The first part (of four) in an attempt to analyze the call ups. Starting with the forwards. Technically only two strikers were called: Kim Shin-Wook and Lee Dong-Gook. One could argue that Son Heung-Min and Ji Dong-Won are also forwards, but since Choi Kang-Hee tends to use them as wide midfielders, they will be included in the midfield discussion.
*Note – The main content of this article is complete, but check back as I will (hopefully) be adding some video to better highlight what I mean.
Of the 24 players called, it is this call up that will probably generate the most controversy. Lee’s history is quite well documented. Unfortunate injuries and underwhelming performances have turned him from ‘the next big thing’ to just another decent player. His move to Jeonbuk Motors seemed to re-spark the player nicknamed ‘The Lion King’, and when his Jeonbuk boss became the national team boss, Lee was duly returned to the fold. This, coupled with Park Chu-Young’s dramatic drop in form (plus his scandal), saw Lee controversially take the starting forward spot. Initial returns were good. Lee showed the same form that he had for Jeonbuk, proving to be a difficult player to handle in and around the penalty box. But, as time went on, the old Lee Dong-Gook reared his head. His play, particularly without the ball, lacked effort. Goals became near misses, and the team stagnated. Last summer Choi was forced to drop his former star from the call ups, but he subsequently brought him back later.
At his best, Lee Dong-Gook is a lethal penalty box player. A player who can play with his back to goal, make space for himself, and score from anywhere around the box. At his worst, he’s a useless lump. A player who will slow down attacks, make selfish decisions, and misses any and all half-decent opportunities. The problem (at least one of them) with Lee Dong-Gook is that there rarely seems to be any in-between. His games seem to be either very good performances or really bad. This is due, most likely, to the fact that he offers nothing in terms of build up play. Lee Dong-Gook is not capable, of at least not willing, to drop deep to pick up the ball. He is not capable of spreading the play to the wings. So, if he’s not scoring, he’s not doing anything.
In simplified terms, Kim Shin-Wook is a younger and taller version of Lee Dong-Gook. There are aspects of Kim’s game that are better than Lee’s, and aspects where he is worse. Kim Shin-Wook is a bigger aerial threat. And at times he has shown he is perfectly capable of being a dominant aerial-presence. However, this rarely shows at the international level, where defenders are more athletic and more adept at the art of defending. The technical failings of Kim’s game, positioning and timing, are exposed, and Kim’s performances suffer. Besides that, Kim is also less technically skilled with the ball at his feet. It’s here, in my opinion, that Lee Dong-Gook really outshines his younger counterpart. For his size, Lee is quite good with the ball (not dribbling, but control). While Kim is not bad, he frequently seems to have a mini panic attack when the ball comes to him, particularly if his back is to goal and there is pressure (this may not actually be true, but it always seems that way to me).
Kim Shin-Wook has yet to really earn a consistent run-out with the senior squad, largely due to the presence of Lee Dong-Gook and Park Chu-Young, but got his biggest chance in the last qualifier against Qatar. His performance was less than convincing, and after that the knives came out (including from yours truly). The one thing that Kim does consistently offer, that Lee Dong-Gook does not, is a link up player. While he’s not a brilliant link up player, when compared to the likes of Mario Mandzukic or Robert Lewandowski or even Karim Benzema, he does the simple jobs well. He can win a long ball, and then play a simple pass backwards. What he won’t do is win the long ball, use some skill to turn, and then play a decisive pass to players running by him.
Why these two?
The biggest question that people seem to have when these two get called is, “Why?” The answer, simply put, is there aren’t any other options. At least not when it comes to players who can lead the line by themselves. Park Chu-Young should have gotten called for Qatar, but now he’s injured and has been out for a few weeks. Ji Dong-Won has largely been converted to a wide midfield role. Son Heung-Min isn’t a center forward by trade. Other European-based options like Suk Hyun-Joon and Park Jung-Bin are young and completely untested at the international level. In Korea, the leading scorer in the KLC is . . . Kim Shin-Wook with 7 goals. After him the next highest Korean scorer is Busan IPark’s Lim Sang-Hyup (5 goals), but he’s a wide midfielder. After him is, you guessed it, Lee Dong-Gook with 4 goals. Simply put, there just aren’t any other options out there. The player pool, while full of talented attacking midfielders, is desperately short of quality strikers.
