No left fullback. Uninspiring right fullback options. A million permutations. Terrible forward options. This is the state of a national team hit by injury, and without a pool of K League players to select from. And yet there is still much on the line – it’s been a terrible publicity month for the KFA, with corruption scandals blowing over and Guus Hiddink being on the lips of every fan in the country. Given that pressure, how will Shin Taeyong and his Korean national team cope in a friendly against the 2018 hosts?
K League left out
Shin Taeyong has named a callups list without any K League players, specifically because he asked the K League to suspend one of their rounds back in September for World Cup qualifying training. This means no Kim Minjae, Kim Jinsu or Lee Jaesung – three players that I could feasibly see in Russia starting for the team if they started performing. Kim Minjae in particular did well against Uzbekistan and looked like he could become a starter beside Kim Younggwon in central defense – though we will now not know if this is a good fit until November or next March at the earliest.
Lee Seungwoo / Lee Jinhyeon also left out
Fans were excited about the idea of seeing Lee Seungwoo make his debut for the senior team, and on this occasion it seems to have been a question of timing, not skill. Shin preferred to give both Lees time at their clubs to grow into his side rather than call themup – a decision I can live with, but also disagree with. I do think Lee Seungwoo should have a couple opportunities to prove himself (wouldn’t he be a good super sub?), as should Austria Wien’s Lee Jinhyeon, who went from total underdog to starter for the U20 World cup team, and who has now gone from fringe KPA to Europa League starter.
Shin Taeyong has been promising attacking football in these friendlies, and that he really wants this team to score goals. He’s promised to change the tactics from the more conservative ones against Uzbekistan and Iran to a more aggressive, “Shin Taeyong football” style of play. How he will do this, however, with such an unconventional situation and at least one player playing out of position remains to be seen.
Unless Shin suddenly decides to be like Pep and salute the City manager’s selection of Fabian Delph as fullback last weekend, the best way (and most probable) for Shin to work around his no left full back problem is to set the team up in a 3-back shape. Training ground rumours suggest the two pairs of three will be Song Juhun-Ki Sungyueng-Kim Kihee and Kwon Kyungwon-Jang Hyunsoo-Kim Juyoung. I’ve always been hesitant about having Ki play in that central centreback role, as it seems to stop him getting forward and taking command of the game a bit more, but given his very recent return from injury, perhaps this more constrained role makes a bit more sense.
What is particularly strange, however, is how Kim Younggwon hasn’t been in the fold. Media are suggesting he could play as a left wingback. I somehow doubt this, and suspect that we will see Kim in the lineup as a central centreback. If Shin is promising goals, then having two wingbacks who aren’t really able to reliably get up the pitch (not sure about Oh Jaesuk or Rim Changwoo on the right side) would seem very counter-productive.
That leaves Shin with a few options: either play Oh, Rim or even Jang Hyunsoo on the left side (again, why would you play defensive wingbacks?) or use Lee Chungyong or even Son Heungmin as a left wingback. To my recollection, neither Lee nor Son have actually played that particular position, but it would put more offensive players on the pitch against a Russian side who doesn’t really have any speed merchants who could attack the space behind them.
Central midfield could be interesting, and its configuration will wholly depend on how Shin wants to play into the attack. If he wants Ki (or whoever the CCB is) to step up and spray passes forwards, then that frees up any two of Koo Jacheol, Kwon Changhoon, Kim Bokyung or Nam Taehee to support the attack. However, if Shin wants there to be more fluidity in the buildup, then perhaps Jung Wooyoung will enter into a three man central midfield. The attack is also interesting in a rather sad way. If Shin wants to play a 3-4-3, then Hwang Ilsu and Son Heungmin could be decent options out wide. In a 3-5-2, god knows how Son Heungmin fits into that – perhaps he will drop off and roam below a more rigid Ji Dongwon. The sad part, of course, is how limited the choices are – if Ji isn’t fit, then it’s Hwang Uijo leading the line. How reassuring.
Simply put, Shin is promising goals, but you wonder where they will come from. Without there being one key player in form, it’s anyone’s guess as to how Shin will lineup this very average Korean side. There are tons of permutations, but no idea really seems better than another.
My guess: Kim Seunggyu; Kim Younggwon, Ki Sungyueng, Kim Kihee; Lee Chungyong, Kwon Changhoon, Jung Wooyoung, Koo Jacheol, Oh Jaesuk; Son Heungmin, Ji Dongwon – but who knows, really.
Russia will really want this one. After a terribly disappointing Confederations Cup, which saw them only register a win against New Zealand, and a year that has only seen them beat the Oceanian side as well as Hungary, the Russian fans will no doubt be wondering what all this building up was for. Their FIFA ranking is the lowest in history (64th – not that it totally matters), the side is still lacking an identity, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if they follow in South Africa’s footsteps of being the second host country to bow out in the group stage.
Shin Taeyong has his eyes firmly on Aleksandr Kokorin – the Zenit St. Petersburg forward has, with 12 goals, the best goalscoring tally among the entire senior squad the moment. He’s swelled into form of late and is tearing apart the domestic league, and there is no doubt that Shin will have special instructions for the dangerous forward. Other familiar names pop out of their Russian Premier League-centric lineup sheet – Igor Akinfeev, their century-capped goalkeeper who famously gifted Lee Keunho a goal in 2014, as well as the old pairing of Samedov and Zhirkov in midfield.
I confess, though I watched all of the Confderatiosns Cup, Russia’s play is very vague in my mind. The only word that strikes me is uninspiring. They seem to be trying to build a squad against the clock, much like Korea, and though it would be wrong to underestimate them in front of their home fans, this game seems like a winnable one.
Shin Taeyong has promised to “show people that they can have faith in the national team” with these friendlies. There is indeed more at stake than can be gained. With the whole Guus Hiddink saga having boiled over, and with the honorary Korean citizen in attendance in Kazan, another lacklustre performance would do little to assuage both the crowd with pitchforks and the apathetic, disillusioned majority. A win, however, will lift team morale, give Shin confidence in his abilities, turn down the Hiddink rumours and put this team in a good space. Against such a bellweather opponent as Russia, this would be a good moment for Shin to show he can make something out of nothing, and a good time for a couple players to step up to the plate. This game did indeed seem more exciting back in September, but there is still a lot on the line. Every friendly counts on a Road to the World Cup.
Korea vs Russia
10am EST, 11pm KST, October 7th 2017