2018 World Cup Preview: South Korea vs Mexico


There’s no lying. After a poor 1-0 loss to Sweden, the Taegeuk Warriors find themselves in a dire situation to advance from the group. Most fans at home have already given up, while every projection model has them between 2-10% on advancement. Mexico, on the other hand, are flying high, after an unexpected but thoroughly impressed victory over the reigning world champions. With Korea have one eye on survival, and Mexico an eye on another Round of 16 match-up, which side will come out on top in Rostov?

Last Time Out

Korea came out and played an ultra-conservative 4-3-3 against Sweden, failing to meaningfully sustain attacking pressure save for the first and last 15 minutes of the match. In between those phases of the match, Korea simply allowed Sweden to push a compact but nervy defensive shape deeper and deeper. Kim Young-gwon and Cho Hyun-woo bailed Korea out on several occasions, but ultimately it was Kim Min-woo’s rash challenge in the penalty box – confirmed only by VAR – that was the consequential factor in a devastating 1-0 defeat.

Mexico also took on a counter-attacking approach against 2014 winners Germany, but they didn’t go as far as retreating into a very deep line (which they’ve done before, in a 5-4-1). Juan Carlos Osorio instead sought to cause the Germans – who weren’t in the best pre-tournament form – duress in their build-up, and to much success. Ultimately, it was their propensity to counter-attack in stellar waves – helped by an absent German right-flank (Kimmich and Muller too high and central) – that led to Hirving Lozano’s match-winning goal in the 35th minute.

Who Will Be Injured Next? Korea 2018 World Cup Edition

When I started this segment, it was supposed to be a joke, but yet it has factored in literally every preview. This time, we’ll just confirm the news that we’ve known for the past couple of days – leftback Park Joo-ho has done his hamstring and is out of the tournament. No replacement will be called.

Team News/Starting XI Predictions

A couple major questions still factor in:

  • Will Shin Tae-yong let Korea be Korea? After the dejecting and demoralizing 1-0 loss to Sweden, most pundits and analysts have been calling on Shin Tae-yong to just let Korea be Korea – fluid and attacking, no matter how imperfect or the vulnerabilities on the counter-attack. Will Shin set out primarily to nullify his opponents’ strengths, or focus on more on using Korea’s numerous attacking players?
  • Kim Shin-wook or Lee Seung-woo? This is sort of a repeat of the question above. Before the tournament it was widely believed that Kim Shin-wook would play some sort of significant part in the match against Mexico and attempt to bully the Mexican defenders. However, after an abysmal display vs Sweden (45% passing and 2/8 aerial challenges won) he may be dropped for the energetic Lee Seung-woo.
  • 4-4-2 or… something else? Shin shelved the “Plan A” 4-4-2 system for a new and tinkered 4-3-3. Is the route to going “let Korea be Korea” and using Lee Seung-woo effectively from the start drive directly through 4-4-2?
  • Replacement full-backs? With Park Joo-ho ruled out of the tournament, and Lee Yong with a largely hapless display against Sweden (most touches but no successful crosses or long balls), there could be some shakeups in the full-back department. On the left, Kim Min-woo took the foul that led to Sweden’s penalty and did look shaky at times. Does Shin return to Hong Chul? On the right, Ko Yo-han could be selected in order to use a more attacking and mobile defender as opposed to the more conservative Lee.
  • Change of goalkeeper? This one is seems a little insane but some Korean media are suggesting that Kim Seung-gyu may start against Mexico for whatever reason. Obviously Cho Hyun-woo stood out in the first group stage match so this is highly speculative.

Taking all of this into consideration:

Son Heung-min – Hwang Hee-chan

Lee Jae-sung – Ki Sung-yueng – Jung Woo-young – Lee Seung-woo

Kim Min-woo – Kim Young-gwon – Jang Hyun-soo – Ko Yo-han

Cho Hyun-woo


This match may the rare occasion where Shin Tae-yong is pitted against a manager who is just as much, if not more, of a proverbial tinkerman that he is. Colombian-born manager Juan Carlos Osorio took on Mexico after his predecessor Miguel Herrera assaulted a journalist in the airport following the 2015 Gold Cup. Since then, Osorio has more or less been content to adventure across a large variety of formations – and personnel. In the Confederations Cup, Mexico used all of their outfield players at any given point, and numerous preview articles have them playing 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, 3-4-3, etc.