The key word in the previous paragraph is “simple”. If we want to delve into the other options, the question gets a bit more complicated. While there are younger options, the aforementioned Ji Dong-Won and Son Heung-Min, it would take a change in how the team plays and a bit of courage. Neither player are typical number 9’s like Lee Dong-Gook and Kim Shin-Wook are. When Ji Dong-Won was used a the lone striker under Cho Kwang-Rae, he often would drift wide left, where he would receive the ball in space, rather than play with his back to goal, receive the ball, then turn (which seems to be what Choi Kang-Hee wants). Most managers seem to see the wide role as his future as he’s been used there at his club (both Sunderland and Augsburg) and by potentially-future national team boss Hong Myeong-Bo at the Olympics. It is interesting though, that when Koo Ja-Cheol went out injured, Augsburg shifted Ji more central, and Ji became a much more influential player for them.
To re-introduce him as a lone striker could potentially complicate things. First off, it would take a re-adjustment on Ji’s part to re-acquaint himself with the lone forward role. A role he really hasn’t played in a couple years. Beyond that, particularly with Koo Ja-Cheol and Ki Sung-Yueng out, the other players would need to adjust to Ji’s particular skill set. Few of the players called up have played with Ji as a lone forward (Lee Chung-Yong is the only one that jumps to mind). To do so, wouldn’t be an impossible task, but it seems unlikely that a manager as conservative as Choi Kang-Hee would attempt it in such a high-risk situation.
Son Heung-Min presents a more interesting case. A player with attacking talent to spare, but has yet to really hit the heights that are expected of him. Choi Kang-Hee is partially to blame for that, in that he doesn’t really seem to know, or really care, how to maximize his ability. Wide or up top? His smaller frame doesn’t really seem to suit a 9 position, but his goal scoring ability certainly does. Certainly using Son Heung-Min as the primary striker would require significant changes and adjustments to the playing style of the team. I won’t go too much more into Son, as that would take up at least a whole post on it’s own.
In a previous post, I advocated a false 9 role for Koo Ja-Cheol, and Jinseok mentioned that Kim Bo-Kyung could also thrive in this role. I would be shocked if Choi Kang-Hee ever tried something this “radical”, but still think it may be worth a try in some friendly or after qualification to Brazil has been secured. There has to be some point where we think about the future, and not just the here and now.
Getting the best of what we’ve got
But, let’s face reality. There are two strikers called, and Choi Kang-Hee calling the shots. Ji Dong-Won and Son Heung-Min have a, let’s say, less than 10% chance of starting at center forward against Lebanon. I think both Lee and Kim would have to be injured and unable to play for that to happen. So, how can we maximize the use of those two? The general answer for both is, be more direct. Any ideas of short passing, possession, killer through balls, have to go out the window. Neither of these two players fit that system.
If Kim Shin-Wook keeps his starting spot, then the plan should fit something close to what many think of as the “English-style”. Long balls from the back. Kim knocks it down or controls, then passes to one of the central midfielders. They then spread the ball wide to the full backs or wingers, who then cross for Kim Shin-Wook to head in. Simple, and not very pretty, but probably the most effective thing they can do. A straight up 4-4-2 would probably work well for Kim Shin-Wook.
Kim Shin-Wook / Lee Keun-Ho
Lee Seung-Gi / Kim Nam-Il / Lee Myeong-Joo / Lee Chung-Yong
Lee Keun-Ho would be the logical choice to partner Kim Shin-Wook given their fruitful partnership at Ulsan. Lee Seung-Gi and Lee Chung-Yong are probably the best crossers of the ball (and the most natural wide players). Kim Nam-Il provides some defensive cover, and Lee Myeong-Joo an attacking central option.
Lee Dong-Gook is a slightly more difficult proposition. Despite his size and strength, I don’t really see Lee as much of an aerial presence, so the strategy for Kim doesn’t seem like it would work as well. A more patient possession game won’t work because the opposition will get 9 or 10 players behind the ball, and as soon as he touches it, he’ll have 2-4 defenders around him. Counter-attack? Sorry, he’s not fast enough to keep up or beat defenders. The ideal way, I think, is to be direct, but in medium-sized bites. Balls can’t go from defense to attack, but rather go through the midfield first. The key is that there can’t be any recycling. No sideways or backwards passes. No chances for the defense to get back and make themselves compact. What Lee Dong-Gook needs is space. To receive, turn, and shoot, preferably around the penalty area. Something that, in modern international football, is quite difficult.
