Without a coach in line and with the Asian Cup months or a year away, I don’t imagine we’ll see a huge amount of changes in the short term, but let’s imagine how the squad and tactics may change over the next cycle leading up to North America 2026.
Of course, if you haven’t read Jinseok’s piece on the early rumors about who may be our next coach you should read that first.
First, let’s remember who exactly was in Bento’s 26-man squad for the World Cup.
- Goalkeepers: Kim Seung-gyu, Song Bum-keun, Jo Hyeon-woo
- Rightbacks: Kim Moon-hwan, Yoon Jong-gyu, Kim Tae-hwan
- Leftbacks: Kim Jin-su, Hong Chul
- Centerbacks: Kim Min-jae, Kim Young-gwon, Kwon Kyung-won, Cho Yu-min
- Central Midfielders: Jung Woo-young, Son Jun-ho, Hwang In-beom, Paik Seung-ho, Jeong Woo-yeong
- Wide Midfielders: Son Heung-min, Lee Jae-sung, Hwang Hee-chan, Na Sang-ho, Lee Kang-in, Kwon Chang-hoon
- Forwards: Hwang Ui-jo, Cho Gue-sung, Song Min-kyu
Now, let’s take a look at the players’ ages (position, current age, age at start of 2026 World Cup).
Over 30 crowd
- Kim Seung Gyu (GK, 32, 35)
- Jo Hyeon-woo (GK, 31, 34)
- Kim Jin-su (DF, 30, 34)
- Hong Chul (DF, 32, 35)
- Kim Young-gwon (DF, 32, 36)
- Kwon Kyung-won (DF, 30, 34)
- Kim Tae-hwan (DF, 33, 36)
- Jung Woo-young (MF, 32, 36)
- Son Heung-min (MF, 30, 33)
- Lee Jae-sung (MF, 30, 33)
- Son Jun-ho (MF, 30, 34)
- Hwang Ui-jo (FW, 30, 33)
Mid-late 20’s crowd
- Song Bum-keun (GK, 25, 28)
- Yoon Jong-gyu (DF, 24, 28)
- Kim Min-jae (DF, 26, 29)
- Kim Moon-hwan (DF, 27, 30)
- Cho Yu-min (DF, 26, 29)
- Hwang In-beom (MF, 26, 29)
- Paik Seung-ho (MF, 25, 29)
- Hwang Hee-chan (MF, 26, 30)
- Na Sang-ho (MF, 26, 30)
- Kwon Chang-hoon* (MF, 28, 31)
- Cho Gue-sung (FW, 24, 28)
Early-mid 20’s crowd
- Lee Kang-in (MF, 21, 25)
- Jeong Woo-yeong (MF, 23, 26)
- Song Min-kyu (FW, 23, 26)
Looking at the above list pretty clearly shows that our current squad is slightly on the older side. Among the 32 teams at the World Cup this year, only a handful were older in terms of average age (Korea checked in with an average age of 27.8 years old).
Both Kim Seung-gyu and Jo Hyeon-woo will be in their mid-30’s when the next World Cup rolls around. However, keepers tend to have a longer shelf life than outfield players do, so it’s not impossible to imagine that both could be in the squad come 2026. However, I’m inclined to think that only one will continue on just because it seems preferable to have a younger keeper in as the third keeper to get mentoring and experience in the squad.
Since Kim Seung-gyu had a solid World Cup, I imagine he will continue on through the Asian Cup. However, if the tournament is pushed back to January – February 2024 as many predict, that could change depending on the coaching appointment. Regardless, after the Asian Cup, I imagine one of Kim Seung-gyu or Jo Hyeon-woo will be selected as the ‘experienced’ keeper who either starts or is the backup. Song Bum-keun is in that prime age slot to become the starting keeper and this cycle could be that time for him to make the jump if the new boss is ready to take a slight risk on an inexperienced (in terms of national team starts) keeper.
- In: Jo Hyeon-woo, Song Bum-keun
- Out: Kim Seung-gyu
Defenders who may stick around are a little harder due to the high age of almost all of our current defenders. I think at rightback, both Kim Moon-hwan and Yoon Jong-gyu will likely continue. Yoon Jong-gyu should be getting increasing minutes at the position with the national team, and I imagine he will be the natural starter after the Asian Cup. Kim Moon-hwan, having had a decent World Cup, will probably continue as the starter for now before becoming the backup. Kim Tae-hwan is out due to his age.
