New Cycle, Same Woes: Evaluating Bento’s Senior Squad Call-ups

Bento's most recent squad selection provided the clearest indication of his vision. It seems awfully short-sighted.

The year following a World Cup is always crucial for any national team.

You have four years to assemble a new squad to perform on the greatest stage. The journey begins with qualifying out of your confederation.

For Korea in particular, it’s a unique time; within our confederation, we can compete. We start in the third round of AFC World Cup qualifying this fall. And usually, before we even get to that point, there’s a couple friendlies where before the start of a new cycle, there’s new personnel and new bits to our game that fans begin to look forward to.

At least, that’s how it should be.

For our national side, we haven’t had a chance to see such fruitful evolution to our game since the cycle arriving to the 2010 World Cup – stamped emphatically when then 19-year old Ki Sung-yong scored a late World Cup Qualifying equalizer against North Korea, which funnily enough saved then-under-fire manager Huh Jung-moos’s bacon back in ‘08.

Huh Jung-moo; Korea’s first manager to take us into the Round of 16 on foreign soil.

It wasn’t all rainbows and roses, but all things being considered, it was a good time. Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yong cemented themselves as starters at the ripe age of 19, who had been playing their football together in FC Seoul’s senior squad managed under Senol Gunes at the time.

In the end, Korea had arrived to South Africa with a team led by Park Ji-sung, veteran Lee Young-pyo deputing the back, and one of Korea’s best in Park Chu-young with his chance to redeem his last disappointing World Cup outing in Germany.

With them arrived a fledgling Jung Sung-ryong, who at the time was considered Korea’s next best goalkeeping prospect, Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yong starting in midfield with Park Ji-sung, and then-prospects Kim Bo-kyung and Lee Seung-ryeol making the 23-man cut.

It was a balanced squad. Sprinkled amongst the starters and veterans were the equally important AFC professionals – Yeom Ki-hun, a left-footed offensive asset, the underrated Kim Jung-woo, a holding midfielder whose like we’ve yet to see again in the national side, and of course, two World Cup goals-scoring centre-back Lee Jung-soo.

We qualified into the round of 16 for the first time on foreign soil with this team.

We also started moulding this team almost immediately after the World Cup in Germany.

In 2006, despite not qualifying into the round of 16 back then, we were a formidable side – the only team failing to qualify out of its group despite a 4 point tally.

And we played the part too – with Seol Ki-hyeon and Lee Chun-soo at the time, we had options out wide. With Lee Chun-soo especially, we had an opportunity with free kicks.

Furthermore, we were quite balanced; Lee Eul-yong brought his characteristic steel to our midfield all the while being technically adept, and Kim Nam-il always brought protection to our defense. We also had the technical Kim Do-heon as an offensive option to come off the bench.

All but one of those players mentioned above made the cut to South Africa.

Korea has benefitted from Double Dragon’s influence for a decade, beginning at the start of the ’10 cycle.

There were always challengers in men’s national team. But more importantly, there were opportunities given to those challengers. Kim Jung-woo was introduced and utilized more and more as the defensive option to provide protection in the midfield. Yeom Ki-hun continued to perform whenever called up, starting from the Asian Cup ‘07. Even Lee Keun-ho contributed greatly in the redevelopment of the national side, who narrowly missed out on the World Cup in South Africa, but got called up four years later in Brazil.

Mind you; these are all K-League products being mentioned.

Forget about the European performers; we’re aware of their ability. We can watch them week in week out.

Comparing how the Korean National Team used to rebuild its side, the intentions of the KFA and Bento’s most recent call-ups could not be more different in regards to building towards a team to look forward to in three summers’ time.

Asian Cup Snapshot; all of these players, bar Jung Woo-young due to injury, are set to return for Korea’s two upcoming friendlies.

Hong Chul and Lee Yong are finished, firstly. At 28, Hong Chul’s regular appearances are more indicative of the dearth of quality we have at left-back, and the 32 year old Lee Yong puts in good cross maybe once every twenty-five times.

Neither of them will be part of the picture in four years.

To call up Son Heung-min, Kwon Chang-hoon, and Lee Jae-sung is overkill. The national side has nothing to play for at the moment. We failed to win the Asian Cup. We’re competing in friendlies against fellow AFC teams Iran and Australia. Why are we bringing established starters that need to travel across the world for pointless friendlies?

That’s not to mention our European starlets in Lee Seung-woo, and Paik Seung-ho, who’ve failed to make much of an impression with their respective clubs teetering between Serie B/A and La Liga/Segunda in Italy and Spain, respectively.

Furthermore, Bento’s picks are uninspiring – the baffling of the lot being K-League 2 striker Lee Jeong-hyeop.

For those unfortunate enough to remember, this joker once did have a stint with our national side when we were stuck with the asinine Stielike. His call-ups, most notably in the 2015 Asian Cup squad, were just as they are now: absurd.

But the most glaring issue is the sameness.

Bento’s most recent call-ups. Post Asian Cup, there’s nothing to play for, yet experimenting doesn’t seem to be part of Bento’s big picture.

