2023 Preview: Can Ulsan Hyundai Begin to Build a Legacy?
It took 17 years for Ulsan Hyundai to claw back their K League title. Now can the Horangi begin to build a legacy by improving upon their winning formula? Editor-in-Chief Matthew Binns takes a look at the season ahead for the reigning Champions.
It took over a decade-and-half, along with heartbreaking finales, but Ulsan Hyundai finally delivered on the potential they had shown in the last few seasons by holding their nerve and toppling Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors to claim the K League 1 title, doing so with an exciting brand of football that points to a potential power-shift across the peninsular from North Jeolla to the East Coast.
Manager Hong Myung-bo, appointed at the start of 2021 to fulfil this promise, saw his efforts come to fruition as he looked to impart his own style on the Horangi and create football designed to entertain in addition to delivering. Bold judgements made along the way were justified as he began the season by bidding farewell to fan favourites like Dave Bulthuis, Lee Dong-jun and Oh Se-hun, while also choosing to replace his other strike options in Hinterseer. In their place, the likes of Leonardo, Jun Amano and Eom Won-sang slotted into the side seamlessly and the mid-season acquisition of Martin Ádam, in hindsight, may well have been the move that secured him the title.
Hong has faced similar issues heading into this season, with a rattled Jeonbuk taking direct aim at Ulsan as they look to strike an early blow before a ball is even kicked. The Green Warriors have not only brought Lee Dong-jun back to the K League, but have secured the services of Jun Amano after negotiating with his parent club Yokohama F. Marinos, much to Hong's well-publicised annoyance. Furthermore, Leonardo's loan has come to an end and Ulsan find themselves, once again, looking to rebuild an attack.
Joo Min-kyu has made his return to the Munsu after finding his services surplus to requirement under former Ulsan manager Kim Do-hoon at the end of 2019, scoring just five times in 28 league appearances. Since then, Joo moved to Jeju United and has gone on to score the most goals in the top flight for the last two seasons, missing out on the Golden Boot last year only on having played a few matches more than eventual winner Cho Gue-sung. Manager Hong will be hoping that his style of play will fit better with his own system in addition to offering stiff competition to Martin Ádam.
Elsewhere, Gustav Ludwigson has been brought in to further bolster attacking options. The 29-year-old Swedish forward has joined the Horangi from Hammarby, having scored 12 times in 29 league appearances last season, and has racked up double digits in all but one of his league campaigns since turning professional. Furthermore, while competition in the striker role may be fierce with the proven K League talent of Joo Min-kyu and Ádam, Ludwigson has also proven himself out wide on both flanks suggesting this may be another way Hong opts to deploy him.
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In central midfield, and joining Ludwigson from Hammarby is Darijan Bojanić. Bojanić did tend to be deployed in a deeper role though has moved forward on occasion. Given Won Du-jae's military call-up, manager Hong Myung-bo may well be looking to field this latest acquisition in a similar role, one of central distribution.
Joining the centre of the park also is Japanese midfielder Ataru Esaka who signs from AFC Champions League finalists Urawa Reds. Esaka is attack-minded and can be deployed on either flank or in a more central role behind the strikers. The manager will likely hope he can fit into the Jun Amano-shaped hole left in his plans.
As alluded to though, while these signings do certainly look to have potential, it is Ulsan’s transfer policy that has proven their strongest asset in recent seasons and it looks set to prevail once more. The club have demonstrated they are willing to not get overly attached to players, replacing them or shifting them within the pecking order, and still somehow improving the team overall on each occasion.
Last season, Ulsan Hyundai benefitted from their strong start, making a comeback almost impossible for their title rivals. However, they did wane as the season went on which teased the possibility of their biggest collapse to date. This season, the Horangi will need to place equal importance on coming out of the gates fighting as, not only have Jeonbuk strengthened significantly but the AFC Champions League group stages have been shifted further in the calendar until after the summer.
While this disadvantage will also impact their rivals' chances, Ulsan did benefit in some way from being out of continental competition early last season, allowing their focus to shift solely to the domestic front. However, while talks of a treble should be taken with more than a pinch of salt, they will be expected to do better in the Champions League this time around while also putting up a strong enough fight to retain their title.