Is Shin Tae-yong another sacrificial lamb?

And poof! He’s gone.

Well, not really. It was more of a drawn out process feigning faint resemblance of justice. But when putting Scolari on one end of the scale and Shin Tae-yong on the other, the result was never in doubt. Shin Tae-yong is not expected to renew his contract with the Korean national team.

For all of his shortcomings, as we undertake our 4th managerial search in as many years, I can’t help but think that the most apt nickname in this scenario for Shin Tae-yong is the “The Sacrifical Lamb” – another quality Korean manager wasted by a ruthless and hopeless KFA.

Okay, okay. I know what you’re thinking. Shin Tae-yong was by far and large not the most competent of managers this national team has had, and several decisions he’s made and things he’s said has rightly put him through the meat-grinder. I don’t think he should keep his job, but I can’t help but think that the over-sensationalist rhetoric of “Shin Tae-yong actively held this team back”, perpetrated especially by many Korean fans, isn’t accurate or close to the truth.

Taking over from the Stielike Era of Doom

Let’s put things into context. Summer of 2017, the KNT had just lost to Qatar (and lost to China earlier in the year) and World Cup qualification was far from assured. The falling out with the team, the tactical ineptitude, the broken promises on youth reform; there was a shopping list of complaints and little achievements to point to under the all-possessive micro-managing wreck that was the Stielike era. In fact, when Stielike left, I could only feel fear, anger and rage at the man himself – his painful inability to adapt to modern tactics, or demonstrate any sort of superior intellect of Asian football was plainly clear. And sure, the KFA probably hadn’t been the best of partners, and he was treated a bit unfairly, but Stielike had a whole 3 years to try and build a project: one of a cohesive international team able to qualify through Asia. But by the time the qualifiers had rolled around, the team failed to execute his ideas. He lost faith in the personnel. The coaching staff felt shunned and silenced, while players had to publicly hit out at their manager’s strange gushing praise of a certain Qatari striker. His departure was far too late.

The national team was in a state of peril. Two difficult games against Iran at home and Uzbekistan away awaited, and when Shin Tae-yong took over the job, he didn’t just inherit a precarious qualifying position – he inherited the frustration of the Korean public and their limited patience. He took over a squad that was discombobulated and unprepared. Tactically, they had only played stale shapes and uninventive football. He also took charge of a highly demotivated team, on the brink of missing out on the World Cup and recovering from a messy break-up with Stielike. His immediate assignment was to prepare a system and a player selection that would secure results against a team Korea hadn’t beaten in years (Iran) and a highly motivated Uzbek side looking to qualify for their first tournament on home soil. It was Mission: Impossible (or Mission: Very Difficult, but that’s not very catchy) and Shin Tae-yong was cast as Ethan Hunt, unable to say no to the “mission should he choose to accept it”.

The awkward pop culture reference aside, Shin’s entire managerial career could have been destroyed right then and there – he would have been the manager to break that decades-long streak of Korea qualifying for consecutive World Cups. Though he would have tried to shield himself from the angry horde of netizens and claim it was only a flesh wound, the poisoned chalice would have relegated him and his stock into a long sustained period of ignominy and irrelevance. The stakes were far too high for a man the KFA had reportedly been “grooming”. You don’t groom someone to then just throw him into this insane pressure.

Hiddink scandal: a microcosm of the KFA’s hopeless damage control strategy

There’s not really another way to put it – the simple fact that the KFA felt compelled to call on Shin once again paints a sad story of Korea’s 2015-18 World Cup cycle. Any autopsy of Shin’s managership is totally and utterly indissociable from the KFA’s ineptitude.

Take the Guus Hiddink scandal, for example. Shin had managed to set the team up through two 0-0 draws and World Cup qualification, and yet the headlines he met (apart from everyone being mad at celebrating the manager…) were ones of Hiddink wanting to take the job he had just accepted under high-pressure high-risk circumstances. Now, Shin wasn’t helped by Guus Hiddink going out and making a media statement, asking for the job and trying to use his god-like status in Korean football to displace Shin. But the woeful manner in which the situation was handled from the very beginning by the association did him no favors.

