In the blink of an eye, the 2018 World Cup is around the corner. However, it’s hard to think of a World Cup in this millennium where the expectations were so low and the uncertainty so high for the Korean side. Ill-fated injuries to Kwon Chang-hoon, Lee Keun-ho, Yeom Ki-hun and Kim Min-jae have left Shin Tae-yong scratching his head for a system and a starting XI. What cards will he show against the stingy Hondurans, and can the side get a win in captain Ki Sung-yueng’s 100th cap?
Last Time Around
Things didn’t exactly go to plan in March, when two winnable friendlies against Northern Ireland and Poland turned into two poor defeats. Though Kwon Chang-hoon opened the scoring in the 7th minute in Belfast, the Irish capitalized on a Kim Min-jae own goal and a late Paul Smyth winner to take a 2-1 win at Windsor Park despite injuries and only 35% possession. 4 days later, in Poland, Korea’s defensive woes were further exploited as they fell behind 2-0 at halftime. A remarkable comeback thanks to late goals by Lee Chang-min and Hwang Hee-chan was soured by Piotr Zielinski’s injury time winner.
Injuries have been painful for the Korean side, with their Paju training camp being described as more of a “healing camp”. Without Kwon Chang-hoon’s dynamism and directness as well as Lee Keun-ho’s calming experience, the attack will need new elements and veterans alike to rise to the occasion. The jury remains out on the defense, leading Shin Tae-yong to publicly reconsider his Plan A 4-4-2 formation.
Murmurs from training camp and the media
Shin Tae-yong’s side were down 4 men in their final training session in Paju – Ki Sung-yueng and Lee Jae-sung were both kept out due to non-serious, precautionary reasons, while Jang Hyun-soo sustained a light injury earlier in the week. All three players will be game-time decisions vs Honduras. Meanwhile, Kim Jin-su has yet to fully recover from his more serious injury, though the national team is sounding cautiously optimistic that he’ll be able to recover some sort of health in time for the World Cup.
Shin has urged his side to focus solely on the opening match versus Sweden, emphasizing the importance of quick passing plays as well as winning second balls. Though there aren’t an abundance of similarities between Sweden and Honduras, both sides are built physically with a tricky defensive set-up.
The coaches of Korea’s group opponents have highlighted that though Korea will be on paper the easiest opponent in the group, their agility can cause problems, with the Mexican manager praising Shin’s managerial capabilities after Korea’s 2016 Olympics win over the Mexicans in the Group Stage. Meanwhile, legends Park Ji-sung and Lee Young-pyo have both tagged Korea’s chances of advancing from the group stage at “less than 50%” and “25%” respectively, speaking to the low expectations due to the side’s natural weakness and injuries.
The big question in this game will be what shape Shin Tae-yong opts to use. The 4-4-2, which was used to much success in November of 2017, has reportedly been relegated to a less attractive option given the absence of Lee Keun-ho (who had a good chemistry with Son) and Kwon Chang-hoon (whose directness made him a useful right midfielder). However, it remains likely that in these 4 pre-World Cup friendlies that we will see that shape at some point. The question then to ask is – who will start at right midfield, and who will accompany Son in the two-top?
Shin’s more default shape of late has been the 3-4-3, which naturally accommodates the wing-backs Shin has selected in his provisional roster. Kim Min-woo and Ko Yo-han are more natural wing-backs, while first-string Kim Jin-su would likely be able to deputize relatively well in that role. A suggestion has also been made that Jung Woo-young could play as central centre-back in that shape (he has played CB in his club season), leaving Ki Sung-yueng as part of the central midfield pairing.
There are more questions that need to be answered:
- What roles are in the side for Moon Seon-min and Lee Seung-woo? Many Tavern writers seem to believe that Lee could have a starting role in the KNT, as he boasts some sort of X factor in a side depleted with injuries. Does Shin share the same opinion? Can Lee seize any opportunity he gets?
- Does Shin believe in Son Heung-min with Hwang Hee-chan playing together? Shin seems to naturally lean towards starting Kim Shin-wook, no matter his ineffectiveness against non-Asian opposition, and the Jeonbuk striker remains the only natural centre forward in the side. Will he even consider using a more dynamic pairing of Son and Hwang, in order to run at the Swedish and Mexican defenses?
- Who pairs Ki? Ki-Koo has not proven to work, while putting Park Joo-ho in central midfield may mean selecting a weaker left-back. What about Ki-Ko Yohan? Or will it be the usual Ki-Jung Woo-young two man pairing?
- Will we get any indication on Jang Hyun-soo and Kim Jin-su’s fitness levels?
- What is Shin going to do with his 29358 defenders?
I’ll take a blind stab at the line-up, under the naive assumption that Shin will at least try a 4-4-2. (If Ki is fit for the match…)
The Oppo: Honduras
FIFA Rank: 59th
World Cup Status: 4th CONCACAF (3-4-3), Lost in Intercontinental Playoff vs Australia (1-3 agg.)
Honduras is an opponent that Shin Tae-yong knows well. The Olympic side’s stunning 1-0 defeat to the Hondurans in 2016 will not have disappeared from Shin’s mind, and on a normal day the Honduran first-choice line-up will feature many of the players who played in that U-23 competition. However, there will be no Quioto, Elis or Lozano this time around, nor will we see some of the more experienced Honduran strikers like Carlo Costly (who scored at the 2014 FIFA World Cup). Interim manager Carlo Tabora has instead gone with a side largely based off of the Honduran domestic league (only 5 over-seas players), having dropped 14 from the inter-continental playoff against Australia.
That being said, Honduras mustn’t be underestimated. Though they are missing out on their first World Cup since Germany 2006, it wasn’t without a fight – 8 points in their last 4 CONCACAF qualifiers, including a win over Mexico on the last matchday, had them qualified if it wasn’t for a dramatic Panamanian fight-back in Panama City over Costa Rica. Relegated to the intercontinental playoff, they drew Australia 0-0 in San Jose but costly fouls (two penalties) saw them lose 3-1 in Sydney to a Mile Jedinak hat-trick.
There’s not much else to say about Honduras. They’re playing their first match since that play-off defeat in November, and will likely play that typical Honduran style – tough defense, with aggressive and quick counter-attack. Their organization should draw parallels to Sweden, while their overall style of play resembles a more Mexican style. Watch out for Roger Rojas in attack who has 20 goals in 26 appearances in the Costa Rican league for Alajuelense.
International Friendly (World Cup Preparation)
Daegu World Cup Stadium, Daegu, South Korea
May 28th, 2018 / 8pm KST, 7am EDT
TV/Streaming info: KBS, Naver TV, BTalkTV.com
Tavern Twitter will be live taking questions when the line-ups are released!
Last Meeting: Honduras 0:4 South Korea (March 25th, 2011) / Honduras Olympic 1:0 South Korea Olympic (August 13th, 2016, Quarter-Finals)
Prediction: South Korea 2:1 Honduras. I can’t see the Koreans keeping a clean sheet, but deference to Korea’s habitual strength in meaningless friendlies against weaker, inferior sides means that no measure of uncertainty will stop a Korean win on the night. I’m hoping that Lee Seung-woo or Moon Seon-min gets a chance to show what they’re made of and seizes the occasion, compelling Shin to maintain the 4-4-2 shape, as it is, in my view, Korea’s best tactical option by far at the competition.