Confidence: Notes from Korea v Serbia & A 4-4-2 for the World Cup?

Confidence was the word on the block after Korea drew with Serbia to close out the year at Ulsan Munsu World Cup Stadium. A look at tactical pros & cons, some quotes and a look at the future.

Tactical Pros & Cons

Shin’s new 4-4-2 shape was once again the go-to formation for the Koreans. It, as a tactic, though simplistic, was once again fairly effective. The side remained compact, the midfielders and strikers pressed Serbia into positions and dictated the terms of their defensive play. However, not more than a few minutes into the match, it became clear that Serbia could merely bypass Korea’s midfield block and hit long balls to forwards up against the two centrebacks.

This was an extremely effective approach, given that both Jang Hyunsoo and Kim Younggwon struggle in the air, and it led to Serbia’s best spell of the game (which resulted in their 26th minute free kick). That said, when Lee Keunho came on to the pitch, everything changed and the side looked much more poised and threatening in that shape going forwards, which they were not at all in the first half. With positives on both sides, let’s look at some pros and cons:


  1. A coherent defensive system

I would argue that it’s been a while, maybe even since 2002, that Korea has had an effective defensive system where they are dictating where the ball is going and controlling the spaces in which their opponents operate. Now, two games is no sample size, and 2002 comparisons should always be taken with a nice, fat spoon of salt, but the concept remains that after leaking goals throughout qualifying at the rate of 1 per game, this new approach seems to offer some promise, even if it only papers over the more structural, classical defensive problems (set pieces/counter-attacks).

2. Kanté Yohan?

In what can only probably be described as a Toni Grande special, Ko Yohan excelled in marking James Rodriguez out of the Colombia exchange. It was an unorthodox idea that still made sense, and was executed to perfection. Against the Messis and Ronaldos of this world, I’m not convinced we’ve seen enough from Ko to show that he could have any influence against these indomitable footballing giants, but if there is an opposition threat we want to conveniently annul, Ko seems like a safe bet from this small sample size, as opposed to having the whole side be constantly concerned by committee.

3. We can counter-attack!

What?! A KNT counter-attack? We may not have had scored off of one, but when there are at least one or two runners for Korea (Son and another, maybe LKH or one of the wingers), Shin’s desire for quick transition offence is beginning to take a consistent, physical form. These stretch passes into wide spaces at least give us an added menace, and doesn’t give opponents the peace of mind that we are not going to challenge them on the break (as we traditionally have). If you’ll remember the famous video of Ahn Junghwan chastising Kim Bokyung in the Tunisia friendly of June 2014, in which Ahn goes “Too slow! It’s all too slow!” when Kim has an opportunity to hit a counter pass but instead stands and backpasses, you’ll remember for how long a Korean manager has subscribed to the conventional model that easy as it goes is a safer bet. It’s a refreshing approach, and one I personally support, but more importantly an approach that makes logical sense with the formation.

4. Capitalizing on star strengths

Ki Sungyueng had an incredible international break. The highlight reels of him hitting 40+ yard passes are back, as are the ones of him dribbling out of difficult positions and surging into space to dictate play. Ki’s renewed confidence may have just come with a restablishment of his form, but I suspect it is also because how he now has the ease of mind that Lee Jaesung can cover for Ki. By having Ki play a more box-to-box role, but without physically exerting him to no end, you’re letting our captain have the best chance of finding that key pass in the transition all while capitalizing on his defensive acuity.

Son Heungmin is, of course, this side’s other star. I lamented in my pre-international break preview that we did not have a team built around our best players, and yet this 4-4-2 is unquestionably built around giving Son the best chance to score. I’m too lazy to pull up the figures, but traditionally in Son’s career, the seasons where he’s had to do less defensive work have been those where he’s done the best. This 4-4-2 still requires him to press, block passing lanes and help delineate zones we will concede to opposition, but it doesn’t have him perpetually involved in covering, marking, intercepting, aerial duels (defensively), tackling, physical challenges – which suits him well entirely.

5. Using veterans/our national strength: work rate!

No matter the player, if you’ve played most of your career in Korea, you will work hard. It’s a quintessential concept that’s been associated with Korean football for decades – we are not the country of the flair, or of the passing acuity, or of tall, stoic defenders – but the best players work hard for every play. Think Park Jisung being Andrea Pirlo’s kryptonite, or Cha Duri and Lee Youngpyo contributing in offense before scampering back just in time to save the space behind them, or Song Chonggug marking Luis Figo out of the Group Stage decider.

By using mobile, hard-working players – including wily veteran Lee Keunho – and making and pressing the heart of the system, Shin Taeyong is doing what Uli Stielike could never have done: instead of imposing his own identity, he’s simply coherently transposing a Korean style into a shape that works. We’ll see if it holds up to higher scrutiny.

I mentioned Lee Keunho – I think he makes this system tick. I’m not convinced Koo Jacheol really has much place in this shape, which is obviously a pity. But Koo didn’t have the same positional smarts and remained generally far too centrally. He may have deputized well in a position that isn’t his own, but Lee gets it. He’s the player’s player to Son. Korea’s best halves were the first one against Colombia and the last 20-25 minutes against Serbia. Coincidence that Lee was Son’s partner? I think not.

