Aptly nicknamed “Hwangso,” the bull, Hwang Hee-chan has seen nothing but red in front of goal this season. The South Korean only scored 8 goals and 2 assists in his first 57 Premier League appearances but he has already surpassed that tally this season with 10 goals and 3 assists in 20 — only Mohamed Salah (14), Erling Haaland (14), Heung-min Son (12), Dominic Solanke (12) and Jarrod Bowen (11) have found the back of the net with greater regularity. He and Wolverhampton have probably been the surprises of the season so far with them surpassing all expectations so far and sitting 11th in the table after closing out 2023 with three straight wins against Chelsea, Brentford and Everton.
Five days before the season started, Julen Lopetegui resigned, and Gary O’Neil came in. After being sacked by Bournemouth, this was seen as a desperation move by Wolverhampton and were amongst the firm favourites to go down. However, the Midlands outfit is firmly in mid-table in 11th place and has been one of the neutral’s favourite teams to watch. O’Neil coming in has shown immense confidence in Hwang and this has resulted in the Koreans boom this season.
The ex Leipzig-man spearheads Wolverhampton’s attack but also has license to drift off to the left wing in a three-man attack. This is the same tactic in which he was deployed to such devastating effect in Austria with Salzburg alongside Takumi Minamino and some unknown Norwegian called Erling Haaland. At Salzburg, Hwang recorded 45 goals and 28 assists in 124 matches, and he has finally been able to replicate this success at Molineux. It is clear to see having the space to drift off to the left and use his famed dynamism to run in behind is the tactic which suits him best. Minamino and Haaland have since been replaced by Matheus Cunha and Pedro Neto.
The Korean’s link-up with Neto was especially potent at the start of the season with the Portuguese assisting him on three occasions before his injury against Newcastle on the 28th of October. Remarkably, he still stands at the top of the assist leaderboard with seven even after missing two months of action. Neto’s injury may also explain why after becoming the first Wolves player since Derek Dougan, 50 years previously, to score six goals in the first ten games of a top-flight season, Hwang only scored two in the subsequent eight games before grabbing a brace against Brentford and ending the year with an assist vs. Everton.
Looking at the stats behind his great start, Hwang has scored 10 goals from an XG of 5.96. Wolves fans have always attested once in front of the goal, that he does well, it’s just getting into those positions which have been a struggle for him. This is why being positioned in and around the 18-yard box has helped him immensely instead of being shifted onto the touchline and getting inconsistent minutes like under previous managers.
Being positioned centrally has allowed him to get on the end of several cutbacks from either wing, such as against Liverpool and Aston Villa. In both instances, after excellent dribbling by Neto, he got to the end of crosses and tapped the ball in using his excellent movement and appreciation of space.
His composure has been outstanding, with him always seemingly in control and never rushed. Akin to someone cooking a slow cooked lamb over Christmas Eve. The finishing touches must be added at the right time, otherwise you would have a whole family complaining they can’t finish their dinner.
Look at his goal against Newcastle. After a mazy run by centre half Toti Gomes, who suddenly turned into Neto on the right wing, he slipped in Hwang who had made his trademark burst behind the defence. He then used his weaker left foot to cut in and send Dan Burn sliding, making him do his best Sol Campbell impersonation. He then slotted it past Nick Pope with the same left foot.
Chelsea succumbed to a fourth straight away defeat at Molineux, and one player who proved vital in Wolves’ midfield was João Gomes:
— Breaking The Lines (@BTLvid) December 24, 2023
His movement has helped his fellow strikers. For example, Cunha’s goal against O’Neil’s ex-team Bournemouth. Neto collected the ball in the half-space and Hwang’s run in behind created space for Cunha to attack the space left behind by the Korean. The Brazilian then curled it home making it 1-0 for Wolverhampton. This isn’t where Hwang’s contributions ended as well. He collected the ball outside the box in the 88th minute and threaded a beautiful, dinked pass to an on rushing Saša Kalajdžić who made it 2-1 and won the game for Wolves.
Since Raul Jimenez’s head injury, Wolves have been searching far and wide to replace the Mexican’s goals. Little did they know, the answer was closer than they thought. His movement, passing and goal scoring form make him invaluable to the Midlands outfit. With Neto returning, expect the deadly duo to be firing again on all cylinders.
It may have taken three seasons for the Chuncheon-born striker to prove his worth, but he has shown the Wolves faithful it has been worth the wait. The only annoyance is that because of how good he has been, his absence when he goes to the Asian Cup in January will be felt heavily. He is part of a South Korean team led by himself, Kang-in Lee and Son, a heavyweight that will be expected to make a deep run and push for their first Asian Cup since 1960.
How Wolverhampton will cope without him for a month, disregarding any upsets, will be interesting. But, with how tactically flexible the ex-Norwich City man has been this season, you can expect some unexpected but successful jinks. One thing is clear though. With Hwang signing a contract extension until 2028, it looks like the Korean will be Wolverhampton’s key man for years to come.
By: Abu Yasin / @abuy2j
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Malcolm Couzens / Getty Images