Korea bows out to Portugal in U20 World Cup Round of 16

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Korea 1:3 Portugal. One team were ascending, in group play lost, drawn, then winning in a comeback. The other started spectacularly but lost the last group match with an experimental formation & rotate side. The ascending side continues on their way. Overall, Korea was outclassed and outhustled, though the host side did have their chances. Stay tuned, all is not lost with this generation of players, scrappy though they may be, they surprised and delighted the footballing world by dispatching Argentina with style in group stage.  We’ll take a look at the negatives and positives going forward.

First, lets do this autopsy, starting with the 4-4-2 (variation morphed into 4-3-3 at times).



That would be Ha Seung-Un and Cho Young-Wook up top

Attacking mids (from left to right): Lee Seung-Woo / Lee Jin-Hyun / Lee Seung-Mo / Paik Seung-Ho

Back four (left to right): Yoon Jeon-Gyu / Lee Sang-Min / Jeong Tae-Wook / Lee You-Hyeon

Keeper: Song Bum-Keun

Korea started revved up knowing that Portugal were suspect at the back. However, Cho Young-Wook was chomping at the bits too hard –he would’ve had some excellent 1 v 1 chances at the keeper early except that each time he was called offsides.

Portugal counter attacked and in the 9th minute, having read the England playbook that worked in their lone goal against Korea in the previous match, penetrated the left flank left wide open to a naive and unsuccessful challenge, the cross towards the top of the area wasn’t cleared by the CBs and Xadas was there waiting.  His shot was simple yet precise and found the back of the net.

Korea had this advantage to start the U20 tournament vs Guinea and Argentina: when they scored first, they were able to keep opponents in a constant scramble to catch up.  When they conceded against the run of form early in game, as against England, it was the beginning of the end.

Overall, Portugal seemed composed and ready. Of course Korea has their share of outstanding players, but delving into depth of the squad, 11 out of 21 squad players play in universities. Meaning half of the team hasn’t had a single minute of professional football. Quick comparison: 8 play for Benfica B, 5 for Sporting B, 4 for Porto B and it goes on from there – each and every player, from starters to bench warmers, all have had pro minutes -albeit in youth/reserve settings but still professional competitive time on the ball. Some of Korea’s college based players matched up against Benfica’s future prospects looked out of their league.

Back to the game, if Korea meant to be counterattacking -given Lee Seung-Woo and Paik Seung-Ho ready to bomb down the flanks, it was Portugal rather who showed how to do it. In the 27th minute, another counterattack, this time down the left, Yoon allowed enough space for a cross/shot to be launched. It took an unlucky bounce off the back of a central defender but fell fortuitously at the feet of Bruno Costa. He one timed it past the outstretched arms of Song and the collective wind of the home fans and the Taeguk Warriors was taken out.

Korea mustered some half chances but again their passing and transition play was too clumsy and led to punishing waves of Portugese counterattacks.

Korea would look to regain control of the pitch as Lee Seung-Woo and Paik Seung-Ho were somewhat neutralized in the first half. Moreover, there was a startling strategy- a long ball approach that sought to catch Portugal off guard with balls over the top. That possibly showed Shin Tae-Yong’s lack of confidence in bringing the ball out of the back.  It didn’t work.

2nd half substitutions, Shin Tae-yong tried to shake things up, starting with Woo Chang-Yang in for Lee You-Hyeon at RB, followed by Lee Sang-Heon replacing forward Ha Seung-Un. Korea started to look visibly better, nearly scoring in the 58th minute: a re-pressing effort to regain the ball found Lee Sang-Heon driving towards right side of goal, he picked out Lee Seung-Woo charging down the middle- the pass was a little behind but he managed to toe poke it towards goal.  It bounced off keeper Costa – a goal mouth scramble ensued as Lee tried to get onto the rebound but ended with the ref calling hand ball on Lee Seung-Woo – just 2 meters from goal!

Several solid chances to erase the 2-0 deficit midway through the 2nd half, 3 fouls in front of the area, 3 free kicks. Deconstructing those: Paik Seung-ho lifted his over the wall and far overhead. Lee Sang-Heon curls it -JUST inches from the upper right of the goal!  Lee Seung-Woo was tripped right on the top of the penalty area (though it looked right on the line) -the resulting best position earned for a direct free kick was a botched maneuver that looked drawn up from recent practices.

