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Finally, Positives: Forward with 4-4-2
Following a dross back-to-back showing against Russia and Morocco, the Korean National Team continued its November friendly cycle with what would, hopefully, be the final nail in the coffin for caretaker-turned-manager Shin Tae-yong.
The scene was set for a home implosion; Shin Tae-yong was, unironically, recreating the perfect conditions for another whimper of a group-stage World Cup exit, and this friendly would hopefully be the wake-up call that the KFA so desperately needed to turn Korea’s destiny around. Losing by two goals against both Russia and Morocco flattered Korea, considering its hapless performances, yet it seemed like everyone but the folks in charge knew the side was in a dire state.
Now, the Taegeuk Warriors was about to play against one of the strongest sides South America had to offer, and despite its experimental line-up, Colombia would hopefully make it rain goals, breaking the dam of a charade that more of the same will eventually bring change for Korea’s national side. It would be ninety minutes of pain in Suwon, further illuminating what fans had already known after watching Korea play against Russia and Morocco.
But this time, it was different.
Korea lined up like it was the mid 2000s again. Instead of trying to fit in with the 3-4-3 trend as Shin tried against Russia and Morocco, the Taegeuk Warriors played a flat, simple, 4-4-2. Kim Seung-gyu started in goal with Kim Jin-soo accompanying Choi Chul-soo on the left and right, respectively, and Kwon Kyung-won and Jang Hyun-soo completed the back four.
Lee Jae-sung accompanied Kim Jin-soo on the left with Kwon Chang-hoon on the right, and captain Ki Sung-Yong sat in the middle alongside Ko Yo-han. High-flying Son Heung-min started up top with the all-too familiar Lee Keun-ho.
Doubters may have questioned what Lee Keun-ho was doing in the line-up, but it only took ten minutes to show that this wasn’t yet another forward veteran that should concede his glory years and leave the national side in peace.
In fact, it was Lee Keun-ho who provided Korea’s first dangerous play of the match, after zipping past Cristián Zapata to provide a square ball just inside the top of the box, and Korea’s first attempt on goal also came with the help of Lee Keun-ho’s hard work, who had been functioning almost like an auxiliary winger on the right. Running into space, he put in a decent cross just headed out of danger, and it was Kim Jin-soo with an attempt on target at the top of the box after the ball had been headed out of danger.
Korea looked dangerous. This was a different side from that of two friendlies past. The Taegeuk Warriors moved refreshingly with intent, opting for snappy combinations to beat Colombia, and, sure enough, it was Lee Keun-ho with a rather fortunate deflection off Kwon Chang-hoon who found Son Heung-min against Colombia’s keeper, Castellanos. Son decided to go alone, despite Lee Jae-Sung free to his left. With a quick turn, he slot the ball between Cristián Zapata’s legs and left Castellanos flatfooted. One-nil with ten minutes gone.
The scoreline was a deserved one for a team that, at last, knew what it was doing. When attacking, Korea was crisp with its build-up play and incisive on the break—something long-term followers endear of this side when it’s at its best. Ko Yo-han almost provided a quintessential example of that just moments after Korea’s first goal. Following a Colombian corner, he dribbled up the pitch and delivered a cross-field ball to Son Heung-min all while the Colombians sprinted into shape. Son skied beyond the crossbar with an ambitious volley.
When defending, the Taegeuk Warriors kept its flat four-four-two shape all the while forcing errors with pesky challenges. Lee Jae-sung in particular worked well in midfield to make his presence known, along with Ko Yo-han, and Ki Sung-yong provided that extra security by sitting deep between the centerbacks when Colombia sat with possession within Korea’s half.
The back pair were untested throughout the first half, and the fullbacks’ highlights generally came from attacking play, although there were a number of icy incidents.
Kwon Kyung-won was caught out with possession, and it was the mercy of the referee’s whistle that prevented a clear Colombian break. Choi Chul-soo had also been caught out with a lofted ball received by Moreno on the left, who chipped over the crossbar, and Kim Jin-soo had come to Korea’s defensive aid by being first to a whipped crossed flashing past the face of goal–the center back pair nowhere to be found.
But the Colombians worked with half-chances, and the Taegeuk Warriors seemed to be half a step ahead moving the ball around. On defense, they were patient all throughout the first half when working to regain possession. The Colombians’ didn’t mask their frustrations, and the second half was more of the same.
The game restarted with Lee Jeong-hyup replacing Lee Keun-ho, and in doing so, Korea effectively neutralized its most dangerous threat.
