The Asian Games. It’s not the flashiest of continental football tournaments, but for reasons well described, it is, for Korean footballers, one of the most important ones. With military exemption on the line for Son Heung-min and others, no card hasn’t been played, no stop hasn’t been pulled. But with expectation comes pressure, making a win in the Taegeuk Warriors’ opening game against Bahrain essential. What can we expect from Kim Hak-bum’s side?
Group Stage schedule
Wednesday, August 15th, vs. Bahrain, 9PM KST, 8AM EST
Friday, August 17th, vs. Malaysia, 9PM KST, 8AM EST
Monday, August 20th, vs. Kyrgyzstan, 9PM KST, 8AM EST
The side has been training for several weeks now, with K League players absent from their club squads in the past couple matchdays. In order to try and replicate Indonesia’s heat, they did the first half of their training in Goyang instead of the usual Paju national team centre. However, acclimatization is expected to be easier than expected, with temperatures in Indonesia entering the 22-25 degree range during the evenings in the coming weeks (which is cooler than England and Korea at the moment, ironically). The squad (minus Lee Seung-woo, Hwang Hee-chan and Son Heung-min) made their way to Jakarta last week, thankfully met by decent-quality, grassy pitches, and have since been joined by all of their European players, all of whom have participated in at least one training session (and are theoretically eligible for selection).
Son Heung-min has also been named captain of the side.
Speaking of Son…
It is hard to explain just how much of a class beyond the skill level of this tournament Son Heung-min finds himself in. While countries like Japan and Iran bring their U-21 sides, and a plethora of minnows like Kyrgyzstan, Indonesia and others make the cut with a credible shot at the knockout stages, Korea has only gone out and brought a well-established forward at one of the Premier League’s top clubs. In a tournament that most competition doesn’t take seriously, Korea’s over-age star is a man who’s scored in Champions Leagues.
However, reports from training camp say that with such a precious talent and such a condensed schedule, the fitness team and Kim Hak-bum are very much going to try and ease Son into the competition, perhaps even more so than Hwang or Lee Seung-woo. Lessons have been learnt from the 2014 Asian Games side, when then over-age player Kim Shin-wook picked up an injury in the group stages and didn’t feature until the 120th minute of the final (where he incidentally created the winning goal without touching the ball). Son only trained wearing sneakers (not cleats) yesterday, and did some light exercises, despite going through heavier training at Spurs ahead of the beginning of the Premier League season.
In sum, unless in case of emergency, it’s quite possible we see almost no Son Heung-min in the first two matches, and maybe even throughout the entirely of the group stage. It will be in the knockout stage where Korea will have to gradually up their game and where Son could be called upon to lead the side on top of the podium.
Is the squad ready?
Though it may be sounding a false alarm, it’s certainly worrying that this side hasn’t played a single game together leading into this tournament. A friendly with Iraq had been scheduled for earlier in the week, but the drama over whether or not they would withdraw, combined with the Koreans originally getting drawn into a 5-team group, led to the cancellation of that friendly. However, with Korea being placed back in a 4-team group (the UAE being shuttled out to another group), games in Korea’s group start 5 days later than they were scheduled to, meaning a friendly would have been very welcome.
Kim Hak-bum brushed off any concerns about the friendly or not necessarily running the players into the ground (as the World Cup team elected to do, to mixed success) saying:
Of course we would have liked to have the friendly. We are currently around 70% of our level, but with each game we will go up 5% each time, all the way to the 6th game, the semi-finals, where we will be at 100% of our condition.
Talking Tactics and Team News
Very few media reports have been coming out of Jakarta as to the tactical shape of the squad, but in the first few days after the roster announcement (the full roster here) Kim Hak-bum had hinted at deploying a 3-back system, as it was something the players were most comfortable with. He doubled down on that in recent days, saying, “It could change depending on the game, but the Plan A is a 3-5-2, and in the first two games, probably without Son Heung-min”. But, once arriving in Indonesia, he explained a 3-4-3 would also allow for Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan to penetrate on the wings. Regardless of the exact numeric notation of the side, Kim has made it clear (unsurprisingly) that the side’s mantra will be aggressive, hard-working and very attack-oriented.
Given that Lee Seung-woo and Hwang Hee-chan have only had a few days to integrate to the squad, it would make sense for them not to start until at least the second game as well, leaving us with a predicted starting line-up of:
(We’ll assume Cho Hyun-woo starts as it’s the first match, and the hardest game of the group stages.)
But, Kim’s ideal line-up could well look something like this:
In any case, all 20 players will definitely feature at some point in the tournament, rendering all of them eligible for military exemption should the team win the gold medal.
The Oppo: Bahrain
Watch this space for a quick Q&A with a Bahraini football expert in the next few hours.
Three Keys To Victory
1. Can Hwang Ui-jo justify a call-up? Hwang has been under great scrutiny with allegations of favoritism rampant after Kim Hak-bum called on his former player at Seongnam to join the squad as an overage selection. Without the European-based players competing for a spot with him, but with the K League’s rising star in Na Sang-ho lined up beside him, the margin of error will be slim for Hwang, who could well be the side’s media scapegoat if they don’t find a way to the back of the net.
2. Get a goal early. Easier said than done, but the longer the game goes on, the more it will favor a Bahrain side who is likely to defend deep and has been described by many as “organised”. They do seem the toughest team of the group stages for Korea.
3. Take the pedal off of the gas. Hopefully, Korea will have run up the score to a comfortable 3-0 margin (or the whereabouts) around the 60th minute, and the team will be allowed to relax a bit and play with less urgency. There’s only a 46 hour turnover before they play their second match against Malaysia, so the less energy expended, the better.
Korea U23 vs Bahrain U23
2018 Asian Games Jakarta-Palembang
Men’s Football Tournament, Group E
Jalak Harupat Stadium, Soreang
August 15th, 2018, 7pm local time, 9pm KST, 8am EDT
TV: MBC (Korea) / Streaming: Naver (*stay tuned for a streaming guide*)
One For the Road
Jeonbuk manager Choi Kang-hee issued a stark but playful warning to the Jeonbuk players in the squad – goalkeeper Song Bum-keun, defender Kim Min-jae and midfielder Jang Yun-ho – “Win the gold medal, and if you don’t, then please don’t come back and just live in Indonesia”.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. If Korea’s Asian Games team is to become the first to win the men’s football gold medal outside of home soil and live up to the high expectations set by the winners in Incheon 4 years prior, it is absolutely vital that this first step is firm, assured and nothing out of the ordinary. A slip could send the reigning champions spiraling into a more difficult half of the bracket and be a major dent in their confidence.
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