I was hoping for this article to be out before their ACL game today, but life got in the way as it stubbornly tends to do. Also, WordPress ate up my post again (that’s it. I’m typing it in Word and then pasting it here when done.) so for that, Mianhaeyo.
The runaway favorite, the powerhouse, the Green Machine. For the second year in a row, Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors are heavily tipped to hoist their K League crown once again. But why is that? And does any team have what it takes to challenge Choi Kang-Hee’s side for the 2015 title?
CLUB NAME: JEONBUK HYUNDAI MOTORS FOOTBALL CBUB
City: Jeonju, North Jeolla Province (Jeonju is the capital of North Jeolla Province).
Stadium: Jeonju World Cup Stadium (Jeonju Castle)
Average 2014 Attendance: 13,165 (3rd in the top tier)
Manager: Choi Kang-Hee
Captain: Lee Dong-Gook
Ownership: Hyundai Motor Company
Founded: 1994 (de jure, first season in 1995)
K League Championships: 3 (2009, 2011, 2014)
KFA Cups: 3 (2000, 2003, 2005)
The K League recognizes the Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors franchise beginning on December 12th, 1994. We’ll get to that date in a sec, but for one reason or another, they’ve chosen to ignore the first year of football in Jeonbuk Province. In 1993, Wansan Puma FC was founded by a businessman, Oh Hyung-Kun, but he didn’t raise enough funds to keep the club running.
But an alcohol company saved the day, as Bobae Ltd. took over the club for a year. However, Jeonbuk’s first year in the top flight was lackluster, finishing underneath Jeolla rivals Jeonnam. Then, Hyundai Motors came in, and took control of the club.
Despite their big-name owner, Jeonbuk never got the results, other than a couple FA Cups. That is until Choi Kang-Hee became their new boss.
(Now, I distinctly remember telling myself after Korea barely made it out of World Cup Qualifying, ‘Alien Choi ruined the KNT. I will never say good things about Alien Choi.”)
That vow has long been broken however, because even his haters have got to admit – he’s been the savior for the Jeonbuk franchise. Since he became manager, Jeonbuk have won 3 League titles, an FA Cup and an Asian Champions League. Quite a feat.
Jeonbuk were simply unstoppable last year. Only three times did they fall out of the top two spots at the end of the round, and after Round 18 – with 20 rounds till to go – Jeonbuk never fell out of pole position. Why is that? What can that success be attributed to? Was it the resurgence of their dominant midfield? Was it the return of the Lion King Lee Dong-Gook? Was it Choi Kang-Hee’s gegenpressing-then-long-ball-it-because-without-long-balls-it’s-not-Choi-Kang–Hee system? The easy answer: all of these factors. It was a perfect storm for Jeonbuk last year, as they never looked back to claim the title.
Jeonbuk have been rather busy in the window for defending champions, but in the end I reckon they’ve done more to strengthen their squad then lose key players. The biggest loss will probably be Lee Seung-Gi, who played on the left wing but can also play the middle as a #10. He’s been capped for the KNT and could feature in the future. However, Lee has had to take off the Jeonbuk green and instead wear the white and red stripes of Sangju Sangmu to fulfill his military duties. However, the North Jeolla side have replaced him with Lee Ho, a talented, former Zenit St. Petersburg player. Also on his way out is defensive midfielder Shin Hyung-Min, to the Police force at Ansan Police.
But the transfers in are so compelling. Edu, formerly of Schalke, and Eninho, a club legend coming back for a second stint with the Green Machine. In fact, Eninho is a member of the 40-40 club – 40 goals and 40 assists in the K League.
Also keep an eye on youth prospect Moon Sang Yoon who joined the exodus of fleeing Incheon players.
Players to Watch
Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors, however, already had an excellent core of players before these transfers. It would be a crime to not mention Lee Dong-Gook – the Lion King as he’s known. Sure, he’s 36 years old, he’s getting on in terms of age, but although he may be less mobile than in times past, he is a reliable finisher. His specialty – volleys.
Jeonbuk also have KNT left winger Han Kyo-Won among their ranks. He is more of an out-and-out traditional winger that really offers width, although he was used in a more defensive capacity under Stielike Korea at the 2015 Asian Cup.
