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 final part, we will look at some individual questions. How will Son Heung-Min fit into this team? Who should play as a forward? How do we use Ki Sung-Yueng? Do we have defenders? Is it time to part with Choi Kang-Hee?
Awhile back, while still on SKS Blog, I wrote this piece on Son Heung-Min. In it, if you don’t want to read the whole thing, I wrote that Son should not be used as a wing forward, but instead as a more central forward with the license to drift wide when space is available (and also to relieve him of defensive duties). After watching the latest match, I maintain that these are the generally correct, but some new concerns and thoughts. In a separate post, after the Croatia match, I suggested that perhaps a false 9 type role may be good for him. That point I retract. I no longer think Son would do well as false 9, or as a focal point for the attack (a more traditional 9 role).
So, let’s explore more. Why no false 9? Quite simply because I no longer believe that Son has the necessary secondary skills to be successful at this position. Namely he lacks the off-the-ball movement and passing skills. Why no traditional 9? He’s just not big or strong enough. I think it’s a role that he could eventually do, maybe in 3, 4, 5 years, but not yet. Which leaves us with the wing forward role. It’s still not a role I particularly like him in, but it’s really the only one left. Because, imagine Son Heung-Min had started against Qatar, instead of Ji Dong-Won. Son gets the ball, dribbles down the touchline, and what does he see? A wall of defenders and statue-esque Korean forwards. Will he be able to make the correct choice? To force in a cross, to run at the defense, to hit the reset button? Right now I’m not sure he will, at least on a consistent basis.
My other concern is that it will be easier to isolate Son on the wing and limit his influence, as was evident when he played with Hamburg against Bayern Munich. Granted this could happen as a center forward as well, but seems slightly less likely. Either way, for now I think Son will be used as a winger. I still strongly believe though, that he must be given a Ronaldo/Messi-esque license to stay forward, and not track back.
Certainly one of the more difficult choices to make, as there really isn’t anyone who seems ready to assume the mantle. Since (if you remember from part 2) I’m recommending a 4-2-3-1 for Korea, which means just one forward. Remember also (from part 1) that we’re looking for a more direct, balanced style of play. So, our forward needs to be someone with a bit of pace, good positional sense, able to finish, and flexible with their positioning. The general players put forward for consideration are Lee Dong-Gook, Park Chu-Young, Kim Shin-Wook, Ji Dong-Won, and Son Heung-Min. I’ve already ruled out Son Heung-Min, as he doesn’t have the necessary positional sense (and he’s not strong enough). So, let’s take a look at the rest.
Lee Dong-Gook. A player who continues to divide opinion. In my list of four requirements, Lee Dong-Gook meets two of them. He does have decent positional sense and finishing ability (although it seems to fail him in bigger games). His big problems are his lack of pace and inflexibility in his position. His lack of pace is fairly obvious, and in today’s game that has fast transtitions, Lee simply cannot keep up with the speed of the game. If the team is playing a bit more direct (from defense to midfield, and midfield to attack) then this would be a significant problem. The other problem, his inability to switch positions, is also a significant issue for this style of play. In order for lone forwards not to be marked out of the game, they often need to drift wide into space. I don’t know if I’ve ever really seen Lee do that. He’ll drop deep, but that just congests the midfield and slows the attack. Lee does offer a good reference point, and is pretty good in the box. I think he would be a better option against teams we know will sit deep and defend, and rarely venture out of their own half (like Qatar). So, Lee Dong-Gook is a decent bench option (for now).
Park Chu-Young. On paper, Park Chu-Young is the ideal player (available to us) for this formation and style of play. A player who has pace, can drift laterally, finish, and lead the line. So, case closed right? Not exactly because while he’s ideal on paper, in real life everyone knows that Park is going through a rather miserable, Fernando Torres like, run of form. He seems to have lost a bit of pace and a ton of confidence (read – finishing ability). If he could get his mojo back a bit, then I wouldn’t hesitate to pencil him for the forward role, but until then . . . Park Chu-Young is another bench option.
Kim Shin-Wook. When I watch him play for Ulsan, it’s not hard to see why he gets called up. When I watch him play for Korea, it’s hard to see why he gets called up. Make sense? Probably not (but it does to me). At his best, Kim is a dominating aerial and physical presence. Tall, and fairly strong too. At his worst, Kim is a player who can knock down long balls and not do much else. As long as Lee Dong-Gook is getting called, then Kim Shin-Wook really should not. As players they are too similar, and Lee is a better penalty box predator then Kim. On my list of four requirements, he doesn’t really meet any of them. He’s a decent finisher, but doesn’t have much pace, positional flexibility, or positional sense. He’s a fairly static player who looks to knock down balls, and then move into an attacking position. I think Kim does have a future role with the NT, but not right now.
