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Taking Stock of Gangwon FC's Start to 2024: How the Bears Have Recaptured Their Spark

It’s been a positive start to the 2024 K League 1 season for Gangwon FC. As of June 10, the Bears have already accumulated more victories than they managed last year, are one goal away from matching their 2023 tally, and sit in fourth place. But how have things changed for a side that needed a promotion/relegation playoff to keep their top-flight place back in December? Columnist Nathan Sartain looks at some of the key factors.

A String of Solid Additions

Coming into the winter transfer window, Gangwon had a number of areas they needed to address. For starters, key players Seo Min-woo and Kim Dae-won were leaving for Gimcheon Sangmu, meaning there were instant holes needing filling in central midfield and on the wing. Then, with the departure of Lee Jeong-hyeop, in addition to the fact the Bears had scored a meagre 30 goals across the 2023 season, it became clear a wider overhaul up front was necessary.

So, with that in mind, Gangwon got to work. Initially, that meant bringing in Yuta Kamiya, a creative midfielder who would fill the gap of Ikromjon Alibaev (the Uzbek midfielder’s contract was not renewed). But more notably, two players integral to Yoon Jong-hwan’s current team would join at the beginning of January: Kim Yi-seok, and Lee Sang-heon. The former has been a commanding presence in the centre of midfield, averaging (per 90) 7.75 recoveries, 15.57 duels, 3.25 interceptions and 4.57 passes into the final third. Then, striker Lee Sang-heon quickly stamped his authority on the Gangwon team with seven goals from his first six appearances, with the 26-year-old averaging (per 90) two successful dribbles, an xG of 0.44, 8.65 offensive duels, and 2.4 touches in the opposition penalty area.

Continuing, Gangwon would further bolster the centre of their midfield with the signing of Kim Kang-guk from Chungnam Asan, their third acquisition of a player from K League 2. Per 90, the 27-year-old creates 1.81 chances, and on the pitch stands out for his reading of play and set-piece taking. Elsewhere throughout the winter, goalkeeper Park Cheong-hyo and full-back Lee Yu-hyeon (a loan arrival) were signed, replacing Yu Sang-hun and Kim Jin-ho respectively.

Two more notable transfers were made by Gangwon this winter, though. First, towards the end of the window Jung Han-min was signed on loan from FC Seoul, and the promising young forward has recently shown his potential through a string of impressive appearances, notching two goals and an assist across his last seven games, which checks out at 0.69 goals per 90.

But perhaps most intriguing is Lee Gi-hyuk. Signed as a winger who could also drop into full-back positions, or move across into central midfield, it may have then came as a shock that Yoon Jong-hwan first deployed the 23-year-old at centre-back in opening round action. Yet, it worked, and has continued to. Lee Gi-hyuk is an integral part of Gangwon’s tactical system, and by operating as a ball playing centre half averages (per 90) 7.54 long passes, 4.76 passes to the final third, and 20.32 forward passes (compared to 4.94 backwards), highlighting his importance in moving the ball forward for the team. Add to that his continuously improving defensive displays, and impressive aerial ability, and it appears the 23-year-old, similar to his teammate Hwang Mun-ki, has reenergised his career under Yoon Jong-hwan by moving into defence.

All in all, Gangwon came out of the winter transfer window a more balanced side, putting aside fears of patchy recruitment from the few years prior.

Yang Min-hyuk Emerges

With all of the above in mind, one of Gangwon’s most impressive pieces of business was moving Yang Min-hyuk into the first team. Signed to a semi-pro deal at the age of 17 back in December, the winger grabbed headlines straight away with an assist in his K League 1 debut, and his first goal just a week later. Through that, he became the youngest player in club and K League 1 history to achieve the latter feat, and in doing so set the tone for his future performances.

Since then, the two-footed winger - who has shown he can be just as impactful on either the left or right hand side of Gangwon’s 4-4-2 formation - has totalled four goals and three assists in K League 1 action, garnering praise for his directness with the ball, fast-paced dribbling skill, and all-round confidence. Per 90, the 18-year-old averages 4.27 dribbles, 0.95 chances created, two recoveries in the opposition half, 2.54 progressive runs, 10.41 offensive duels, and 1.6 shots.

