We at the Tavern have sought to provide you with all of our analysis on the match that was Korea vs Sweden. However, we’re just humble writers. Those who are able to offer unique perspectives on the match – and its repercussions on the matches to come – can give us a newer angle to better understand the 1-0 result. Joining us to give their managerial, player and journalistic angles are international manager Steve Darby, MLS youth product Seo-In Kim and reputed journalist Steve Han.
What are your general thoughts on the Korea-Sweden match?
Steve Darby: I think you had two teams that were very similar, both athletic and powerful with minimum flair, with Son Heung-min perhaps being the greatest flair player on the pitch. I think they almost cancelled each other out and the VAR decision was the crucial factor. It must be remembered that this is the toughest group in the World Cup and there are 6 more points available. The Korean media and social media appears very negative and this is infectious. The nation should be proud of their team and support them.
Seo-In Kim: I think Korea’s first mistake was playing with a conservative mindset and implementing a game plan based around the Swedish team instead of focusing on our own strengths; we should have used a system that supported our dynamic attackers and made Sweden sit back on their heels. Korea’s philosophy was reinforced by a negative of not being “scored on first”, which caused the team to play scared and make nervous mistakes. Playing with aggression, confidence and to our attacking strengths was going to be the only way we were going to be successful in this tournament. I personally think the tactics are what caused us the most problems and it was frustrating to see our quality players struggle to even get the ball or have decent service. We had Son, our best player, defending alongside our back 4 throughout the match and that’s not we needed to score. We definitely made the game easy for Sweden.
Steve Han: In all honesty, the 1-0 scoreline is respectable given how the KFA has operated this team over the last six to seven years. That being said, I’m of the opinion that the manager and the players did themselves no favor by handicapping themselves out of fear and settling for fighting against losing rather than playing their own game. Son mentioned that the defensive tactics had to be used, because in his own words, “Korea isn’t at a level to attack opponents at the World Cup” which was really hard to hear for someone like me who’s followed this team for over two decades now.
There have been times in the past when the national team was much weaker than it is now in terms of individual talents, and yet, no player in the 90s ever suggested that Korea is too weak to try to win games at the World Cup. It seems like the consensus within the team is that the way they lined up against Sweden was the most “realistic” way to try and win, but I really think both Shin and the players should be asking themselves, “Did we really try to win? Or were we just scared of losing and the backlash that could come from it?”
What kind of preparation goes into playing a defensive mindset (both as a coach and as a player)?
Steve Darby: Sometimes you have to be realistic… if you attack teams you can get picked off and the opposition can score more easily. If you defend and keep the opposition to minimum goals you always have a chance. Sometimes you have no choice in defending! Such as in the Laos v Korea World Cup Qualifier we just couldn’t get the ball out of our half. We were physically dominated and technically Korea were better players.
That being said, Korea losing 4 good players to injury meant that finding goals was always going to be hard to come by. However, this is an Asian problem as most Asian leagues have foreign strikers, and so local strikers just don’t get the time on the pitch to improve.
Seo-In Kim: I’ve personally struggled with situations where a coach wanted me to defend all game and specifically man-mark a player. It takes a lot of focus and grit to stay in tune the entire match, so I know it wasn’t easy for the Korean squad to do. Its extremely taxing, mentally and physically. With that being said, i think that a defensive system in that particular fashion is counter-intuitive because you spend the entire game worrying about their doings. When you’re committed to an aggressive attacking style, you are able to play freely and cause more problems for the opposing team.
Why was Shin Tae-yong so negative? Do you think this newfound conservatism of Shin’s was affected by the pressure of fans or the administration in any way?
Steve Han: I might have tweeted about this a couple of weeks ago, but Shin said after the U-20 World Cup last year that Korean football will never progress if the national team bunker down and only play defense in international tournaments. I’ve really come to respect Shin exactly because of that attitude, so I’m really curious to know what it is that inspired him to make such a radical decision. I don’t think it was the outside pressure that affected his decision to get the team to play this way. I think it was a decision he made internally after holding discussions with the players, many of whom have clearly lost confidence in themselves.
