2023 AFC Asian Cup RO16: South Korea vs Saudi Arabia Recap

Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors founder Roy Ghim put it best: “I think I lost a couple years off my life watching that”. What an emotional rollercoaster these three hours (!) were. Anyway, I apologize for the delay as I was at work all day after the match until maybe 1-2 hours ago. But in this post I will go over a few things that I think went right, things that went wrong, and general talking points after the match.

The first talking point is surely the back 3 system. I think the idea was actually a very positive one. The three CBs in a back 3 don’t JUST defend – our CBs were able to roam about in the defensive midfield zone and help win the ball in the midfield alongside Lee Jae Sung and Hwang In Beom (since neither of them are holding midfielders). Saudi Arabia like to pass and move – and by having Kim Young Kwon, Jung Seung Hyeon, and Kim Min Jae aggressively coming off the line to engage in duels, we were able to avoid the major mistake from prior matches – having huge pockets of empty space in front of the defensive line, which led to goals in all three group stage games. This time, Kim Young Kwon or Jung Seung Hyeon most often, also Kim Min Jae at times, would quickly close down that space to negate the Saudi attack. When one would fight in the middle of the park, the remaining two would maintain a 4 back shape. So our midfield was much tighter as a result, we conceded much less space, and our backline actually did a really good job of neutralizing the front two of Al-Dawsari and Al-Shehri. It frustrated Mancini visibly to the point where he subbed out Al-Shehri for Radif, a much more physically solid attacker who would end up scoring. More on that later. So thank you Klinsmann for correcting the mistakes of prior games. Thank you for not being so stubborn.

Let’s talk about our offense now. It was very clear the Saudis would play very offensively – so clearly the idea was to play slightly more defensively and try to counter via exposed space behind the Saudi defense. In theory, Son Heung Min being a world class counterattacker should have made this strategy work really well. Unfortunately, it turns out that our team is not the best at counterattacking, and that Son truly shines with world class players around him as opposed to someone who can create something out of nothing like Hwang Hee Chan or Lee Kang In. But we have seen this time and time again so not much of a surprise I guess. Now Son Heung Min did get to the end of through balls at times and there was one offside call that actually wasn’t on a replay where SHM was 1 v 1 with their goalkeeper. But overall, I think the transition from winning the ball to getting the ball to Son Heung Min was really poor. And Son Heung Min as well as many others had really poor first touches this game. And as described above, Lee Jae Sung and Hwang In Beom got muscled off the ball a bit too frequently.

One other thing to discuss is that often we were outnumbered in the attacking third. In a three back vs three back system, you need the fullbacks to go up high to provide width so that Son Heung Min, Lee Kang In, and Jung Woo Young have space to work with. But while KTH is totally a wingback type of FB hugging the touchline and getting called offsides many times, Seol Young Woo is slightly more defensively oriented. And I think he could’ve been a bit more involved in the attack from the get go (obviously in the second half he was very high up and got the assist to Cho). Not that I think he had a bad game – but that I think he could’ve done just a little bit better as a wingback (he’s clearly better as a traditional fullback).

These two reasons are probably why people were complaining so hard “omg we’re sitting back against the Saudis and having no offense” – yes, but I do not place the blame at all on the 3 back system. Overall I think the back 3 was a good idea.

It was a good idea until Abdullah Radif came in. He was quite effective as a target man and often won physical battles against our defenders save for KMJ. I think his goal was a bit serendipitous, and although I’ve seen some murmurings that Kim Min Jae was at fault, I think this is total bs. Yes, I think that Kim Young Kwon should’ve marked #14 better since KMJ was clearly marking Al Dawsari, but it’s pretty clear that Al Dawsari never meant to send a through ball – it looked really awkward and anyone receiving a ball like that would try to control it. He probably miscontrolled it and it ended up being a through pass, and in that situation where the defense is expecting the attacker to control the ball when there’s also a guy running in behind – no one can catch up to that.

A very poor response to falling behind: after the goal we conceded a LOT of momentum to the Saudis. There was a point in the game where I thought this game was already over and that we’d even see a 2-0. On the few times where we did get the ball, we would just rotate the ball from right to left through our defenders without any good attacking movement, because no one got into proper positions. We would pass from SYW –> KYK –> KMJ –> JSH –> KTH –> JSH –> KMJ –> KYK –> SYW… you get the point. None of these players were really capable of getting passes into the middle – because most of the time, no one was really available.