Always enjoyable to watch, the now 18-year-old Yang Min-hyuk is likely to continue being significant to Gangwon’s attacking play for the rest of 2024, even with transfer interest already gaining momentum.

Sticking to the Plan

Moving onto the wider footballing points, Gangwon showed improvements in the season’s opening stage, but struggled to find results. Across the first four games the Bears went winless (three draws, one loss), losing leads in each of their opening three matches in the process. An instant positive was that the new 4-4-2 system allowed for greater control across the pitch, but conversely a notable negative was that the team would look vulnerable to counter attacks, and opposition set-pieces.

Even still, the attacking developments in particular were easy to see here. Across Gangwon’s opening four games, they averaged 5.25 shots on target per game (compared to 2023’s average of three), a healthy per 90 xG of 1.86, and importantly scored five goals, an amount it took nine rounds to get to last season. Clearly, Yoon Jong-hwan wanted his higher-pressing team to mark their authority on games now, even if it hadn’t yet fully paid dividends.

Gaining Consistency

Soon enough, things would start clicking. In a 3-0 win against Daegu, Gangwon’s first of the year, the Bears struck a balance they had needed to find, and rewarded fans for their patience. An excellent Yun Suk-young freekick got the ball rolling after just 15 minutes, before a second-half Lee Sang-heon double sealed the three points in front of a home crowd. But more so than previous games, Gangwon proved themselves efficient here, their xG of 0.94 noticeably outscored, their 17 positional attacks the team’s lowest number at that stage in the year, and the zero opposition shots on target showing that instead of trying their hand at free-flowing, open football, Yoon Jong-hwan successfully opted for tighter in-game management.

A few days later, however, Gangwon returned to their full-throttle style, beating Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors 3-2 on their travels in a match full of entertainment. There, the Bears created an xG of 2.26 from 11 shots, made 14 high recoveries, completed 45 progressive passes, and 22 passes into the final third. Suddenly, there was hope that the team was stabilising, possessing potential to avoid the sort of danger they had fallen so close to just a few months prior.

Such optimism didn’t quite persist a week later, though. Away at Ulsan HD, Gangwon’s higher press and willingness to play openly backfired in a 4-0 defeat, where they were subject to 10 opposition shots on target (compared to their own total of two), and a general potency similar to one Gwangju had shown in their own 4-2 victory over the Bears earlier back in round two. Perhaps, then, something would have to change, and pure attractive spectacle may have to be traded for a share of pragmatism.

That thought would have to remain a point of pondering for the time being, as Gangwon quickly bounced back with a triumphant 4-1 home victory over Incheon United. Clinical, stylish, and proactive, this was Yoon Jong-hwan’s team at their very best, unflinching in their attacking ambition, and aside from one slight mixup at the back, resolute enough to inspire confidence. Now, this team had consistency behind them, and as a result they moved into to the top half, seemingly ready to compete at the upper-echelon of the division.

Tactical Tweaks, and Four Consecutive Wins

That wasn’t quite meant to be just yet, though, as back-to-back defeats would send Yoon Jong-hwan back to the drawing board, and Gangwon back down into the Final B positions. In a 1-0 loss away to Gimcheon Sangmu, a more passive approach failed to pay off, whilst in a 4-2 home defeat courtesy of Pohang Steelers, it was the Bears’ vulnerability defending counter attacks which cost them a chance at all three points - though missed opportunities in the opposition third did play a notable factor too.

Thus, tweaks were made. In a 2-1 away victory at Suwon FC - a game where resilience, hard work and endeavour mattered just as much as tactics - Gangwon noticeably sat deeper, content to soak up opposition pressure and commit more men behind the ball whenever necessary. Of course, that match, where an injury time winner was decisive, is difficult to take too much from, but with the benefit of hindsight it certainly gave indicators of where Yoon Jong-hwan’s team were heading stylistically.

For example, although a 3-3 home draw against Daejeon Hana Citizen was a brief return to the franticness seen prior, two weeks on from Gangwon’s dramatic victory against Suwon, a similar blueprint was put in place during a resilient 1-0 home triumph over reigning champions Ulsan HD. There, the Bears allowed 29.87 passes per defensive action, made 50 interceptions, won 36 of their 55 defensive duels, and kept their opposition to four shots on target, all to secure their second clean sheet of 2024.

