The Spain Test: The KNT falls short 6:1

The test : Korea’s much vaunted defensive record since 2015 against Asian opponents, burnt to the ground against cold hard reality as world class European side Spain gave a 6-1 whomping. To be fair, Korea put up a fight for the first 30 minutes, but when David Silva’s perfect free kick punched the first hole in Korea’s defense, the balloon deflated quicker than you could say “Ai-gun-ah”. 60 seconds later, confidence waning, Jang Hyun- unwisely back headed towards the relative safety of keeper Kim Jin-Hyeon – an unweighted header with Morata lurking nearby forced a dive – and it slipped out. Morata to Fabregas later and suddenly Spain is up 2 goals. 7 minutes later, cue further defensive lapse from Kim Ki-hee and Kim Jin-Hyeon + nutmeg through the keepers legs and Spain was tearing it up. Add 3 more Spanish goals in the 2nd half and it was the worst defeat since 1996, back then a 6-2 drubbing from Iran.

But let’s take a moment to step back -not hyperventilate too much, avoid absolutist defeatism- and accept it along with some good that happened alongside atrocious mistakes… 

An embarrassing defeat, yes -but lets face it, honestly who thought this was going to be anything but a tic in the loss column? Given that this was a test match of sorts (for Spain, a tuneup for Euros and Korea, a steely test before World Cup Qualifiers, an honorable defeat was what many Red Devil supporters were expecting. That didn’t happen. So what can we take away from the match?


First, a bit of context:

  • Uli Stielike’s been pressed to test out Korea’s defensive record against world class opposition, as Korea had run up an impressive record of conceding a scant amount of goals since the Asian Cup in early 2015. This record had been manufactured in Asia however, and for the record, we must applauded the audacity to go up in an away match against a giant of the modern football era.
  • Another thing to know before you pile up some yeots to toss at the KNT: this was far from Korea’s best starting XI. You could argue that’s a strike against Stielike’s managerial abilities.  If you were a Stielike apologist- you’d factor in some of the impactful K-Leaguers coming off a long flight yesterday with short recovery time. Let’s examine the starting XI in a moment, but one more context to today’s score…
  • Looking back at the atrocious mistakes, I’d say 4 out of 6 goals conceded might have been prevented with a different keeper (with a degree of blame to distribute to the defenders around him).   This post game match report can really be condensed to a great deal of Kim Jin-Hyeon’s goalkeeping errors as the factor in the gap loss. Questionable timing, balls (not singular) slipped from his grasp, miscues & nutmegs, it was difficult to watch. Kim, on his day, isn’t a bad keeper mind you. But it wasn’t his day and when that was clear by halftime, Stielike has to be called into account on why he didn’t take him out for someone like Jung Sung-Ryong. Uli really didn’t do any favors for the team or for Kim for that matter.  Spain had just too much quality not to be undeserving of a victory, but if we could go back in time and subtract the goalkeeping mishaps as a factor, I might (tepidly) make the case for a 2:1 Spain factored win rather than the 6:1 rout that did happen.


While Spain fielded a quasi/mostly A squad, with Iniesta holding court at full power (just look at what he did orchestrating Barca in the Spanish Cup match last week!), Korea went with a conventional 4-2-3-1 – but with a few surprises:

Wait, Seongnam’s Hwang Ui-Jo up top?  Is that Nam Tae-Hee in the hole, after a few seasons playing in the Middle East?  Where’s Jeonbuk’s dynamic Lee Jae-Sung? Where’s Porto’s Suk Hyun-Jun?  Not even in the roster: European based Lee Chung-Yong, Park Joo-Ho, Kim Jin-Su, or Kim Bo-Kyung (well, he’s not in Europe any longer, rather a recent Jeonbuk transfer). Other than Kimbo (who really ought to have been in the roster), Uli stated the former’s lack of playing time for their respective clubs took them out of consideration. But then, what about Yun and Ji? Not consistent by the least.  Those players didn’t do too badly overall by the way. The reality of a shallow roster – with ok but limited quality in quantity is fairly known among long-time Taeguk Warrior watchers, but days like today really makes that fact even more glaring.  Add to the fact players like Koo Ja-Cheol, Augsburg’s top goalscorer out injured – again, nothing new -but the sad fact of Korea’s shallow pool of resources is in stark contrast to the other side of the pitch, a deep, deep squad – one of the planet’s best.