Kim Min-jae will definitely be a lock in the XI for the foreseeable future (should he become the new captain? Might be a post on this discussion in the future 😏). His partner is trickier as both Kim Young-gwon and Kwon Kyung-won will be in their mid-30’s. I imagine there will be a bit of experimentation here, and we’ll likely see all of Cho Yu-min, Park Ji-soo, Lee Sang-min, and Jung Seung-hyun get potential looks. Kim Young-gwon could still be around, but personally he has the feel of a player who’s on the verge of retirement. Kwon Kyung-won, being a couple years younger, is more likely to still be around, but he’s never really inserted himself into a starting role. If Kim Young-gwon retires from the national team immediately, I think Kwon Kyung-won automatically becomes the other centerback, but if not I think another younger player will likely step in to partner Kim Min-jae.
Leftback is probably the trickiest of the defensive positions to predict. Kim Jin-su had a pretty poor World Cup and is on the wrong side of 30 plus has had injury issues. Hong Chul is older than Kim Jin-su. Kim Jin-su probably sticks around, but should be limited to a ‘senior’ role and role play off the bench. Leftback will definitely be a position that needs a lot of searching for over the next couple years.
- In: Yoon Jong-gyu, Kim Moon-hwan, Kim Min-jae, Cho Yu-min, Kim Jin-su
- Out: Kim Tae-hwan, Kim Young-gwon, Kwon Kyung-won, Hong Chul
While I still have some reservations (that are purely tactical, see below), Lee Kang-in is the future and the future is now. The other question (at least according to me) is the future of Son Heung-min. Captain Sonny will be weeks shy of his 34th birthday when North America 2026 rolls around, which for a wide attacker who primarily utilizes pace to beat defenders, is not usually a good thing. That being said, Sonny takes ridiculously good care of his body, so it’s not difficult to imagine he’ll still be in great physical shape. However, I do wonder if should have the untouchable tag that he currently holds or whether, post-Asian Cup, we start to reduce our dependency on him (maybe another post?).
Hwang Hee-chan, when on form and relatively healthy, is ridiculously good, and he’ll still be around. Na Sang-ho has also proven to be a solid bench option/role player and should be kept. Lee Jae-sung will likely be around for a bit, but should probably be phased out post-Asian Cup. Jeong Woo-yeong, should he be able to continue his progress in Europe, should also see some more time. Personally I think some new faces that should appear more and more are the likes of Um Won-sang, Lee Dong-gyeong, and maybe Lee Dong-jun (personal favorite).
Central midfield/defensive midfield is a little trickier. Again, personally I think only Hwang In-beom should be a definite keep. Paik Seung-ho has shown to be a solid backup option to him and if he continues to do good things with Jeonbuk then he can stay as well. I think both Jung Woo-young and Son Jun-ho should be out, although Son Jun-ho probably has to continue to be an option just because I can’t think of any other holding midfielder that is an upgrade at the moment (tragically). Kwon Chang-hoon, I like quite a bit, but I struggle to see where he fits into the team going forward given other options (as a starter). I would phase him out for youth, but I imagine he’ll stick around.
- In: Hwang In-beom, Son Heung-min, Paik Seung-ho, Hwang Hee-chan, Na Sang-ho, Lee Kang-in, Kwon Chang-hoon, Jeong Woo-yeong, Son Jun-ho
- Out: Lee Jae-sung, Jung Woo-young
Cho Gue-sung cemented his spot in the XI for the foreseeable future at the World Cup while Hwang Ui-jo probably set his on the outside (of the starting XI). I’m not confident that Song Min-kyu is going to ever be a regular (even if on the bench) for the national team. Given the relative lack of options, I imagine Hwang Ui-jo will still get call ups, but hopefully another younger option will emerge. If we’re honest, Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan are really more wide forwards then they are midfielders.
- In: Cho Gue-sung, Hwang Ui-jo
- Out: Song Min-kyu
Formation and Tactics
Earlier I wrote that I still have some tactical reservations about Lee Kang-in’s role in the team. This comes from two main issues that stem from where you decide to play him.
In an ideal world, Lee Kang-in has a relatively free attacking role in the middle where he can utilize his skill on the ball and his passing and vision as well as dribbling ability to prompt attacks and help break up defensive organization. However, this position largely does not exist in the modern game unless that player is of superlative quality (think Messi, Neymar types). Lee Kang-in, while very talented, is not at this level currently, which is why he is usually shifted out wide.
On the wing
Which brings us to the first issue, if you want to play him wide, whose spot does he take? Son Heung-min’s on the left? Hwang Hee-chan’s on the right? For the moment, Son Heung-min is untouchable. Which means if Lee Kang-in is a starter he likely needs to take Hwang Hee-chan’s. Given Hwang Hee-chan’s injury history, this maybe isn’t a huge issue, but on the other hand they offer very different player profiles which could make things messy on the tactical side, which is probably something to avoid unless you’re intentionally trying to confuse or trick the opposition.
