I haven’t been able to post too much as of late, but after the World Cup draw earlier today, things got just that much more interesting, and we couldn’t resist putting up our initial thoughts on the whole situation.
Tim will update this post with his thoughts later tomorrow
Group F: Germany, Mexico, Sweden, Korea Republic
Tim and I had so much fun covering the draw on Facebook live. It ended, of course, with the most nerve-wracking moment ever – with just Korea Republic and Japan left we were either going to be drawn into a Group of Death or an on-paper Group of Unpredictable Outcomes with Poland, Senegal, and Colombia. And because my stream was slightly ahead of Tim’s I refrained REALLY hard from shouting colorful invectives into the microphone only to hear Tim launch into his own invectives a few seconds later.
I would go as far to say that the group we ended up in is one of the two hardest in the tournament, the other being Argentina-Croatia-Iceland-Nigeria. And on paper, we are pretty much certain to not get out of the group. Germany speaks for itself of course; Mexico made it out of their group in the past six world cups from 1994-2014, and made it to the quarters twice in 1986 and 1970 (the two it hosted); Sweden directly eliminated Holland and Italy from the World Cup (and gave France quite a scare). On the other hand, we lost to China and Qatar and failed to score against the likes of Syria and Uzbekistan – we “fell backwards” yet again.
But the beauty of football is in its surprises, and every World Cup is destined to have a number of upsets. And it’s the coaching backstaff and the players’ jobs to ensure that we can be among them. With the failures of 2014 – the poor preparation and the overconfidence – fresh in our minds, we will be going into this World Cup with a completely different mentality. In recent years, every time Korea gets cocky (2006, 2014) we get screwed, and every time we are the clear underdogs (2002, 2010, hell even the 2016 Olympics and the 2015 U17 World Cup) we play surprisingly well. We just have to hope the quality gap this time around isn’t too high.
Korea’s chances: Worst/best scenarios
I’m going to say the obvious outright: much is going rest on how STY and the coaches patch up the defense. With the way we’re playing right now we’re going to get destroyed by all these teams, but if we work on the basics – staying organized and getting our pass accuracy down – there is a chance we can sneak some results past these teams.
If there’s one thing going for us it’s the order of the matches and the travel times – the travel times are gonna be grueling given Russia’s size, but we’re playing Sweden first and Germany last, and the other teams travel more by mileage apparently. I don’t entirely buy into the “Germany rests its first team having wrapped up business with Sweden and Mexico giving us a shot at a draw” because I’m more scared of Germany’s second team than … most of the teams in the World Cup (also don’t forget how that mentality backfired against Belgium’s B team in 2014). However, with the order going from “easiest” to “hardest” it leaves our fate solely in our hands. Realistically speaking, it might be hard for us to even get 1 point; but if things go our way and we prepare properly, perhaps we can get 4 pts before going into the match against Germany.
Sweden: The big question confronting Sweden boss Janne Andersson is whether to take back Zlatan or not. Sweden without Zlatan is, ironically, that much stronger than Sweden with Zlatan – they look more organized and compact without Zlatan. Problem is, I don’t think that applies to Korea because no matter what combination of defenders we stick onto the pitch they’ll get ripped apart single handedly by Zlatan (my hunch is that they’ll call him up as a sub/locker room presence at the very least). Sweden play a fairly exciting offensive 4-4-2 led by Emil Forsberg of RB Leipzig and Marcus Berg (Son’s Hamburg teammate) providing the goals. I suspect we will go the man-marking route with this one – but if Zlatan comes into the picture I honestly don’t know what to do.
Best case scenario: Our defense gets their shit together, Ko Yohan pulls a Song Jongkook and man marks Forsberg out of the game, and Son and Suk/Hwang/LKH/Kwon combine beautifully to find the net past the likes of Lustig, Granqvist, and Lindelof.
Worst case scenario: Our track record of creating chances but scoring absolutely no goals continues; the anemic attack fails to break down the Swedish defense, Emil Forsberg and Marcus Berg go ham, and we lose against what may be the most winnable-on-paper game of the tournament.
Mexico: If there’s one thing going for us here is that we beat Mexico U23 in 2016 (and nearly beat Mexico U23 in 2012). Yes, that was a U23 match and those rarely translate to senior level, but a lot of the same players (on both sides) will be present in Russia. So that’s a plus. Another plus is that Mexico’s first game is against Germany, and assuming that Germany take their biggest group rival seriously, Mexico will probably be under pressure to beat us. But that’s as far as that goes, because Mexico always get out of the group stage. 6 RO16 appearances from 1994-2014, and two quarterfinal appearances as well in ’86 and ’70 when they were hosts. And unfortunately for us, we really struggle with fast, agile, strongly offensive teams like Mexico (our record against them is 4W 2D 6L).
Best case scenario: against Mexico we have frustrate them and stay compact (remember how they lost their cool in 2016)? We play just like we did in 2016 and score from a Kwon Changhoon solo screamer to evoke the déjà vu.
Worst case scenario: Our track record against teams who play in the South American/CONCACAF style continues and we get shredded by Mexico’s pacey wingers on the flanks.