After a demoralizing defeat like this, what kind of dynamic do you think Shin TY is facing at training camp? How does one, as manager with their staff, approach these kinds of situations?
Steve Darby: I think the biggest issue will be team morale or team spirit. In this space of time a coach cannot get the players fitter or technically better. All they can do is get their heads into a positive frame of mind and work on team organization – especially set pieces. That is an area Korea must maximize. So there must be leadership from the coach and senior players, as well as organization practice at training.
A lot of national team fans were turned off before the match; now they will be even more disillusioned. Is that a good or bad thing for the team (and Korean football in general, in some way)?
Steve Han: It’s a terrible thing. Most Koreans will tell outsiders that while domestic football may not be popular in the country, national team football is. I personally think that’s an ignorant statement at worst and misinformation at best, because the national team has lost their popularity years ago. The Red Devils didn’t even organize a trip to Russia for the World Cup. This reality that Korea doesn’t have an organized traveling supporters group for a World Cup was unthinkable 10 years ago. The fan base for football in Korea has never been big to begin with, but it’s smaller than ever now. Last thing the national team needs is another reason for the general population to lose even more interest. People have to realize that the KFA and the national team losing public interest has severe consequences on their revenue stream, as they rely heavily on their sponsors, which in turn will inevitably hurt the game in the country starting from the grassroots level.
A slightly non-specific question: Son Heung-min has previously grumbled a lot about not getting service from his teammates (though he didn’t do it on Monday). As a teammate, is it annoying or motivating to have a player like that that demands better from the team?
Seo-In Kim: I think Son has every right to keep his teammates accountable. He’s been at the top level and he clearly knows what it takes to win and score goals. I, personally, would be very motivated to assist in any way that I could in hopes of winning the match. Being a professional is about keeping yourself held to a certain standard, so I would never perceive it as annoying.
Do we stand any chance against Mexico and Germany? What has to change?
Steve Darby: I think the biggest issue is mentality. When Korea play in Asia they are confident and almost arrogant, but when they play other world opposition they appear to have an “inferiority complex” and don’t play to their strengths. This is crazy as they have world class players in Ki and Son. You don’t play every week in the Premier League or the Bundesliga if you are not world class.
If I have to be honest, I can’t see Germany playing as badly again, but perhaps Mexico can’t play as well again!
Seo-In Kim: Mexico and Germany are top class teams that can really play & dictate games. It’ll be tough to break down Mexico’s confidence and momentum at this moment. But if I know one thing, it’s that Koreans are fighters and they’ll make sure to give it their all for their Country. I definitely still believe we can make it out of group stages; we really have nothing to lose so hopefully they come out with some fiery passion and cause the upsets we need. I believe we can do it, anything can happen in the World Cup.
Steve Han: Anyone who’s followed this team through the 90s like I have will know that this is not an unfamiliar territory. Those teams back then would get off to a bad start at the World Cup, mainly due to lack of experience and shortage of proven talents, but they always found ways to put up a much better fight once they realized that they had nothing to lose. Then again, that’s when social media and Naver detgeul didn’t exist, which made it easier for them to block out distractions. These players today are clearly being affected by those things more than necessary. People talk about how there needs to be a cultural change in the Korean football landscape as a whole, but I think what’s just as imperative is a culture change within the team itself. When I was covering Mexico, there was a Spaniard staff member traveling with their team, whose job title was literally “mental coach” and he served as something of a counselor for the players. I think someone like that, if utilized properly within the team, could do wonders for Korea.
Steve Darby is the former manager of the Laos national team. Follow him on Twitter.
Seo-In Kim is a Sporting KC Youth Product and played NCAA soccer at Duke University and UC Santa Barbara. Follow him on Twitter.
Steve Han is a Korean football journalist for Goal Korea. Follow him on Twitter.