[Tavern Owner note: If you dig this post – all of this is Mr Marcantonio’s – find his musings on Korean football and creative writing outside of football at his twitter handle @TJMarcantonio — what he has here are things to definitely watch out for as you view the Korea World Cup tuneup matches against Colombia and Serbia. Stiff opposition for certain, let’s see how Shin Tae-Yong plays his cards].
It’s friendly season again, and after the debacle of Korea’s last two games, heavy defeats to Russia and Morocco, coach Shin Tae-yong needs to start building a competitive team for next summer’s World Cup. There are still several issues within the team that need to be addressed. Up front, the absence of Hwang Hee-chan and the lack of any real competition for his place (apart from the apparently unselectable master marksman Yang Dong-hyun) almost makes Lee Jung-hyub’s controversial recall a moot point. Meanwhile, Kim Min-jae, who looks like Korea’s future in the centre of defence, is also injured, so building a defence around him will have to wait. For now, then, two priorities for onlookers and Shin Tae-yong himself will be the performances of the wing-backs, and the men who are charged with marshalling the middle of the park.
The Wing-back Experiment
One of the main talking points after the recent friendly defeats to Russia and Morocco was coach Shin Tae-yong’s bizarre decision to go ahead with a wing-back system despite not having any wing-backs in the squad he selected.
In the end, Lee Chung-yong played both games at right-wing back. In the first game he went about his job efficiently enough, rarely being challenged defensively, and he even chipped in with two quality assists for Korea’s late consolation goals. In the second game, however, he was torn apart by the speed and quality of Morocco’s wingers. While a place in next summer’s World Cup squad is not out of the question for the Crystal Palace man, any more chances at wing-back are (hopefully) slim to zero.
On the other side, Kim Young-gwon played exactly how you might expect a centre-back to play at wing-back. He was solid enough, but turned sideways and backwards whenever approaching nose-bleed territory (i.e. anywhere over the half-way line). Against Morocco, Rim Chang-woo had a better time of it than Lee Chung-yong, but for the left-back roles he will still stand several rungs down the ladder of choice.
Thankfully in the latest squad, Shin Tae-yong will have a few other options at his disposal. Kim Jin-su and Kim Min-woo come back into contention after impressive seasons with Jeonbuk and Suwon Bluewings respectively, and you would expect both to get ninety minutes each in the upcoming games. These are two players who appear to fit the wing-back system perfectly, and if just one of them can prove themselves as a reliable choice for the national team, it would go some way to justifying such a system next summer. With Sangju Sangmu’s Hong Chul and Kashiwa Reysol’s Yun Suk-young also waiting in the wings, the left wing-back slot has some potential.
The right-hand side is less clear-cut. With time before the next World Cup running short, how supporters would love to see a rejuvenated Cha Du-ri strap on his boots, charge onto the pitch, and roar up and down that touchline like a bald bull with a firework up his backside. Unfortunately there are very few options who come anywhere close to his quality. Kim Chang-soo and Lee Yong’s attempts to nail down the position have come and fallen away, and the most likely options these days are current choices Choi Chul-soon of Jeonbuk, and Seoul’s Ko Yo-han. Both are consistent, if unspectacular, performers, and the latter’s summer performance against Uzbekistan in particular showed glimpses of promise.
After two spectacularly poor performances, Shin Tae-yong needs the wing-back system to come to fruition at last. He appears to have the best options available to him this time around, so all eyes will be on those men chosen to gobble up the touchlines in the next two games. If the system fails again, Shin will need to come up with a new gameplan, and fast.
The Central Midfield Problem
Ki Sung-yueng is one of the very few guaranteed starters (if fit, of course) at next summer’s World Cup. The current captain is a classy performer and arguably a level above the great bulk of players who make up the national team these days. However, the position of his midfield partner is very much up for grabs, and Shin Tae-yong will hope to use these two friendlies to try and settle down a solid base to sit behind Korea’s attackers.
Korea has an array of talented central midfielders, many of whom have been in and out of the national team set-up for years (Yoon Bit-garam and Kim Bo-kyung, to name just two). The problem seems to lie in the fact that many of the these midfielders are more adept at attacking than defending, and when selected to play alongside Ki, leave the back four exposed.
Shin Tae-yong’s preferred Ki partner of late has been Jung Woo-young, but judging by recent matches Jung falls short of the quality needed. Although not at all a bad player, he appears to be one of those players who benefits from the supposed prestige of playing in an Asian league outside of Korea. Like Han Kook-young, you suspect that he wouldn’t stand out from the crowd if he moved to a K-League club.
Jang Hyun-soo is another who has been involved in the squad for a long time and seems to be highly thought of. However, he struggled desperately in the last two games, losing possession easily and disappearing whenever the opposition came through the middle. It seems his popularity within the Korean set-up will mean that he finds a place in the starting eleven somewhere, but his tendency to disappear in a supposed sweeper role means that the jury is still very much out.
Two FC Seoul (and military-bound) midfielders in Ju Se-jong and Lee Myung-joo have also made the latest squad and will be hoping for further chances to audition as Ki’s anchor man. Ju Se-jong is an excellent passer but is less adept defensively, and therefore seems to be more suited as a Ki deputy rather than partner. Lee, meanwhile, now sits deeper than he used to when he left Pohang for Al Ain in 2014, but he is still not a traditional holding midfielder. While both are worthy members of the squad, it would be a surprise if either of them lined up alongside Ki in Russia next summer. The same might also be said for Jeju United’s Lee Chang-min: another promising talent, but not a defensively-minded one.
One man who made his return to the national team set-up last month but is left out this time is Park Jong-woo. The former Busan IPark and Guangzhou R&F midfielder got the call-up after being a regular for UAE title winners Al Jazira this year, but was only given thirty minutes over the two games. I mention him here because it was he who partnered Ki right through the bronze medal-winning Olympic campaign (ahead of Jung Woo-young). Overlooked entirely by Uli Stielike after being part of the 2014 World Cup squad, it seems a shame that a more aggressive, defensive-minded player like Park hasn’t been given a proper run-out as Ki’s partner considering how well they worked together in London.
Perhaps the dream scenario on paper would be a midfield base of Ki and Koo Ja-cheol, sitting behind an exciting left-to-right line of Son Heung-min, Kwon Chang-hoon and Lee Jae-sung, with Hwang Hee-chan up front. It’s a lineup that has creativity dribbling off the tongue, but of course Koo himself is not necessarily a holding player. The Augsburg man is certainly aggressive, but is clearly best with licence to roam, not least because of his excellent goal-scoring record from midfield. But with the exciting Kwon and Nam Tae-hee also fighting for that number 10 spot behind the striker, the prospect of an experienced and disciplined Ki-Koo pairing (if they could make it work) would make Shin Tae-yong’s team selections a breeze.
There are a lot of questions to answer in these next two games, and Shin needs to start giving some fast. How the wing-backs and central midfielders fare against Columbia and Serbia could hold the key to how well the media receive the manager in the coming months and, more importantly, how well Korea can hold their own when they start their campaign in Russia.