It wasn’t the prettiest of games, and it took a while for the team to get going, but Korea showed that they were alive and kicking after all with an honest 1-1 draw against the visiting Serbs in Ulsan.
Shin Taeyong did not drastically alter the side’s tactics or player formation, sticking with the largely positive 4-4-2/4-2-4 formation. He did make a few modifications, however, in player personnel: Kim Younggwon returned to centreback, while Koo Jacheol officially lined up as a striker alongside Son Heungmin. Jung Wooyoung replaced Ko Yohan in midfield, while Kim Minwoo got a run out at left back.
Son Heungmin – Koo Jacheol
Lee Jaesung – Ki Sungyueng – Jung Wooyoung – Kwon Changhoon
Kim Minwoo – Kim Younggwon – Jang Hyunsoo – Choi Chulsoon
Though not much happened in the first quarter of an hour, it was immediately evident that Korea was going to defend in a compact 4-4-2 as against Colombia, but going forward the addition of Koo Jacheol and Jung Wooyoung changed the side’s complexity. Jung is more of a passing figure, and wouldn’t make the lungbusting run that Ko Yohan could do. Koo is most known in the KNT for his work as the de facto #10, and he would drop down to receive passes, add physical presence up front and assist Son.
I think it’s fair to say that Korea didn’t immediately click in the first 30 minutes. Serbia might have watched some video and decided the best tactic was just to skip Korea’s midfield block and bombard the centrebacks with aerial duels. It didn’t always work, but more often than not, Jang Hyunsoo would put in a weak header, and Serbia would get a flurry of sustained pressure. That’s exactly what happened in the 26th minute, when after three punts downfield, eventually Serbia drew a foul on top the box. With all 10 men in the wall, Torino’s Adem Ljajic smacked a vicious strike from the free kick, and it was up top Daegu FC keeper Cho Hyunwoo – making his A-match debut – to make a camera-worthy save.
This gave a confidence boost to the Koreans as the fluid passing, quick interchangeable passing play of Kwon Changhoon and Lee Jaesung opened up a chance for Son Heungmin in the 30th minute from a tight angle, and Partizan’s Stojkovic made the save with his ankles. Sustained phases of pressure will all go Korea’s way, save for the finish, for the remainder of the half. Koo sent in Son, but his cross was headed away before it found Lee Jaesung – later, Choi Chulsoon had a long range effort that was caught after a great phase that included a Son burst of pace, Lee Jaesung and Koo Jacheol playing a one-two and Ki Sungyueng starting the play.
Son had another chance in the 42nd minute, when he tried to deflect Kim Minwoo’s cross with the side of his foot. The flick wasn’t enough to built a surprised, but well positioned, Serbian netminder, as the half finished 0-0 with the Serbians fading and the Koreans settling in leading up to the half-time whistle.
As in the Colombia encounter, Korea was anonymous going forward for the first few minutes of the second half, as they were cautious to set up defensively. The first two major opportunities of the half followed a similar pattern – a CM hitting a long pass, a wide midfielder using mobility and passing skill to find an assist chance, and the finish proving disappointing. Jung Wooyoung sought out Kwon, who played some quick passing with Koo before the Dijon man found himself in space, but his shot went wide – later Ki Sungyueng somehow found Choi Chulsoon in what must have been a 50m+ pass, and Choi exchanged with Lee Jaesung before the latter’s cross was hit in a sliding volley by Koo, but only right at the goalkeeper.
In the 58th minute, however, Korea’s system broke down. Ki Sungyeung found himself surging forward after an interception, but he didn’t spot the two dangerous runs by Kwon and Koo in front of him, instead trying a lateral ball to Son that was picked off. The Serbians broke in numbers, with lots of space, but as he so often does, Choi Chulsoon was over aggressive and tried to confront the passer instead of covering his man who was making a run into open space. The fullback’s misjudgement allowed a simple diagonal throughpass and finesse shot from Ljajic – 1:0 Serbia. The Serbians hadn’t had a major opportunity in over half an hour, but Korea’s traditionally counter-attack failure was their undoing.
5 minutes later, in the 61st minute, Korea had a very fortunate penalty. The Serbian centreback not named Ivanovic (too lazy to see who it was) slightly tugged on Koo Jacheol’s shirt, and the Augsburg man stumbled and went to ground (in the opposite direction of the tug?). Obviously Koo had failed to sell the call, but Chinese ref Ma Ning gave it anyways. Perhaps the weakest penalty call since Northern Ireland-Switzerland. In any case, Koo sent the Serbian keeper the wrong way and scored his first national team goal in 364 days.