6. Best of the K League

As a personal K League fan, I was super happy to see Daegu GK Cho Hyunwoo gets plaudits for his super-save and confidence in goal. I was pleased that Kim Minwoo, Choi Chulsoon and Kim Jinsu are returning back to their clubs for the final matchday with very little to say of criticism. I’m very happy that Lee Jaesung is balancing his quick passing skill with his hard work and blunt directness. I’m especially pleased that Lee Keunho could well start at the World Cup, not for lack of options (only a little) but because he’s performed well, and also that Yeom Kihun showed ability to influence games with one touch of the ball as a substitute. The best of the K League is getting their fair shout.


  1. Over-reliance on Son Heungmin?

I think this is a major point, and it’s one that Jae brought up on Twitter as well. Because this system is built around the goalscoring abilities of Son Heungmin… it depends on Son Heungmin scoring goals.  If he does well at the World Cup, in general we will do well. If he does poorly, we will not.

His petulantly and frustration in the Serbia game at getting several golden opportunities and not burying any of them, as well as his emotional embrace with Cha Bumkeun in the tunnel after the Colombia match, lead me think that Son is much more of an emotional player than we thought. He’s not going to applaud or thumbs-up his passes, but in a very Suarez way yell at himself, blame the ref, kick at the ground… something of the sort. And this was in an international friendly.

Son is a good goalscorer, but he isn’t Harry Kane – he won’t finish every chance he gets. If pressure gets to him, and the yelling turns into shutting down and not performing to the level he’s capable of because of the high-lights of the moment (see Honduras Olympics QF), then things become extremely worrying for Korea’s chances.

2. No stable option beside Ki?

Ko Yohan was a good shout for a beatable top-15 side like Colombia, built around a creative midfield player such as James. He certainly could have a role in one or even more games at the World Cup. Indeed, he may start as a regular assistant to Ki. The problem, however, is that if we draw a side such as Sweden, who, it goes without saying, do the defensive/holding 4-4-2 better than anyone else in international football, Ki’s assistant may have to be someone that offers a bit more natural creative ability.

Shin tried this with Jung Wooyoung, and even if I said it was a good game for Jung, after watching the tape I have some doubts. He wasn’t great in aerial battles, and he offered little going forward. I felt as if he was an acceptable water carrier, but not particularly menacing. Who then, does Korea turn to?

Koo won’t rectify the problem, and though it’s a viable option, as of now Lee Jaesung and Kwon Changhoon make much more sense out wide. Shin will have to test players such as Lee Myungjoo, Nam Taehee, Joo Sejong and others in that position. It’s a little worrying that we still don’t know who will be Ki’s partner in midfield 8 months out from the World Cup.

3. Defensive issues/Serbia’s approach is best approach

As mentioned above, Serbia just lofted the ball onto our centrebacks and tried to put pressure on what they correctly identified as being Korea’s weakest link. Physically they were dominant, which is unsurprising, and I admit to getting a lot of Hong Jeongho flashbacks. Though the fullback positions seem fairly set, the key centreback duo is making no consensus among any KNT circles. Kim Younggwon has got more experience; Kim Minjae is the trendy, youthful, exciting young prospect. Kwon Kyungwon seems to have really great moments, punctuated by a couple rookie mistakes, while Jang Hyunsoo is the Korean centreback version of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain: “What is he good at?”.

4. Still not cutting down on useless passing

Though Korea didn’t have chronic useless passing syndrome in either of the friendlies, it didn’t take much positional work for Serbia to cause Korea’s defensive line some discomfort in passing the ball around. Visual Sports criticizes how Ki has to drop in between the two centrebacks at the beginning of Korea’s possession phases because neither of the centrebacks are reliable passers.

One possible solution could be to encourage the goalkeeper to take a more proactive role in the buildup, like Louis Van Gaal did with his 2014 Netherlands side, or how Pep is doing with his Manchester City side. The problem, of course, is if Kim Seunggyu, Cho Hyunwoo or Kim Jinhyeon are able to fit into that role.

Anyway, that’s enough on the tactics now. Onto some quick quotes (this post is getting quite long).


“I should have played more aggressively. I would give 50 points (out of 100) to my performance today.” – Daegu’s rising goalkeeping star Cho Hyunwoo

“I think the players were able to earn confidence through the friendly matches. Giving up just one goal to a superior team is pretty good. We’ll keep training without making big changes to our defensive line.” – manager Shin Taeyong

“We still have to work very hard and not be satisfied with just two games. But these games gave us confidence, even if we may be the weakest team at the World Cup.” -captain Ki Sungyueng

Next steps?

Shin Taeyong will announce an all-domestic lineup of players for the EAFF E-1 Cup (the old East Asian Cup that changed names in a major re-branding fail) which will take place in Japan in under a month. Yes, there’s more Korean football around the corner, and the season hasn’t *really* ended! This will be followed by a two-week training camp in January, and possibly another one during the K League season (they’ve asked to curb the season earlier, if I remember correctly, to give a longer preparation time to Shin).

Apart from being silly, but rather meaningless fun (that’s the best light to perceive the EAFF E-1 Cup), it should be a good way to check in on the tactics of other Asian opponents (China, Japan and North Korea). It will also be an occasion for Kim Minjae to return to the fold (after injury) and possibly a final chance to impress Shin from some of the more on-the-fringes Asia-based players.

We just wanted some hope – instead we got direction, orientation and confidence. Two games is just two games, but given the state of derision and misery the KNT has been in, I’ll take this fresh change any day of the week.

About Tim Lee 321 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?

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