(Lee Seung-Woo ball highlights below UPDATE: having taken another look at this, you can see LSW tenacious on the ball, just trying to find a way into the net or create chances for his teammates to score.  So close…some legit chances he created. Unlucky not to get more from the match).


But again, just when Korea was setting a tempo in the final third, a careless pass would be intercepted and Portugal would be off to the races.  One such occasion in the 69th minute resulted in another formula that had already worked for Portugal – penetrate the flank, find an open man in the middle – attack. In this case, instead of shooting, Bruno Xadas received the ball near the top of the area, weaved his way in and around some scrambling Korean defenders, and found the back of the net again.  Game just about over.

Korea kept attacking. In a moment of brilliance resulted in Woo Chang-Yang finding Lee Sang-Heon in a dangerous position near the goal box – the midfielder for Ulsan collected the ball and curled it around the keeper and on into the far right side of net. GOAL in the 81st minute! Finally, after over no goals in over 200 minutes, Korea gets on the scoreboard – too little too late? Korea kept on with the attack – getting close with some tangible chances (and a very incorrect offsides call against Lee Sang-Heon – he was in an excellent position to create a chance on goal). Korea kept piling on pressure but to no avail as time ran out. A disappointing exit for the host nation. No more heroics to talk about for this U20 group.

Much of the autopsy will zero in on the fullbacks – while they were able to get in position, the crosses were absolutely horrendous. If this was Shin Tae-Yong’s tactics -predictable crosses into the middle, it was a strategy destined for failure.  And they were constantly troubled by Portugal’s skillful swagger, penetrating the flanks with ease.

The third goal has collective defensive culpability. For Xadas to be able to dribble and slice through several Korean defenders is a definite blot on what otherwise had been some strong early tournament defensive-mindedness, particularly with the centerbacks.

Paik Seung-Ho, like the rest of the team showed glimpses of potential and brilliance. But rust is clearly showing on the Barca B player, who apart from playing internationally for Korea, played little to zero minutes for his club team this season.  The weight of carrying the team was too much for Lee Seung-Woo – who wasn’t able to get service and for his part – had some inerrant passes that stymied his efforts to make more impact in the game. He did look threatening at times, one of their best players without a doubt, but without effective backup – the oft offsides charges of Cho Young-Wook didn’t help with the attacking flow.  Was it a mistake to not completely rest Lee Seung-Woo and Paik Seung-Ho during the England game? If it really was a game to gamble in order to rest key players- Shin Tae-Yong reversed himself by subbing the pair on just after conceding to England.  Or should Korea tried to front their best XI to keep up the positive momentum against England -win the group- get a better fixture against Costa Rica?  It’s hard to say which strategy would have worked out better, even with this result.

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If Korea showed glimpses of what they could do in the pre-tournament turnaround wins against Ecuador, Zambia, and within the tournament against good fast teams like Guinea and Argentina, the transition flubs including an atrocious passing rate and a clearly visible lack of confidence in some of the players to move the ball skillfully were telltale signs that Korea had the capacity to capitulate in the tournament despite the impressive victories (I’m looking at you #7 Lee Jin-Hyun).  Those concerns did not subside against Portugal- and as it was against England, so too these factors did Team Korea in against a seasoned team like Portugal.

This might seem like deja vu for Shin Tae-Yong  – his Olympic Korea squad in Rio 2016 impressed at the group stage, knocking out Mexico and earned a 3:3 draw with Germany (should have been a victory). Korea managed to win the group but confounded prognosticators by meekly going out 1:0 in the Round of 16 against Honduras.  Going deep into tournaments just might not be in the cards for the manager who drew criticism for the 3-5-2 formation he tinkered with against England.  Is it that Shin doesn’t have a full caliber choices to pick from in this generation or is his tactical acumen not reliably up to snuff? Or is it a little of both?  [The old Tavern owner is leaning towards the latter].


