Korea Republic have made quite a start to the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Hard-fought wins against Guinea and Argentina ensure our progression into the knockout rounds, but while the media lavishes praise on Lee Seungwoo and Paik Seungho for their goalscoring prowess, “more enlightened” fans like us should see that many problems lie under the hood. Let us address 1) our strengths and weaknesses with a sample size of the two past games; 2) team selection; 3) tactical changes going into the England match; and 4) whether it’s better to place first or second in the group.
Korea has little to lose going into the England match. We are guaranteed first or second place in Group A, and regardless of which position we get the difficulty of the RO16 opponent stays about the same. It goes without saying we will rest our key players against England. After all, Shin Taeyong is not one to make the same mistakes that Kim Sangho made back in the 2014 AFC U19 Championship.
The most important players to be rested are Cho Youngwook (who worked harder than anyone else both games) and the Barca duo. This fact is so evident that Shin Taeyong – usually one to keep his team selection as hidden as possible – admitted it in public. It is also fairly certain that the centerbacks + goalkeeper trio will stay the same for purposes of defensive continuity (and let’s mention how AMAZING our defense has been against the firepower of Argentina and Guinea). After all, the goalkeepers and the centerbacks are the least-often players to get rotated since fatigue affects them far less than more attacking minded players. This is, of course, assuming that Shin Taeyong actually wants to get a result out of the England match.
What is up for debate is what will happen in the midfield and fullback regions. There’s not too much to say about fullback rotation because Shin Taeyong will pick two from a pool of three. I’m guessing Woo Chanyang, who sat out against Argentina, will start again while Lee Yoohyeon, who started both games, will be rested. But honestly, it will not make much of a difference which fullbacks start. In midfield however, we have a bit of an interesting choice to make.
The media is abuzz with speculation about who will be playing in midfield against England. Against Guinea we saw a classic three-man midfield in Lee Sangheon, Lee Jinhyeon, and Lee Seungmo. Against Argentina, we played a counterattacking 3-4-3 with Lee Sangheon and Lee Jinhyeon in the middle with Kim Seungwoo occasionally pushing forward as a DM-sweeper. The players who have yet to start include Lim Minhyeok (subbed twice) and original captain Han Chanhee (no minutes due to minor injury).
Midfield has gotten so much attention because of the stark contrast between pre-tournament and current form. Before the tournament we were wowed by the team’s passing play – the same passing play that Shin Taeyong brought to the Olympics (and the play that the senior team just cannot replicate). The one touch passes that flowed from the defending half into the attacking half were beautiful in the run up to the U20, but this was more or less gone from our first two games. Now, Korea’s pass completion rate (PCR) dipped significantly, particularly against Argentina where pass misses were all over the place (queue nightmares of Stielike Korea). I cannot find the official statistics against Argentina, but even against Guinea we succeeded 312/389 (80.2% PCR) overall and 15/36 (41.7%) in the attacking third. I guarantee you that every friendly we’ve played prior to this one had much better numbers. Tl;dr à our midfield currently sucks.
The weakest link so far has been Lee Sangheon. Lee Jinhyeon has not done much to particularly impress either, and he is playing nowhere near his Adidas 4-Nation Cup form, but Lee Sangheon was particularly unimpressive against Argentina, where he was subbed out just seven minutes after the first half. Though he was fine when he was playing alongside Han Chanhee pre-tournament, he was the first to be subbed out both games and will certainly be rested (benched?) against England. The only midfielder who I think has really impressed so far is Lee Seungmo. He has been nothing short of solid thus far.
Replacing him (and likely Lee Jinhyeon as well) will definitely be Han Chanhee or Lim Minhyeok, but a lot depends on fitness. The media suspect that Han Chanhee should be fit for the England match (or at least will be fielded against England to test out his fitness). Meanwhile, Lim Minhyeok has a history of stealing the show when the “B team” gets their chance to play. Thus, my personal bet is on a midfield three of Han Chanhee Lim Minhyeok and Lee Seungmo (I believe in a midfield trio Lee Seungmo fits better than Kim Seungwoo). Some think either Lee Sangheon or Lee Jinhyeon might stay because now they’re on the brink of becoming the “depth players,” but I don’t know how much I buy into that argument – you can’t play three games in the span of one week, and remember that if we do progress far into the tournament rotation is going to get more and more important as time goes on.
But will we even play a three-man midfield against England?
Tactical changes against England
Shin Taeyong said the following after the Argentina match:
We will field a completely new formation. We will use tactics we haven’t used before. England reliably uses a 4-4-2, so we will prepare specifically to counter it. I believe in the players and I think they will do well.
We haven’t prepared it very well. We haven’t started training under this new system. Today we will begin adjusting. It isn’t too dramatic of a change so I’m sure the players will do just fine.