Granted, even fielding this XI could’ve still garnered loss, but given the shot in the arm difference before and after Suk Hyun-Jun, Lee Jae-Sung and Ju Se-Jong made after their 2nd half introduction, you have to reason that the weaker hand was played by Korea at the beginning. Playing armchair hindsight manager, I might have opted for a 4-4-1-1 (with some players not even in the 20 man roster – but sadly Koo, as much as I’d like to get him in there – injured and out).


Suk Hyun-Jun

Son Heung-Min

Kimbo*/Ju Se-Jong    Ki Sung-Yeung       Lee Jae-Sung/Park Joo-Ho*   Lee Chung-Yong*

Yun Suk Young         Kim Young-Gwon*      Hong Jeong-Ho/Kwak       Jang Hyun-Su


Note: I CB pair of Kim Young-Gwon and Hong Jeong-Ho seem to work last time out.  I don’t mind Kwak as well – he’s becoming more reliable as a CB with age.  4-4-1-1 isn’t Uli’s style but I wonder if it would have snuffed out enough of Spain’s fiery attacks. It could perhaps give a different look to their attacking options as well.


Let’s start with the good, before we get to the ugly. All too brief positive takeaways (not in any particular order):

  • 71st minute: Suk nearly scored on his Porto teammate, Iker Casillas – which would’ve been poetic justice after their much dissected and debated (mildly?) racist twitter exchange recently.  The two connected after the game with an exchange of jerseys.  The shot itself?  It was set up with a good bit of quality provided by Suk driving down inside the area, juking his defender and getting space on the right to pressure Casillas. His shot across goal surprised Casillas expecting a near post shot, but it bounced just off the far post!
  • Yun Suk-Young and Ji Dong-Won. Not perfect, but not a bad performance for the QPR/Charlton Athletic left back. Yun continually charged with courage often down the left, making a nuisance of himself for the Spanish defense. His crosses and connecting passes were less then desirable however. Meanwhile, Ji surprised me today. Injuries this season has kept stalling his progress at Augsburg, but he showed some moxie and deft skillful touches to get past the Spanish midfield and set up some dangerous situations. Nearly got one right before HT, but went just wide of target.
  • Lee Jae-Sung and Ju Se-Jong. Both have impressed for their clubs in the K-League. Ju Se-Jong has been on my radar recently, a revelation for FC Seoul with his daring-do in aggressively and effectively advancing the ball past hapless defenders last week against Urawa to set up some impressive goals. As substitutes, they didn’t let the depressing scoreline get to them and Korea, for stretches of time late in the game, looked revitalized. The Lee Jae-Sung / Ju Se-Jong connection was made to get Korea it’s consolation goal late in the game. It was already a foregone conclusion that there would be no comeback, but it still provided a glimpse of what was possible with a good build up and an even better looking goal.
  • Son didn’t get on the scoreline, but the Tottenham man almost nabbed one earlier in the game. I mentioned earlier the first 30 minutes when Korea were still in it -during which they threatened Spain on several occasions during that stretch. Son came closest, getting space on the left, but his shot seemed to be taken too quickly and his near post shot went wide. If only the quality to finish in the final third was just a hair better…
  • Korea’s support in Austria. At Salzburg stadium, the Taeguk Warrior support kept on going despite the downhill slide on the pitch. They gave them an ovation and the KNT went out to applaud their support in spite of everything.