Germany: Many people have been talking about how “we nearly beat Germany in the Olympics hadn’t it been for a freak free-kick goal in the 90th minute!” I’m sorry, but no – the senior Germany team is completely different and way scarier. I think the prospect of beating Germany is near 0. I think we have a better chance of beating literally any other team in the World Cup, even Brazil. This is why I’m so glad Germany is our last opponent. But while we’ve been talking up superstition like with of Mexico always getting out of their group, we could extend a superstition to Germany – in a number of the past World Cups the reigning champion didn’t make it out of the group stage (Spain in 2014, Italy in 2010, France in 2002).
Best case scenario: the curse of the reigning champs continues, and magically, Germany’s backline falls apart and Son runs rampant among his old Bundesliga adversaries.
Worst case scenario: 7-1 (or something like that) happens all over again
The friendlies we should be playing
To be honest it’s a little too simplistic to say “Oh this team plays like [insert eventual opponent] let’s play them.” Every team has its go-to organization and tactics, meaning the team that will prep us the best against say, Mexico, might not be Costa Rica / Chile, the teams that you would expect to play most like Sweden. It’s also impossible to tell how teams will line up against us, whether it’s their go-to or something long the lines of Jorge Luis Pinto’s “clear idea” of textbook how-to-beat-Korea. But from first-glance, I would expect:
Spain/France/Italy/Netherlands/Poland – probably the best prep we can get against Germany (and to see how less worse we’ve gotten against top teams). I suspect we will end up playing Poland, since they also have Japan in their group.
Denmark/Iceland – probably the best prep we can get against Sweden. Denmark, stylistically, is distinct from Sweden (more of passing + possession, highly offensive) vs. Sweden who are on the more defensive side (or maybe that was because they played the likes of France and Italy, idk) – but I’m hoping for Iceland.
Costa Rica/Chile/Colombia – probably the best prep we can get against Mexico. Ideally we get Chile – if we get ripped apart by Alexis Sanchez we’re also gonna get ripped apart by Hirving Lozano. Tim suggested a Chile friendly is already in the works (Tim pls confirm)
Given that we have 4 friendlies (someone fact check me on this, but I’m 99% certain it’s 4), I’m assuming one of France, Denmark, Costa Rica, or the Netherlands would be the best 4th team option. Kim Jinsu vs. Arjen Robben, anyone (oh dear God…)
Other groups that should be really interesting
Group H: Poland, Colombia, Senegal, Japan – This one’s going to be really fun to watch because I think on their day, any one of these teams can top the group, and any one of these teams can finish dead last.
Group D: Argentina, Croatia, Nigeria, Iceland – Argentina are clearly the favorites but who’s going to progress? We got arguably the strongest Pot 4 team, the underdogs that everyone loves, and a legit dark horse candidate. The battle in Group D is truly going to be one of the most entertaining.
That’s about it. Montevideo must be throwing parties already, Belgium and England must also be mighty happy, and Portugal and Spain will be laying down everything on their match to top the group (and get drawn with the 2nd place team from the weakest group of the tournament). France’s group and Brazil’s group look too stratified (there’s a clear hierarchy on paper at least) to produce any intriguing stories.
Am I bitter that Japan lucked out so hard? Yes. Am I expecting a high likelihood of embarrassment? Yes. But there’s still some degree of cautious optimism – going in as underdogs, South Korea thrives; with expectations lower than ever we have nothing to lose and much to gain. Moreover, if the last two friendlies are any indication, we are straightening the ship (that had been sinking since CKR in 2011) to a certain degree. In the beautiful game there will always be surprises, and maybe, just maybe, we can spring some upsets when June rolls around.
Jinseok has already said a lot of what I wanted to say, so let me go ahead with three off-the-cuff, controversial statements.
Though Group H may have been easier for Korea, I think it’s better than going into Group G. With Panama, South Korea and Japan left, with Panama unable to go into Group F (as we did, because of Mexico), in hindsight had Japan gone into F and Korea into G, I think I would be more pessimistic about our chances. Tunisia are the kind of CAF-defensive side we were never going to beat, and expecting a victory against Belgium or England is probably trickier than expecting a victory against Mexico.
Iran will be the only Asian nation to progress. Portugal will be eliminated in the group stage. Iran proved their worth in 2014 by holding off Argentina until the death, and I am absolutely confident that they can do the same to Portugal in 2018. A disjointed side focused around one star player may have been able to win the Euro, when teams are more likely to attack Portugal, but the Iranians have proven that if they play their best XI with the sole aim of getting a draw, they can have great success. Morocco-Iran remains a truly fascinating and absorbing tie for me, as much as Spain-Portugal is. Saudi Arabia and Australia are both with new managers and in easier groups, sure, but not ones they can progress from (Peru > Australia, Uruguay > Saudi Arabia). Japan may have a shot, but they had a similar group in 2014 and choked. I’ve already been clear that Korea are underdogs in Group F, and it’s hard to see us breaking the Mexico to the Round of 16 certainty.
Russia couldn’t have rigged a better group. This one probably isn’t controversial. But what a group they’ve got.