World Cup 2018 is fast approaching and the March international break finds Korea testing out Shin Tae-Yong’s call ups in Belfast against Northern Ireland (and Poland next Tuesday). Before going further, while headlines point to what could be a late conceded goal leading to a demoralizing loss, it’s always worth reminding that results for a March friendly should not be anything to over-react to -whether it be a win/loss or draw. Analysts are looking for positive performances in specific individual micro and macro areas, enough by which to enact necessary tweaking before things heat up with the series of May and June World Cup tune up matches. Needless to say, that’s not to sound like an apologist for Shin Tae-Yong, plenty of stick to dispense. Ok, let’s get to it…
Mr. Roy’s gone to take care of his kids, so it’s Tim here sneaking in a few lines on a bus. Roy will be back later for the Tavern Owner’s take on the game.
Again, we’ll expand on this later, but this was far from a bad performance from Korea. Though the initial line-up showed a 4-3-3 shape, it played out on the pitch as a 4-4-2 with a wide midfielder occasionally pushing up or Son dropping deep (4-3-3/4-5-1), or even a CM dropping in between the CBs (3-4-3). The formation was fluid, as was the team’s passing play. The first ten minutes were by far Korea’s best, with Lee Jae-sung look poised and creative while Son Heung-min was drawing the attention of Irish defenders. Eventually it was Park Joo-ho, returning to the national team for the first time in nearly a year, who hit a cheeky lobbed pass over top the defense. It found Kwon Chang-hoon’s smartly timed run, 1-0.
After Ireland had a goal rightfully disallowed for offside from a set-piece, O’Neill’s men got their equalizer in very opportunistic but smart fashion. Kim Min-jae made a clattering challenge on top of the box, and on the subsequent free kick, the first ‘kicker’ went into the wall, the second ‘kicker’ ran out wide and the third ‘kicker’ passed to the second. The wall was hemmed in because of the first kicker’s strength, the second kicker hit a low cross into the box and it was again Kim Min-jae who erroneously re-directed in to his own net after trying to clear into touch.
The momentum had shifted somewhat at this point, though the Irish weren’t looking to play, but rather defend compactly and in numbers. It was 1-1 at the break.
The second half saw Korea become a shadowed version of those first 10 minutes – there were occasional moments of brilliance and decent shots that challenged the Northern Irish goal, but no dice. 15 shots on target compared to Northern Ireland’s 3. Though Ki Sung-yueng controlled the tempo and Lee Jae-sung was a creative hub, Son seemed to always be on a slightly different wavelength, while Kim Shin-wook… lost out in most of his challenges to tall stalwarts McAuley and Evans, not to mention he was poor with the ball at feet. After Ki and Son came off, the side looked significantly discombobulated, with replacements Jung Woo-young and Hwang Hee-chan not having much time or space to make their mark.
The winner for the home team came out of nothing, and was entirely avoidable. A longball down the pitch looked non-threatening, but Jang Hyun-soo hesitated and lost the challenge to a substitute (shorter than Jang, I might add). Caught the wrong side of the ball, Jang was out of the play. Kim Min-jae had to try and patch up the situation, but made the wrong gamble and Paul Smyth scored his first goal for Northern Ireland in the 88th minute – a well taken effort solo shot from inside the box.
I’ll let Roy do the nice stuff, because there were some positives.
1. We Can’t Be A Team of Kim Shin-wook’s
We can’t. The Wookie was lost against taller, stronger European opposition. He may boss weaker sides but against centrebacks who’ve faced players of his height before, he was barely a nuisance. His inability to generate anything outside of the off stray header meant he was a dead weight to the side today.