A constant throughout all of this is their spine and their strategic approach. In modern tactics, the three-digit code that alludes to formation is often over-analyzed – though it can be the starting point for understanding how a team plays, it’s no the end all. Indeed, Mexico’s Hector Moreno (CB), Hector Herrera (DM), Andres Guardado (CM) are all important players for the Mexican side, complemented against Germany will an attack line of Lozano, Hernandez and Carlos Vela. Between the sticks, the flamboyant Guillermo Ochoa is renowned his ability to able show-stopping, acrobatic saves. Meanwhile, Miguel Layun’s versatility is important for Osorio, able to play more of a wide defender (wingback) in a 3-back shape, or to tuck into midfield. Generally in all things, Mexico seek to isolate their dribble-friendly wingers into 1v1 situations to tantalize opposition defenses.

Notice how many direct wide-passes to the wings Mexico played. Though Mexico will have much more of the ball on Saturday, if Korea comes onto Mexico and seeks to play “their style”, there will inevitably be plenty of occasions for Lozano (who had 100% take-on success rate vs Germany) and Vela (or their replacements) to run in behind a fragile Korean defense.

A couple quick opportunities and other threats for Korea:

  • Opportunity: Pressing the defense? Mexico may struggle against some kind of coordinated pressing, especially their centre-backs who like to spread wide apart (something we see in modern tactics). Could we see Korea try some sort of audacious, coordinated press as in earlier friendlies?
  • Threat: Wide players’ defensive responsibilities. As Mexico use their fullbacks high up the pitch (another modern tactical thing that we take for granted) their attacking midfielders – the ever-so-dangerous Lozano and the tricky inverted winger (left-footed right-winger) Carlos Vela – move inside, on the lip of the penalty box. If Korea plays a 4-4-2 shape, it will be Lee Seung-woo and Lee Jae-sung who will have to bear the brunt of defensive responsibilities against Mexico’s tricky wingers.
  • Opportunity: Directness – both aerial and on the ground. Obviously this is a double-edged sword, as aerial directness (aka Kim Shin-wook football) is no fun to watch and not effective internationally, while we’ve seen that Korea’s not very good at fashioning counter-attacks (aka Sweden 1-0 Korea). However, with the Mexican centrebacks struggling to win the aerial ball, and midfielders not always engaging well in the second ball, there’s a case for the Wookie yet again. And with Mexican build-up meaning players move wide, there’s gaps for the very fast Son to run into.
  • Threat: Jang Hyun-soo and Kim Young-gwon will need to be on their game. Mexico seldom cross the ball into the box, but they are going to ram the box with pace. Conceding another penalty is not something the Korean team will need. Kim made some good last-ditch tackles, but Jang especially is prone to getting over-aggressive and over-committing. The two Korean centre-backs cannot afford such an error.

The Opposition

Joining us to give us more insight on the Mexican national team is Claro Sports and Marca Claro’s Daniel Reyes Villasenor. Follow him on Twitter @barracudo. Thank you for your support and answers!

Mexico looked superb and had a spring in their step against Germany. However, rumours rippled through the camp of a flu affecting some players. Could you provide us with an update on the situation?

This is true. There were a couple players who suffered a flu. This is why Carlos Vela and Hirving Lozano left the game in the second half. The other player who was sick was Hugo Ayala, but he had to play the entire match because Guardado was not at 100% fitness after his injury. Guardado too had to leave the match for this. The reason apparently lies in the change of climate, which affected the Mexican players. However, they seem to have now recovered.

Tactically Juan Carlos Osorio is notorious for changing approaches between matches including wholesale formation changes. Do you have any idea or expectation on how Mexico will line-up against Korea?

Also true (regarding Osorio’s tinkering). It’s very difficult to anticipate what Osorio will do on a game-by-game basis. However, I’m not expecting too many changes. He might make a couple – I think Jesus Corona (the Porto player) will start and Edson Alvarez will come into the defense as a right-back. I’m also guessing that it will be a 4-3-3.

What are a couple players that the Korean team should look out for?