Onto the ugly. I could go on but here’s some highlights:

  • Players who didn’t impress right away: 1st half Hwang Ui-Jo.  Not enough quality to penetrate effectively from the Seongnam forward. Nam Tae-Hee (though he did seem to improve in the 2nd half). Kim Ki-Hee – as a centerback, he seemed outclassed a bit too often. Han Kook-Young, kinda invisible as Ki’s double pivot partner.
  • Son Heung-Min in the 2nd half was growing more ineffective. At that point, he, like the rest of the team, lost confidence, creativity, and out of ideas on ways to get around, find space and slip the ball to their forwards (he was furious with himself after being subbed off, throwing bottles and such around on the bench).  Captain Ki had some sloppy passes -not very Ki like (a few passes were brilliant but he seemed to be lacking that usual Ki touch).
  • Curious to see how Team Korea would respond to conceding.  There wasn’t too much that could be done about Silva’s free kick at the half hour mark. I wonder if even Neuer himself could’ve stopped it. But it rattled Korea far beyond necessary. Given that this was a friendly, I was looking for more fearlessness. The team fragility was exposed almost after conceding, given Jang’s poor back header and Kim’s mishandling it, leading to an immediate 2nd goal. Even then, if there was a team psychologist, it would’ve been encouraging to see a team simply shake it off (harder said than done) and push onward as they did in the first 30 minutes. They did just the opposite. It was collapse, a running trainwreck in confidence -something that was akin to the Algeria WC rout. It wasn’t until partway through the 2nd half and a raft of substitutions that we saw a glimpse of what they could accomplish against such world class opponents.
  • Stielike. Enough said. I’m trying not to judge him too harshly (too late?) given the flight problems Suk and the K-Leaguers had.  Kim Jin-Hyeon, he needs to own for not pulling him sooner. I’d like to see what he can do to improve the formation and tuned up lineup for Sunday’s friendly match against the Czech Republic.
  • Netizens. Enough said.



Final thought: You can’t get a better test than an away game against Spain. Korea came out far short – but subtract the goalkeeper errors, it might have still been a respectable loss. However, I’m not joining the netizen bandwagon who are mindlessly going apeshit and blaming the European players while extolling the virtues of the K-League based players. That’s utterly rubbish. Ju Se-Jong did well but only able to find the back of the net on a team based effort.  That’s Korea’s style, if there is such a thing. The reality is also: the team as a whole lost badly.  But it’s not an end-of-the-world loss. They can do better, and they were for a spell; that is the best we can objectively and honestly take away from today.  Can they pick themselves up and represent on Sunday -that is a more interesting question going forward.

*Final, extra thought (Jae edition) – I just wanted to add my two cents. Certainly it was a rather dire match overall, and I applaud Roy for being able to pull positives from it. I won’t pick through the starting XI as Roy has already done so, but I would like to touch on a few points.

  • The difference in technical level: I don’t think anyone thought Korea would compare with Spain on a technical level, but watching it on the same pitch was quite striking. Spain easily completed one-touch passes and cross field switches, while Korea struggled to connect on relatively simple ones. The problems in the youth system and lack of technical development has been highlighted before, but this really showed the difference.
  • The first 29: Korea was actually okay. They went toe-to-toe with Spain. Yes, there were a couple hair raising moments when Iniesta, Nolito, and Bellerin got chances, but Korea wasn’t backing down. Perhaps if the Jang Hyunsoo-Kim Jinhyeon back header came off properly, the game is different…
  • Old habits die hard: While we’ve seen improvements under Stielike, the weak Korean mentality is still there. Heads certainly dropped after the 2nd goal, and there was no coming back from the 3rd. Also, speaking of old habits – set pieces. What the hell happened for Morata’s first goal? Kim Keehee and Hong Jeongho both jump, Kim Jinhyeon comes out, but Morata gets a clean, free header? 어이없네…

On Twitter I posted a poll asking which loss was more embarrassing: the 1-4 loss under Choi Kanghee or this one under Stielike. Thus far the results are pretty heavily leaning this one. Perhaps because of the bigger scoreline, perhaps because it’s more recent, or perhaps because it’s quite simply the more embarrassing one. But the reason I asked has to do with a thought I floated after the World Cup. That was, is Korea more interested in being a dominant power in AFC (with lots of attacking flair and goals), or a more solid team within the broader global stage (more organized, defensively solid)? In an ideal world, you could have both, but if we’re honest Korea is not going to get there anytime soon, so if you had to pick one, which would it be? We gripped (online) about the style we saw the U19 team put out at the recent JS Cup under Ahn Iksoo, but there’s no doubt they were tough to beat and got results. Conversely we’ve seen the senior side put on some wonderful attacking football under Stielike. I still wonder which people would prefer (share in the comments please).