Though in any professional vocation, it is extremely unusual to divulge to the selected candidate the people the hiring committee passed over for the job, surely the then-technical director Kim Ho-gon should have at least considered letting Shin know, through one way or another, that it could be leaked to the media at some point that Hiddink had raised interest for the job. Shin was caught blindsided. The KFA had not properly dealt with Hiddink’s inquiry regarding the national team job, and tried and failed to make the initial story go away. They failed to get ahead of the story and shut it down by coming clean, instead opting to refute that Hiddink was ever interested. They were proven wrong days later when photographic evidence surfaced indicating that Kim Ho-gon himself was very clearly aware. The story only died down when Shin himself promised to meet Hiddink in Russia during the October friendlies, as a sort of learning-from-the-master good-will gesture. But the damage was done. More stress for Shin, and more people slandering him before the team even did anything.

With the colossal shadow of Hiddink over-arching this team’s every move, constantly reminding fans of what could have been if we hadn’t hired – “haha, that fool Shin Tae-yong”, Shin could simply never win. Comparisons to Hiddink are not welcome when you’re a Korean national team manager, as it only serves to raise expectations in the press. And of course, Shin had absolutely nothing to do with any of this. A simple victim of chance… and the KFA’s awful public relations department. Not a good way to protect that manager you’d been grooming.

Tactically Speaking

On a different note, I’ve also been a fairly outspoken critic of Shin Tae-yong (on this site, we mostly all are) and his tactical decisions, but I also struggle to blame him for some of the ideas he tested.

We always knew Shin Tae-yong would try to give us something different. Hong Myung-bo in 2014 had tried to get the team to play a functional 4-2-3-1, but the side never really clicked across all phases in one game, while Choi Kang-hee was simply outclassed, resorting to a stale and extremely direct style of play. Strangely, one thing I’ve found is that people in the Korean football community think quite fondly of Cho Kwang-rae’s term. Sure, the results weren’t very good, but there is a certain respect and admiration for the fact that he tried to innovate, no matter how quirky. He had a new idea, and tried to get the system for it (remember Lee Yong-rae as a #10?).

Somehow, when people speak of Shin Tae-yong, the fact that he tried different things seems to go against him. I’m guilty of this blame as well. For example, in October, those friendlies against Russia and Morocco became much more high-profile than a friendly should. We on this site were simply reflecting what the Korean public had been calling for when the 4-2 loss to Russia drew this headline: “Shin’s job now in question”.

When you look back, however, our assessment of his managerial status was far too harsh. The ambition has never been to become like a Saudi Arabia or Croatia where we simply have this revolving door of manager after manager. Shin Tae-yong’s mantra is experimenting and tinkering, and it’s what he did to success with Seongnam in the K League a few years back. And, frankly speaking, it’s what got him those “big” results against Germany and Argentina in the Olympics and the U-20 World Cup.

If we’re talking about playing the stupid 3-5-2 in the send-off friendly against Bosnia, then we’re on far more solid ground for criticism. But the truth is that many had made their minds up about Shin Tae-yong so early on in his tenure before he’d even had a chance. Low patience, desperation for any good news or a victory, and yet the blame was far too often leveled on the guy that had stumbled into the hot seat.

Even at the World Cup, Shin’s initial tactical intuitions weren’t catastrophic. We’ve already discussed the failures at length, so no point repeating them, but there were reasonable ideas put out there. Trying to out-Sweden Sweden and hit them on the break is something that I and Jae Chee had mused about before, and if Kim Min-woo hadn’t taken a stupid penalty, then perhaps there would have been more time for it to work. The side was more proactive against Mexico, but still tried to shield its defensive frailties, while against Germany no one seems to give Shin Tae-yong any credit for trusting Yun Young-sun and Hong Chul against the reigning champions. Both had exceptional games. And this isn’t to mention that the decision to play Cho Hyun-woo in the first place was Shin Tae-yong’s.

Just think about it. Would the KNT under Choi Kang-hee, Hong Myung-bo or Uli Stielike have definitely done a better job at the World Cup? If no, the levels of abuse and criticism leveled at Shin are exaggerated. The real blame lies on the football association directors who oversee the entire 4-year cycle without constantly fearing the exposure, blame and the sack.

The KFA Has a Problem With Shin Tae-yong

Despite having 3 top jobs in Korean national team football, the association has failed on every occasion to give Shin a sustained time-frame to implement his ideas. What does a Shin Tae-yong project actually look like? With Seongnam Ilwha, from 2008-2012, Shin brought home an Asian Champions League trophy, a Korean FA Cup and a silver medal in the K League. Quite an achievement. Only a few managers in Korea can boast of that resume, and yet even at the youth levels, where there is a less of a pressure-cooker environment and managers keep their jobs longer, Shin Tae-yong had a total of 14 months to put together an Olympics team that was expected to medal, 7 months to put together a U-20 team playing on home soil that was expected to make a deep run, and 11 months to put together a World Cup team that was expected to advance past one of the hardest groups in the competition. It is not normal for the manager the KFA has been “grooming” to only be thrown into chaotic situations and asked to decipher the sound from the noise. Shin Tae-yong comes from a club manager’s background – results in a short time frame and little practical testing for his systems are probably to him a very unnatural ask.