Staying more compact has continued to pay off, too. Gangwon have now won four consecutive matches, often through limiting their opposition to low quality chances, getting bodies in front of the ball, and ensuring a clinical edge - one that wasn’t present last season - to make certain goals are scored at the right end of the pitch. It’s not exactly counter attacking, but tactically things are evidently more balanced than the system favoured at the start of the year, and some of the high pressing has been swapped for settling into a set structure, without compromising too much on entertainment. Take Gangwon’s 2-1 win against Jeju United before the international break. There, Yoon Jong-hwan’s men created an xG of 2.01, completed 29 accurate passes to the final third, and 47 progressive passes, but solidly won 47 of their 65 defensive duels, and kept the Islanders to five shots on target.

Going forward, the target for Gangwon now appears to be Final A, something that might’ve appeared lofty in pre-season, but currently feels there for the taking.

The Special Mentions

All in all, Gangwon look set to steer clear of the woes that lingered for much of last season, and continue to develop a proactive, yet now more sustainable, style of play while doing so. In achieving this, however, some players have played a role worth mentioning to round this piece out.

Yago Cariello: Stepping up a gear from his limited appearances in 2023, Yago Cariello has delivered some memorable performances this season. After an impressive hat-trick against Incheon United, the Brazilian striker has continued to be a focal point of Gangwon’s attack, and has scored seven times across 14 appearances. Per 90, Yago averages 2.89 shots, 3.1 touches in the opposition box, an xG of 0.28, 1.83 progressive runs, 1.27 passes to the opposition penalty area, 2.6 successful aerial duels, and 2.39 dribbles.

Lee Gi-hyuk: A reliable hand at centre back, Lee Gi-hyuk has become indispensable in his new position, with his ball playing capabilities integral to Yoon Jong-hwan’s tactical approach. With improvements in his defending too, there’s no reason the 23-year-old won’t continue to push on as the year continues. Per 90, Lee Gi-hyuk averages 7.54 long passes, 4.76 passes to the final third, 20.32 forward passes (compared to 4.94 backwards), 11.98 recoveries, 4.76 defensive duels, and 5.68 interceptions.

Hwang Mun-ki: After moving to right-back at the tail end of 2023, Hwang Mun-ki has gone on to become an established starter for Gangwon. It’s deserved, too, with the 27-year-old showcasing qualities when overlapping in attack, defending one-on-one, and thanks to a stoppage team winner against Daegu, a potentially renewed goalscoring touch. Per 90, Hwang Mun-ki averages 2.58 crosses, 3.04 dribbles, 19.78 duels, 3.67 interceptions, 9.17 recoveries, 1.89 progressive runs, and 2.58 passes to the opposition penalty area (3.61 to the final third).

Kim Yi-seok: In a central midfield area packed with options, Kim Yi-seok has managed to become a mainstay in his box-to-box role since signing for Gangwon. Chipping in with two goals and an assist, the 25-year-old’s tangible contributions have come in handy thus far, though his all-rounder style can often go understated. Per 90, Kim Yi-seok averages 7.75 recoveries, 15.57 duels, 3.25 interceptions, and 4.57 passes into the final third.

Lee Gwang-yeon: Since returning to the starting eleven, Lee Gwang-yeon has proved one of Gangwon’s shrewdest moves last winter was tying him down to a new deal. The 24-year-old goalkeeper has looked rejuvenated as of late, pulling off plenty of important saves, and improving when involved in the buildup phase. Per 90, Lee Gwang-yeon averages 2.42 saves, 1.43 exits, 5.51 long passes, 8.81 short passes, 1.32 passes into the final third, and 10.58 received passes.

Lee Sang-heon: Although yet to recover the goalscoring touch which saw him score seven times in the opening six rounds, Lee Sang-heon has consistently shown his value up front. A tireless worker, and a versatile forward capable of dropping into midfield when necessary, the 26-year-old is making a name for himself in K League 1, and will no doubt be looking to hit double figures in the goalscoring charts sooner rather than later. Per 90, Lee Sang-heon averages 4.05 attempted dribbles, 1.58 progressive runs, 3.09 recoveries, 1.37 crosses, an xG of 0.44, and 2.27 shots.

*stats courtesy of Wyscout and accurate as of June 10, 2024*

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