant FC Seoul job. Pohang Steelers columnist Zeno Jo previews the 2024 season, which will be the 51st in club history. 


 Last Season

16 wins, 16 draws, 6 losses; 2nd place 

What Happened?

Kim Gi-dong happened, right? The Steelers, despite losing 2022 Best Eleven Midfielder Shin Jin-ho, his would-be successor Lee Soo-bin and key contributors like Lim Sang-hyub, the Steelers found a way to finish not just in the top six, not just qualify for continental football, but finish at their highest position since winning it all in 2013. 

Individual heroics from the likes of Zeca and Alex Grant took the spotlight off of a handful of other first-team players who performed under expectations, such as Kim In-sung. Goh Young-joon, Baek Sung-dong and Hong Yun-sang must also be recognized for their, when healthy, consistent performances which helped Pohang to 16 wins but couldn't do enough to earn two more points from the 16 draws. 

Bitter rivals Ulsan lifting the title was a foregone conclusion, with the Tigers celebrating their second-straight with three matches to spare. Pohang's inability to finish games was its Achilles' Heel. Despite having the least amount of losses in the league, the Steelers' 16 draws, four of which were goalless, ultimately lead to them falling 12 points short of the title. Four goals in those four goalless draws could have been the difference between a K League title and a second-place finish. 

And at the end of all that, Kim Gi-dong left. 

Notable Moves

Oberdan (far left, No. 8) is the only player in the image still on Pohang's squad as of today.
Kim Seung-dae (to: Daejeon Hana Citizen, free transfer)
2023 was a year of injuries for Pohang. Key players missed big time. Kim Seung-dae was the one man who was almost always there was Kim Seung-dae. The captain played in 32 K League matches, starting in 22 of them, the second-most of any attacking player on the team (Zeca had 33 and 24). 

Kim's departure marks the fifth straight year that Pohang has lost its captain. Bae Seul-ki in 2019 (retirement), Choi Young-joon in 2020 (end of loan), Oh Beom-seok in 2021 (retirement), Shin Jin-ho in 2022 (transfer) and now Kim Seung-dae in 2023 (end of contract). A jinx? A curse? Whatever the case may be, Pohang will have gone five straight seasons without their previous season's captain. 

Zeca (to: Shandong Taishan, transfer)
A true six-sided player, Zeca was the answer for Pohang's post-Iljutcenko striker woes. He didn't have the highest of expectations upon arriving at Pohang, but won the hearts of Steelers fans over quickly. He had 17 goals and ten assists on in all competitions, more than Moses Ogbu, Boris Tashchy and Mario Kvesic had combined. 

Zeca left via a release clause in his contract, which was reported to be valued at $2 million. He will play at Shandong Taishan, where he will join former Ulsan Hyundai man Valeri Qazaishvili and former Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee.

Alex Grant (to: Tianjin Jinmen, free transfer)
After three years at Pohang, the Australian leaves as one of its best defenders in recent club history. His 92 games, according to Transfermarkt, are the most he's had at any club in his career. The recent trend of not being able to keep its own players due to salary differences continues. The Australian defender was always going to leave after his contract was up, and Steelers fans are just thankful he didn't go to another Korean club. Grant's partner in defense Ha Chang-rae leaving to Japan is also a big loss for Pohang.

Goh Young-joon (to: FK Partizan, transfer)
Pohang's hottest commodity over the past few seasons has been none other than Goh Young-joon. Despite interest from top Korean clubs, the attacking midfielder, who just finished his last season as a U-22 player, has stayed with the Steelers since before debut. He's been in their youth system since fourth grade.

After winning gold at the Asian Games and earning military exemption, foreign interest in the Pohang youth product increased.  He's reported to have garnered interest from France, Germany, Portugal, Belgium and even the MLS, among other leagues, but ultimately, his destination was FK Partizan Belgrade in the Serbian Superliga. The transfer fee is reported to be around €1.7 million, with a 10% sell-on clause.

Key Player 

Oberdan

Before going down with an MCL injury, Oberdan appeared in every match for Pohang Steelers in every competition, playing the full 90 (plus) minutes of each. His availability wasn't just his strongest suit. His performance on the field as a defensive midfielder who could carry the ball into the attacking third made the departure of Shin Jin-ho digestible for Kim Gi-dong. Under a new manager who will be using what appears to be a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3, Oberdan will play a key role. He has all the intangibles to be a key player for years to come at the club, and his performance in 2024 will play a big role in that.


Young Player to Watch



Hong Yun-sang
Hong, who carries the nickname of Hong Grealish, the nickname of his favorite footballer Jack Grealish, enjoyed a return to Korean football midway through last season. In the midst of Goh Young-joon going down with an injury on international duty and the team's attack looking stagnant, Hong Yun-sang was the spark that the team needed to push itself through the hottest months of the year. He could be work his way into becoming Park Tae-ha's go-to U-22 player this season.


Biggest Question 



What will Park Tae-ha's football look like?
Through two legs of football with Jeonbuk Hyundai, who are arguably the K League's most improved team in terms of talent in its squad, Park Tae-ha has shown a style of play that is quite different to that of his predecessor. In four short years, Kim Gi-dong developed a play style that's been dubbed the "Steel-ki-taka" for its quick, short passing. Against Jeonbuk Hyundai, Park implemented a somewhat older style of football which looked to utilize long balls to target one of two target men (Lee Ho-jae or Jorge) at the top of a 3-4-3 or 4-4-2. 

In addition, his fullbacks, often Eo Jeong-won and Wanderson, would invert, overloading the midfield to give the player with the ball a lot of options to pass to. With a lot of players that fit the old 4-2-3-1 formation and style of Kim Gi-dong, it remains to be seen how they will fit into Park Tae-ha's squad. Players like Kim In-sung, Baek Sung-dong, Jung Jae-hee and even Kim Jong-woo may struggle to adjust to Park's system, and it will be worth keeping an eye on their progress throughout the season. 

Reason to Watch 


Is Pohang's magic still there?
It feels like so long ago that Kim Gi-dong took the job as the manager of Pohang Steelers. His predecessor, Choi Soon-ho, is now the general manager at Suwon FC. Between Kim and the last Pohang manager to win a trophy (Hwang Sun-hong), there were two men to have held the job. Will it take two managers after Kim Gi-dong for Pohang to find its next trophy?

For the past few years, Pohang Steelers have played with a sort of magic to them. The kind of magic that demanded your attention until the very final whistle and would not let go of you. Has that magic left with Kim Gi-dong? It remains to be seen. The 2024 season will be a big test for the front office's ability to recruit and fill its gaps, for Park Tae-ha to fill big shoes and for the players to not disappoint fans after one of the club's best seasons in recent history. 



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