The rest of the match was the Son Heungmin show. 73rd minute – he breaks on the right side, burst of pace and his low shot is tipped for a corner. Several ruthless dribbles, but no dice. Accurate throughballs to find dangerous teammates in difficult positions, but to no avail. 81st minute – Son shot from 25 yards, tipped. 82nd, Son tries everything, dives in the box after two Serbian legs give the appearance of clipping Son, Ulsan crowd roars – ref makes the right call. 89th miute, Lee Keunho finds Son who is in all alone on the Serbian centrebacks. Because of Son’s two-footedness, defenders don’t know where to go – allow Son a left footed shot, but Marko Dmitrovic, who came on at halftime and was also making his national team debut, palmed away the stinging blast. At the death, Lee Keunho’s cross from a recycled corner finds Son’s boot, but a sublimely struck volley is promptly repelled by Dmitrovic again.
Every Son shot was met with a look of disbelief, an angry shot or a kick of the turf. I was a Suarez-like level of self-torture from a player often compared to Ronaldo, who, on this night, was just Benzema and couldn’t score.
Cho Hyunwoo – 7 – Great save has people raving – but in truth he only had that one show-stopping block to his credit, with the Serbians not offering much else on target. I’d think he’s got a shot at Russia, but I wonder if he will really challenge Kim Seunggyu for the top job.
Choi Chulsoon – 7 – Disappointed in his over aggression on the counter attack, but he was screwed either way you would think. Fits the system.
Kim Minwoo – 7 – Though I think Kim Jinsu is a better match for these tactics, he deputized ably today.
Kim Younggwon – 7.5 – Stepped up again. Only good things to say about Kim, who I suspect will start in Russia on this form.
Jang Hyunsoo – 6.5 – Jang, unfortunately, stuck more out like a sore thumb. Though he had a couple good moments making passes from deep, I just can’t get it out of my mind that he can’t head the ball further than 20 years. Feels like a very Hong Jeongho-esque achilles heel. I still have trauma from the Algeria game – this guy is a weak link. I think Kim Younggwon-Kim Minjae is the way to go.
Kwon Changhoon – 8.5 – Incroyable Kwon! He makes the system work. Does his time tracking back, but a force to reckon with when he gets into those central positions and links up with others around him. He’s going to Russia.
Ki Sungyueng – 8.5 – Another great game from the captain. Calm, composed, and some sumptuous passes.
Jung Wooyoung – 7 – Overshadowed by Ki, and if at times out of his depth, at others quietly good. I suspect it will be Ki’s partner by committee in Russia, in truth, because Ko is the engine-type whereas Jung may be useful if a second passing force is needed. Replaceable, but okay on the night is what I’m getting at.
Lee Jaesung – 8 – Another great game. His hard work allows Ki to move forward and control the match, but he also showed that dynamic passing we love about him tonight.
Koo Jacheol – 7.5 – Played out of position, but was fairly good. Not his most effective role, of course, but he’s never really found that role in the KNT.
Son Heungmin – 8.5 – Say what you want, but he had passion tonight. What a story it would have been if he had got the winner. On this form, Korea’s got a shot in Russia. He’s the heartbeat of the attack. (Please don’t get injured.)
Subs: Lee Keunho – 8 – Honestly I liked how our attack looked much more with LKH on.
Yeom Kihun – NA – Put in a nice cross though. Really useful squad player.
Lee Myeongjoo – NA – Why play him out wide? Interesting how Shin is just playing everyone out of position lol.
Kim Jinsu – NA – Garbage time.
Notes, Quotes and Antidotes
More tomorrow, but:
East Asian Cup
Quotes at the end of the year
Is the team too reliant now on Son?
The word on the block is confidence. Shin Taeyong spoke about it at his press conference. Son Heungmin spoke about it. Lee Jaesung spoke about it, Koo Jacheol spoke about it. Though far from perfect encounters, and far from perfect tactics, the most important thing with several months to go is that the players feel as though this is their team again. There is a general gameplan, that players can adhere to, and we are at last talking about individual errors than wholesale ones. Kwon is flourishing and growing into a staple of this side, Lee Jaesung is showing the same 2015 form we had been raving about. Koo got a goal, Ki led by example once again. Son showed us some of his best in a KNT shirt in years. There’s good things to say about every player.
I said in my Colombia quasi-preview that I just wanted this team to give us a reason to believe. Don’t get me wrong – we can’t get ahead of ourselves. But that belief, that faith, that trust that was so abruptly severed in last month’s debacle is slowly returning. As we head into the new year, I still believe that we’re one of the weakest teams in the World Cup, but am cautiously hopeful also that the underdog title may well be one that could suit this rejuvenated senior side.