Uli Stielike’s first two matches in charge of the senior squad are in the books. The results? Korea 2 – 0 Paraguay and Korea 1 – 3 Costa Rica. Given the short amount of time Stielike has had with the team, it’s difficult to really tell what were his ideas and what is just carry over from previous managers. Plus Stielike fielded very different sides in the two games, so that must also be taken into consideration. Nevertheless, I shall attempt to draw some conclusions about the state of the team.
*Note this post is a bit long (3200+ words). Also, it’s not (as always) one that I’m completely satisfied with, but in the interests of timeliness and the fact that if I keep editing it, it’ll never get out, I’m posting it now. Feel free to poke holes in the analysis in the comments.
I suppose we should start with the formations and starting XIs.
A surprising XI for most. Stielike opted to field some of the “fringe” players in attack. Sagan Tosu’s Kim Min-woo, Qatar SC’s Cho Young-cheol, and Lekhwiya’s Nam Tae-hee all made the XI. On form they’re all deserving, but considering the names they kept out it was a bit of a shock. Lee Chung-yong was returned to his more normal right wing position. Ki Sung-yueng, newly named captain for these friendlies, and Han Kook-young comprised the deeper double-pivot. Hong Chul was tried out at left back. Kim Ki-hee, having previously played for Stielike at Al Sailiya, started alongside Kwak Tae-hwi. Lee Yong returned to the starting XI. Kim Jin-hyeon, despite his mistake last month, started in goal.
vs Costa Rica
Against Costa Rica, Stielike returned to a more familiar looking XI. Lee Dong-gook started up top. Son Heung-min returned to the left wing spot. The entire defense changed with Park Joo-ho, Kim Young-gwon, Kim Ju-young, Cha Du-ri, and Kim Seung-gyu starting. Only Ki Sung-yueng, Lee Chung-yong, and Nam Tae-hee retained their places. The biggest surprise in this XI was the use of Jang Hyun-soo as Ki’s partner in midield. Jang is not naturally a midfielder, but it’s a role he has played before with the senior side under both Choi Kang-hee and Hong Myeong-bo (although I don’t think he started there for either). Park Joo-ho suffered an injury (ankle sprain) early in the first half, and was replaced by Kim Min-woo.
General Attacking Tactics
Broadly speaking, Korea attacked just like they have in the past. It was heavily focused down the flanks using the fullbacks and wide midfielders to advance the ball. Compared to previous matches, the main difference was the role of Ki Sung-yueng. Stielike has clearly identified Ki as the (sorry for this) key player in the side. Besides handing him the captain’s armband, Stielike seems to have told Ki he wants him to take a larger role in the team’s overall play. My guess is that Stielike wants Ki to be less of a ‘6’ and more of an ‘8’.
Stielike had previously said that he wanted to improve Korea’s attacking play in the final third, saying that Korea has been too slow in that area. In the game against Paraguay, Korea looked much better in that area, with the quartet of Cho Young-cheol, Lee Chung-yong, Nam Tae-hee, and Kim Min-woo combining well. In the game against Costa Rica, Korea seemed to revert to what we’ve seen (and Stielike criticized) in the past. Was that due to the inclusion of Lee Dong-gook and Son Heung-min? Partially, but the opposition must be taken into account as well. Costa Rica was much better defensively than Paraguay was.
As the diagram (numbers reflect standard squad numbering) indicates, the attackers had a fair bit of flexibility in their roles. The key is the ability for the front four to interchange positions. Korea’s second goal against Paraguay is probably the best example of this interchanging.
Lee Chung-yong has moved into a more central role, while Lee Yong has pushed up from his fullback position. Nam Tae-hee has moved up into center forward spot. Cho Young-cheol moved wide into the left wing position as Kim Min-woo was deeper. Granted it’s not the most complex of interchanges, but it still requires a little flexibility on the players’ part. The often criticized use of Lee Dong-gook is that he slows/clogs the play. We’ll discuss him in more detail, but here I’ll say that this is where he falls very short. He isn’t technically good enough to drop deep into a crowded midfield area nor is he mobile enough to move wide. The chain effect is that the band of three behind him are restricted. Son Heung-min couldn’t move into more dangerous attacking positions centrally off the wing nor could Nam Tae-hee move up from deep because defenders were already there to mark Lee.
