Welcome to the Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors’ official 2018 FIFA World Cup “Meet The Squad” series. You can refer back to this series to understand the backgrounds, weaknesses and strengths of every player of the 23-man roster. Today, part four – the squad’s three forwards. Let us know what you think in the comments below.
Name: Son Heung-min (손흥민)
Club: Tottenham Hotspur (England)
Weight: 78 kg
Senior Caps: 67
Son Heungmin, for many, will be the only recognizable member of the KNT. But for Korean fans he’s been a “household name” for a very long time. We watched as he scored that screamer against Nigeria in the 2009 U17 World Cup; we anxiously observed as he spent his teenage years at Hamburg II; we tore our hair in frustration as he would produce moments of sheer brilliance yet disappear completely during his early Hamburg days. And now we are enjoying the peak of his career thus far – now as a Premier League star who most people who follow football would know about.
Many foreign media outlets write about how Korean hopes fall entirely on the shoulders of Son. To an extent, they are right, especially with the injuries that plagued this team. On his day, he’ll create goals out of nothing (something an uninspired Korea side sorely needs). Unfortunately, this pressure seems to have gotten to his head. Especially in recent matches Son has been uncharacteristically selfish, trying to solve everything on his own and losing the ball in the process. The one time Son’s individual brilliance really shone through was against Colombia in late 2017 – the one good performance Korea put up to everyone’s shock – but Lee Keunho, who was key to Son’s play, is injured. Even if Lee Keunho was healthy, Shin Taeyong is not the type of coach to stick to something that works anyway. Ultimately, Shin Taeyong has not figured out to utilitize the threat of Son Heungmin properly (and apparently asked Pochettino about it).
This question isn’t new for the Korean fans. In all honesty, Son has always been a tad unconvincing when it comes to the national team. His debut came just before the Asian Cup 2011 where he wore the #11 jersey and was subbed on against Syria. He then managed to score a goal in our 4-1 victory against India and played a pivotal role in earning a last-gasp equalizer vs. Japan. Lauded for his effort back then, Son has since blown hot and cold as he often has with his club. His moments of brilliance are there – he has 21 goals in 67 appearances – but Korean fans expect Son to replicate his club form on the national team, something that hasn’t quite worked out yet. And with Korea struggling so much as of late, Son knows he needs to create. He’s the fastest player on this team; he’s arguably the best dribbler; he most certainly has the most powerful shot. But he needs to get his head up and go for the pass instead of trying to beat that extra defender.
Some say Son is on the level of Park Jisung. At club level some would say he’s almost there while some would say he’s surpassed Park (depending on your point of view). On the national team Son has a lot of work to do to get anywhere near Park’s level, but if he manages to pull a miracle and carry Korea to the RO16, perhaps even his critics would vaunt him to Park’s status in KNT legend.
Name: Hwang Hee-chan (황희찬)
Club: Red Bull Salzburg (Austria)
Weight: 70 kg
Senior Caps: 14
Hwang Heechan has been considered a top youth prospect for a very long time. Videos of his crazy goals for Pohang Jecheol U15 (the middle school team) started coming up around 2010-2011. He won the Cha Bumkeun Football Award, scored a hattrick vs North Korea at the AFC U16s in 2012, and was on a trajectory to become the next K League teenage phenom. Pohang and then-manager Hwang Sunhong (a player Hwang publicly stated he wanted to emulate) had plans for this guy and offered him a pro contract in the winter of 2014.
Instead, Hwang decided to fly out to Austria to negotiate a deal with Salzburg/Liefering, which drew plenty of criticism from the Korean public. And unlike most cases of Korean netizen ire, this one was rational – Hwang took advantage of a FIFA rule (some would say loophole) and abandoned ship in the middle of negotiations to go abroad.
Fortunately, the controversy died down as Hwang integrated himself into Liefering and Salzburg then went onto become one of Korea’s top performers every time he adorned the KFA badge. An amazing AFC U22 Championships where Hwang solo-dribbled defenders to earn internet fame as the Lord and Savior and an equally impressive showing at the ill-fated Rio Olympics earned Hwang his spot on the senior national team.
Whereas Son has underperformed to his standards in KNT colors, Hwang has lived up to his reputation. He hasn’t quite been the Lord and Savior, but he consistently displays his tenacity, his bulldog-esque drive to win the ball back, and his speedy dribbling. He charges at the defense unlike any of our other players and makes smart runs. In a team that’s often stagnant on offense, watching Hwang has been a joy. However, his play is far from polished. Despite having massive thighs and an uncharacteristically muscular build for a Korean, this man 1) falls down a little too easily and 2) cannot shoot to save his life. He also doesn’t seem to link up with Son as well as Lee Keunho. Thus, there is debate over whether Hwang should play up top with Son or play wide, where he might be just as effective. But given Shin Taeyong’s stubbornness, you can bet he will start next to Son in a 3-5-2 or 4-4-2.
In short – the Salzburg frontman is crucial to the Korean offense and though there is debate over where he fits into the squad, he’s a guaranteed starter who needs to perform to keep any Korean hopes alive.
Name: Kim Shin-wook (김신욱)
Club: Jeonbuk Hyundai (South Korea)
Weight: 93 kg
Senior Caps: 50
Kim Shinwook is a towering 1.98 m center forward who has played his entire career in the K League – nine seasons with only two different teams. He’s consistently among the top scorers in the league too. Given his height and ~1:3 goal:game ratio in the K League, not to mention his gentle demeanor and charming interviews, you would think Kim Shinwook would be considered an invaluable option up front loved by fans and players alike. Not quite.
Rather, Kim Shinwook is one of the most controversial players on team Korea.
Admittedly, he’s an important presence in the squad – coaches love his personality and work ethic, and he’s a popular figure among his teammates. Especially with the injury to veteran leaders Lee Keunho and Yeom Kihun, Kim has become the leader of the K League players on the team and is reportedly an important locker room presence, perhaps justifying his inclusion.
But the fact is, Kim Shinwook has been limited when it comes to his prowess as a striker. Despite his height, he’s fairly weak (against non-AFC opposition) – against more physical defenders he gets pushed around, and is fairly immobile. He’s slow footed, and he is not known for dribbling past defenders. Unsurprisingly, managers put him on for the “Plan B” of long balling to Kim Shinwook and playing off of him as a target man (which has been his role on the team ever since his national team debut in 2010).
This. Literally. Never. Works. It may work in the AFC where the defending is generally weak to begin with, but just does not work with teams outside the AFC. It’s unbelievably frustrating to watch Korea forgo all its talent and just hoof the ball up the pitch hoping for a lucky second bounce. It would make a little more sense if Kim Shinwook was good in the air and if the team could cross. However, most Korean fans would bet that when it comes to crossing accuracy, an English 99th division team or even nonprofessional teams would have better crossing accuracy than Korean fullbacks (seriously, the majority of crosses into the box and even some corners end up behind the goalpost).
Though every Korean fan wants to see Kim Shinwook used as a last-minute sub at best, manager Shin Taeyong has taken a liking to Kim Shinwook. Every Korea fan knows that the Korean offense can get clogged up and rendered ineffective with the Kim Shinwook Battering Ram approach – but do not be surprised to see Kim start a game or so – he does in theory have a role on this team if called upon.