In fact, the Olympics team – where he had the longest time to make an impact – was the one that looked most like what Shin Tae-yong likes his sides to be – positive, fluid and flowing in attack. Granted, at the actual tournament that lavish definition didn’t hold up exactly to par at all times, but there were significant bits and pieces of those games where you could clearly see Shin’s instructions rubbing off on the players. But both with this World Cup team, as well as the U-20 squad, Shin eventually reverted to conservatism and counter-attacking football. You’ll recall he also asked the national team to bunker up against Iran and Uzbekistan at the tail-end of qualification. It’s almost as if when Shin doesn’t trust his system in a big game, he’ll cancel everything he’d been trying to do and demand a low-block with 1-2 runners on the break. He’s not blind – he too is aware that there is some limit to his tinkering. Is this Ctrl+Z nature an indictment of his endless tinkering? Sure. An understandable instinct? Also. An easy area for public ridicule and criticism? Absolutely.

Which makes the KFA’s decision to offer him the job in the first place even more baffling. As mentioned above, the KFA made it fairly clear that Shin was Hong Myung-bo’s heir apparent in the world of Korean managers. It’s not by any mistake that they named him assistant to Stielike, as if to try and get him to learn by working under the German boss (a failed experiment). They should have also been aware of his limitations, and should have learnt lessons from how the KNT job essentially ended Hong’s managerial career (he lost confidence, was subpar at Hangzhou and left managing, basically saying it was ‘too stressful’). The opportunity cost was too great, and yet the KFA made that call to Shin anyways.

The KFA is right to move for a foreign manager. Shin Tae-yong was thrown into an impossible situation, and perhaps the “tricked me once, shame on you, tricked me twice, shame on me” rule should apply here – taking on both the U23 and U20 jobs at short notice with a lofty objective, but deputizing with some competence, meant that he certainly had potential. That said, he never should have accepted this ill-fated mission, and in hindsight, he never was the man of the hour. He should have waited his turn, as the job was always going to be his one day.

But like a lamb to the slaughter, Shin Tae-yong was lured into an impossible job. He’s an adult; he’s responsible for making his decisions, but would you turn down a trip to the World Cup? He was made an offer no Korean manager could resist. He leaves with another upset in the books, but with a third successive failure. Though it is often right for managers to go down with their ship, it is a disgrace that the old boys’ club remains comfortably intact and at peace with the conscience that they’ve sacrificed yet another Korean manager.

Make Chung Mong-gyu donate some wads of Hyundai cash out of his back pocket (instead of showing up to work). Put Kim Pan-gon in front of a microphone to say nice things. Hire Park Ji-sung to a job with no responsibilities, it will look good in the media.

The people making these decisions will keep their jobs, but Shin Tae-yong is done. Isn’t it the case that Shin’s fall from grace is another case of a domestic manager sacrificed by a hapless KFA?

About Tim Lee 319 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?

5 Comments

  1. Nice piece of writing. I am one of those who were critical of Shin’s decisions throughout his tenure. One thing I did want was for him to stay in the national team until Asian Cup 2019. I am tired of seeing managers come and go. If Shin were to be given another chance at national team years later, I for one would welcome him back should he be given ample time to prepare the team for the major tournament.

    • Oh, thanks haha, to be honest I didn’t really proof read it so appreciate the kind words.

      Yeah… like I would have maybe given him the Asian Cup, sort of like how we wanted to give HMB the Asian Cup in 2015, especially because it’s in the winter… it would allow us to be one of the rare teams not a period of transition at that competition, and allow us to judge whether or not we let him stay.

      Idk, maybe I’m forgetting all the things I hated about STY but I feel he was fleeced a bit

      • I agree with you, Tim. As much as I criticized STY and HMB, I’ve always felt it unfair to criticize either of them for essentially coaching on late notice after following abysmal predecessors.

  2. Good article! I’ve been getting KNT updates from this website for months and I’m definitely a fan.

    One small edit – I think you meant to refer to Tom Cruise, not Ethan Hunt, when making the MI reference early on in this article.

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