The above video shows some of Lee Dong-Gook’s goal in the 2011 season. Note how most of them are first touch or two touch goals.
The key then, is to put dangerous attacking players behind Lee that require the opposition midfield and defenders to honor their presence. Either through off the ball movement or just being a threat. Players that make defender move out of their original positions or that midfielders need to come press. The key player in that group could be Son Heung-Min, but in reality, it will largely depend on the formation that is used. A 4-4-2 or a 4-1-4-1 would probably be best. In a 4-4-2, would be good to partner Lee Dong-Gook. Son’s pace and attacking threat would force defenders to follow him, and midfielders to track him as well. Son himself might have a quiet game, but could open space for other players. In a 4-1-4-1, where the central midfielders would need to track back as well, more rounded threats like Lee Keun-Ho and Lee Myeong-Joo would be better options.
Lee Dong-Gook / Son Heung-Min
Lee Keun-Ho / Lee Myeong-Joo / Kim Nam-Il / Lee Chung-Yong
Son Heung-Min partners up top to help open up space by attracting the attention of defenders. Since crossing is less important, Lee Keun-Ho’s greater attacking threat replaces Lee Seung-Gi. The other three midfielders remain the same.
Ji Dong-Won / Lee Keun-Ho / Lee Myeong-Joo / Lee Chung-Yong
Ji Dong-Won is selected ahead of Son Heung-Min to provide a bit of defensive cover, and ahead of Lee Seung-Gi due to more experience at the international level. Lee Keun-Ho and Lee Myeong-Joo are in central attacking positions to help exploit any space between the lines, and hopefully to pull some of the midfielders away from the defense. Kim Nam-Il is the lone defensive midfielder.
Which to use?
Really it should be done on a game-by-game basis, as it would largely depend on how you think the opposition will play. Lebanon, sitting last with 4 points, has only a slim chance of making it to Brazil. The two automatic spots are virtually out of reach. Any result other than a win over Korea would see that become a certainty. They still have a chance to make it to the playoff spot, but that’s not likely either as current third-place Iran has a game in hand on Lebanon. Yet, the players will need to feel and play like it’s possible, so Lebanon will need to be a bit more adventurous. If you think along these lines, than Lee Dong-Gook would make more sense since there would be more space for him to operate in. A draw is unlikely to be enough for Lebanon as that, combined with an Iranian win would eliminate them completely. Fortunately for Lebanon, they’ll learn the result of the Iran match before our match is over.
Conversely, the next match, against Uzbekistan, presents some different possibilities. Uzbekistan is currently first, but Korea and Iran have a game in hand. If both win their next matches (Uzbekistan is off), then the table changes a bit. Korea would go first with 13 points, Uzbekistan second with 11, and Iran third with 10. Here we start playing with some possible outcomes and what if’s. If both Korea and Iran win, then there’s some pressure on the Uzbeks, and the need for a result against Korea becomes more important. In that case the Lee Dong-Gook would again be the better option. But, if Korea and/or Iran lose or draw their extra match, then there isn’t as much pressure. A draw would likely suffice for Uzbekistan when they travel to Korea. Against a more defensive side, Kim Shin-Wook may be a better option since Korea would likely have more possession, and can focus on pumping in crosses and set pieces.
The third game against Iran is almost impossible to predict now since the results of the other matches will certainly determine how this game is played. Two Korean wins would secure automatic qualification, and allow a more comfortable match for Korean fans. Given the wide possibility of results, I’ll refrain from making any predictions on how this game will play out.
While I’m quite certain most of us would like to see other striking options, at the moment they don’t seem to be available or ready yet. I do honestly believe that Lee Dong-Gook and Kim Shin-Wook are capable of getting the job done in the final qualifying matches, but other players will need to step up to do well in Brazil.
As always, share your thoughts and comments on our strikers in the comment section.