It’s finally here. The World Cup has arrived, and with bated breath Korean and Swedish fans will be watching their Group F opener with both sides hoping for a win to advance from what some are dubbing the Group of Death. Let’s get right into the preview, with a monologue musing from yours truly at the end as we head into yet another World Cup.
Last Time Out
Last time out, Korea played a closed door friendly against Senegal which finished in a 2-0 defeat. Though little came out of that match to the press, some things did: Korea played a 4-4-2, with Kim Shin-wook as part of the strike force. The side was reserved, cautious and defensive by all accounts and dealt well with Senegal’s menace in the first half, but a Wookie own-goal followed by a penalty kick meant that individual errors did Korea in again.
Sweden have played two 0-0 draws with Peru and Denmark in their pre-tournament prep. In neither match did they threaten on more than a couple occasions, but they also were good at defending and keeping composed and organised.
Who Will Be Injured Next? Korea 2018 World Cup Edition
It’s very sad that this has become a regular feature of KNT previews ahead of this World Cup. Luckily, there doesn’t seem to be new news to report. Lee Yong’s gashed head led to a whole lot of stitches after the Senegal match where he came off as a sub, but he’s back to regular training. Hwang Hee-chan’s injury doesn’t seem set to prevent him from being a starter against Sweden either, while Park Joo-ho, who was kept out of the closed-door friendly for precautionary reasons, is fully fit as well.
Both teams have been trying to get in each other’s heads with a whole lot of mind games. Shin Tae-yong is the greatest culprit, hammering on about playing a front three of Hwang-Son-Kim SW before dismissing it, playing super defensive against a Bolivian side that was there for the taking and calling it a “trick”. Sweden have gotten into Shin’s head as well – they managed to send a scout up into someone’s house to watch a closed-door training session, allegedly had “spies” at the Korea-Senegal friendly and have been giving Korea all of the “good” training times for no other reason than to make the Korean media write headlines about it. Suffice it to say that we among many in the writing/media business are ready for this to just stop.
Team News/Starting XI Predictions
Maybe this is how Korea goes? I feel that Shin Tae-yong is committed enough to his 3-5-2 “philosophy” to use it against Sweden.
Honest to god guys, I don’t know. A brief moment of unprofessionalism here: I don’t have a damn clue. Shin could play Ki at CCB, which shifts Jang into Yoon’s place and brings in Jung Woo-young. He could start Hwang Hee-chan beside Son (perhaps he should) but Shin seems to trust Kim Shin-wook too much to drop him. He could use Ko Yo-han as the RWB, but Lee Yong has been talking a lot in the media about how to stop Forsberg and such. Cho Hyun-woo is probably the starting keeper, given that he went out to talk to the media at the pre-match press conference, but maybe that’s a trick too? If not it will be Kim Seung-gyu.
Or, he could go 4-4-2 and that brings about a plethora of options and differences as well. Basically, stay tuned.
Sweden is expected to stick to their rigid, defensive 4-4-2. Berg and Toivonen will look to harass the Korean defenders with their height and physicality, while Korea will look to use their light footed attacking players, including Lee Seung-woo, Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan to pounce on any pockets of space and disrupt Sweden’s shape. Except Korea to boss a lot of possession through Ki Sung-yueng and look for any sort of breakthrough, while Sweden will remain confident in sticking to their direct approach and utilizing Emil Forsberg as best they can to ask questions of the Korean side’s defensive and structural capabilities.
For more insight on the Swedish national team, and how Korea can respond (or not) to them (to be posted later), click on the links.
Korea could do many things – it’s not yet clear. They may elect to defend and out-Sweden Sweden in a 4-4-2 shape with Kim Shin-wook as the striker. They could use that same shape in a high-octane, fluid approach to try and confuse Swedish defenders and create a key opportunity for Son Heung-min. They could also try a 3-5-2 – which I’ve predicted Korea will go with – in order to try and tip the balance in favour of natural numerical advantages across the pitch. Ultimately, the onus is on Korea to try and break down Sweden.