General Defensive Tactics
Again, broadly speaking, Korea defended like they have in the past. The team conceded possession (for the most part) to Paraguay and Costa Rica when the ball was in the opposition half. The team would then attempt to press the ball when it moved into Korea’s side of the pitch. Again, like in the past Korea experienced similar problems defensively. The pressing was poorly coordinated, and both Paraguay and Costa Rica were able to break it. Positionally, Korea’s defensive shape lacked compactness – both vertically and horizontally. Then of course there were the individual mistakes here and there. Let’s take a look at Costa Rica’s second goal as an example.
Costa Rica has won the ball in Korea’s half. Notice the defensive shape. Korea’s midfielders (connected by the orange line) are in an . . . okay shape. They are compact, but they are not well connected with the defense. Cha Du-ri (off screen) is much too far away from Lee Chung-yong. As such there is a sizable gap on the Costa Rica left.
Fast forward a few seconds, and we see the problem has gotten a bit worse. There is still a significant space behind Lee Chung-yong, and to make things worse Kim Min-woo has gone out towards the flank to mark someone. The problem is that Kim Young-gwon has not followed him out. The defensive line (yellow line) is no longer horizontally compact, leaving space for Costa Rica to break through.
In the next move, Korea loses it’s vertical compactness in the center. Jang Hyun-soo has stepped up to press the ball, thus leaving approximately 18 or so yards of space between the defense and midfield lines. There is also an individual error here as Nam Tae-hee has failed to mark his man (the red arrow).
Now Costa Rica has the ball in the always dangerous ‘between-the-lines’ position. The red circle shows the huge vertical space that Korea has allowed to open up. Korea’s defensive line is also poorly positioned. The slant allows the Costa Rican player to make his run into the space behind Kim Young-gwon without having to worry about being offside.
Perhaps Korea was a tad unfortunate here, as Kim Young-gwon managed to get his foot to the ball, but it rebounded off Kim Min-woo back to Costa Rica. Now we see how the lack of vertical compactness hurts the team. The defensive line has lost it’s shape due to Kim Young-gwon’s sliding attempt to intercept the ball. Kim Ju-young has moved across to cover, but Cha Du-ri (due to the player behind him) cannot move with him. The player who should have been there, Jang Hyun-soo (and to a slightly lesser extent Ki Sung-yueng), is not due to the huge space they allowed to open.
In the end, there was actually a chance for Korea to recover from this situation (sort of like the first goal conceded to Ghana before the World Cup). But neither Ki nor Jang take up a marking position on the Costa Rica player. As such, he gets a free chance to shoot, and takes it well.
Before we move off the defensive notes, two more things to consider. First, take a look at the two images below.
The top image is just before Costa Rica’s first goal. The bottom image is an attempt on goal for Son Heung-min in the second half. Of course what I want you to take from this is the massive difference in defensive organization. For Korea, the wingers (Son and Lee CY) are nowhere to be seen. Again there is a massive space in the middle (both vertical and horizontal) for Costa Rica to exploit. Costa Rica on the other hand are in a very good shape. The backline is incredibly compact horizontally. Closing off the passing lanes on the ground. The midfield line is compact (vertically) with the defense, protecting against one-twos and a chance for a Korean attacker to get on the ball and turn. The options are clear (for Son): pass sideways, pass backwards, or shoot from distance.
The image above is from Costa Rica’s third goal. As you can see from Korea’s positioning, they are employing a zonal marking system. Kim Young-gwon got (deservedly) a lot of flack for this goal (we’ll discuss it more later), and depending on how you interpret what was supposed to happen, it may be a bit harsh. My interpretation is that players are responsible for what’s in front of them. When the ball comes in, it goes over Kim Young-gwon’s head, and thus he thinks it’s not in his zone. Perhaps also he gets a call from Kim Seung-gyu to leave it? Regardless, it’s a flaw in the system.