Then Klinsmann made a very positive tactical change – as Saudi Arabia started defending with 11 men behind the ball and we were getting absolutely nothing done through the center, we started relying on some potent weapons of ours – Lee Kang In’s crosses from the left, Kim Tae Hwan’s crosses on the right, and Hwang Hee Chan’s runs behind the defense (something that I thought Son would be better at but for some reason it’s always HHC who outshines SHM on the national team stage). And with this (and thanks to tiring Saudi legs), we were able to apply some intense pressure and create chance after chance after chance. Many of which were blocked by their GK who surely deserves the MVP award. Seriously we were so close to scoring on so many occasions I can’t even name or describe them all. The Saudis looked gassed and obviously tried to grassroll at any moment as all the teams in that region do (seriously, what kind of goalkeeper gets repeatedly injured like that, and what kind of outfield player goes down clutching their balls when they got lightly tapped on the lower leg) but fortunately we were able to get one back at the very last second. Thank you Cho Gue Sung – we would’ve lost without you.

Thoughts on extra time: I seriously couldn’t believe we never got the 2-1. Partial incompetent finishing, partial GK heroics. That’s all I have to say. It was stressful. Especially the very last few minutes when the Saudis did end up getting some momentum back.

So to summarize – we had a good idea that worked defensively but our counterattacking ability let us down. Our response immediately after conceding was weak, but after Klinsmann’s tactical change we showed serious grit and determination to chase the equalizer, and I truly applaud the team for improving on that front. We had some truly shambolic moments in extra time where we REALLY should’ve ended the game, but whatever. Such is life. But I am very happy that Klinsmann was willing to try different things and make the right subs mid-game. That much is a huge positive. Maybe being part of the FIFA Technical Group or whatever it was called actually helped!

About Cho Gue Sung – there’s a lot of murmurings in the media about how CGS is the hero, how he should be a candidate to start the next game (any player is), how poetic it is that he scored in the same stadium where he scored 2 against Ghana, and how he’s redeemed himself. Yes, I agree with these statements to some extent but you can’t just blanket redeem someone JUST BECAUSE of one goal. If anything I was more frustrated by his terrible on the ground finishing and that one scene where we had an obvious open goal but he passed instead of shooting. To me, the big takeaways are that 1) this game should be a good confidence boost for a man enduring lots of hardships, enduring abuse on social media, and just being very out of form in general. And 2), more importantly, I think this game proved that Cho has a role on the team. His aerial ability is an asset – and on his day he could be everything we hoped the Wookie would be. When we run out of ideas? Cross cross cross. It worked this time. But definitely should NOT our plan A.

About Cho Hyun Woo and the PK shootout – I thought Cho had lost his edge just a little bit after Germany 2018, but he really did save us in the end with key saves. In a PK shootout, the GK is the most important. Its all about saving the kicks that are saveable (as the well taken ones are not). Every single time CHW got the direction right, and saved 2 of 4. Thank you San Cho, and thank you Andreas Köpke for his amazing GK coaching.

Little things of note: Mancini walking out early is a big talking point (pretty bad look obviously). There are also lots of player interviews circulating right now and to me the standout is Seol Young Woo’s, where he says that 1) Son Heung Min told the players that it’s OK to miss PKs and that he’d take full responsibility for the result, 2) Seol himself knows Cho Hyun Woo the best on the team and he knew he would save the PKs. Also yellow cards – we have 10 players with yellows (!) so anyone who gets booked against Australia would get suspended for a potential semifinal (if we win of course) against Tajikistan or Jordan. And finally, we really need a defensive mid. Lee Jae Sung + Hwang In Beom are not physical enough to hold onto the ball and drive it forward, let alone break play to win back possession. Kwon Hyuk Kyu I’m counting on you…

One more thing that really cracked me up:

They allowed a freaking falcon into the stadium??? I think it’s taxidermy but hard to tell. Wild stuff…

I would love to post a photo of the GK sprawled out on the ground with his eyes closed (침대축구 at its finest), but sadly I cannot find one. There’s this one though from back in the day – close enough.

And finally: our bench and staff’s celebrations

Australia preview to follow tomorrow considering we only get 2 days to rest to Australia’s 4. This is the price we pay for finishing second. But to summarize, I feel like this Australia side is not as fearsome as the prior ones we’ve faced. I think it should be winnable. It’s concerning though that our counterattacking is not quite up to par because against them the Son / Hwang counter duo should be our most potent weapon.

*to be updated throughout the day tomorrow*

About Jinseok 261 Articles
Diehard Korean football fan. https://www.taegukwarriors.com/jinseoks-story/


  1. Two points I very much agree with:
    1) The Radif goal was VERY fortunate and hard to blame the defense for that one. Just the kind of bounce that’s nearly impossible to predict, and once the ball goes through you just have to hope the striker misses. Unfortunately he didn’t.
    2) Both LJS and HIB had poor games at the base of midfield, which in my view made it impossible for us to transition into offense during the first 2/3 of the match. I give credit to the opponent for disrupting the play and being physical, but you have to hope one or both can have better games going forward or that we find another option. The games will only get tougher though….

    • a HIB-LJS midfield will absolutely collapse against Australia. We need height and physicality. I hate to say this but we NEED PYW. Australia preview coming up shortly.

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