It’s worth noting (as I bring this up again) that 11 of 21 Korea U20 players have an amateur status next to their names. Rather than professional clubs, these players (not all of whom turned in bad performances necessarily -see Song Bum-Keun), they play for universities – a far cry from the rigors and developmental speed/potential for active club players.  The Tavern has pointed to systemic problems within the Korean youth developmental system to stay competitive internationally. When HALF of the squad trying to compete in a major international tournament – especially one in which the nation is hosting – are marked amateurs, it’s a glaring reminder of the gulf in technical abilities and skillfulness in comparison to players belonging to what are considered as traditional footballing nations. That doesn’t explain the 2:1 win over Argentina – on the youth level, the unexpected can happen (think March Madness of college basketball). Teams like Korea and the potential they have can bubble to the surface and surprise analysts from time to time. You can say, Korea punches above their weight.  However, when push comes to shove – on paper – Portugal (while beatable) still have the footballing legacy and knowhow to go deeper in a U20 tournament than Korea.  Re-visiting Portugal, again – all of their players are professionally based. None are university players. The idea of a college player in that squad would seem to them utterly ludicrous. And for further comparison – while Japan has also been knocked out of the tournament -20/21 players are with pro clubs. If we are to put this post in a time capsule -judging by this metric alone – Japan will have surpassed Korea in winning this tournament sometime in the future.  Granted -that’s a prediction that could be wrong – but I suspect that without systemic fundamental changes – Korea will continue to fall behind, not only in international football – but within Asia itself. We can have star players come out to the fore (Your Cha Bum-Kun’s, Park Ji-Sung’s and now Son Heung-Min’s) but in terms of developing a deep and well balanced team, it’s still not happening – and the metrics aren’t favoring a scenario where that narrative is flipped anytime soon.


But all is not negative with the diagnosis of this U20 squad. There are definite positives. Paik Seung-Ho and in particular Lee Seung-Woo blew up the internet with sensational goals against Guinea and Argentina. They were swashbuckling and gave both LaMasia and the Taeguk Warriors a mark of respect from around the footballing world.  The first lightning goal with a 50 meter run by Lee Seung-Woo to sink Argentina was nothing short of world class – this is what blew up the internet last week:




Goal keeper Song Bum-Keun was a bright spot in the tournament and valiantly kept them in the game. 2 pivotal moments, scramble in the 50th minute- excellent reaction to somehow prevent what looked like a certain goal and in the 79th minute pulled a Manuel Neuer, wandering far off his line to punt away at the last moment a dangerous ball from latching onto an onrushing substitute Luis.  It’s no wonder he’s been tipped to join a number of European clubs just from his group standout performances.

First couple of group matches, forward Cho Young-Wook showed his stuff and would’ve scored against Guinea had LSW’s dribble not been ruled out of bounds. He kept playing 90 minutes in each and every game – and perhaps tired out in this match?

We mentioned the centerbacks – even though they took a step back performance wise today. Particularly against Guinea, that was a rarity to see, competent centerbacks, organized defense, getting fullbacks in sync, physical presence and timely tackles – everyone getting the job done to shut out a tricky and energetic Guinea side.

Let’s give kudos to #16 Lee Sang-Heon. He did Korea and his club Ulsan proud for his gutsy performance on top of a well deserved goal today.

Han Chan-Hee wasn’t able to show up, which was disappointing – injury perhaps hampered what could have been a breakout tournament on the world stage, but word is the Jeonbuk man is part of the future, so it would be wise to keep eyes trained on him.


For the future, Korea has a lot of challenges to overcome. KLeague games aren’t well attended – people aren’t watching K League on TV. Ergo, there’s little football (and even less Asian Champions League football) on the tele.  Broadcasting rights are such a mess, the K-League is operating with little to no money to speak of – as opposed to lucrative broadcasting $ brought in by the JLeague and CSL.  That’s partly on the KLeague’s mismanagement /impossibly large to fill stadiums/ and that’s partly on the Korean people  – who generally want a successful national team, but don’t seem to understand they have to support the domestic football side to help make a sustainable future for young footballers to continue. Without it – youth development on the pro team level dries up due to lack of funding.  All that and we still didn’t address the fact that even within professional clubs, few youths are getting proper minutes. The trendline isn’t looking good. That’s not to say its impossible to reverse, but it’s a hell of a challenge to overcome.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in the stars, but in ourselves.

