The Korean National Football Team has always placed pride in its midfield. Think about the star names from our NT- Park Ji Sung, Ki Sung Yong, Lee Chung Yong, Koo Ja Cheol – they’re all midfielders. Even in the past, players like Yoo Sang Chul, Kim Nam Il, Lee Chun Soo repped the NT. When Yoo Sang Chul retired, however, something felt wrong. We’ve had more technical talent than ever, especially in the Koo-Ki-Lee trio, but the midfield hasn’t looked very convincing lately.
A lot of that can be blamed on management, but it doesn’t help that we don’t have a physical, ball winning, true defensive midfielder. Why is such a player so important? Let’s contrast two pairs of European sides: Liverpool vs. Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid vs. Arsenal.
I was watching EPL highlights the other day when I saw Jay Rodriguez of Southampton run 40 yards and score on Liverpool. It wasn’t a Messi-esque dribble. Rather, Rodriguez was put under NO PRESSURE from the Liverpool midfield; as soon as he encountered the backline, he dribbled diagonally past Martin Skrtel and scored. Liverpool lacks a defensive midfielder to cover the defense and win the ball from the opponent through pressure. On the other hand, such a midfielder led Athletic Bilbao to success in the Europa League last season. Bilbao’s form last year is attributable to Javi Martinez (along with attacking talents Llorente and Muniain). Martinez broke up play, made quality tackles, and frustrated the United attack on both legs of the tie. In fact, United could barely string passes together in the final third, leaving Rooney isolated up front, due to Bilbao’s pressing and tempo.
Now let’s compare the holding midfielders for Real Madrid and Arsenal: Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira vs. Mikel Arteta and Jack Wilshere. Alonso and Khedira epitomize the “creator – destroyer” combo, with Alonso providing the play-making skills and Khedira providing the steel and tackling ability. In contrast, Arteta and Wilshere are incredibly creative, yet neither of them contribute much to the defense. I hesitate to cite Bleacher Report, but one of their writers made a key insight about the Arteta: “Arsenal currently use Mikel Arteta on his own in the holding role, and while he’s excellent in possession and acts as a metronome on the ball, his defending leaves a lot to be desired. His first reaction is not to think, “What’s behind me?” but to continue looking forward for several seconds too long. He needs to play alongside a destructive No. 6, like Sami Khedira, because he can’t hold a midfield on his own.” The result? A fragile defense. And with the Korean NT, a team known for its defensive fragility, leaving the backline exposed can be fatal.
This is precisely why I wish Choi Kang Hee would give players such as Han Kook Young or Park Jong Woo more playing time. They may have no experience yet, but every player starts out with no experience. The KNT coaches started players such as Ki SY, Lee CY, and Park Chu Young at the age of 19. With a central midfield pairing of Park Jong Woo and Ki at the Olympics, the midfield looked much improved, though that could be due to Hong Myung Bo’s magic. PJW’s toughness and physicality contributed a lot to our Olympics success.
During the Olympics Qualifying phase, I was introduced to Han Kook Young, a 22 year old J-League player. Han was reportedly Hong’s first choice as Ki’s midfield partner, but an injury kept him from participating in the Olympics and getting military exemption. I watched many of his U23 games- he was incredibly consistent, won balls with ease, and his tackling ability was incredible (highlights below).
It’s time to start easing in a new midfield partner for Ki. Hong Myung Bo chose Han Kook Young and Park Jong Woo for that role, and when it comes to player selection, HMB rarely disappoints.