Should Kim Young-gwon have done more? In hindsight, of course. But, I can see why he leaves it. It’s in a position where you’d probably expect the keeper to get it, and it’s also possible he expects Jang Hyun-soo (the player behind him in the line) to take care of if Kim Seung-gyu does not. I initially said it was a failed marking assignment, but clearly it was not (since they’re not marking anyone).
After a shaky-ish showing against Venezuela, Kim Jin-hyeon put in a quality showing against Paraguay. Conversely, Kim Seung-gyu – who looked good during the Asian Games, wasn’t totally convincing. Has Kim Jin-hyeon surpassed Kim Seung-gyu? Probably not, but the gap is smaller than it was prior to these matches. Ultimately it will probably depend on the defensive tactics Stielike wants to utilize as well as the length of his outlook. At 27, Kim Jin-hyeon is likely as good as he’s going to get, while at 24, Kim Seung-gyu possibly has a little more growth to come. Likely it will come down to how Stielike wants them to play. Kim Jin-hyeon is a more rounded keeper in terms of his skill set, while Kim Seung-gyu is a more athletic keeper. Should Stielike want to continue to run the defense the way Korea has traditionally done, Kim Jin-hyeon may be the better option. But, if he wants to change the defense to become more aggressive higher up the pitch (ala Germany) a ‘sweeper-keeper’ may be needed, and Kim Seung-gyu’s greater athleticism may come in handy there.
Four different centerbacks played over the course of the two games. Kim Ki-hee and Kwak Tae-hwi started the first match. Kim Young-gwon and Kim Ju-young the second. None were particularly convincing. Of the four, it seems like Kim Ju-young emerged with the most credit, but I am certainly not comfortable with the thought of Kim Ju-young being our first choice centerback for the next four years.
The player I do want to take a moment to talk about is Kim Young-gwon. The above image is when Costa Rica scored their third goal. As the arrow shows, it certainly looks like Kim Young-gwon is caught in a classic case of ball-watching. Was he? I already addressed the issue a bit earlier, so we won’t re-hash it again. But it serves as a reminder (deserved or not) that Kim is prone to errors. This moment brought to mind his horror game against Algeria at the World Cup for me personally. From a physical/skill perspective, I maintain that Kim Young-gwon is the best centerback we’ve got available. But his continual mental mistakes are troubling. And at this level, mental mistakes are not allowed. Yet, I suspect that Kim (and possibly Hong Jeong-ho if he ever gets healthy) will continue to be called up, and will continue to start regularly simply because there is not a clearly better option available. Stielike’s challenge will be to adjust the defensive system so that Kim’s mistakes are easier to recover from or occur in a less dangerous position (i.e. move the line higher so the errors occur in the middle third rather than Korea’s third).
Over the course of the two matches, we saw three defensive midfielders tried out. Han Kook-young, Jang Hyun-soo, and a limited showing from Park Jong-woo. Of the three, the only one I would say is a definite ‘no’, is Jang. Jang may have some characteristics of a holding midfielder, but he clearly is not up to the task. His technical ability is poor (by midfield standards) and he doesn’t seem to know how to position himself defensively. Unfortunately, none of the free-to-access stats sites track Korea (or this game specifically) so I can’t tell you his passing percentages and such, but I’d wager they’re nothing to write home about.
So, then there’s Han Kook-young. A tackling machine, but my concerns about Han remain. He’s a liability positionally, and like Jang, not up to the standards in his technical ability. Costa Rica marked Ki Sung-yueng tightly in this one, and other teams certainly will too. That means his partner must be able to help get the offense going. For a team like Korea, I’m not sure if there is room for a pure ‘water carrier’.
Which leads us to Park Jong-woo. I’ll put out my usual disclaimer that I am a fan of Park Jong-woo due to his Busan IPark days. And part of me does want to see him renew his Olympic partnership with Ki Sung-yueng. That being said, I’m well aware of Park’s limitations. Defensively, he’s good, but not great. Offensively, he’s better than Jang and Han, but not up to international standards as the US tour last year clearly showed.
Ultimately, I think this spot will be a bit of a rotational position unless one of them (or some other player) really steps up. Against big teams with a superstar player (like Brazil with Neymar), Han Kook-young is probably the best option as his energy and dog-like (apologies if any Han fans are offended by the reference) hunting nature makes him an excellent man-marker in open play. Whereas against smaller teams a more balanced-player like Park Jong-woo may become more valuable.