Just to be clear – we failed in 2018. We didn’t make it out of the group stage. In fact, we did the exact opposite of what we were expected to do. We lost to Sweden and Mexico, and somehow beat Germany.

We were poor when it mattered most, and instead addressing the issues, there’s a startling sameness in Korea’s most current personnel at the most opportune moment to experiment and improve. Kim Moon-hwan and Hwang In-beom are the type of players Korea should be seeing more of, although for whatever reason it’s only Hwang In-beom given significant game time.

Understandably, it’s a bit early to judge the ability of the squad, but overall signs are disappointing. And look – perhaps Korea lights up the two friendlies against AFC opposition and come away with a score where we score more than two, but when it comes to the long term project and the ultimate goal, which is to prepare for the next World Cup, there’s little ambition. There’s more of the same, and it stinks of complacency at best, incompetence at worst.

Hwang In-beom; the type of player the national team needs to see more of. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

It’s a different generation now. The fruits of our labor back in 2010, continuing with Koo Ja-cheol, Ji Dong-won, and Kim Young-gwon, are finally beginning to age. Instead of seeking alternatives, Bento’s shown an over-reliance on European players and sub-par Asian performers that haven’t been challenged. Don’t tell me Paik Seung-ho deserves to be in the senior squad. Don’t tell me we don’t have a single domestic forward that can challenge Hwang Ui-jo.

It’s our defense, for once, that’s buying us time. Kim Young-gwon and Kim Min-jae are a heralded centre-back pairing, and with Jo Hyeon-woo between the sticks, supporters can feel safe. Kim Jin-su is still a competent fullback, and Kim Moon-hwan should see more minutes.

Hopefully it’s enough time for Bento to improve our side, but insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. We’ll see how it unfolds, but for sanity’s sake let’s hope Bento knows something we don’t.

About kkim 12 Articles
When I grow up I want to be Jo Hyeon-woo.

6 Comments

  1. I want to start a conversation here, so here are some questions:

    If Lee Jeonghyup doesn’t deserve this call-up, who does?

    Would it be better to have made this June set of friendlies strictly for Asian-based players?

  2. To be honest, I think this squad is quite experimental as far as Bento squads go. I think he’s just trying a few things out here to see what works and what doesnt. Lee Jeong Hyups callup is a joke, but as Michael said, there aren’t many better and more in form Korean strikers at the moment. Son Jun Hos inclusion is however a great one and I’m keen to see how it turns out. I don’t think there are any major differences in mentality between the 2010 squad and this one, it’s just that back then we had some outstanding young players in the K League because young talents were still willing to stick around for their chance in Korea. At the moment most of our young talent ply their trade overseas and to be honest, when selecting players that are being groomed for the next
    big tournament, it’s important to call up the youngsters that have the highest chance of making a difference and that’s why Paik’s inclusion, although unjustified, may prove to be a good thing.

    For now these are just friendlies so let’s sit back and watch it unfold.

    • I think the big thing is that there’s some good young talent in the K League and then also there are the young players that move too early to Europe and don’t quite pan out. For example, someone like Seo Youngjae is struggling for playing time in the 2.Bundesliga but may not have had those same struggles in the K League. It’s all a matter of balance and right now, there a few too many young Koreans that are struggling for playing time in Europe. Hopefully that situation evens itself out in the next season.

  3. Yeah I think you’re spot on Michael. Players should look to accumulate first team experience in Korea before moving abroad. Most of our successful players in Europe: Koo, Ki, Lee, Kwon have done that and it’s worked out well. Too many players are following the SHM route and that’s dangerous as many don’t have the sheer ability that he did at that age.

  4. This is concerning to hear. I could understand Bento sticking w/ the old guard initially, cuz he wouldn’t have known anybody so he’d wanna see what he was working with. But you’d think by now he’d be pretty familiar w/ his pool of candidates, both NT old hands & youngbloods in k league & such.

    I dunno, I remember reading that Bento wouldn’t just select players w/ the gaudiest stats, but they had to pass his eye test & fit into his overall scheme/philosophy. Also, that he wanted to establish a core and have them train/play together as much as possible, develop chemistry, cuz NTs have so little time to get together.

    But it is still worrying to hear he’s using guys who are long in the tooth (& have already shown their limited ceilings), as opposed to experimenting w/ more up & comers, players who could be part of the future as molded by Bento.

    Guess we’ll just have to wait & see; maybe he’s waiting for a couple kids to ripen, but he’s firmly got his eye on them. What I truly hope is that this isn’t indicative of some inherent shortcoming Bento has, of vision/projection etc. I wanna believe; I want stable, reliable, tangible improvement. What I don’t want is a coach carousel anymore.

    • I feel you. I think it’s gonna be a step by step process but I’m hopeful that over the next 3 years we see an introduction of a new generation of players. We have to remember to look at small progress though. For example, Kim Shinwook is still an ACL and K League high scoring forward for the league champions, yet he is not even given a look by Bento. In the MF, I think the Tokyo Olympics will be the benchmark of where we’re going future wise. That’s a year away but I do have a feeling that Bento is somewhat preparing to integrate those players after the Olympics.

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