About Roy Ghim 454 Articles
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  1. The loss came down to what has been Korea’s biggest problem for years: the lack of a decent goalkeeper. Playing in front of an error prone keeper puts the defense on edge and makes it hard for them to play their natural game. Unfortunately the problem doesn’t just lie with Kim Jin-Hyun, it is endemic to the Korean game. Jung Sung-ryong is famous for his calamities and barely a K-League weekend goes by without one goalkeeping howler or another.
    Thought it was strange that Hwang Ui-jo got to start. Every time I’ve watched the national team play, Suk has been head and shoulders above him. Even going back to the last competitive match against Lebanon, the introduction of Suk Hyun-jun added an impetus to the attack in the final stages. Hwang Ui-jo currently isn’t at the level required for national team players.

    • Not much Uli can do about the goalkeeping situation or the quality of Silva’s free kick. But after the free kick, Korean heads dropped as if they were resigned to their fate. This is where Uli needs to earn his paycheque. He needs to change the attitude of the players and get them to believe that they can beat Spain, otherwise the lack of confidence becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • Curious Steve, if you also think there’s a lack of on-field leadership within the current group. Ki Sungyueng is a good player, but he’s never particularly struck me as a leader. I know leadership can come in many forms, but Ki doesn’t tick the boxes for me personally. But, can’t think of another regular in the squad that’s any better (maybe Koo?).

      • How exactly is he supposed to do that? These guys are barely with him. If any coach can help, it’s their club coaches, but is that their concern? Probably not. I think this is a Korean cultural attitude problem… down the line in every aspect of the culture, people are so afraid of getting shamed in a public level. If Stielike can figure out how to fix that, he’s a freakin genius that people across the country can benefit from.

    • Steve, you’re absolutely right. ROK’s goalies are just flat out terrible. The defense had a lot of “ball watchers” as well, with Spaniards roaming free unmarked in the last third. They’re not communicating nor seem to want to communicate. On the bright side, I saw some good on the offensive side.

  2. fantastic review of the game and overall attitude….

    This game is what Korea needed….now we will see what the team is made of what Uli can do to improve. Instead of lofty praises and fake gold trophies, we went against the best and this is what we got. I know self evaluation and deconstructing our team is hard, but necessary. If Korean soccer is serious about being the best, we must play the best. Perhaps this is what the Federation needed as well instead of bragging about the our Swiss Cheese defense against teams like Lebanon.

    Lots of room for improvement and lots of time to make improvements for 2018.

    I still think Uli has a plan throughout this madness so I will keep my faith in him for now.


  3. Hey Roy,

    Great post-game analysis, appreciate that. I was half-expecting Korea to lose maybe by three goal differences, but when they started losing it and ended up 6 goals conceded, I was just laughing out of shock. We were okay for the first 30 minutes, putting up good fight against the Spanish players and later at the end of game in last 10 minutes. However, Stielike has some “favoritism” with certain players that he won’t swap out until the last minute like Jang-Hyun-Soo, Kim-Kee-Hee? There were disappointing along with Yun-Suk-Young and KJH. Especially, YSY he kept back-passing every time and not advancing forward! It was so frustrating! His oh-whoever-receive-my-cross-I-don’t-care is worst (not surprising as this is one of his issues as players from before). I really don’t see anything special with JHS…This match showed me players I don’t want to see ever from the KNT. Just my thoughts. Have a great day.

  4. Korea in 2015 and 2016 are clearly not the same. The away games in autumn against Lebanon and Kuwait were really convincing. Due to the lack of form from most of the European players, they’re struggling now in 2016. The game against Lebanon (at home) and Thailand were not from the same Korea we saw in 2015.

    • Again, these teams (Kuwait and Lebanon) are cream puffs….until we play the best, we will only be Kings of Asia (if that, at best).

      I think this game was a huge wake up call for Korean Soccer and that we have miles to go if we want to compete in 2018.

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