Hector Herrera was the best player against Germany and runs the Mexican midfield. Hirving Lozano (Tim’s edit: has been speaking to Barcelona!) is also a player to keep an eye on, he had an amazing season at PSV in the Netherlands as well as scoring against Germany. Hector Moreno is a key player in the Mexican squad as the leader of the defense.

Many Korean fans and a lot of media will have taken note that Korea beat Mexico at the 2016 Olympics. Is there anything Korea can learn from that result? Is this Mexico team remotely similar in style of play and players as compared to that Olympic side?

I think this team has nothing similar with the Olympic team. 2 years ago, Mexico was unlucky, having suffered injuries to key players. Oribe Peralta and Rodolfo Pizarro were both injured in the match against Fiji. Raul Gutierrez (the manager of that team) is very different from Osorio. For example, Hirving Lozano only came on in the second half after starting on the bench, and easily was the best Mexican player (Tim’s edit: this is the guy that was sent off at the death!). That day, Carlos Salcedo and Erick Gutierrez played against South Korea; on Saturday it’ll be just Salcedo while play.

Final thoughts & score prediction?

It will be a tough game. South Korea needs a win and Mexico have to handle their emotions after the win against Germany. I think Mexico will win 2-1.

Three to Watch

  1. The fundamentals. Korea got so many fundamentals wrong against Sweden – poor build-up play, heavy touches, lazy passing, overly simplistic and predictable tactics, not to mention Kim’s poor and unnecessary tackle in the box. Some suspect this is because of fitness levels, others simply think Korean players aren’t that good. Regardless, is Korea able to simply elevate their game a little bit in this match to pose a credible threat to Mexico?
  2. Will Ki Sung-yueng turn up? In our post-match and heart-broken Open Bar chat, Jae mentioned that “Ki Sung-yueng never got out of second gear”. With much more defensive responsibilities on Saturday, Ki will have to be more sharp defensively and able to take up a more active role in transitioning the side to attack.
  3. Cho Hyun-woo’s decision-making. I don’t buy this narrative that Cho will be dropped on Saturday, and that his start against Sweden was somehow “only because Shin doesn’t like that KSG punches”. Cho did show superior decision-making in the friendlies he played, albeit the very small sample size. This match is a real test for him. Mexico will likely have at minimum 2-3 clear cut opportunities from the counter, and Cho doesn’t have the biggest frame. He’ll need to be smart about coming off of his line and using his flexibility and athleticism to make saves.open

The Skinny

World Cup 2018 – Group F, Round 2

June 23rd, 2018, 11am EDT / June 24th, 2018, 12am(midnight) KST

Rostov Arena, Rostov-on-Don, Russia

Last Meeting: Mexico 4-0 Korea Republic, International Friendly (January 29th, 2014)

The Bottom Line

Every World Cup begins a blank slate. Teams that were in fine form before the tournament can flounder, and underdogs can surprise and impress. And regardless of what form the teams were in prior to the tournament, it is what they will do at the finals that will be remembered.

Korea has had an abysmal turn of results. Poor friendly performances ever since Shin took over, save for a few exceptions, had not helped the side’s confidence or spirit before the tournament – and now, with no points to account for from their “easiest” group match, pressure is mounting on the national team to simply do something.

Mexico is a formidable opponent – one who must be respected. Germany’s failure to show El Tri any respect in that regard was exploited mercilessly by Osorio’s men on the counter attack. Though a more balanced game can be expected in this match, suffice it to say that Mexico – and every other side in this group – are now realistically dreaming of the knockout stages. Korea are set to be the whipping boy.

It is in this light that I’ll issue a plea to Shin Tae-yong and his coaching staff – no matter how improbable (impossible?) that they’ll read these words. Just let Korea be Korea. This doesn’t mean sacrificing tactics or ignoring Mexico’s many strengths. On the contrary, the “Let Korea be Korea” philosophy must be simply about embracing Korea’s many talents and giving them the platform to shine, both as individuals and as a collective. Because the only thing worse about 0 points at a World Cup is 0 impact. With promising stars like Lee Seung-woo, Lee Jae-sung and Hwang Hee-chan able to use this World Cup to improve their stock, what a waste it would be to have them hunkered down in another tactically sterile system.