Because the 4-4-2 has been around so long there are a million ways to counter it, but they generally involve packing more players into the midfield. A 4-5-1, 3-5-2, maybe a 4-4-2 diamond have been thrown around as candidates. I personally prefer a 4-back system because we seem to play better in 4-back systems rather than 3, but maybe a 3-5-2 or something of the sort may work better against England’s specific players. Shin Taeyong, of course, is a much more astute tactician than I am or ever will be.
Here are some predicted XI’s with the assumption that we field a strong defense (otherwise we could do Kim Minho – Lee Jungmoon – Lee Jun instead of Lee Sangmin – Jung Taewook – Song Bumkeun) (my hunch is that we will do the latter)
Ha Seungwoon Kang Jihoon
Han Chanhee Lee Seungmo
Woo Chanyang – Lee Sangmin – Jung Taewook – Yoon Jonggyu
*Start Kim Seungwoo, sub out Lee Seungmo if he shows any signs of fatigue, start Lee Seungmo in the RO16
Kang Jihoon – Han Chanhee – Lee Seungmo – Lee Jinhyeon – Lim Minhyeok
Woo Chanyang – Lee Sangmin – Jung Taewook – Yoon Jonggyu
*score early and sub out the most important / most fatigued players
Ha Seungwoon Kang Jihoon
Woo Chanyang – Han Chanhee – Lee Seungmo – Lim Minhyeok – Yoon Jonggyu
Lee Sangmin – Kim Seungwoo – Jung Taewook
*Actually this lineup looks really good…
First or second place? Which is better?
There have been people who suggest that not topping the group is perfectly acceptable too. Shin Taeyong has specifically said to the media that he will be looking to beat England, but to play devil’s advocate, it’s not acceptable to say “Oh we’re going to not give it our all because second place is okay too.” Take a quick look at these two brackets.
Why we should actively try to top the group:
- We would play a third place team – a team that had to battle all out to even make it to the RO16 and wouldn’t have had time to rest their key players (also groups C/D/E play the day after us so they structurally get less rest too). The only dangerous side to this is that we might get Italy Japan or Uruguay if we end up getting Group D’s third place team, but the third place candidates in Groups C and E look quite doable.
- Home advantage by staying in Jeonju (though Cheonan is close and everywhere is home for us really)
- We would get 6 days of rest ahead of the QF (one more than our opponents)
- Pride – we’ve only topped the group at a World Cup once (2015 U17 in Chile)
Why second place doesn’t seem so bad:
- We topped the group in Chile 2015 and got wrecked by third-placed team Belgium. Superstition but it’s a thing to consider – playing a third placed team isn’t always great.
- The runners up of Group C is very unlikely to be Zambia so will likely be Portugal, Iran or Costa Rica. Certainly doable. They will also get a day’s less rest.
- 4 days of rest ahead of the semifinal + 5 days of rest ahead of the QF, provided we make it that far. Better distribution that 3 days / 6 days.
- If we really wanted to go all the way to the finals, we would avoid being grouped with France, who seem like the best team so far.
Things that stay constant regardless:
- We get an extra day to rest compared to our RO16 and RO8 opponent.
To be honest I feel like even analyzing these things equates to splitting hairs – it’s really not a big deal. I think Shin Taeyong’s intentions will be clear upon seeing the starting XI. It’s certain we will see rotated MFs and FWs, but if he fields a completely changed defense and GK, for example, one possible interpretation is that STY does not care about the result and just wants to rest players (STY does not trust Lee Jungmoon and Kim Minho all that much – they’ve never started before). Either that or STY finds that the CB’s are fatigued – whatever his intentions end up being we will be sure to update the Tavern accordingly.
For what it’s worth, STY’s words, courtesy of Yonhap:
Shin said he will rotate the squad and use those who haven’t played much with the team against England.
“It’s not about boosting the morale of the players who have yet to play,” he said. “We can win and we want to leave an impression that we can play a good game with other players.”
Shin emphasized that South Korea are looking to win the group, so that they can meet relatively easy opponents in the round of 16. England are currently No. 2 in Group A after beating Argentina 3-0 and playing to a 1-1 draw with Guinea. [IMO not the best logic, but this is Yonhap’s interpretation not STY’s]
The Group A winners will meet a third-placed team from Group C, D or E. In this 24-team FIFA competition, the top two from each of the six groups and the four best third-placed teams advance to the round of 16.
“We are not going to rest in the match against England,” he said. “We will use the players who have lots of energy left and will change some tactics to win the match.”
South Korea have never finished the group stage with three wins at the U-20 World Cup. But Shin said his side will not overwork against England.
“If we push too hard against England, then we can have some problems in the round of 16 or in the quarterfinals,” he said. “We’ll just do what we have been doing.”
It wouldn’t be Korea if we didn’t draw at least once, right? 1-1 draw for Korea with a goal from Kang Jihoon.