Their midfield was superb last year, tactically aware (as you need to be when your game is constantly focused on pressing the ball carrier and his passing options) and delightfully cohesive. And in defense, Alex Wilkinson, who comes back to Korea with an Asian Cup gold medal around his neck (damn you!), is a key centre-back for Jeonbuk. He will be working with a new partner though. (Although he appears to be injured.) Jeonbuk also boast depth in central defense with Kim Ki-Hee.
Who’s Choi Kang-Hee?
Ok so if you haven’t figured it out by now, or are a newcomer to the KNT (I doubt it, if you’re reading these lines, but whatever) Choi Kang-Hee was the Korean national team manager between 2011-2013, taking over the Korean national team after the KFA pushed the panic button and dismissed Cho Kwang-Rae with a game left in the penultimate round of AFC Qualifying for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil.
Choi was selected for his success in the K League, but he didn’t really want the job. His contract lasted until June 2013, after which, the KFA would appoint a new successor for the World Cup (Hong Myung-Bo). Choi’s know-how in the K League, however, didn’t amount to much in Asia. His squad selections were flawed (remember that game vs Iran? a 4-4-2 with 1 actual midfielder), he had a public falling-out with now-KNT captain Ki Sung-Yueng and his system. Oh, god. It was sometimes awful. All the KNT did with Choi was play extremely directly, punt the ball down the pitch that would make a field goal kicker envious and then hope to win the lottery and score a lucky goal.
In the end, Korea fell backwards into the World Cup, Choi was dismissed and returned to Jeonbuk. Greener pastures for him, perhaps. Last year, he was interviewed and mentioned that he admired the German game, and their gegenpressing. For those not in the know (not that I can claim to be, I’m not a tactician by any, and I mean any means), gegenpressing is a well-coordinated pressing tactic, whose main theory is “The best time to win the ball back is right after it has been lost.”
But of course, under Choi, a variant of this style of play is being used, as the Hyundai Motors don’t shy away from the direct longball when in possession. It wouldn’t be Choi Kang-Hee if it wasn’t direct. (EDIT: I don’t mean it in a bad way, it works just fine for Jeonbuk, but it’s become somewhat of Choi’s trademark, for bad or for worse.)
Their ACL Group
Jeonbuk have the easiest Asian Champions League group of the four Korean qualifiers. It’s so devoid in quality compared to the others, Jeonbuk should have a cakewalk. Kashiwa Reysol are hardly the best team in Japan, and as was demonstrated by lowly Seongnam’s win today over Japanese treble holder Gamba Osaka, J.League teams don’t seem to show up for ACL games, certainly not on the road.
And yet, Kashiwa should be qualifying in Jeonbuk’s shadow, as Shandong Luneng Taishan aren’t exactly feared, while Becamex Binh Duong, all due respect, are a Vietnamese side who will gain experience but probably nothing more than a good ol’ whopping in most games they play.
The league title is Jeonbuk’s to lose. They can only build on last years’ successes and have had excellent pre-season training out in Dubai. They have added depth players, and good ones at that. There’s no need to change their system – why fix something if it ain’t broken? – and thus Choi Kang-Hee is far ahead in his team building than say Yoon Jung-Hwan or Choi Yong-Soo (with his new system).
If I had to pick one Korean team to win the AFC Champions League and the K League, my money would be on Jeonbuk. They are a well-oiled Green Machine, and they get the results. With a bit of luck in Asia, the sky’s the limit to Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors’ 2015 season.
K LEAGUE RANK: CHAMPIONS! <– I feel confident about this one. Naturally, that means that Daejeon are going to win this year and Jeonbuk will be relegated. Aah, predictions. Hmmm, moving on.
ACL EXIT: Semi-Finals, but could be worse, could be better. It’s a prediction. It’s never right. Ever.
Umm, so today’s Tuesday. Tomorrow’s Wednesday, where I was planning on doing the two United teams (Incheon and Jeju), but I feel like I have more to say in one post on Incheon than devoid-of-information Jeju and boring Busan. (Sorry Jae.
I don’t mean that.) We’ll see what sings to me tomorrow (it’s a French expression that’s badly translated). Maybe I’ll have a post on the new kits just for fun. I dunno. Jalgayo from the TSC for now.
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