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2023 Preview: Can Incheon United Build On Last Year’s Progress?

It’s almost become a running gag that “this year” is definitely the year that Incheon United are relegated from K League 1. Near miss after near miss, they have escaped more relegation dogfights that anyone else in Korean football. In the last two years, however, an improved transfer market strategy has seen Incheon turn the tide. Finishing a respectable eighth place in 2021, followed by securing a top-half finish and continental qualification in 2022, has led to optimism in the north-west of the country. But is it a bit premature?

What Happened Last Year?

Despite a strong start a year ago - which saw Incheon only lose once in their first ten games - the sale of striker Stefan Mugosa to Vissel Kobe left a huge gap in the Incheon front line. Without an immediate replacement, Incheon’s form dipped and the team went through a tough patch, picking up only one win in the six games following the Montenegrin talisman’s abrupt departure. As the transfer window wound down, the astute signing of Hernandes Rodrigues from K League 2 outfit Gyeongnam FC had an immediate impact which saw Incheon regain form and ultimately finish fourth in the league.

Overall, last season was an excellent year for Incheon and saw a lot of Incheon’s younger Korean players come-of-age and produce some very good displays. The likes of Kim Boseop and Kim Dongmin had their best seasons at the club; Hong Sihoo had a strong debut year after joining from Seongnam, and Kim Dongheon was among the best goalkeepers in the league. Add this to the oft-outstanding performances of the newly signed Lee Myungjoo, Aussie roadblock Harrison Delbridge and the ever-green Elias Aguilar, and the framework for Incheon’s team had come together. The last piece of the jigsaw was replacing Mugosa’s goals. 

Incheon's Transfer Activity 

Incheon moved quickly as the season ended, signing former Tottenham Hotspur youth-player Paul-José M'Poku. The forward joins Incheon after a spell in the Turkish league. Incheon then traded veteran defender Oh Jaeseok for Daejeon's Kwon Hanjin, and young forward Cheon Seonghoon returned to Incheon after his contract at Augsburg expired. Gerso Fernandes was next, signing a four-year deal on a free transfer from Jeju United. The striker regularly contributed goals and assists during his time at Jeju, and could offer a further outlet going forward. Moon Jihwan, Ji Eonhak and Jung Dongyoon all returned following the completion of their military service at Gimcheon Sangmu. Finally, over the Lunar New Year, Incheon added Pohang’s Shin Jinho to their squad. The bank’s not completely empty, as you say on Football Manager, but Incheon fans aren’t complaining at a lack of investment any more.

With all of these additions, some outgoings were necessary. During the preseason, the contracts of Kim Gwangseok, Elias Aguilar, Kang Minsu, Kim Changsu, Kim Daejung and Kim Daegyeong all expired and the players left Incheon. The defensive experience and leadership of Kim Gwangseok and Kang Minsu will need to be replaced, and the creative presence of Aguilar in the middle of the field also leaves a hole to fill. There could potentially be more transfer activity, particularly some outgoings from the attacking players left at the club following so many new arrivals, but as of now, Incheon’s squad looks to have more depth and more quality than in previous years.

What Can We Expect This Year? 

Last year’s Incheon side defended well and absorbed a lot of pressure, limiting goalscoring opportunities and looking to hit the opposition quickly on the break. The preferred strategy was to have a 3-4-3 formation, which became a back five during defensive phases of play. With the signings that have been made, this could be the tactic employed this year too. Hernandes is back from the ligament injury he suffered against Seoul that saw his season cut short, and he’ll be looking to add to his goal tally in 2023. The addition of Gerso and M’Poku could give Incheon a strong front three, if they all play together. Harrison Delbridge and Kim Dongmin will likely build on their successes of last year at the back and should feature alongside captain Oh Banseok, Moon Jihwan or Kwon Hanjin. Kim Dongheon started and finished the season as Incheon’s man between the sticks, and one would expect him to be selected for the majority of games this year. Something the team has struggled with is cover for injuries and suspensions in previous years, but this year there are going to be far more options in reserve both on the bench and waiting in the wings. This greater squad depth will be needed if Incheon are to compete on all fronts. With four weeks to go until the season kicks off, we still have time for some transfer movement, but as the squad appears now, Incheon will be hoping for another top-half finish at the least.  

2023 Prediction:

Heart: third
Head: sixth


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