Korean Players Abroad Season Preview: Hwang Hee-chan (2018-19)

In this series, we’ll join forces with a local expert to preview the season ahead for all of our Korean Players Abroad. It will include exciting youngsters, well-known veterans and a few players who will be featuring more prominently in this month’s Asian Games. One of them is Hwang Hee-chan, entering his third full season at Red Bull Salzburg in the Austrian Bundesliga. His club season began earlier this week (he didn’t feature and was left on the bench), so let’s preview the 22 year-old’s season ahead.

A Refresher

Name: Hwang Hee-chan (황희찬)

Place of Birth: Chuncheon (춘천), Gangwon-do

Position: Forward (Striker, second striker, wide forward)

Age: 22

Club Career: Liefering (2015-16, 31 apps), RB Salzburg (2016-, 59 apps)

Miscellaneous History

Capped 17 times for the national team at just 22 years old, Hwang has reportedly been scouted by “major” clubs by Tottenham, Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund (depends if you believe the rumours). However, his move to Europe in general and his abrupt departure from Pohang Steelers, his youth club, in 2014, was highly controversial. He featured in all three World Cup games for Korea, registering as one of the fastest sprinters in the tournament despite not really dominating.

Last Season

Last season was somewhat of a one step backwards, one step forwards for Hwang Hee-chan purely in terms of statistics. His 5-goal haul was a climbdown from his 12 goals in the previous year; he also only graced the pitch for 991 league minutes vs 1802 in 2017. However, this is also because he was used more in the Europa League than in the easier Austrian Bundesliga, featuring in every game but one of Salzburg’s unlikely knockout stage run over Real Sociedad, Borussia Dortmund and Lazio.

Hwang’s still a developing player and positives can be taken from the fact that he continued to show his aggressive, industrious, physical, hard-working nature, combined with an ability to accelerate very quickly. Sporadic injuries throughout the year slowed him down, however, leaving him into more of a squad player role and also not doing much to hide his lack of finishing ability or decision-making (as seen at the World Cup). Featuring in a few Europa League games on Salzburg’s run to the semi-final was impressive; he signed a 1 year-extension to 2021 in November of last year.

The Road Ahead

In truth, we’re at the point in Hwang Hee-chan’s young career where we go “now what”? He’s won 3 Austrian championships, featured in a strong Europa League run (including scoring in the quarter-final against Lazio) and has been scouted by bigger clubs. Do we really expect the Red Bull money-making machine to hold on to Hwang for a fifth year without any return on their investment or promotion to Leipzig? The contract extension just seems to be a ploy to buy some more time and shore up the financial return as a fail-safe.

It doesn’t seem like it will be easy for him to drastically improve his minutes from last year; other forward options seem quite strong – Smail Prevljak was the league’s third top scorer at Mattersburg last year, Fredrik Gulbrandsen featured heavily last year for Salzburg (52 appearances across all competitions), Moanes Dabbur had 30 goals and I think is a solid lock to take up one of the two usual forward positions (Salzburg usually play a 4-4-2 or some variant of one) and of course, Takumi Minamino is still around as well.

He’ll have to force himself into the side, or settle for playing some of the “bigger games” when Salzburg will be without the ball and will need an aggressive, hungry forward rampaging around.

Pre-Season

Hwang Hee-chan didn’t feature at all in Salzburg’s pre-season – only a bench appearance in a friendly. Presumably he’s still resting up from World Cup and being careful with injury problems from last season.

Season Targets

  • 10 goals in Austrian Bundesliga
  • Solid appearances in the Champions League
  • More league playing minutes than last season (>1000)
  • Win military exemption*

*Hwang will depart for the Asian Games on August 10th, after being available for their Champions League third round match on the 8th; that puts into question his participation in the first Asian Games group stage game vs Bahrain on the 12th

Hopes & Aspirations

There’s not much more to say here other than his time at Salzburg is likely drawing to a close, and so hopefully in the games he will end up playing upon his return from the Asian Games, he’ll be able to show some improvement over the season on the fundamentals he struggles with.

Otherwise, staying healthy will be important to help encourage his sale, and banging in some more goals instead of being a workhorse who can’t lead the line by himself could also encourage prospective buyers. Hopefully Salzburg do make it to the Champions League (their third round draw is against a Macedonian club, leaving just a favorable final play-off round draw to home for) and he can showcase what he did best in the Europa League on a bigger level. Being enough of a raw, aggressive work-horse to give opposition something to worry about, all while providing some ability to press, should interest some European sides confident that he can a) develop more under their coach’s tutelage or b) do a job as a first-team or squad player. Long live the Lord and Saviour (as he’s known at BigSoccer Korea).

Ask an Expert…

We asked Tim Armitage, an Austrian football analyst for Football Radar, a few questions about Red Bull Salzburg and Hwang Hee-chan’s future at the club.

What are reasonable expectations for Hwang Hee-chan this season? Can he expect to be a regular starter for Salzburg, or will his minutes be more measured?

Hee-Chan may unfortunately have to settle for a rotation role in this strong Salzburg squad. The amount of attacking options Marco Rose has at his disposable is almost unprecedented for an Austrian Bundesliga side. Hwang will have to take every chance he gets if he hopes to cement himself in the starting XI alongside Munas Dabbur.

Expectations for RB Salzburg this season? No one is expecting any Europa League semi final run again, are they?

Salzburg go into the season as strong favourites for the league title again this season – which would be their 6th title in a row. Hopes are that they will qualify for the Champions League group stages this season – anything less and only another deep run in the Europa League could prevent a mass exodus.

Hwang will be gone for about a month for the Asian Games. Will he find it hard to reintegrate the side when he returns, and what affect does this have on the squad?

The first half of the season for Hwang will certainly be tough. He has missed nearly all of pre-season with the side and will be missing even more time when he leaves for the Asian Games. Fortunately for him, Austria have quite a substantial winter break, so he should be able to go into the second half of the season on a level playing field with the rest of the squad. Given Salzburg’s options, I’d be surprised – unless they suffer a few injuries – if they struggle without him.

Lots of Hwang Hee-chan fans are hoping that this is his last season at Salzburg, and that the 22 year old can earn himself a move up the RB pipeline to Leipzig or a move abroad. Any chance of either of those happening during or after this season? Does he need to improve on his 5 goal count from last season for that to be realistic?

I’d be shocked if Hwang remained at Salzburg beyond this season and if it hadn’t been for the World Cup and rumoured bids being turned down, I could have imagined him leaving this summer. Over the last 12 months, I haven’t seen a huge improvement from Hwang and that could put bigger clubs off taking a gamble on him. If he has a strong Asian Games, it could be that he leaves as soon as the January transfer window, which would probably be a win-win for both club and player. Salzburg will tend to offload players based on a player’s value and when the player wants to leave. So, I think that Hwang probably wouldn’t want to spend more than 12 months playing in the Austrian Bundesliga when he is getting offers from bigger leagues, whilst Salzburg probably know beyond 12 months, they probably wouldn’t get much more money for him were they to sell him within 12 months.

He’s reportedly had offers/interest from various Bundesliga teams over the past year: Hannover, Hertha Berlin, Wolfsburg, Dortmund and Hamburg. Tottenham have reportedly shown interest too. I can imagine him being a strong squad player for a German Bundesliga team.

A big thanks to Tim for his help! You can follow him on his Twitter feed @FRfussballTim and check out Football Radar on their Twitter account here.

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