Much has been said following Korea’s 0-1 loss to China a few days ago. Was it the players’ fault for poor performances? Stielike and his team’s fault for poor preparations and strategies? Both? Let’s see if we can take a closer look and find an answer.
The Starting XI
Stielike went with a couple surprises in his starting XI, opting to partner Ki Sung-yueng in midfield with Ko Myung-jin rather than a pure holding midfielder like Han Kook-young or Jung Woo-young. Jang Hyun-soo, usually used as a right back by Stielike, slotted in his actual position of central defender next to Hong Jeong-ho. Kwoun Sun-tae got the nod in goal over Kim Seung-gyu, and Lee Jeong-hyeop was put at center forward with Ji Dong-won at right wing.
One thing that we usually see with Korea is the U shape passing around the back. That was absent from this match. Stielike seems to have instructed his players to be more direct in their play, particularly in offensive transitions. The attacking midfielders and fullbacks frequently got the ball and dribbled straight up the pitch. When this occurred during fast breaks, China usually dropped off, allowing Korea to advance up to their third of the pitch where they would try to set in a very deep 4-5-1. Unfortunately, Korea continues to really struggle with establishing strong attacking connections. The players become far too flat in their shape with big gaps between each attacking line.
Thus whenever the ball did go into more dangerous areas, players were immediately closed down by multiple Chinese defenders with little in the way of support.
Conversely, when Korea had a more controlled build up, China pressed higher and more aggressively up the pitch, particularly to deny Ki Sung-yueng, the centerbacks, and Kwoun Sun-tae time on the ball or to comfortably receive.
Korea was, as always, guilty of not making adequate in-game adjustments as well as not reading game situations well. Korea failed to recognize when China was dropping deep to defend, pushing Ki Sung-yueng and Ko Myung-jin higher up to help control possession and keep the pressure on China. Similarly they failed to compensate for when China pressed, spacing out too much and not giving their teammates simple passing connections. A secondary issue, which is (to an extent) not something Stielike can do anything about, but the technical ability of the players is not up to par in order to evade and create space against pressing.
I’m not an expert in setting up zonal marking defending from corners, but Korea’s seems slightly odd. Right in front of Kwoun Sun-tae is Lee Jeong-hyeop, and a little further up is Kim Jin-su. I suppose it’s defense against flick ons and near post corners, but it seems like there are a lot of players in that one area. Then you get five players very tightly together in a line near the top of the box. Eight players (including the keeper in one box).
As can be seen in the two images, Yu Dabao sneaks out from behind Ji Dong-won and Kim Jin-su (and in front of Lee Jeong-hyeop and Ki Sung-yueng) to get his head to the corner before it reaches Ji. As those who watched the match, the shot nutmegs Lee and Kwoun Sun-tae is stranded and unable to get anywhere near it. Easy to say, Lee should have blocked it, but from that distance and with Ji slightly blocking his vision, not easy to react in time. Anyway, poor communication from Ki and Lee to warn Ji? Or just a flaw with zonal marking? I tend to think it’s more the latter. Again, I’m not a coach who can speak from lots of experience, but my major issue with zonal marking is the very passive nature of it. Players wait until the ball (definitively) comes into their ‘zone’ before they move to clear the ball. This issue can be exposed (like in this situation) when attackers come from blind side zones. Essentially, it’s the same as when we give defenders flack for ball watching. Of course, man marking is not perfect either, players can lose their man allowing free headers or concede penalties by grabbing or pushing. I wonder though, if players were instructed to be more aggressive in their zonal defending, would that help? Ji waits for the ball to reach him to try and clear it, would it have been better if once he saw it was coming to his zone, he was more aggressive in moving to clear it?
Kim Shin-wook replaced Lee Jeong-hyeop at the break, but Korea persisted with similar problems, such as their attacking spacing (see above).
Kim Shin-wook’s introduction did however, help resolve one other issue Korea had in the first half, which was there was no clear focal point for the attack. In the first half, the team looked a little aimless going forward. Nam Tae-hee? Lee Jeong-hyeop? Koo Ja-cheol? Who was the man to lead the attack? Well, in the second half it was Kim Shin-wook (for better or for worse). Launching the ball to Kim Shin-wook in the hope he can flick it on or knock it down, isn’t a high-percentage strategy, but Korea did seem more focused when attacking. Another side effect of Kim Shin-wook was that Nam Tae-hee and Ji Dong-won pinched in tighter to try and get on the end of Kim’s knock downs and flick ons.
It also certainly helped that Ki Sung-yueng finally got involved in the game. Whether by tactical design or just his own inability to get involved, Ki was very quiet in the first half. In the second half he pushed higher and helped relieve some of the pressure on the attacking midfield line. However, in the end, Korea did little to really create solid chances as many of the first half issues persisted.
The players individually certainly did not have a great game with only Nam Tae-hee (for once), Koo Ja-cheol (1st half), and Ki Sung-yueng (2nd half) really having anything that represented a decent game. But, the team was certainly not set out well to succeed in the first place. The first half seemed devoid of ideas, while the second half was far to simple and easy to defend against. We’ve talked on this site quite a bit about how teams have read ‘the book’ to beat Korea, and China and Lippi seem to be no different. The low block to deny goal scoring chances, and some pressing to create counter attack opportunities. The question is, when (and if ever) will Stielike and Korea learn to add some variety to their tactics? Predicting how China and teams in Asia will play Korea is not that hard to do. Yet, Korea seems to always approach the games with the same ideas and thoughts. Historically, I suppose this has been acceptable as Korea’s superior talent was enough to see them through. But, now as teams around Asia improve, and modern tactics are easier to learn, this edge is being eroded. It similarly does not help that the KFA seems to be doing little to help this problem by placing inexperienced “coaches” like Seol Ki-hyeon and Cha Du-ri on the bench with Stielike.
The return of Son Heung-min should be a big boost in Korea’s bid to get back on track against Syria next week. However, if Stielike and his team cannot add some variety to the attack, help the midfielders learn to better support the ball carrier, and add different angles to the passing game, the team won’t go far.