Insight from Therese Stromberg, Swedish football journalist
We needed to add a Swedish voice to this preview, so we asked Therese Stromberg from Swedish sporting magazine and website Sport Expressen to share some brief thoughts.
On Zlatan starting for BeIN Sports and not Sweden:
The one and only reason that Zlatan is not playing for Sweden this World Cup is that he has quit the national team. He quit after the Euro 2016 and even though he did his best to make people think that he would be available during this summer, that was really never the case. He stood by his decision. The national team that Zlatan played in was a totally different one from the team playing today. There are different strengths and weaknesses for both teams, but despite that in my opinion a player of Zlatan’s quality would improve this team.
On Sweden’s willingness (or lack thereof) to try and get three points:
Looking at the games Sweden has played during this spring it seems they just can’t score. But getting three points from the first game is the key to improve the confidence within this team and both the players and coaches knows it. Expect them to try and take on a more offensive play vs Korea. The biggest weakness, as already mentioned, lies in the offensive play. The defense is solid and going out wide against Sweden will probably not work if the plan is to rely on long balls in to the penalty area. Granqvist and Lindelöf will remove all of them as they did against Italy in play-offs.
On Swedish knowledge of Korean players and Sweden’s predicted line-up & prediction:
Almost everything is about Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng when Swedes talk about Korea, and my feeling is that almost every Swedish fan is certain that Sweden will take three points from Korea. Janne Andersson won’t change all that much in his XI and go with this one: Olsen; Lustig, Lindelöf, Granqvist, Augustinsson; Claesson, Larsson, Ekdal, Forsberg; Toivonen, Berg. As I said I think that Sweden will try to take on a more offensive approach in this game since we all know that Korea’s defense isn’t exactly the best in the world. (Tim’s note: that’s putting it lightly!). At the same time, they will have huge respect for Son and won’t go up to press too high up the pitch since they know that can hurt them a lot.
I’m not as certain as many other Swedes are that Sweden will win this game. I think it will end in a draw, probably 1-1.
Thank you to Swedish football journalist Therese Stromberg for her insight. Follow her on Twitter (in Swedish!) @stromberg23 and Sport Expressen (also in Swedish!) @SportExpressen. The Tavern was happy to provide some background knowledge and insight on the KNT for Korea’s preview that was published in Sport Expressen. (Can’t claim to have read it – I don’t live in Sweden and I don’t speak Swedish! Anyway, back to the preview…).
Three To Watch
1.Which Son will we get? Son blows hot or cold in key games, and can either be determined to make a difference or angry at all of his teammates and himself. Son obviously has a lot of pressure riding on his shoulders, and he won’t have a wealth of opportunities against Sweden. Can he make them count?
2. Tenacity of Korean defense. Emil Forsberg’s particular tactical role requires particular tactical adjustments from Korea. How will they adapt? And aerial challenges are far from being Jang Hyun-soo’s and Kim Young-gwon’s forte. Can they hold off Toivonen and Berg?
3. Lee Seung-woo show? We don’t know exactly yet what part Lee Seung-woo will play in this game (if ever Shin Tae-yong reverts to using Kim Shin-wook, god forbid, then he’s the most likely to be dropped) but due to his young age and high expectations at this World Cup he is already drawing comparisons to Park Ji-sung in 2002. Park was of course crucial in that World Cup as an attacking wide player, and though Lee doesn’t have half of Park’s defensive prowess he remains the young hope of the team. Many have labelled him a “random bullet” for his unpredictability – if the odds are in Korea’s favor, he could turn into a “match winner”.
