With 3 months to go before South Korea kicks off their 2018 World Cup against Sweden, Shin Tae-yong’s men have traveled to Belfast where they will face the stoic and imposing Northern Ireland.
After a largely unremarkable winter camp in January, the full squad is finally assembled once again for the first time in this calendar year. It promises to be a year full of emotions with Korea’s 10th ever World Cup on the horizon. The objective remains the same: to progress to the Round of 16. But the opponents are starkly different, and perhaps even more difficult, than hoped. The World Champions Germany await the Koreans in their last match, while North American giants Mexico will be opponent #2 in Group F. But their first encounter will be Sweden, a Scandinavian side known for its plucky defending and direct, physical approach. If the Taeguk Warriors are to get those coveted 4-5 points, they will need to leave Nizhny Novgorod with all the spoils.
Shin Tae-yong knows this, and it’s why these two March tune-ups revolve largely around that very first match. Though a generalized comparison, the towering defenders and defensive posture of Northern Ireland seems an adequate preparation for the Swedes of Berg. And after a catastrophic away stint in October that saw the KNT concede 7 goals in 2 games, all wondering eyes are on this all-Jeonbuk Hyundai defense, hoping they can cope on European pastures.
Last Time Out
Korea’s last time out saw them play 3 games with a condensed, K-League-centric squad in a training camp in Turkey. Though it wasn’t a squad of Kim Shin-wook’s, the headline says as much: all 4 goals scored in those 3 matches were from the towering head of the Jeonbuk target man. The results: 1-0 over Moldova, 2-2 draw with Jamaica and a 1-0 win against Latvia. Nothing to write home about, but when you consider that all of the Korean players were essentially in their off-season, it’s not awful, either. Prior to that was the East Asian Cup, where two uncomfortable results (2-2 v China, 1-0 W over North Korea) were forgotten after a swashbuckling 4-1 win against Japan.
The full senior team with Europe-based players, however, hasn’t played since November 10th and 14th, when Korea beat Colombia 2-1 and drew 1-1 with Serbia at home.
Three To Watch
1. Can Son Continue His Super Form With the KNT?
Son Heung-min is in stellar form. His dynamism and agility have come to the fore, and his goal-scoring prowess is as present as ever. He’s on course for yet another 20 goal season, and Tottenham are set to negotiate a new contract with the Chuncheon-born 25 year-old. In a Korean national team shirt, Son has been underwhelming for the better part of this cycle, but October friendlies in a new system saw him take up the majority of the attacking responsibilities. Can he continue what he’s done in the white kit of Spurs in the red and black look of the KNT?
2. Who Will Partner Son?
When you exclude own goals, Kim Shin-wook has scored 7 of the KNT’s last 10 tallies. On paper, he would be a very logical starter for the national team. However, his limitations are well known – though he is aerially imposing, he offers little in terms of speed or pressing. He has no long-distance shooting threat, and his link-up play is iffy – a system with Kim Shin-wook at its core needs plenty of runners to make up the difference. And questions remain if he’s able to play in a 2-forward system beside a Son Heung-min who has shown he may be most effective for Korea as a lethal finisher.
Enter Lee Keun-ho – the Gangwon FC forward and former Asian Player of the Year, who, at 32 years old, has a compelling case to be Son’s strike partner. Despite his age, Lee seems to have gotten quicker – or maybe he’s just making smarter runs – and he’s still got a solid eye for a pass. He’s the kind of player who can, if you will, “do the dirty work”, using experience and mobility to link up with the midfield and give opposing defenses just enough to worry about to open up some space for Son. His recent performances with Gangwon FC prove that in his case, old age might actually prove to be an asset.
Red Bull Salzburg’s Hwang Hee-chan can not be counted out. Much like Lee, Hwang can be a kind of wing-forward that uses speed, mobility and skill to create space for Son while offering a threat of his own. He played a similar-ish role with Son in a national team shirt at the Rio Olympics. However, we’ve yet to see him cement a place with the senior squad. At worse, Hwang could well be a super-sub.
