The Korean headlines say it all: “not even Park Ji Sung could pull off a win at the Azadi Stadium in Tehran.” Is it the ridiculous elevation? The intense, quite intimidating atmosphere? For whatever reason, we have yet to score at the Azadi since 2009 (in history, we’ve played there 5 times; we’ve scored 3 goals, they’ve scored 12). Fortunately for us this time around we have an in-form Koo Ja Cheol, Ji Dong Won, Ki Sung Yong, and the player who many consider to be the best Premier League performer thus far, Son Heung Min. Unfortunately for us, pretty much all our defenders play in China. Assuming Uzbekistan wins tomorrow, the winner of this infamous rivalry will enjoy an advantageous position at the top of the Group A table, while the the loser to a definitive third place.
Note: Remember to check out the Q&A here!
The Tactical Battle: A 3-4-3?
Having lost our previous three encounters with Iran you would think that we’re going to see something different this time around. News outlets, a couple days ago, reported that Stielike will go for a 3-4-3 with Ki SY in central defense (though this story has kinda died out and has been replaced by a controversy involving Koo Jacheol, more on that later). Iran, on the other hand, will almost certainly set up in a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 with the intention of setting up a midfield line as follows (taken from Jae’s analysis of our past Iran friendly at the Azadi). Their formation will most certainly reflect the usual “How to Beat Korea 101” method: sit back and counter.
In theory, the 3-4-3 is a good idea against Iran and aside from the question of “Do we have competent wingbacks,” the formation suits our strengths fairly well. China actually used this very formation to success and managed to draw Iran 0-0 in Shenyang. This is because a 3-4-3 centers around flexibility. In defense you get a tight 3-man CB line (helps against counterattacks by putting that extra CB behind the ball) with four midfielders to shield the passes going into the defending third. In attack you get a very strong central midfield that admittedly sacrifices width, placing responsibility for wing play mainly on the wingbacks. Other important points about a 3-4-3:
- The central CB is responsible for distribution and must be good at passing. Perfect role for Ki SY. Fortunately, we have plenty of creative CM’s like LJS and KBK who can pull the strings in the regular central midfield.
- In offense, you typically have two wide forwards occupying the CBs with a slightly withdrawn FW/CAM pulling the strings just behind them / finding space to shoot. Koo Ja Cheol might not be a bad fit for the crucial center role, although personally I forsee the front three as being SHM – JDW – LCY (yes, SHM is fit to play). The media once reported SHM – KSW – LCY, but precedent tells us that even with KSW’s resurgence in form, crossing and hoping to win aerial battles might be ineffective, until we get a fullback that actually knows how to cross (though later I will talk about why we need to swing in some aerial crosses).
- The wingbacks must be ready to both attack and defend. This is the major point of concern – can our wingbacks handle the Iranian wingers? They’re actually pretty good. The vast majority of our goals conceded vs Iran have come from defending errors, and we cannot have our wingbacks leaving too much space at the back for Iran’s speedy wingers to exploit.
Ideally I’d imagine our LWB and RWB duo would be Ko Kwangmin and Oh Jaesuk. We’ve seen from the Qatar match that Hong Chul, for all his offensive prowess, can’t defend–from the K League at least KKM seems the better defender, but because HC was very involved vs Qatar he might still start again. But KKM has direct experience in a wingback role while playing for Choi Yong Soo’s FC Seoul, and he was (is) one of the best LB’s in the K League. While OJS may not have experience in a 3 back system, on the right WB side of things I would heavily stress the importance of not fielding Jang Hyun Soo. He does not offer much going forward and usually slows down the attacks on his flank (so the opposite problem as Hong Chul) – in fact, playing JHS or KKH as Kwak’s CB partner is probably the way to go.
I’m also very curious to see whether we’ll tend to attack from the sides or down the center. The previous encounter against Iran, Stielike was fresh at the helm and had a vision of being a more central-oriented team. We attacked largely down the center, relying primarily on fullbacks for width, and Iran promptly countered by setting up shop super narrow. For some reason (maybe because it didn’t work against Iran?) that plan was scrapped and today we have gone back to being very fullback and winger oriented. It seemed to work against Qatar, maybe it’ll work against Iran?