I touched earlier on how Stielike seems to want Ki to take on a more prominent role in the set up. I don’t doubt Ki’s ability as a deep-playmaker, and certainly you can see the team being built around him. So, the only question that remains is, “is he up to the task?” My tentative answer is ‘yes’, but I do have a couple lingering doubts. Skill-wise, I think Ki has the ability to become a more forward player, but I do think it’ll take some time to get him used to that position. When asked to play a much further forward position against Costa Rica late on, Ki looked quite uncomfortable staying that high up the pitch. The other doubt centers on Ki’s longstanding criticism, his mentality. Perhaps (if it’s given to him full-time) the captain’s armband could serve as that little extra push he needs. A little reminder that he must always be there and “on”.
Korea certainly has a wealth of smaller attacking players, and that may be the biggest takeaway from these two matches. Kim Min-woo, Nam Tae-hee, and Cho Young-cheol are known, but they aren’t household names. Yet they all performed quite well when called upon. I’d venture that over the two matches Kim Min-woo was the best performer of all, especially when you consider he played the second match at left back (not his normal position). With that in mind, I’m very curious to see Stielike’s next call ups and his starting XI. On merit, all three deserve calls and possibly starts, but the question is, “will Stielike have the courage to drop a big name?” Lee Chung-yong is a fan favorite, experienced, and has great skill, but he’s been wildly inconsistent over the last year. Koo Ja-cheol is another issue. He’s reportedly almost ready to resume training with Mainz, will he also return to the national team?
Then there’s Son Heung-min. Jeremy gave him an ‘8’ in his player ratings and while I know that Son doesn’t have the attacking quality to work with like he does at Leverkusen, I admit to being quite frustrated by Son post-World Cup. And personally, I would have give Son a 6.5 against Costa Rica. Perhaps this is harsh, but I feel that because he’s in Europe at a bigger club and his talent, people tend to make excuses for him in a manner similar to how people made excuses for Park Chu-young. I’m not calling for him to be dropped, but I think it’s important to be real about a player’s performances. And for me, other than his first half show against Venezuela, Son has been average at best. The important thing then, is to understand why he’s struggled with Korea. Personally I feel it’s a combination of an offensive system that doesn’t suit him, the ups and downs that come with being 22, and the pressure of being the focal point of the national team. One of the many questions that Stielike has to solve is how to get the best out of his most skilled attacker.
With the Costa Rica game in the books, Lee Dong-gook moved up to 7th (tied) all-time on Korea’s appearance chart, and he moved up to 4th (tied) all-time on Korea’s goal scoring chart. Impressive achievements, but I think virtually everyone – including his hardcore fans in Jeonju – would agree that Lee Dong-gook is a short-term solution at best. Lee has never been a runner, and at 35 I’m quite certain he isn’t about to start. While he remains a useful player in terms of his experience and his penalty box ability (at times), Lee Dong-gook is not a good fit for the more dynamic style of play required at the highest levels.
The problem of course is that Korea lacks that kind of forward. Kim Shin-wook does not fit that profile either. And I won’t start on Park Chu-young. Perhaps the answer lies in the aforementioned Son Heung-min? Or perhaps the way forward (for now at least) lies in one of the hybrid attacking midfielders/forwards Korea has. Players like Cho Young-cheol, Lee Keun-ho, or even Lee Jong-ho.
Tactics and Style
Really, this is the main issue. Until Stielike has clearly communicated these ideas to the team, the rest is a bit up in the air.The kind of forward you want, who partners Ki Sung-yueng, who plays in defense, and things like that. Obviously you would want different players if you plan to defend deep and then counter versus if you press high vs if you want to dominate possession. From the limited press conferences he’s done, I suspect Stielike wants the second option. A “Germany-style” aggressive press, higher up the pitch. After the Costa Rica match Stielike said, “The attackers did not actively pressure Costa Rica, and defenders’ pressure wasn’t tight enough.” If you take that in mind, then you can start to build a team around those ideas.