Suwon U19 JS Cup: South Korea defeats France, Japan 1-0; K League Youth System Again Questioned

As the headline suggests, we collected two wins after the initial draw against Brazil to clinch #1 in the most recent edition of the Suwon JS Cup. It’s interesting to note that if it wasn’t for the defensive accident that led to Brazil scoring early, we would have won every match 1-0. And the scoreline pretty much sums up how Korea played: great defensively, but very little to show for attack. Read more about the prognosis for the upcoming U19 team and what they need to work on further:

Ahn Ik Soo, nicknamed the Terminator, never ceases to surprise me – for better or for worse. Up until now, there has been a bit of criticism heaped onto the infamous disciplinarian, and for good reason. The results have been so-so, and he has been pretty good with weak opponents, but the main complaint has been tactical awareness, as evidenced by an uninspiring Suwon JS U18 Cup last summer. Most disappointing moment that comes to mind is probably France, where Ahn set up LSW and BSH as the two-top strikers in a 4-4-2. What kind of guy plays Barcelona players in a 4-4-2? And not only that, he failed to adjust that game, sticking with the formation and failing miserably.

Anyway, things seem to have gotten a little better. Ahn lost twice to Germany U19 but beat Schalke U19 3-0. And in the most recent JS Cup, he has stuck to a 4-1-4-1 or 4-3-3, all made possible thanks to a solid defensive midfielder in Park Han Bin, who has just signed for Daegu FC but has yet to play for them in the K League Challenge. Though it must be said that Ahn never really needed to shake things up dramatically (he did, though, make a few defensive subs to hold out in a winning position), so tactical flexibility a la Shin Tae Yong remains up in the air.

Talking more about France and Japan, I don’t think I’ve ever seen our youth teams so tight in defense. To keep that France team goalless was surely impressive, and the Japanese didn’t trouble much at all aside from some good runs from their #18. And even the France manager mentioned that this time around, they were outplayed.

But the France manager called Ahn Ik Soo out on something. Of course, there were the usual formalities:

It was huge that we conceded in less than 10 minutes. Our team’s condition was not very good, and we are not satisfied with our performance… We made 7 changes since the Japan match, and even though we had possession we could not finish our chances.

However, more interestingly, he said the following:

Compared to last year, Korea’s technique and speed has gotten worse. That being said, they won as the better team. I have no excuses for the loss… Usually, if a team scores within 10 minutes the team comes out more offensive, but Korea went defensive and looked to counter. This is why I felt that their skills were lacking compared to last year, which explains why the winning team started to defend so much.

Ahn Ik Soo did indeed go hyper defensive in all three of these tournaments. And the French manager is right in that the players are in bad condition. I don’t know if those two are causally related, but the root of the problem is, there is a systemic reason for why the players are in bad condition. In the U18 age group, the players are in their last year of high school, and are playing every game possible. But as soon as they hit U19, the vast majority are freshmen in the University League and a handful go pro. In either path, they’re not going to get minutes. Why don’t players go pro earlier? Because K League explicitly forbids professional contracts until the player is at least 18 years old. And even then, no pro team is ever going to play an 18 year old unless you’re ridiculously good and the team is not in a good situation (Lee Gwang Hyeok, Seo Myung Won were the only teenagers to play last year).

Park Moon Sung and Bae Sung Jae (two of SBS’s top soccer commentators), and even special guest commentator Park Ji Sung himself, weighed in on this problem. This system clearly retards the growth of our top youth talents, which is probably why we see so many late bloomers in the Korean national team (Lee Jae Sung, Kim Bo Kyung, etc.) KSY and LCY were exceptions because Senol Gunes saw potential in them and played them right away at 18 years old. But look at Japan – they have a much better system where the second team of say, Gamba Osaka plays in the third division, so youth players are always playing. The fact that Japan has an infinitely better system where 16 and 17 year olds, if talented, can always find professional game time, yet loses to us consistently in the youth leagues, begs the question: If our system was as good as Japan, if managers were to give young players a chance more often, how much better would we be? How much more talent would be churned out of the K League? Could we beat the likes of France and Brazil by better margins? The new R League is a step in the right direction but not all clubs signed up for the R League, and it’s clearly nothing compared to what Japan has.

Anyway, back to the JS Cup – yes, we saw some damn good defense all throughout the tournament. But what about in offense?

I’m going to cut AIS some slack because a couple key players were out. Namely, we couldn’t call up Kang Ji Hoon and Kim Jung Hwan, the usual wide forwards of this team (I know Kim is injured but I have no idea what happened to Kang), and the Barca kids were not available either. Moreover, Ahn was testing out quite a few new players throughout the tournament. But still, our offense was really bad. Our throughballs were poor, counters went well but failed in front of the goal, and in general our build up play was actually pretty bad. Consistent key player Han Chan Hee even disappeared completely for many minutes.

But if you look on the bright side we discovered Cho Young Wook, the guy almost 2 years younger than everyone else. I bet you someone is going to post his ball touches against Japan pretty soon, but check out the massive difference in our offensive output in the first half vs the second half just to get a sense of the impact he made since coming on at halftime:

CYW is clearly talented but even this makes you wonder if he stood out so much because he’s still in high school and playing week in week out..

So far we’ve estabilshed that 1) the players are out of condition and are in great danger of staying out of condition in 2017, 2) our defense is amazing, or rather, AIS really shaped up our defense, and 3) our attack sucks but CYW had a very good outing vs Japan, though he didn’t show much vs Brazil because we were getting pwned so hard.

Some other thoughts before I sign off:

  • Beom Keun – not Cha Beom Keun but goalkeeper Song Beom Keun – is probably THE most reliable player in this age group. He has literally not pulled a single mistake that I remember and has made a large amount of super saves. Germany’s manager even singled out Song BK as a VERY good player who had what it took to succeed in Germany (wishful thinking but I really hope Bundesliga scouts were watching).
  • Han Chan Hee and Lee Sang Min are the most reliable outfield players. Makes you wonder how Paik Seung Ho would come into the mix considering that after Lee Dong Jun the two vice captains are Han Chan Hee and Lim Min Hyeok, both of whom play similar positions to PSH. But if BSH starts playing real well for Barca B next year he’ll surely get his chances.
  • All four fullbacks who played throughout the tournament were fantastic. But as we have repeatedly seen, a string of good games against high powered international opponents never quite translates to senior NT prospects. Kim Jin Su was probably a rare exception that turned out well (him, and KBK, went to Europe through the J League).