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2024 Season Preview: Will Gangwon FC stabilise themselves?

After a promotion/relegation playoff victory against Gimpo FC ensured Gangwon FC retained their K League 1 status, the Bears will be going into 2024 hoping they can begin to move up the table, and put their worries behind them. But without star player Kim Dae-won, can 2023’s lowest scorers find that clinical touch they need to climb the ranks?

Last Season

6W- 16D - 16L, 10th place

What Happened?

A slow start would prove costly for Gangwon, as they struggled to gain momentum in the early parts of the year. It would take until round nine for the Bears to claim their first win of the season (3-2 at home to FC Seoul), and despite things appearing to look up for the provincial club once they followed that up with a smash-and-grab victory away to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors later that same week, struggle would soon re-enter the fray. So much so, by the end of matchday 18 (a 2-1 loss to Jeonbuk) Gangwon had suffered 10 defeats, been held to six stalemates, and still only won twice in the league, leaving them in 11th. The Bears were a blunt outfit at this time too, managing just 11 goals, and feeling devoid of the spark that had catapulted them to Final A just months prior.

With all that in mind, Choi Yong-soo’s tenure would end in the week between round 18 and 19, with Yoon Jong-hwan swiftly appointed as his replacement. Stylistic improvements would follow, as Gangwon now looked more settled in possession, and better structured, though a winning formula still evaded the team. In fact, the Bears waited 15 games between victories before defeating Ulsan HD 2-0, and would then only win once more in the following nine games. Thus, while their defending had improved (2023 saw Gangwon’s best goals conceded record in a 38-game K League 1 season), and attacking play had started to become more effective, Gangwon were still left needing a sharp upturn in fortunes going into the final few games of Final B.

That sharp upturn would, fortunately, arrive. Gangwon would close out the K League 1 season with three consecutive clean sheets across two wins and a draw, which saw them rise to 10th place, and guarantee a promotion/relegation playoff with Gimpo FC. The away leg of said playoff showed the provincial club’s defensive resoluteness under Yoon Jong-hwan, with the hosts limited to very few clear-cut chances, and the Bears’ defence content to deal with any sort of threat thrown at them. Then, in the home leg, some individual brilliance from Vitor Gabriel inspired Gangwon to a 2-1 win, one which would see the team’s first division status confirmed for an eighth consecutive year.

In short, although 2023 was full of hardship, Gangwon dug deep at the right moments, found ways to win when it was truly needed (and, in a similar vein, avoid defeat to gain important draws), and secured their K League 1 safety as a result. The end of last year showed a platform from which Yoon Jong-hwan’s men can build from, with the challenge now being to show the fruits of those improvements as this season begins.

Notable Moves

After overhauling the attack and defence back in the summer, Yoon Jong-hwan has largely shifted focus to his midfield during the winter window. Yuta Kamiya was first through the door, arriving as a free agent following his time at Shimizu S-Pulse, with the hope being he can inject some creativity into a team which has been struggling in attack. Last year, the Japanese midfielder totalled three goals and three assists from nine starts in J2 League, numbers he’ll be striving to at least replicate during his first season in Korea.

Perhaps the most interesting move for the club, though, is the acquisition of Kim Yi-seok, a player who seems tailor-made to step up and replace Seo Min-woo. Signed from Gimpo FC, the central midfielder was key to Ko Jeong-woon’s tactical system last year, where he would regularly step up into attacking positions, managing four goals in the process. Add that to his more general qualities, and Gangwon could have an ideal partner for Han Kook-young at their disposal.

Also important is the arrivals of Lee Gi-hyuk, and Kim Kang-gook. The former, a winger who averages 1.61 chances created per game, will be called upon to plug gaps left by Kim Dae-won, whilst the latter’s impressive defensive numbers (per 90, 5.8 recoveries and 4.27 duels won) makes him a strong option in a midfield which now boasts adequate depth.

Key Player 

Han Kook-young

With star players Kim Dae-won and Seo Min-woo both departing for Gimcheon Sangmu, Gangwon may need to call upon captain Han Kook-young to be the team’s figurehead in 2024. The 33-year-old is always a reliable presence, his four assists and one goal last year all contributing to points gained, whilst his box-to-box drive (5.97 recoveries, 1.86 tackles won per 90) helped sure up an already solidified defence too. A true leader, Han Kook-young will hope he can, like last year, feature in the majority of games this upcoming season, and no doubt help raise the levels of his teammates when doing so.

Young Player to Watch

Lee Seung-won

In 2023, Gangwon fans got what appeared to be a sample of what Lee Seung-won could do for them. Brought into the side after an impressive U20 World Cup, where he captained South Korea’s side and won the bronze ball, the 20-year-old would go on to make 14 first-team appearances for the Bears, operating either in the centre of midfield, or as a number ten. There, the youngster’s defensive improvements were clear - per 90, he would average 1.41 interceptions, 1.23 tackles won, and 4.75 recoveries - but he’ll want to flex more of his own attacking efficiency in 2024. That, and improve on his 527 minutes of overall first-team action to showcase his potential to be a focal point in Gangwon’s starting eleven going forward.

Also worth keeping in mind, though, is 17-year-old Yang Min-hyuk. After signing a semi-pro deal with the club in the winter, the winger has already made an impression in pre-season, with his most notable contribution a goal and assist against Dynamo Moscow.

Biggest Question 

Can Gangwon find stability away from relegation battles?

After a period of relative consistency in-and-around the mid-table of K League 1, two relegation battles in three years leaves Gangwon in danger of being regularly tipped to potentially struggle. Of course, the positive is that so far the Bears have been able to rise to whatever challenge has been put in front of them, but ideally in 2024 Yoon Jong-hwan’s men will ensure no questions need to be raised regarding their top-flight credentials.

An important reason why stability, and moving away from precarious positions in the table is so important, is that it would highlight how Gangwon are working to a longer term plan. Although in the final stage of the 2023 season Yoon Jong-hwan shifted focus primarily onto survival (both tactically and personnel selection wise), before that it was becoming apparent that he had an idea in mind of how the Bears should play, and what would suit them over longer stretches if they were to cement themselves back as an outfit worthy of Final A. That included being the squad being more comfortable keeping possession, blending what was the usual counter-attacking tactic with building up from the back, and a shift to a back four which would sit a little further back, and ultimately prevent Gangwon from being caught out as much as they were previously from long balls. If this style has been developed further in pre-season, it will certainly give the team a better chance of finding the consistency that was hard to come by for large stretches of last year, and most importantly, victories.

That, and it’s always nice to avoid making relegation battles a habit, so Gangwon will be keenly motivated to avoid danger for a second consecutive season, and instead prove 2022’s success wasn’t an outlier, but rather an achievable target to match.

Reason to Watch 

If there’s anything Gangwon have proven over the last three years, it’s that they can add at least a touch of drama to their season. Sandwiched between their two recent fights for survival was an unlikely Final A finish in 2022, one born out of a major resurgence in form during the second half of that year. That exciting uncertainty, coupled with some really exciting young prospects and acquisitions, should certainly make the Bears appealing to a prospective observer in 2024. After all, if there’s anything recent seasons have shown, it’s that you can’t write Gangwon off, or really predict what is next for them.

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