2. Defense, Defense…
Jang Hyun-soo and Kim Min-jae made mistakes today. Though they were largely composed for significant spells of the match, Northern Ireland weren’t playing football… at all… for significant spells of the match. Kim Min-jae was unlucky but responsible for the first goal, both in conceding the foul and in redirecting the own goal, while Jang Hyun-soo struggled in the air, and almost got away with it – until the finish from Smyth. Kim did, admittedly, make more mistakes than Jang, but they were rookie ones – poor fouls or slightly mistimed challenges. He’s an aggressive CB, and it paid off on more than one occasion, stymying an attack or winning back possession. Jang, however, offers little up-side, but much downside. If his main asset is stability and calmness, then it’s high time to look for other options. Glaring obvious mistakes like the one today and the one against Japan in the EAFF Final (remember his inexplicable grabby penalty?) mean that Shin Tae-yong needs to at least consider another partner to aid Kim Min-jae.
3. Son Got Lost, Again
He was either too quick, or too slow, but he just didn’t click. The pairing with Kim Shin-wook made it less obvious for Son, who only was really able to affect the game in transition or when he dropped deep. Shin Tae-yong has issued a warning to his star player; it’s only getting harder from here. A bounce-back in game 2 vs Poland will be needed for his morale – and hopefully a partnership with Hwang Hee-chan or Lee Keun-ho, who can maybe unlock his talent better.
The Old Tavern Owner back -it’s been more than 24 hours since FT and I’ve processed the result (plus took care of 2 tired children).
My few thoughts on the game and looking ahead to Poland:
Overall, there’s still more positives than negatives to take away from this friendly. Korea at times looked really bright, and dare I say it, Spurs-like in terms of flowing passing football (by the same token, looking rather Spursy with the nature of the goals conceded). The ball possession rate at one point was a ridiculous 32% N Ireland to 68% Korea, a feat that’s much harder than it looks, requiring technically adept players, proper formation (4-2-2 variant seems to be working) and a communicative team in sync. Ball possession alone doesn’t wins football games; however the possession did translate to a higher numbers of chances created, as Korea played on a front foot going forward and not content in ball possession for it’s own sake (a lá Stielike era). Of those chances created, they were arguably better chances than the ones created by their opponents. Objectively, Korea should’ve had a better result. On a different day, it very well could have been. Minus the amateur mistakes in not recognizing the set piece trickery, Korea’s 1st half and parts of the 2nd does indicate the potential of Korea’s competitiveness should they lock down and be more ruthless with their chances created.
Here’s the down and dirty simple guideline for Korea to advance from their difficult group: if you don’t have the greatest defense, you’re going to have to be efficient with scoring chances – I’m almost satisfied watching that offense on display on Saturday. More on the defense, a bit more guile in front of their own net obviously is THE priority here. How does that happen? Quietly retiring Jang Hyun-Su from CB responsibilities and making sure Kim Min-Jae continues his fast-tracked learning curve at Jeonbuk. Speaking of Jeonbuk, much has been made of the idea of Shin Tae-Yong borrowing completely an all Jeonbuk backline. I’m all for it, even with some leakiness at back to start of Jeonbuk’s young K-League 1 season. The team chemistry is building with the addition of Hong Jeong-Ho AND it will continue to build throughout a contested competitive season that includes Asian Champions League fixtures. Why disrupt that system when you have fullbacks and central defenders with some decent pedigree: Kim Jin-Su from his time at Hoffenheim, Hong Jeong-Ho with Europa league experience at Augsburg, and young player of the year Kim Min-Jae plus a competent enough right back option in veteran Lee Yong. I haven’t even mentioned Choi Chul-Soon who turned some heads with his November caps for the KNT. Listen, Spain and Germany won their respective World Cups recently by utilizing fewer players from vastly different teams. By consolidating the crux of players from mostly Bayern Munich and BVB (for Germany) and Real Madrid and Barcelona (for Spain) both Joachim Löw and Vicente Bosque took advantage of great players in these clubs – but more importantly – transferred a natural club chemistry right into their respective national teams. Team Korea is obviously not Germany or Spain, but they can still borrow some of the practices that these teams used to their advantage for the composite of their squad, and that, in theory, might allow Korea to punch above their weight for the big show in June.