Along with contributing to effective build-up play in the first half, Lee Keun-ho came close to doubling Korea’s lead on numerous occasions—one saved well by Castellanos, another skied over the bar.
Lee Jeong-hyup was anonymous throughout the match. He did not provide support on the wings, and he certainly didn’t provide support in holding-up play. His sole contribution to the match was a late tackle and a deserved yellow after losing possession in Colombia’s half. Oh, and a conceded corner.
As for the Colombians, their frustrations came to a boiling point. Lee Jae-sung was on the receiving end of a late, studded tackle by Aguilar, and Ki Sung-yong’s following challenge came in just as late as Aguilar’s was poor. Retribution on the pitch, missed by the ref, but not by the rest, as both teams came to clash following the string of challenges.
It didn’t seem to phase the Taegeuk Warriors though, as ten minutes later, Choi Chul-soon found Son Heung-min with a nice weighted ball at the edge of the box, whose shot squeezed through the palms of Castellanos with an attempted save as weak as Son’s celebration.
The Colombians seemingly were incapable of losing with grace. Moments following Korea’s second goal, James ended up fouling Kim Jin-soo with a high kick, and Kim, when needing a moment, was pulled up by Colombia’s poster boy, perhaps out of frustration in not only losing, but also being kept in Kim’s back pocket all match.
Understandably, Kim reeled his arm back in frustration, and James put in his best performance of an AFC minnow defending a one-goal lead in the last ten minutes of a match by writhing on the floor with hands over his face. An entire country witnessed just how sore of a loser a world-class player can be.
Or maybe even a world-class team, as some casual racism by Edwin Cardona followed the altercation with a South American classic with a skewed face and fingers stretching one’s eyes. A couple more bookings followed, although incredibly, Cardona himself escaped without even a stern telling. A minor incident speaking magnitudes on how casual racism against Asians is handled on the world stage. It isn’t.
Regardless, the Taegeuk Warriors proceeded with class. Ki Sung-yong continued to move the ball well for Korea down the middle, a particularly memorable play beating James twice with a deft touch and a good turn, and Lee Jae-sung had a moment in particular where he played a quick one-two with Kim Jin-soo, stringing a frustrated James Rodriguez like Bambi on ice.
But Lee Jae-sung did end up getting booked for a poor, late tackle, and it was off that set piece where Korea ended up conceding. James found Cristián Zapata with a good delivery into the box, and it was a blunder by Kim Seung-gyu that led to the loss of his clean sheet, as he came out to face the delivery by attempting to punch from behind the center back’s header. Another reminder that the Taegeuk Warriors have yet to find a suitable replacement for the stalwart deputee Lee Woon-jae.
It almost seemed as if the halving of Korea’s lead brought Shin Tae-yong to remember that there were substitutions at his disposal. With eight minutes left to play, veteran Yeom Ki-hoon came in for Lee Jae-sung—a like for like switch on the left—and fan-favorite Koo Ja-cheol came in for Ko Yo-han in the middle.
Yeom Ki-hoon made an instant impact, as he whipped in a cross that found Kwon Chang-hoon, who hit a running half volley with great contact, albeit wanting in direction, but the substitutions provided little inclination that the Taegeuk Warriors had any intention of letting off the gas.
Lee Chang Min ended up being the final replacement for Korea, slotting in for Kwon Chang-hoon, and, despite the best efforts of an uncharacteristic right-foot shot by Yeom Ki-hoon, the game ended with a slightly nervy finish in Big Bird Stadium, 2-1, to the Taegeuk Warriors.
To say the victory was a breath of fresh air would be an understatement. For the first time since the Taegeuk Warrior’s near-triumph at the Asian Cup, the side showed its honest capabilities–not in its defensive prowess, as it did back in that tournament, but in its offensive strength: intentional and effective forward passing, hand in hand with an adventurous frequency in shooting–evident mostly through Kim Jin-soo and Kwon Chang-hoon.
A stark contrast to former head-coach Stielike’s toothless possession-based football, and even Shin Tae-young’s lost, experimental football of two friendlies past. In fact, it would not be remiss to overlook the instant impact of newly appointed assistant and fitness coaches, Toni Grande and Javier Miñano, who had joined Korea’s coaching staff just days before the Colombian friendly.
The dynamic has changed; where prior to this match, anyone who knew anything about this side would place their bets on an unceremonious repeat of a group stage exit in this summer’s World Cup, the Taegeuk Warrior’s showing against the Colombians proved that–no, the Koreans can play, and the question isn’t a matter of whether the side has the quality to perform, but if they have enough time to gel into a formidable team.