I decided to crack some numbers and see if there’s any basic statistical conclusions we can make about the 2018 World Cup side that will fly the Taegukgi in Russia. More on the return of the K League, how tall Kim Shin-wook is, how short Lee Seung-woo is, and how this squad is sort of the oldest Korean World Cup team in history.
Strong Presence from K League
This side has a very strong presence from Korea’s domestic leagues, the K League 1 and K League 2. Over half the team hails from Korea, which is a stark contrast from 2014, where there was a significant increase in Europe-based and other Asia-based players.
This number can be interpreted in two different ways. For those that believe that more Koreans playing well in Europe is best for the advancement of Korean soccer and the development of the Korean national team, then it’s a slap in the face, as there are just 5 Europe-based players in this side (down from 10 in 2014). However, others believe that a strong presence of national team players from the K League is good for chemistry and the domestic league as a whole (retaining more of its talent).
*A little bonus: Remember how we were all like “Oh my god, Chinese domestic leagues are going to ruin the Korean national team?” Well, though the CSL (both for its low quality & exclusion of Korean defenders with their random modification of the foreign-players cap) is home to many of our players, some transferred to other leagues while others were just left out.
An Inexperienced Generation?
However, one major continuation from 2014 is that this side has less national team caps than prior editions. In 2014, it was around 26.4 caps, while this time around, it’s around 28 caps. In comparison, the squads in 2002, 2006 and 2010 had an average of more than 40 caps each time.
How to explain this decrease? The 2014 side was largely considered to be the continuation of the 2012 Olympic side, so the core of the team (not necessarily the entire squad though) was not very much capped on the senior level. This cycle perhaps saw more instability than in previous years, with the K League and the Chinese Super League both having their fingerprints all over the national team at different times.
But my most significant theory is that both squads were the result of similar contexts. In 2014 as in 2018, the squad limped through qualification. A new manager took charge with a year to go, and people were calling for changes. Naturally, they’re going to pick different players who haven’t had a chance before and include them in the squad. Indeed, 6 players going to Russia and 5 players that went to Brazil have had less than 10 senior caps. This time around, that’s Lee Seung-woo, Moon Seon-min, Cho Hyun-woo, Jung Seung-hyeon, Yoon Young-seon and Oh Ban-seok.
Another interesting thing reflected by that graph is that we only have one player above the 80 caps mark at the World Cup – Ki Sung-yueng, who hit his 100th cap last week. Comparatively, there was a significant absence of spread at the 2014 World Cup, while the squads that went to South Africa and played at home in 2002 had much more veteran stalwarts (shoutout to 2002’s Hong Myung-bo, whose 128 caps was so formidable Excel was like “that’s an outlier lol”).
Been There, Done That
There are 8 returning players that will attend the 2018 World Cup, including 1 that has played three World Cups (Ki, duh). This is largely in sync with previous years, and somewhat dispels the myth that “this side is basically 2014 + Lee Seung-woo and a bad defense”. It may be true that in terms of starters and the most important players in the side, many will have 2014 experience (Son, Ki, Kim Seung-gyu, Lee Yong, Kim Young-gwon, and maybe Koo), but there is still a significant turnover.
As we can see, the real “veterans year” was the squad that made the Round of 16 in South Africa, though it should be noted that few were starters (Ahn Jung-hwan and Lee Woon-jae were definitely bench-warmers, for example). And the real “newcomers’ year” was the inexperienced squad that we sent to Brazil. This data shows that there is a lot of balance in this year’s squad that isn’t particularly definable by any of those two labels, and is hence really boring to talk about, so let’s move on.
The Oldest (Marginally) Ever (Sort Of)
Here’s the low-key statistic that has really slipped under the radar of the Korean press, perhaps because it’s not extremely significant and very marginal. This squad is actually, on average, the oldest squad since the team that went to 1954 (which we can almost exclude since that’s an entirely different era of football).
In truth, the graphic is sort of distorting this, since they all fall between the range of 25.7 to 27.3 years old, which is probably negligible. What’s more noticeable (and hard to put in effective graphic form) is that the standard deviation of the past two squads in terms of ages have been quite low. In simpler terms, we used to call up more veterans (30+) and U-23 players. From 2002-2010, we called up 14 U-23 players and 13 players older than 30. In these past two World Cups, we’ve called up just 3 U-23 players and 3 players older than 30. Simply put, Hong and Shin have both been more hesitant to spend squad spots on random bullets (young players) or older locker room presences than Hiddink, Advocaat and Huh.
Kim Shin-wook is kind of a beast (on paper) + this side is tall
Let’s have a look at height and weight. The averages over the years don’t reveal that much (except that Korean players have slowly gotten slightly taller and heavier over the years, and that the 1954 squad was full of midgets from an impoverished nation). So, instead, let’s look at the outliers.
Kim Shin-wook is the tallest and heaviest outfield player the Korean national has ever sent. Period. No one even comes close, except for the goalkeepers. The Wookie clocks in at at 196cm (6 foot 7) and 93kg (205lbs). The weight factor is particularly impressive, as the next heaviest World Cup-bound Korean outfield player in history is a whole 10kg (23lbs) lighter. Meanwhile, interestingly, 4 of the 5 tallest Korean World Cup squad players are in this very team – was this on purpose (ie Sweden is tall so we must be tall) or a mere coincidence?
So, though we may dislike how Korea plays with Kim Shin-wook and theorize that he’s really got no height advantage against European centrebacks, it’s still clear that he’s a unique, perhaps once-in-a-generation player in Korean football.
Note: Lee Bum-young (2014), clocking at nearly 2 metres of man, was the most physically imposing Korean player to ever make a World Cup squad, but he was uncapped and was the 3rd goalkeeping option at that competition (before fading into oblivion). Kim Jin-hyeon (2018) clocks in at the fourth tallest, but he too seems like a 3rd keeper option at this point. The little known 1998 goalkeeper Seo Dong-myung is the third tallest.
Lee Seung-woo (and Go Yo-han) are tiny af
Conversely, Lee Seung-woo and Go Yo-han are really small.
This squad is unique in that it has also the two shortest and physically lightest players to play for the Korean national team in 25 years. Both Lee Seung-woo and Go Yo-han have quickness and acceleration at the core of their game, and it’s a good thing that they do – otherwise they wouldn’t play football. They both clock in at 170cm (5 ft 7) while Lee clocks in at 60kg (132lbs), making him the second lightest player to go a World Cup for Korea. Get this – he would have been lighter than EVERY SINGLE MEMBER of the 1954 World Cup squad – the team that played after the Korean War ended in 1953 in an impoverished country with poor dieting regimens. In other words, the kid’s very lean. (He must have like no body fat.) No wonder he was struggling physically in Spain – that’s actually not an understatement.
In summary, this squad marks the resurgence of a domestic league and inexperience in spite of old age. The “height” department confirms that two very unique players will offer two very different striking possibilities, including the heaviest player in Korean history. On the whole, this side will stand taller – literally – than previous Korean World Cup squads, but questions remain if they can stand victorious and become more than just names and numbers.