Korea’s strengths lie in attack. It lies in fluidity, and mobility, and dynamism. It has not always been so. But with everything on the line, but expectations so low, they must play without fear. Shin must lead his side without fear. Only a fearless Korea, that is true to itself, will pose Mexico any semblance of a threat on Friday.

So the tactics and the narrative boils down to just this: Let Korea be Korea. And we’ll worry about the rest later.

About Tim Lee 321 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?


  1. If Kim Shinwook starts, I’m not watching this or the German game, and maybe won’t watch until Shin Tae Yong is fired as manager (not saying he should be fired, but just can’t watch this BS anymore. It was fun to complain about it for awhile. Just depressing at this point).


    And is the Korean media seriously speculating about Kim Seunggyu starting? I mean, if that happens… wow.

    Just read Steve Han’s tweets with quotes fromLee Yongpyo- hot damn, he is saying EXACTLY what all of us want to hear. I hope with all of my heart that they are not just words, but actually drive to action

    • Who am I kidding, I’ll be watching even if Kim Shinwook is leading the line and Jung Sungryeong flies in from Korea to try to revamp his amazing legacy. Just might need morning soju then somaek to numb the feels, and then pound some tequila shots to celebrate Mexico’s 7-0 win

      • I understand some of the KSW hate but I feel like he’s kind of being scapegoated (like JWY). They’re okay players but apart from SHJ there wasn’t really another centre forward… we know his limitations well but he’s not the only player letting the team down. Lee Yong, Jang Hyunsoo, Koo Jacheol, hell even Son failed to have an impact…

        • I don’t blame KSW at all for Sweden actually (though I don’t think he should have necessarily played). The tactics didn’t work, and true other players were worse. I definitely wasn’t trying to scapegoat him for Sweden.

          But for me that’s not the point. Others being worse than him on Monday doesn’t mean he should play tomorrow.

          In my opinion there has been no logic to this point for him to even have been called up. I get that maybe there weren’t a TON of options (SHJ………… ok, I’ll shut up). But damn, it’s sad to say but just thinking off the top of my headI would have called up Lee Jeong Hyup over him (maybe he was hurt too… haven’t thought about him in years). You can’t tell me there’s not some young hungry striker in the KLeague, even an uncapped KNT one, that at least deserves a shot- especially since expectations were already low for this WC, give someone a chance instead of trying something that never works.

          If he plays tomorrow and scores, assists on a goal, or even somehow positively contributes to a goal, I will publicly apologize here. But I’m 99% sure that’s not gonna happen. Hope I’m wrong…

          • Let me repeat, to try to be positive: I will **gladly, happily** apologize here if he scores/assists/contributes. I’ll even throw him a bone if he has some positive presence (smh). We have 11 men out there and I just don’t want the striker to be a waste of space.
            But it’s just simple math. The guy has 51 appearances for the KNT and he has scored 10 times- not bad you might say. 0 goals in major tournaments outside East Asia. 1 goal in qualification. 6/10 of those were in friendlies, and none of them were against top 50 countries. That success rate is awful.

            And we’re gonna start him against Mexico? Suddenly it’s gonna work?

            I will continue to praise and support most of the guys on our current team. I love Son, Ki, LSeungwoo, LJaesung. If Kwon, LKeunho, Ji, and Suk were here, I’d love them too. I still have hope for Hwang and give him the benefit of the doubt because he has shown he can produce. And I never thought I’d say this, but after Sweden’s game I’ll publicly kiss the feet of Cho and KimYG (!!) for their great performances.

            But the Wookie gots to go.

            Sorry if it’s harsh! I really just hope I’m jinxing myself right now

      • Midnight game start time in Korea? Yeah, pound the soju win or lose. Me? I have a dream and I see LSW and a 1-0 Korea win. I like my dream.

