Gangwon FC vs. Jeju United Preview: Can the Bears start 2024 strong?

Gangwon FC vs. Jeju United Preview: Can the Bears start 2024 strong?
Gangwon FC vs. Jeju United Preview: Can the Bears start 2024 strong?

After needing to survive via a promotion/relegation playoff last year, Gangwon FC will be hoping they can start 2024 brightly when they host Jeju United. The visitors also had a relatively disappointing 2023, dropping four places to finish 9th, but under the new management of Kim Hak-beom, are looking to start moving up the table again.

Last Year

Incidentally, it was actually a slow start to the year which ended up costing Gangwon greatly last season. The Bears picked up just four points from their opening eight matches, and by the end of round 25, had just two wins to their name. In time though, things would improve, and Gangwon’s Final B form in particular (two wins, two draws, one loss) was a major factor in the team’s eventual survival. Nevertheless, Yoon Jong-hwan will be wanting to avoid a repeat of 2023, and get points on the board as quickly as possible using the more effective style of play seen at the tail-end of last year, to build consistent momentum.

As for the visitors, they too began 2023 in inconsistent form. A round six victory over this week's opposition, Gangwon, stopped a run of three consecutive losses for Jeju, and pulled the Islanders off bottom-place, where they had fallen to following a haul of two points from their opening five matches. Then, things would get a lot better, with seven wins from their next nine putting Jeju in 3rd, and seemingly undeniable AFC Champions League qualification contention, before the Tangerines ended up only winning once more throughout the entire regular season, where they would lose twelve times over their final 18 pre-split matches. As such, the challenge certainly appears for Kim Hak-beom to steer the Islanders towards a greater balance in results, and away from any flirtations with danger (it was only in Final B Jeju were confirmed safe).

For Gangwon, this winter saw plenty of additions, and some notable departures. Most importantly, the Bears will be without Kim Dae-won and Seo Min-woo this season, with the two key players leaving for military side Gimcheon Sangmu. Yet signings like Kim Yi-seok, a central midfielder who played a vital part in Gimpo’s excellent K League 2 campaign last season, are bound to excite fans, as is a player such as Lee Gi-hyuk who mightn’t be the finished article, but has strong attributes in areas such as chance creation and dribbling which could really help Gangwon going forward. This weekend, other additions Yuta Kamiya, Kim Kang-gook and Lee Sang-heon may well get their debuts too, whilst experienced defender Kim Young-bin will hope he can feature after he had been injured during pre-season.

Jeju United have also been fairly busy during the transfer window, and with a healthy squad at his disposal, Kim Hak-beom has something of a blank slate to start from as he begins his career with the Islanders. Choi Yong-jun and Koo Ja-cheol are the only doubts, though both may be able to feature depending on their fitness, whilst new signings Kim Jung-min, Kim Tae-hwan, Italo Moreira, and Tales could be in line for their debuts.


Generally this is a hard-to-call fixture, as across the 33 meetings between the sides there have been 12 Gangwon wins, 10 draws, and 11 Jeju wins. Yet it was the Islanders who had the advantage last season, as not only did they earn two injury-time draws against the Bears, but they can boast the only victory too. That was a 1-0 away win at Chuncheon in round six, the same ground Jeju will now be hoping to get their season off to a strong start at this weekend.

What to Watch

Can a new-look Gangwon get their attack back on track?

There’s a freshness about this Gangwon team at the minute, one which certainly looked in need of a revamp during parts of last season. After all, the provincial club had the worst statistical attack in the top division in 2023, scoring 30 goals across their 38 games, and underperforming their xG by eight. No single player scored more than four league goals either, which although positively means plenty of people chipped in, did seem to help highlight the idea that the Bears were missing a focal point.

Now, with signings like Kim Yi-seok, Yuta Kamiya, Lee Sang-heon, and Lee Gi-hyuk, players who have proven qualities in creating chances (and to an extent scoring them too), the challenge is for Yoon Jong-hwan's system to retain its defensive solidarity (last year, Gangwon conceded their least amount of goals in a 38-game K League 1 season), but show more of a cutting edge, get the best out of Vitor Gabriel, and bring forward a similar type of quick attacking play utilised effectively in the latter-half of 2022 under Choi Yong-soo. Gangwon will need to demonstrate they can quell any early worries of potential struggle while adapting to life without star player Kim Dae-won, too.

Who to Watch

The hero of last season’s promotion/relegation playoff, this year expectations will be higher for striker Vitor Gabriel. The 24-year-old scored five goals across all competitions for Gangwon in 2023, showing his target-man potential too by averaging (per 90) eight duels won, 6.66 touches in the opposition box, and 1.61 chances created. With the Bears now without Lee Jeong-hyeop coming into this season, Gabriel will be called upon more often to lead the line, so what better way to prove his mettle than with a strong opening day performance?