Let’s break down some things I saw via key individual performances:
Son: While it’s not his best outing, it’s far from his worst. He had his moments and was part of a high octane offense looking the likelier to score the go ahead goal. Some niftiness (i.e. that nutmeg) was part of the array Son offered on the pitch. However, his control on a few occasions was a bit on the erratic side (blame the choppy pitch perhaps). That coupled with Irish defenders physically battering him all game frustrated the Spurs wide man, and he wasn’t able to shine as he would typically for Spurs. I’m not as harsh about Son’s performance as others might, check out the game highlights below and that could change your assessment of his game yesterday (check out in particular Ki and Son’s interchange, Son laid Ki’s death defying return pass for Lee Jae-Sung, who was subsequently tackled in the box; while the Wookie’s follow up was too heavy to challenge the keeper – the buildup overall between Son and Ki looked very promising, one of several tantalizing chances for another Korean goal).
Half glass both full and empty: Son’s last play of the game, good link up play, ball zipping along almost reminded me of Spurs flowing passing game, Lee Yong laid a pass perhaps a bit too heavy for Son, he did catch up to it at the goaline – only for the cross to land well behind the net. In front of and on the far post waiting was the Wookie and Lee Jae-Sung, ready to knock the ball into the net. You can see where the play was going but the execution would escape Son in that moment.
Glass half full: Son had a superb chance to go 1v1 on the keeper, a long pass from Kim Min-Jae picked out the run of Son Heung-Min to beat the offsides trap. It was perfectly timed, Son got a good touch to settle the ball and it was off to the races…except it was called back by the ref for a perceived foul from Kim Shin-Wook. Normally I’d instantly blame the Wookie for anything that goes wrong, but the replays show nothing substantial except perhaps he set a ‘basketball pick’ of sorts to stymie one of the centerbacks, but ‘picks’ or blocks aren’t illegal in this situation. Son was right to be upset with the ref. But again, take the glass half full, this was a friendly, lower stakes than ordinary, discount the ref’s poor decision and Shin Tae-Yong and/or his assistant coaches should mark the Kim Min-Jae to Son pass in the positive column, because in almost all circumstances, that would have been a difference making, goal scoring opportunity.
Shin wisely took Son out with the assumption he’ll get at least a half against Poland, but said in post match a statement that’s going round the interwebs that’s been interpreted as Shin (sort of) throwing Son under the bus
Korea manager Shin Tae-yong on Son Heung-min after losing 2-1 to Northern Ireland: "Opposition's focus on defending him will only get stronger. We're preparing tactically to maximize his ability, but in tight spaces, Son should figure out a way to be effective on his own."
— Steve Han (@RealSteveScores) March 24, 2018
Perhaps Shin meant to say that should Son find difficulty to maneuver in tight spaces, he will be given license to use his “tekkers” to dribble through the defense. Regardless of whether Son was being criticized or not, Shin Tae-Yong was roundly criticized himself as he had previously commented on Stielike’s perceived inability to utilize Son effectively in the KNT.
Here’s a summary of Son’s day:
Ki Sung-Yeung: the cliché pun of him as the key man couldn’t have been truer today, the Swansea holding midfielder was laser sharp, going full on Pirlo with deadly array of devastating passes that left Irish defenders franticly running all over the pitch. Ki was in full control of the attacking tempo. Maestro-like, there’s no reason why Ki, so long as he’s healthy, would continuing to do his part to break down stubborn defenses with his vision and calming possession. Many of the chances Korea had started with Ki.
The Wookie: only decent role he seemed to play was being a distraction for the Irish backline, giving them something to think about while drawing away defenders from the likes a run from Kwon Chang-Hoon. Credit to Shin Tae-Yong only in this regard about Kim Shin-Wook: they opted not to play in the Wookie with football failing long ball tactics, aka Choi Kang-Hee circa 2013. Rather, Kim Shin-Wook was instructed to use his feet as well as his head. Problem was, he had one too many heavy touches inside the box to be truly effective. Transitioning from set piece defense (where his height can be an asset) to counter attacking offense just wasn’t in the cards for the towering giant. Truth be told, he was a stilting factor in what was an overall positive display by Korea’s offensive unit.