Thank you Julius Cesar, your words do profess truth, even today.

More thoughts: host nations in the U20 WC traditionally have not done well. Looking through the recent editions going back almost a decade, host teams have bowed out at the R of 16 or in one case in the quarterfinals.  Portugal and Argentina are the only countries to have hosted and won the tournament.

Japan exits with an extra time 1:0 loss to Venezuela today – Iran already exited in group stage. Disappointing showing for Asia.


Last Thought on today’s WC exit

One thing that might play into Korea’s future: the youth continue to play street football. That’s an anecdotal report I’m hearing from people on the ground – that Korean kids like to get together to kick around and play ball.  No refs, no hovering coaches berating them (not to say coaches don’t have a role in development but minimal prompting is a coaching artform that helps rather than hiders proper development).  Street football is something I’m not only encouraging – I’m hoping it grows exponentially in Korea.  Switching perspectives from here in the US, soccer culture still isn’t on par with the major sports that dominate here like american football, baseball, etc. But it’s growing. In the growing pangs of this relatively unheralded sport, coaching has also improved. And the overriding lesson we’re learning is: street soccer rules.  As a newfound convert to the church of Cryuff (RIP), American coaches are realizing that some of what they’ve been doing wrong over the years is over-coaching.  When you get kids immersed in a culture of street soccer – without rules or conventional boundaries – creativity is spurred. Innate skills are uniquely honed and developed.  Johan Cryuff, after all, learned to be a baller, not through an academy, but on the streets of Amsterdam.  His creativity flowed throughout his professional career as a result, from player to a thinking-outside-the box coach at Barcelona. While LaMasia and Ajax academy are both parallel Vaticans in this church of Cryuff, the foundations of the church are still outside of those walls. It’s still on the streets. If Korea has street soccer culture that kids find cool and motivating – the more the merrier. That’s not a bad recipe to develop organically as a footballing nation – that’s the Tavern dream that we all share.  From loss to grief. Grief to acceptance. Acceptance to finding answers. Solutions will be found, new avenues will be made.  The struggle continues. Dae Han Min Guk.




Extra Time:

Jeju United bring a 2:0 advantage to Urawa Reds for the 2nd leg of the Round of 16 Asian Champions League tomorrow.  Kickoff is 6:30am EST / 7:30 pm Korea time Wednesday May 31. 






About Roy Ghim 454 Articles
The old Tavern Owner


    • With hindisight, Korea had a relatively good tournament when you break it down to it’s parts. Germany even capitulated in the R of 16 – so Korea still needs to hold it’s head high and look forward. Korea did a good job in the group stage – to advance from that group was no small feat. The fluidity in attack, particularly against Guinea and at times against Argentina showed there was potential with this team and with the future of some of these players. And kudos to people who showed up – that was encouraging to see that football support isn’t dead in Korea.

  1. I was impressed with our kids effort. We need leadership and improvement in the system; long time away. For now, I have to be happy with watching SHM and KSY when they are playing. When there are more than twenty Korean players playing for the four major European leagues, then we could say that we have arrived.

    • Yeah man, I’m right there with you. But alternatively, I’m also beginning to subscribe to the notion that due to the cultural/language difficulties some Koreans face going abroad to Europe, if Korea’s domestic pro leagues are bolstered, increased quality of competition can also = progress on a # of levels and metrics. The CSL strategy (which admittedly would be hard to replicate for K League) is –if they can’t export Chinese players to Europe, then import European competition to China. Import coaches as well. Dividends may eventually pay out in Xi Jinping’s MASSIVE efforts to rapidly bring quality of Chinese football to int’l standards – which I’m hoping spurs Korea to finally take decisive action on a broad level to match that Chinese drive towards excellence and competitiveness -meaning increased funding and restructure/reform of K-League, etc.

  2. I wonder when some of these players will join the senior national team. My guess is that LSW and PSH will have to make their pro debuts first before being considered.

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