It’s three matches, three wins and yet another East Asian title for the KNT. Over the last week, the Taeguk Warriors trekked respectively through Hong Kong, China, and Japan to win their third consecutive EAFF E-1 tournament in a span of five years. The triumph marks the fifth time in history that the KNT has won the three-pronged group stage competition—one in which South Korea automatically qualifies for the final round. Japan and China also automatically qualify, leaving Hong Kong to qualify from a pool of seven EAFF teams for a chance at East Asian glory.
First things first: the tournament isn’t all that prestigious; national teams rarely select their first team squads for the competition. The big three national teams, China, Japan, and South Korea, typically use the tournament to gauge the potential of certain domestic league players for more important international matches (i.e. World Cup qualifiers). Also, the tournament is not sanctioned by FIFA, so there is no incentive for European clubs to release their East Asian stars for such a minor affair. This means no Son Heung-min, Wu Lei, Minamino, etc.
The KNT, however, still featured Hwang In-beom, who currently plays for the Vancouver Whitecaps of Major League Soccer. The tournament does not interfere with the MLS schedule, allowing for murmurs of a Kim Kee-hee call-up that did not manifest. Another mildly interesting fact is that despite the KNT having won the competition four times, they had never done so on home soil until this year. The team has previously won the tournament twice in both China and Japan.
Hong Kong’s appearance in this year’s EAFF E-1 tournament marked the third time their men’s team had qualified for East Asian competition. They previously finished fourth in both the 2003 and 2010 editions of the tournament, when it was still referred to as the “EAFF East Asian Football Championship.” Prior to their first group stage match against South Korea, the 139th-ranked Hong Kong fought impressively in a 2-0 loss to Iran earlier this year.
For this match, KNT manager Paulo Bento lined his squad up in the 4-2-3-1 formation likely in an attempt to experiment in the midfield. Bento had some notable names in the starting lineup, including Moon Seon-min in the attacking midfield with Hwang In-beom behind him as defensive support. He also used Jeonbuk forward Kim Seung-dae as striker and Gu Sung-yun as goalkeeper.
To the surprise of many, the KNT was only able to notch two set piece goals against their opponents. Hong Kong managed to lock in on every counterattacking opportunity they came upon, derailing the KNT’s attacking chances in the process. Still, Hwang In-beom scored the first of two scores, netting a right-footed free kick from just outside the box. The shot was set up with a fake-out from defender Kwon Kyung-won in the first additional minute of the first half.
Na Sang-ho would score as well, taking a pass off the head of Kim Bo-kyung from a corner for a tap-in header in the 83rd minute. It would not be the game itself, however, that would attract the attention of the press. Rather, it made headlines when it had broken out that the match played in front of just 1,070 spectators, despite being played in a stadium that holds more than 50,000. It turned out that the severe fine dust concentration in Busan, where the game was held, prevented potential fans from watching the match in-person.
Other fans were upset at the seemingly lowly result notched by the KNT. Many were expecting the team to win in a blowout against Hong Kong. However, the aforementioned history suggests that Hong Kong has the ability to use an all-defensive strategy to hold down superior opponents just enough for respectable losses. Nevertheless, the KNT came out with a crucial three points for a positive start to their tournament campaign.
If any KNT fans were already upset after the Hong Kong match, then they were livid after watching the KNT’s performance against China last Sunday. The game sported quite a similarity to the match against Hong Kong in which the KNT barely came out the victor despite dominating possession. The only difference in result between the KNT and their opponents in this match was an early goal from Kim Min-jae in the 13th minute.
Taking a corner from the left side, Kim Min-jae put a flick-on header past the goalkeeper to the far post in what proved to be a game-winner. Overall, the KNT were able to record seven shots on-target throughout the entire match but could have potentially had more. At one point, Lee Yeong-jae badly shanked what would have been an easy second-half tap-in. Despite being set up with the perfect pass right in front of goal, he let his shot fly above the bar, infuriating Bento subsequently afterward.
Lineup-wise, Bento implemented a more conventional 4-3-3 formation for the match against China. He also went the more conventional route when it came to player selection, starting Kim Young-gwon over Kwon Kyung-won and pairing him in central defense with Kim Min-jae. One major difference, however, was Bento’s employment of cult hero Jo Hyeon-woo, who earned his seventh clean sheet in just his 16th appearance for the KNT.
Positively, the KNT were able to maintain the dominant record they’ve established against the Chinese team over the past several decades. China has only once defeated the KNT in the EAFF’s biennial tournament (2010). Korea Republic moved on to face Japan in the competition’s de facto final for the second consecutive time.
Bento approached the match against Japan with the same formation and nearly the same lineup he had drawn up against China. There were no defensive changes; however, Bento made some changes in the midfield, swapping Son Jun-ho for Lee Yeong-jae. He would also move Na Sang-ho to the left side of the front line to open up space for Kim In-sung, displacing Yun Il-lok in the process.
The changes proved effective. As noted by journalist Steve Han, Son Jun-ho was able to use his “off-the-ball running and defensive intensity” to enable Hwang In-beom and Ju Se-jong to pick out passes. This helped the KNT maintain possession in crucial periods of the match. The KNT proved to be the more dominant side throughout the match just as they should’ve been: each of Japan’s players had less than 20 caps on the international stage.
Just like in their match against China, the KNT were able to break a potential scoreless deadlock early through a star player’s individual goal. In the 28th minute, Kim Jin-su was able to move into the box and deliver a pass to Hwang In-beom. He then capitalized by netting a beautiful left-footed strike from around 20 yards out. It ended up as the only shot on-target from either team in the match. Hwang In-beom would later be awarded MVP of the tournament, largely in part of his game-winning goal.
Ultimately, the goal allowed the KNT to shift gears and relent on their initial strategy to press high on Japan in the first half. Japanese national team manager Hajime Moriyasu noted this after the game, claiming that his team “failed to withstand Korea’s pressing.” Bento noted the impact of the strategy as well, ultimately attributing it as the factor that “won [the KNT] the game.”
The KNT’s other star Kim Min-jae would also take home a tournament honor as “Best Defender.” He would also have quite a match against Japan, playing with an almost irresponsible confidence, dribbling in front of goal and playing through balls from the defensive third. He played as if the KNT had a three goal lead, which might say a lot about the talent gap between him and everyone else on the pitch. Rumors of a potential transfer move to Watford for Kim Min-jae remain in circulation.
The tournament finale was a big hit amongst fans back in Korea, with Busan Asiad Stadium boasting nearly 30,000 spectators for the KNT’s match against Japan last Wednesday. The KNT ended up with their first home victory against Japan in 19 years, despite having beaten them in Japan four times within the same timeframe. Korea Republic is also now the first national team to have won the EAFF E-1 tournament at home. They now have the most men’s East Asian titles out of any EAFF member with five compared to China’s two and Japan’s one.