Ji Dong-Won. The enigma player. Forward or midfielder? I mused a bit on Ji in a WtW review where I wasn’t quite sure where he would end up positionally. I’m still not sure, but think that his ceiling is higher as a forward than a midfielder. Between Ji and Kim Shin-Wook, I think Ji could be a better, and more complete, forward, but a lot will depend on his develop at the club level. Until that’s settled, I’d be a bit hesitant to hand him the starting job as the lone forward. But, if he does become a forward for his club, then I’d be very willing to start him for Korea too. He’s shown that he is capable of playing there, and combining well with the likes of Koo Ja-Cheol and Lee Chung-Yong. He can drift wide, he has pretty good positional sense for a young player. His issues would be, that he’s not terribly fast nor is he a wonderful finisher. But, I think he offers more than Kim Shin-Wook, and is certainly a younger option than Lee Dong-Gook. He should definitely be called, but probably used in the same position as he’s playing for his club. If that’s as a forward, then strong consideration should be given.
Wait, you say, you didn’t list any of them as a starter. And that’s true because I thought I’d do something, a little controversial, and name a fifth player that I would like to see start (maybe not a World Cup qualifier, but a friendly match). That is . . . Koo Ja-Cheol. An odd choice, certainly. And there is no real history to say that Koo could succeed as a center forward. Yet, I’m inclined to think that he could. I am boosted by the recent successes of Cesc Fabregas and Mario Gotze, two attacking midfielders who have been used as center forwards/false 9’s for their respective countries (Spain and Germany), and think that Koo, with the right coach (not Choi Kang-Hee), he could join that group. Koo has excellent positional sense and great timing. He is quite strong for a midfielder, so he could hold up the ball against defenders. He is certainly capable of finishing chances. I don’t know if he’d drift laterally though. I think he’d be more likely to drop deeper, into his more natural midfield position, but that could work. Maybe . . . Anyway, I think the team needs something fresh. And Koo Ja-Cheol as a center forward would be that. *Note – I am aware of Koo’s injury status right now.
So, what to do with Ki? Keep him deeper? Play him higher? Between those two options I think the ‘keep him deeper’ has been more successful. In the few matches where he’s been given license to play higher, I don’t think he’s been too influential. That could, of course, be due to the players around him, but I also don’t think he’s terribly comfortable playing in a purely advanced role. So, my thought is to give him a sort of ‘number 8’ role similar to what Xavi does for Spain. Ki would be able to help dictate the play and tempo of the game, regardless of the type of game (if Korea is attacking a lot or defending a lot). It also allows our best passer to help transition attacks, and since we’re playing a bit more direct, we obviously want our best passer spreading the play. Finally, it also allows Ki to utilize a skill that went unnoticed for awhile. His ability to play through balls. And with a dynamic runner in Koo Ja-Cheol playing up top, he should be able to get onto a few of them.
Defense! Defense! Defense!
So, let’s start in the midfield. Since we’ve cleared Koo Ja-Cheol and Ki Sung-Yueng into other spots, that leaves the two deeper midfield positions. And, I think we need to go a bit more defensive with them for two reasons: A) to help shield our weak backline, and B) to give cover to the leftback who will be left exposed by the non-defending Son Heung-Min (which he has permission not to do). So my left defensive midfielder will be a player that Jinseok likes in Han Kook-Young. Han will play on the left as he’s more of a defensive specialist and the left side will need more defensive help then the right. On the other side, I would opt for a defensive-minded midfielder, but who is a bit more dynamic. That would be a personal favorite of mine, Park Jong-Woo. While Park Jong-Woo is a bit rough around the edges, his passing is only adequate, he brings a much needed dynamism to an otherwise cultured midfield. His job is to, of course, protect the defense, but also to bring energy and help bridge the gap between attack and defense. Of the pair, I suppose Park Jong-Woo could be considered the stopper, and Han Kook-Young, the sweeper.