In the center
So, if you’re the new boss, you may be thinking, “Okay, I want Cho Gue-sung up top, Son Heung-min on the left wing, and Hwang Hee-chan on the right. But I still want Lee Kang-in in, so I have to put him either in the 10 in a 4-2-3-1 or as an outer central midfielder in a 4-3-3 like Modric or Iniesta.” Workable, but this is the second issue: one of those other central midfielders is going to be Hwang In-beom (likely), who is the defensive midfielder then? Jung Woo-young? Nope. Son Jun-ho? Eh… yeah I guess.
Regardless of who is that defensive midfielder, that leaves a relatively light central midfield trio, and you’re going to need some help on the defensive side. So, who of the attacking midfielders are you going to ask to sacrifice to help on the defensive side? Son Heung-min? Hwang Hee-chan? Hwang In-beom? Lee Kang-in? If you’re the holding midfielder or centerbacks, you better be ready to put in a shift.
Or maybe, sort of like Bento did, you just build the team to be able to comfortably qualify for the World Cup, be super competitive within Asia, and capable of getting out of the group at the World Cup (even if you don’t always make it out). If so, then you can do the above type formation and sort of model it after the Spain setup.
Have Cho Gue-sung, Son Heung-min, and Hwang Hee-chan as your attacking three (similar to Morata, Dani Olmo, and Ferran Torres). The midfield, while light, is good on the ball and capable of passing out of situations and would be Lee Kang-in, Hwang In-beom, and… Son Jun-ho (which would be like, and I know it’s a bit silly on a certain level, Gavi, Pedri, and Busquets).
Defensively you stick with the best current options which seems to be Jo Hyeon-woo, Kim Moon-hwan/Yoon Jong-gyu, Kim Min-jae, Cho Yu-min, and Kim Jin-su. I think some would prefer Kim Seung-gyu for his ball playing ability, but I’ll go with pure shot stopping and Jo Hyeon-woo.
While it’s never been our strong point, I think you have to go with a higher, more aggressive pressing tactic with this group of players. The backline and keeper will get exposed, but I think you just have to live with that (which is why I’m preferring Jo Hyeon-woo). I think you also need to shift the attacking style to be more aggressive and vertical (not long ball) that looks to take advantage of Son Heung-min and Hwang Hee-chan’s speed and ask Hwang In-beom and Lee Kang-in to be more direct in their transitions.
Factoring in the new boss
I don’t want to go over every name mentioned by Jinseok in his article on the next coach rumor mill (you did read it right?), but I’ll write about a couple and some generalizations.
Kim Hak-beom? Really?
Hopefully this is just one of those “Well, we don’t really know anything, but we need to put something out there, so… who’s been around the national team setup or KFA for a long time? Kim Hak-beom? Okay, let’s run with that.” kind of things. But, tragically, Kim Hak-beom does seem like the type that the KFA would look to as an option (for some reason that defies all logic). What would a Kim Hak-beom national team look like?
Well, probably not too different – at least not in the short run. I imagine though, that Lee Kang-in doesn’t get a call (or if he does, he’s a bench rider). Maybe there’s some 4-4-2 type thing with a ‘two top’ of Cho Gue-sung and Hwang Ui-jo and Son Heung-min has to inexplicably do a ton of defensive work. To be honest, the main difference is likely in the tactics (low block plus counter?) and the look of the bench (older veterans preferred to young, potential talents).
Choi Yong-soo… 🤷🏻♂️
To be honest, I don’t have any strong opinion about Choi Yong-soo. I think he’d be better than Kim Hak-beom, but I think it’d be a long four years. Even when Choi Yong-soo and FC Seoul were doing good things a decade or so ago, I can’t say that I ever thought, “Wow, I want him to be the next national team boss.”
Like with Kim Hak-beom, I think the main difference would likely be more on who is on the bench. I imagine Choi Yong-soo would likely find preference with K League veterans rather than young players on the fringes of European teams. Admittedly, I haven’t watched Gangwon at all lately, but do seem to recall that Choi Yong-soo did prefer some form of build up play when at FC Seoul.
Since there aren’t any really reliable sources or discussions around a specific manager, I won’t split out any names here. I think a foreign manager would be preferable to a domestic one in terms of keeping the progress going. The only downside to a foreign manager is that they likely won’t be familiar with most of the K League player pool nor the ‘intricacies’ of the KFA.
This could lead to potential conflict or just a slow start as they get familiar with their new living situation, culture, and player options. Nothing that is a deal breaker, but it likely means the squad has no real change until after the Asian Cup. Whether that is a good thing, bad thing, or just an inevitable thing regardless of who gets appointed, is up for debate.
What do you think?
Who would you keep in the squad? Who would use phase out? How would you set out the team? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below!