  2. Hi Jon, I will allow you to bash the Wookie as much as you would like. As you have heard on the podcasts, I do this all the time too. In terms of a hungry K League striker that could’ve been given the shot over the Wookie, I would say Suwon’s Kim Gunhee would be my choice. A 6’1″ young striker with some speed, good finishing, and only 23 years old. Kim Gunhee is actually going to have a shot to go to the Asian Games as a striker. He chose to enlist with Sangju just in case but he has a shot to make that roster and get an exemption. Jon, I will also allow you to talk about Suk Hyun-jun as much as you want. I still agree 100% that he should’ve been chosen over the Wookie as well. Lee Jung-hyeop unfortunately has fallen off the radar as he is now struggling for minutes in the J1 League. Haven’t heard anything good about his season there (he left for J1 after another failure to help Busan IPark get promoted back to the K League 1).

  3. I wish our boys all the luck in the world, but they really need a miracle. I have no idea just how much STY can turn things around in just a few days, but fingers crossed.

    I hope LSW starts on the wing, with HHC as a one top, and KSY has a defensive midfielder partner so that he has chance to roam a little more forward.

  4. Thanks for the permission 🙂 Yes I know most of the Tavern guys agree with me, so I shouldn’t be beating a dead horse. But he keeps making his way into the starting lineup… it’s a vicious cycle. Hoping to wake up tomorrow with news of an awesome lineup.

    Look, I don’t hate the Wookie and don’t want to bash him. I respect what he has done in the K League and specifically for Jeonbuk. It’s just that I don’t exactly cheer for Jeonbuk… I’m a fan of the KNT, and still believe in this team. And leadership continually puts him in the KNT and sets him up for failure. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that ever since we became god-awful in 2011 (or maybe after the 2010 WC, where we were still at least respectable), that’s actually the time the Wookie started to rise up the ranks of our team.

    The “Wookie era” as I’m calling it is gonna be looked upon as a really bad one in KNT history (2011- hopefully Summer 2018). I still think Son and Ki have a chance to end their “eras” on a high note. It’s not gonna happen with KSW as the center forward though. I’ll check out Kim Gunhee- if you’re right, wish he had gotten a shot.

    • LOL i wasn’t telling you to politely shut up haha. I just am in a “stop bashing players” phase because it’s not easy for them either. Again I think it was stupid of Shin to call up 5 CBs but not a single replacement CF, but it is what it is.

      Not personally sold on KGH tbh. He’s always been a little too static for my liking.

      • I’m not at the point of publicly apologizing to Kim Shin Wook. But even I will admit that subbing him in makes more sense than HONG CHUL…. I doubt the Wookie could have provided a goal, but since Suk and Ji aren’t available, you need an attacking presence

  5. Will note that the 4-0 Mexico friendly back in 2014 did not feature any of Korea’s international players for what it’s worth.

    On to the business at hand: I’m not super optimistic going into tomorrow’s match. We all knew it would get progressively more difficult as the tournament went on. And after that Sweden loss, things are not looking any better. The issue wasn’t even that the KNT lost and failed to get 0 points out of their opener. They looked absolutely toothless. They lacked any energy. They didn’t look like they wanted to be out there. There was no joy. 538 predicts: 19% chance Korea wins, 55% chance Mexico wins, 26% chance it’s a draw.

    I really hope LSW starts tomorrow and injects the energy and creativity we’ve seen from him during the friendlies, in flashes at Hellas, and throughout his youth career. If KSW starts, that would represent a blatant disregard for what happened versus Sweden. I’m really hoping Shin doesn’t do that. I’m also curious to see what he does for defense. Kim YG has to be locked on at this point. I, and many others here, do not understand the obsession with Jang HS but I imagine he will start as the other CB. The interesting question will be who plays as our fullbacks. Does Lee Y get another start, despite his sub par performance? Also, does Kim MW get a shot at redemption? We’ll see.

    Let’s all hope for a win tomorrow! I’m optimistically and probably delusionally predicting a 2-1 win tomorrow! Son and Lee JS on the score sheet.

  6. Given how few chances KNT creates through a buildup of play, what is the logic of short corner after short corner when it rarely creates a dangerous situation?

  7. Embarrassing on multiple fronts: so many dirty fouls, zero attack, amateur. I guess we should have expected it. I guess most of us did. But I still get hopeful before the games.
    The saddest part is that Lee Seung Woo looked so awful out there

    We need serious help…

    Is Stielike still available? Hong Myung bo? Choi Kang Hee…….???? jaebal……..

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