World Cup 2018 – Group F, Round 1
June 18, 2018, 8am EST, 9pm KST
Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, Nizhny Novogorod, Russia
Last Meeting: Korea 2:2 Sweden in 2005 (International Friendly)
Tim’s Monologue and Tuhon
It’s hard to imagine what has gone by in the past four years, and the giddy excitement that we should be feeling. We crashed out at the World Cup – we hired a German manager with an interesting CV, who promised to re-haul the system. We went deep into the Asian Cup, keeping clean sheets until the very end and only losing to the hosts in extra time. Kwon Chang-hoon went to Europe, Lee Jae-sung emerged as a superstar of the domestic league, Hwang Hee-chan improved mightily and Son Heung-min became a household name across England.
And yet, that giddy excitement we should be feeling seems labored. It is forced through a smile of three broken teeth. That excitement is tired, exhausted, frustrated and nervous. Some countries enter the World Cup on a high and are just now learning the pains of unfair and harsh defeat (sorry Peru). Korea instead enters the World Cup a battered and bruised team already. Fatigue was evident throughout training camp, injuries to several starters have harmed the side, managerial decisions have been speculative and questionable at best.
It may not be the place to express this in a preview post, but I feel that the footballing spirit of a nation right now is more unhealthily consumed in confusion and fatigue than it has ever been.
Shin Tae-yong begging the media and fans to rally behind them and to believe in them, at times sounding annoyed, other times passive aggressive. The players desperately trying to portray a facade of unity (sure, I’m sure they all get along as friends) but on the pitch expressing frustrating and despair. Ki Sung-yueng throwing his armband angrily at the ground. Son Heung-min chastising his teammates for poor service. Park Joo-ho mumbling “we have no choice” to the press when asked about playing a labored and at times dysfunctional 3-5-2. The energetic display in Daegu against Honduras two weeks ago has been replaced by two words, all across the board. Low expectations.
Low expectations such that Korea has to resort to playing obscure closed-door friendlies, hiding their set-pieces, muddying the waters regarding their tactics, playing silly mind games, putting out the narrative of “trick” football. Korea is doing everything off the pitch to tip the odds in their favour. Perhaps it’s smart. Perhaps it’s 4D chess. But it doesn’t portray confidence or strength or self-belief.
I mean sure, I don’t doubt the players are confident, or trying to – athletes live for these moments. But for a side that should have nothing to lose, Korea is once again expected to make the Round of 16, truly inhibiting them from taking on the underdog status that they are actually placed in.
So the real test, then, will be of the players’ resolve. Their tuhon, to re-use the cliché. They have had four years of being let down. They were let down when Korean fans threw yeot at them after Brazil, let down by a poor manager allowed to stay much past his best-before date, let down by a KFA who threw the team scraps in coaching options (no offense to Seol Ki-hyeon or Cha Du-ri, but they were scraps in this case, the KFA just needing to look like they were helping the team rather than actually doing so). They’ve let themselves down too, sure. Individual defensive mistakes, Son Heung-min missing throughout all of qualifying, falling behind against opponents Korea has traditionally never struggled against.
But now, with just over 30 hours to go to a crucial opener, when faced with such adversity, will they take the blows lying down, or fight back?
The team that Korea will put out there on Monday will be indicative of the culmination of a four year cycle. Teams that goof that cycle up get punished, while teams that learn and grow get rewarded. And suffice it to say that Korea goofed up that cycle. We’ve papered over the cracks and fell backwards into the World Cup yet again. There is no reason to believe Korea can advance from this group. Not a single one. Not a single pundit, not a single predictive model, nothing.
So yes. I’m drinking the mystic, prophetic kool-aid. It’s part-desperation, part-grasping for straws. It will take more than tactics or quality for Korea to pull off a victory. Something in the football gods needs to shift for Korea to learn how to break down a stoic defense – I mean this in all seriousness. It will take a whole lot of luck and a whole of tuhon.
So, everyone, it’s time for your best forced smiles. Compose that optimistic tweet through gritted teeth. Doubt yourself 100 times. Don’t solve that Rubik’s cube – just change the colored stickers to make all the faces match. Paper over the cracks. It doesn’t matter, because there’s no more time, and it’s the World Cup, and everything matters. And by tuhon, anything can happen. I hope.