Yes, Korea won. Yes, they helped ease fears of not qualifying for Brazil (for a little while at least). Yes, Son Heung-Min scored. But anyone who watched the game knows, that the team played quite badly. Questions that were raised following the crushing loss to Croatia have certainly not been answered. In this first part, we’ll start a bit with a bigger picture. Simply what style of play should Korea be looking at? Short passing, Spain-style, tiki-taka? A vertical, powerful, Real Madrid-style counter-attack? Perhaps a more balanced, German approach? Or maybe a stereotypical, Italian catenaccio?
First, I suppose it’s important to consider what style Korea is currently playing. To me, it seems to something in between a balanced-attack and a tiki-taka style. Which would make sense as the tiki-taka style would be a bit of a holdover from Cho Kwang-Rae, and the balanced approach is more Choi Kang-Hee’s preference. The problem is that to make either approach efficient, you can’t really do the other. While both utilize short-intermediate range passes, the speed is quite different. Tiki-taka is a bit slower, while the balance is faster. What you see in our play, is the slow, steady passes from tiki-taka, but the off-the-ball movement from a balanced approach. The problem is that the off-the-ball movement commonly used in a balanced approach is fairly predictable, so defenses can adjust before the passes come (since they are slower).
Of course there are many more styles to pick from, but I feel that these four are fairly representative of the major schools of thought. Let’s start with the most ridiculous (for Korea, not as a tactic).
If you’ve ever watch Italy or an Italian team play internationally, you’ve probably heard this word thrown out there by some English commentator whenever the Italian team looks defensive or plays good defense. It is probably the one word most closely associated with Italian football. In modern times it is used as a term to refer to teams that put an emphasis on defense. Think of Chelsea last season in the latter stages of the Champions League. Two banks of four, everyone in their own half, and so on. But, in reality, the team that seems to actually play closest to Italian catenaccio is Juventus. Their 3-5-2 formation is quite similar to the systems used by Italy in 1982 and Italian teams at those times.
While I’ve discussed the idea of a 3-5-2 formation for Korea, and it’s possibility for success, and think it could have some success against smaller teams, it doesn’t look to be terribly successful in the long term simply because of the weaknesses in the Korean defense. This is also the reason why any sort of defense-first mentality will not work. Korea just doesn’t have the quality in defense to do it. So, the catenaccio approach, is a no-go.
Of course, the popular style of last few years is the tiki-taka. I choose Spain rather than Barcelona, because of one Leo Messi, who completely changes the way that system works. And of course, under Cho Kwang-Rae, tiki-taka was what the team aimed to play, or at least something close to it. Tiki-taka requires the presence of many skillful and technically gifted players to circulate the ball and retain possession. It also means that it requires very intelligent players who know how to move off the ball. While many think of it as this extremely offensive system, it often does not function that way. Instead it’s a system that carefully pokes and prods at the other team looking for a opening. If there is none, the ball retreats to the back only to try again. If you have players as good as the Spanish do, then this means a lot of ball retention.
Spain is quite fortunate in that they have technically gifted players at virtually every position. While Korea would certainly fall short of that standard, we do have several technical players, especially in the midfield. For awhile it was these players, that our success was based around, Ki Sung-Yueng, Koo Ja-Cheol, Lee Chung-Yong, Park Ji-Sung, and Park Chu-Young. While many of those players are still there, there are a couple missing. Mainly the two Parks, and Park Chu-Young could return, but he is certainly not the same player he was a couple years ago. The problem this creates is that there are too many holes in the team where tiki-taka could fail. Too many players who do not have the necessary technical skill to play a successful tiki-taka game. The defenders are not good enough passers, and the players don’t quite have the off-the-ball movement. So, I don’t think tiki-taka is a workable idea either.
Real Madrid-style, counterattack
Somewhere between defense and attack, but closer to defense, is the lightning-fast counterattack style that is used by many, but done best by Real Madrid. In theory, counterattacking play is not a difficult strategy to use, but in reality it is. To be a truly effective, and threatening, style, it requires players who can hit long, accurate passes, players with plenty of pace, and strikers who are lethal finishers. In Madrid you see that it the form of Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo, Angel Di Maria, Karim Benzema, and Gonzalo Higuain. Alonso hits long passes out from the back where the others, mainly Ronaldo and Di Maria sprint into space and either shoot or pass to the forward.
In some regards this would seem to be a good style for Korea. Ki Sung-Yueng can make long passes, Son Heung-Min and Lee Chung-Yong have plenty of pace, and (if he can get back in form) Park Chu-Young can convert chances.Yet, I’m hesitant to recommend this system. If you’ve watched Madrid this season you’ve noticed their struggles to break down teams that don’t allow them that space to break into. And for Korea that could present real problems. A counterattacking style would have failed badly against Qatar and most other teams that Korea would face during qualifying. Yet, it could be effective at major tournaments like the World Cup or even something like the AFC Championship. So, file this one under maybe.
In between the counter attack club and the tiki-taka group is the more balanced approach, probably best done by the always efficient Germans (sorry, another stereotype). But, watching the Germans play their latest qualifiers against Kazakhstan (they played them twice), it was quite impressive to see how the attacked. While there was plenty of possession for the Germans, you didn’t see the patient build-up play that you normally see with Spain. While the Spanish will poke and prod for a hole, but then retreat if there is none, the Germans push and attempt to force the issue. Passes tend to be more vertical, although still short, rather then lateral. The tempo a bit faster.
I wrote earlier that Korea didn’t have the players to really play a tiki-taka game, and they don’t, but we do have the players to play a more balanced German-style game. Watching Germany, most of their attacks are prompted by the creative midfielder (Mesut Ozil) and the wide midfielders (often Marco Reus and Thomas Muller, but sometimes Andre Schurrle, Julian Draxler, and Toni Kroos). For the Germans, these are often their best technical players, are fortunately for us, these positions are also generally our best with the likes of Koo Ja-Cheol, Ki Sung-Yueng, Lee Chung-Yong, and Son Heung-Min. The forward line has varied, Germany used to have a box predator (Miroslav Klose), a target man (Mario Gomez), and lately a false 9 (Mario Goetze). Korea could likewise fill those styles in Park Chu-Young, Lee Dong-Gook (or Kim Shin-Wook), and Koo Ja-Cheol.
With these similarities, it seems to me, that it would make sense to try and model our style of play on the Germans. A team that has good technical attacking skill, but works on moving the ball quickly and in short, vertical passes. Defenders press high to win the ball in dangerous positions, and then pass the ball to the deeper midfielders, who then spread the ball quickly wide, who look to either play crosses (often on the ground) or combine with the full backs. To me, a balanced approach would seem to be the most logical choice for Korea to pursue.
Part 2 will discuss the best formation to use to maximize our new found balanced-attack.
So, what do you think? What kind of style should we play? Pursue the Spanish tiki-taka? Play defense? Somewhere in between? Share your thoughts in the comments.