3. Jeonbuk Defense Corps
Former managers, renowned pundits and your humble Tavern writers have all called for the K League to have a significant role in the national team set-up. A strong domestic league leads to a strong national team – see: Italy, 2006; Spain, 2010; Germany, 2014. With 14 K Leaguers in the set-up – and for the first time in years, no players from the Chinese Super League – suffice it to say that the K League’s reputation is on the line. Moreover, Jeonbuk Hyundai will have a pivotal role, with 7 players from Choi Kang-hee’s defending Korean champions… and 5 defenders. Kim Jin-su, Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Min-jae have been staples of the Jeonbuk defense, while Lee Yong and Choi Chul-soon have rotated for the right back spot. Chemistry at club level = better KNT defense, right? Well, not necessarily. The Green Machine’s overt pressing in Korea and Asian competition have seen them concede 13 goals in 7 games.
Notes: Shin Tae-yong hasn’t said who will be the #1 goalkeeper, but Daegu’s Cho Hyun-woo might still have a shot at stealing it in the last minute… Jang Hyun-soo will likely start as he’s favoured by Shin, but will it be Hong Jeong-ho or Kim Min-jae giving way… Park Joo-ho could make a return to the defensive midfield like in the 2015 Asian Cup, but Jung Woo-young is a reasonable shout… Lee Keun-ho (bruise) and Koo Ja-cheol (flu) are likely to not feature.
Northern Ireland have quietly risen in the ranks of European football over the past decade. They topped Euro 2016 qualifying group and made the Round of 16 of the tournament proper. They then finished a comfortable second in the World Cup qualifying group, conceding just 6 goals over 10 group stage games. (5 of those conceded goals were against Germany.) However, a ghost penalty gave Switzerland a 1-0 lead in their play-off tie, and the Northern Irish weren’t able to carve a response in the return leg as they missed out on returning to the finals – a feat they last achieved in 1986.
Korean media has picked up on Northern Ireland as being the preparatory opponent for Sweden. They are structurally sound and remarkably organized, with a defense that makes up for a lack of star prestige with cohesion, physicality and height. Gareth McAuley and Jonny Evans – both as West Bromwich Albion – seem to be Northern Ireland’s defensive pair of choice. McAuley clocks in at a powerful 195cm and 90kg, while Jonny Evans is the shorter, but more experienced counter-balance. Sweden are similar in this nature – Granqvist is the taller stopper, while Lindelof is more comfortable with the ball at feet. Both sides look to transition quickly and attack directly on the counter – Northern Ireland often looks to Steven Davis for a spark, while Sweden’s Emil Forsberg offers the same creative output. Finally, both like to rely on traditional target men to do their forward work – the Irish typically turn to Kyle Lafferty, while Sweden’s front two always features the aerial prowess of Marcus Berg.
However, many of the Irish usuals have been pulled out of the squad. Steven Davis, the usual captain of the squad, has withdrawn due to a hamstring injury ; while Lafferty pulled out yesterday due to a thigh concern. This will leave the Northern Ireland side short-handed with some unusual faces attempting to create opportunities.
In summary, both Northern Ireland and Sweden are teams that defend from the front with solid structure, and rely on hard work ethic and power on both ends of the XI. They won’t be the greatest goalscoring threat, but given Korea’s tendency to struggle against organized sides, both sides are an enigma Korea will have to do very well to resolve.
What They Said
Northern Ireland manager Michael O’Neil:
Korea will be a great test for our defense. I watched their match against Serbia. They had great technique and the tactics were good. Players like Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng are to watch and play at clubs that are bigger than any player on the Northern Ireland national team.
South Korean manager Shin Tae-yong:
The time for experimenting is over. Our first priority is to play the way we want to play. Northern Ireland is a good sparring partner to prepare for Sweden. We have just six games to go, and there is little time for our defense. (…) The first thing I do when I talk to my coaching staff in the morning is talk about defense.
Saturday, March 24th, 2018 / 10am EST / 11pm KST
Windsor Park, Belfast, Northern Ireland (UK)
This is a team with a lot to prove. Was November just a fluke, and was October the norm? Can Korea succeed against defense-first, or is a team like Northern Ireland their nemesis – organized, structured and terrifying at set-pieces? Will Son shine, will Ki deliver, and will the defense hold firm? Will Windsor Park get into their heads, or will Korea overcome the raucous atmosphere? These are the questions – tune in tomorrow, and we’ll have the answers.