Defense remains a tricky proposition to pick. I think it’s time to bid farewell to Kwak Tae-Hwi, and really look to implement a longer-term vision for a centerback pairing. Kwak and Lee Jung-Soo did well, but it’s time to move on. Jung In-Hwan seems to be the lock at the moment, even though I’m not entirely convinced of him. Next to him would seem to be either Kim Ki-Hee or Jang Hyun-Soo. Both are fairly young (Kim is 23, Jang is 21). And I recently recall that I actually saw both of them play live last year in the U-23’s last Olympic qualification game against the Qatar U23 (Korea had already qualified). But Kim and Jang provided a solid base for the defense. Neither would start for Hong Myeong-Bo’s bronze medal side, Kim Young-Kwon and Hwang Seok-Ho would start most matches. Strangely with the senior side the roles are slightly flipped. While Kim Young-Kwon has more caps, he has largely been dropped from the side. Hwang Seok-Ho has just one cap to his name, a second half sub appearance in the friendly against Australia. Jang Hyun-Soo hasn’t appeared yet, but he seems to be ahead of the others in line, as there were some rumors he may have started against Qatar if Kwak Tae-Hwi hadn’t recovered. In any event, I still liked what I saw from Kim Ki-Hee and would nominate him to be the other center back.
Fullback remains a more difficult choice. On the left the battle would seem to be between Yoon Suk-Young and Park Joo-Ho. Both are young. Both are in Europe. Yoon is a bit more defensive, and Park a bit more offensive. Park has more senior team experience (but not much). Yoon is more accomplished as a youth player. The biggest problem right now is that Yoon is not playing for QPR, and doesn’t look to be on the verge of doing so. If Yoon manages to start getting playing time, then I think he would take the starting spot. But until then I think you’d have to go with Park as he’s returned to normal action with FC Basel.
Right back remains harder, as there are no real high-quality players. Kim Chang-Soo gets mentioned frequently, Oh Beom-Suk has some experience, and Choi Chul-Soon did well against Croatia. I think one of those three gets the nod next time out. Kim Chang-Soo did well with the Olympic team, and has some experience, but he was not impressive against Australia. Oh Beom-Suk has the most senior experience, but was just average against Qatar, and he plays in the second division (police team). Choi Chul-Soon is inexperienced (with the senior side), but is also at a second division side (Sangju Sangmu). Ultimately I think you hedge the bets and go with the experienced one who is Oh Beom-Suk.
So, the team looks something like this:
Bench: Lee Bum-Young, Ji Dong-Won, Lee Keun-Ho, Park Joo-Ho, Kim Bo-Kyung, Kwak Tae-Hwi, another central midfielder???
Choi Kang-Hee is leaving. I don’t think there’s anyone who believes he will renew for the World Cup, and it’s best for everyone. Who will come in to replace him? Not sure. It seems like the odds-on-favorite is Hong Myeong-Bo. A successful run at the Olympics and time with the U-23 squad, currently learning from Guus Hiddink at Anzhi, and a legend within Korean football, Hong would seem to have it all on the resume. He denies interest in the job, right now, but I suspect he’ll be approached. I can’t really think of a foreign manager that would be a good fit. Sven Goren Eriksson keeps popping up, and I can’t for the life of me, figure out why. Mediocre results with a good English team, bad results with a mediocre Mexican team, is this really the best Korea could do? I think not. My hope is that Hong Myeong-Bo will take the reins.
I’m not sure how well this XI would work. I was a bit hesitant to put Koo Ja-Cheol as a false 9 type forward, but wanted to to do something a bit more controversial and new. A more conventional look would have Ji Dong-Won as center forward, Koo Ja-Cheol in his attacking midfield role, and Ki Sung-Yueng deeper to replace one of Han Kook-Young and Park Jong-Woo.
The thinking here was to bring balance to the team, and to hopefully fully utilize the players’ capabilities. I think the false 9 could be helpful in creating space for Son Heung-Min to attack into. Ki Sung-Yueng has good range shooting, and a fairly full range of passing skills. So, moving him into a freer role will allow him to exert more influence in games. The presence of two high energy center midfielders will help control the midfield and protect a weak defense.
I do, of course, have some concerns about this hypothetical team, mainly the lack of a true center forward and the lack of experience and leadership. The false 9 has been a bit of an iffy thing at the international level. At Euro 2012 Spain ran it a couple times against Italy. The first time it was just average, but the second time it was incredibly effective. I can’t recall Koo Ja-Cheol ever really operating in that role, so I don’t know how he would do there. Experience is the other concern. Jung Sung-Ryong is the oldest player on the team, but he doesn’t seem like the vocal leader like say a Casillas or Buffon. It would largely fall onto the shoulders of the likes of Koo Ja-Cheol, Ki Sung-Yueng, and Lee Chung-Yong to direct the team.
So, thoughts on the formation? Should someone be in that isn’t. Is someone starting who shouldn’t? Can Koo Ja-Cheol play as a false 9? Share your thoughts in the comments.