The couple of days leading up to a Korea vs Iran match are always filled with some sort of media controversy.
Koo Jacheol: Apparently, Koo was quoted in Bild saying that going to Iran was like going to a prison, which the Iranian players and Quieroz lashed out at immediately. In fact, it’s looking like the Iranian players are going to be trying to bully the crap out of KJC on the pitch. KJC, however, denies these claims and says that the Bild article was misquoting him and blown out of proportion, and conspiracy theories started arising (did Iran plant the article in Bild somehow?) Either way, Stielike defended KJC in the media, saying that it is understandable coming from people who live in countries with more freedom/democracy.
Religious Clerics vs. President? This is how Roy described it – so apparently, it is currently the Shia day of mourning, Tasua, where cheering or celebrating is taken as offending Allah. The religious leaders of Iran called for the game to be cancelled; the Iranian FA tried to get it moved but it was rejected by FIFA. Of course, because forfeiting gives Korea a 3-0 win the match will go on as scheduled, but it seems that the home fans will be wearing black and refraining from cheering altogether, even if they score. I do wonder though – would Iranian officials punish South Korean fans for cheering or chanting Dae Han Min Guk? Are the Korean fans going to be completely silent as well in order to avoid potential conflict? Will Korean fans even travel to Iran? Whenever the team plays in Iran the away support does dwindle, that’s for sure.
Things to Watch Out For:
- Set Pieces: Iran is very good at these and unsurprisingly, a number of Iran’s recent goals against us were from corners. On the other hand, I honestly can’t recall the last time Korea scored from a corner kick or a direct FK (ok I remember a few, but it’s very rare)
- Son Heungmin: This guy needs to be on his A game if we’re going to have any chance at a win. If SHM can attack Premier League players all day, on paper he can surely run at (any minor league) defenders all day. Problem is, Iran’s defensive organization is like none other, taking even Messi + co 90+3 minutes to overcome. Speaking of defensive organization:
- Kim Shinwook: So there’s a bit of a problem when we face Iran. A throughball method is likely going to fail because they’re so incredibly tight in defense. Ki’s pass that found SHM for the third goal? That’d never happen against Iran. Similarly, long shots are likely to get blocked as they pack their PK box, and ground-crosses might also fail for the same reasons. This actually leaves the only logical option of playing crosses targeted to Kim Shin Wook. Crosses and headers is often how Iran concedes (this following example isn’t a Quieroz Iran, but remember the 2010 Asian Games comeback win? Three of the four goals were headers from crosses). So what’s the problem exactly? Our fullbacks can’t cross to save their lives, that’s the problem, and neither do many of our players. To be honest I wouldn’t be surprised to see 1) Wookie starting and 2) our players trying to cross up into the air to Wookie at every opportunity for either a header or a knockdown.
- KSY+Wingbacks: if we end up playing the 3-4-3, these three players need to also be on their A game. The rest of the players on the pitch can pretty much do what they do normally.
- The press: how high are we going to press? And are we going to try to chase down everything and bust out the Tuhon that has been sorely lacking since the PJS days? Going too far with either, of course, is a bad idea, but with a team like Iran, even though we’ll probably have > 60% possession, our pressing game will be very important. It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of new tactics (if any) Stielike will bring.
- Our CB aerial game: Iran is a team that generally relies on long ball strategies than short passing strategies. This might be accentuated if we play a 3-4-3 as they look to bypass the 3+4 FW/MF line and lob it forward so that the wide players can run at the back three and try to drag the CB’s wide. Kwak Tae Hwi is very good in the air. JHS and KSY, or KKH and KSY are also pretty good, but the Iranian FW’s are also very strong in the air, as are their defenders on set pieces.
- Manager fights? Stielike desperately wants to win this one after losing to Iran early in his tenure. He also has to prove his worth at a time when his methods are being questioned. Moreover, he probably wants, as do the rest of Korean players, payback against Carlos Quieroz being a massive a** to Choi Kang Hee. No doubt the tensions will be very high in this one too, especially with so much at stake.
At the Azadi, to be honest I would be happy with a draw. 1-1 it is.