It really has been a tumultuous time in Korean football. After another World Cup qualification, rumours swirled that the KFA had turned down Guus Hiddink for the national team job, with the Dutch manager later going on camera saying he wanted to help. The backlash was fierce and furious on the Football Association, and earlier this week Technical Director Kim Ho-gon resigned from his post. Many fans were calling of a “boycott” of the national team’s next friendlies.
On the pitch, things weren’t much better. Though a positive first 45 minutes against Russia gave fans some hope that an average, cautious performance would be enough to see the team leave the match in good spirits, the subsequent unraveling of the Korean defense in the second half – fronted by Kim Juyoung’s unfortunate two own goals – continued to reveal what we all suspected: Korea just cannot defend. This was confirmed a few days later against a rotated Moroccan side who dominated from kickoff against a lethargic, unorganized and unexciting Korean side.
Though controversy off the pitch has receded, and Shin Taeyong can enter this game without the distraction of hot public pressure and media-bomb distractions, on the pitch the team has much to answer to. If traditionally playing on their own turf has helped the Korean side, seldom will they have faced such a daunting, demanding duo of opponents over this international break – in 13th-ranked Colombia and UEFA Group D winners Serbia.
Though the Colombians have been in bad form of late, with only 1 win in their last 5 and essentially falling backwards into Brazil, they remain a indomitable side with individual talent and superior raw players than the Koreans. The obvious example of this is Bayern Munich’s James Rodriguez, who, despite having a quieter start in the season on his loan stint to Germany, still has 2 goals in 6 league games. Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Sanchez, both of Juventus, will be sure to worry Koreans in midfield, while Davinson Sanches has surged onto the Colombian and Spurs’ scene with his assured performances in central defense.
Meanwhile, on the Serbian side, it is perhaps not individual skill but form that is the concern. The Serbians breezed through their qualifying group with only one defeat in Vienna and have only dropped that game this year. They’ve also kept 4 clean sheets in their last 10 games and have looked confident and assured on their way to their first World Cup qualification since 2010, with Newcastle’s Aleksander Mitrovic bagging the goals and a spine of Matic, Tadic and Ivanovic make the side creative but hard to play against.
Defense a la Shin
As Tom Marcantonio pointed out in his earlier article, the Koreans are in deep trouble defensively, with Jeonbuk rising star Kim Minjae out of the lineup due to injury. After conceding 7 goals in 2 games in the last international break, Shin Taeyong has turned to these defenders to clean up the mess of the last group:
Two patterns emerge – all four fullbacks are the aggressive type, but none of them are pure stay-at-home defenders. Similarly, three of the centrebacks are on the lighter, more “progressive” side of defending, while Jeong Seunghyun being the only prototypical tall English defender in Ferdinand’s mould.
It’s easy to recognize, then, what Shin is expecting from his defenders, and Kim Jinsu perhaps best sums it up:
It’s not about kicking and hashing away at your opponents, but rather about being aggressive, getting to the ball before your opponent when you can and fighting hard.
This attempt at combative defense was what we saw in the last friendlies, and it resulted in 7 goals for the opposition. Shin seems hell-bent on retaining the 2 WB-3 CB system, so the question now becomes if the players are fit for the system, and how long it will take for them to gel together. Under Stielike, we didn’t see an identical defensive corps in any of the 10 qualifiers, and if Shin and I had to meet halfway, I’d tell him to stick with his system – but choose the players and stick with them, god dammit.
If this side cannot blunt Mitrovic, Rodriguez, Bacca and company, then it will find itself heaped under pressure from the Korean media about how the side just isn’t cut out for the World Cup.
A Test for Korean Stars
Fact: Korea heavily relies on Son Heungmin and Ki Sungyueng.
Also a fact: But neither have been good in a KNT shirt in the past two years.
If Korea is to have any success in these friendlies and in the FIFA World Cup, both Son and Ki will need to carry this side as consistent, dangerous pillars who can either a) win games on talent alone b) find ways to make other players better as they are marked out of the game c) do both.
But Son’s goalscoring record for the Korean national team only shows dry patches. Since his injury time equalizer against Australia in the 2015 Asian Cup, Son has scored 8 times for the national team – 6 were against Myanmar and Laos, and 1 was a penalty. That’s right – against opposition who are in Korea’s ballpark, Son has only scored 1 goal in open play in the last two years. Against sides who explicitly mark him out of the game, Europe’s most prolific Asian has been unable to find an exit strategy, or been unwilling to peel deeper and try to influence the game as only he can. But Asian qualifying and potential World Cup quarter-finalists are a different kettle of fish, and one can wonder if the latter will allow the “luxury player” to thrive more than the former.
Similarly, though Ki is a mainstay of the KNT, without whom the side cannot function (see: friendlies vs Russia and Morocco), it will be an important personal test for him to see how he fits into Shin Taeyong’s brand of football, which so far has been notable for a slight shift away from Korea’s usual “meaningless majority of possession” game to a “meaningless minority of possession” strategy, with the ball being recycled along the back 3/5.
These games will give us the continuation of that graphic and regression line. Is Shin Taeyong’s system/formation less conducive to grotesque amounts of possession, and if so, what role does Ki Sungyueng take in the national team? As a central centreback? As a holding midfielder in a two-man midfield? In what way and in what spaces will Ki Sungyueng be controlling this team? The answer is in the matches ahead.
Just Give Us A Reason
The last two friendlies gave us no reason to believe that this national team could do anything in Russia. On home turf, in the final A-match friendlies of the year (there will be the infamous East Asian Cup in Japan this December for domestic players), in front of what should be near-capacity crowds in Suwon and Ulsan (the “boycott” turned into “omg 언니 let’s go watch James”), the silly, foolish hope is that despite this stark end-of-year test, the KNT just gives us a reason to believe in them heading in to the New Year.