Kwon Chang-Hoon: just a lovely performance today from the Baker of Dijon. I can’t say too much more that he had a brilliant outing. Such a lovely touch to settle the pass from Park Joo-Ho and finish like a gangsta.
Lee Jae-Sung: Had a bright game overall. Except for the lack of a clinical finish, Lee reminds us of another vital compatriot: a younger, faster version of vintage Lee Chung-Yong. Which brings us back to apt comparisons – that would unfortunately include the lack of finishing finesse. Not that he or the Blue Dragon are incapable of scoring, but the Jeonbuk attacking midfielder’s dynamism moving the ball spritely more than made up for his missed shots (missed not by much). If he can work on getting on his scoring boots in place, Lee could be THE player Korea needs to survive their World Cup group.
Jang Hyun-Su: the two sides of Jang – if we didn’t start by excoriating his abject poor aerial defending that led to Northern Ireland’s late winning goal against the run of form, we can review why Shin Tae-Yong called him up to begin with. Our favorite player of derision made a favorable move last November away from R&F Guangzhou (where for a variety of complex CSL and geopolitical reasons he was not getting minutes) to FC Tokyo; since then, he’s been their right center back of choice. But being a consistent starter for FC Tokyo doesn’t pave over the poor defensive lapses that have led to a number of KNT goals conceded as of late. That includes the very late goal given away in amateur fashion – Jang being muscled out of position on an incoming long ball with substitute Conor Washington controlling it and slipping it to another substitute, the 20 year old small Paul Smyth. The QPR attacker scored while Jang could only watch helplessly (Kim Min-Jae was also a factor in letting Smyth slip away from him, but less culpable than Jang in allowing Washington to control so much space with the ball. Korea could only rue all their missed chances today after the full time whistle.
Again, the Northern Ireland friendly was never meant as a high stakes game – mistakes can be and will be made. But long simmering questions about Jang’s competence may be enough for Shin Tae-Yong to finally jettison Jang – at least for the friendly against Poland and install Hong Jeong-Ho to see what the new Jeonbuk man is capable of.
Kim Jin-Su – minor knock? That’s the initial assessment, we’re hoping the left back recovers quickly. His 1st half wasn’t too shabby, consistenly going forward, on defense, less than super (slipped twice) but competent enough to close down problems on his side of the defense.
Lee Yong – on right back duty, verdict was…ok. Was able to get forward, a positive for sure, but needs some work as evidenced by a number of wayward crosses.
Park Joo-Ho: mostly a positive display, while defensive midfield isn’t his preferred position (LB or LW), he moved the ball confidently enough to be a competent partner for Ki in a hypothetical double pivot. Great marks on his passing vision picking out Kwon Chang-Hoon for the opening goal.
Hwang Hee-Chan: a number of people on the internets are giving him some stick, but I thought he offered an injection of pace in late 2nd half after Son/Ki/Kwon and Park Joo-Ho came off. He ran right at the defense, and with a better touch or two, could have really caused significant problems for the Irish defense.
Players we didn’t see today:
Koo Ja-Cheol not appearing was due to a cold, but it works for Shin Tae-Yong in terms of rotation purposes. Can Ji Dong-Won and Suk Hyun-Jun make the squad in May and be a viable replacement for the lumbering Wookie? Lee Keun-ho isn’t likely to feature against Poland (Steve Han reported that he is suffering from a knock) but he is very much in the working drafts of a starting XI with his excellent performances as of late for Gangwon.
Shin Tae-Yong and the shifting formations. 4-3-3 / 4-4-2 What works better? The 4-2-2 was by some accounts an idea from the Spanish assistant coaches in November against Colombia. The old school formation actually worked magic. While I saw the Northern Ireland match, I blame the shaky stream for not being able to really see this game with formation/tactics in mind. I’ll ask the Tavern crew and to the Tavern universe: does switching between both formations work tactically? In the 4-3-3, the classic formation favored by the likes of Johan Cruyff enables teams to use triangles to pass the ball around, confounding opponents – but prying open teams that park the bus is an uphill battle with the 4-3-3. We’ll leave that open ended…
Korea today…many many chances…