Paulo Bento ushered Korea’s first result after the Asian Cup debacle, a somewhat clunky 1:0 friendly win over Bolivia. Tinkering slightly with his squad in the post Ki and Koo era, Korea dominated possession and penned in Bolivia in their own half for most of the game. However, despite a number of promising shots on goal, Korea frustrated itself with a lack of clinical finish. With 5 minutes left in regulation time, Hong Chul lifted a cross that seemingly hung in the air for a length of time – what looked like a routine clearance for Bolivia’s Bejarano Jimenez turned into substitute Lee Chung-yong’s opportunity to pounce. Timed perfectly, the Blue Dragon slid in front of the unaware left back and headed the ball into the back of the net with power and precision. It was the goal Korea needed to finally break the deadlock.
We’ll deconstruct the positives and negatives for Korea, including a chance missed to insert Korea’s prodigious Spanish based players in Lee Kang-in and Paik Seung-ho, but first Bento’s starting XI:
Starting with a hybrid 4-1-3-2 formation – adjusting to the reality that Ki Sung-yeung is officially retired from international duty and Jung Woo-young out of action, Ju Se-jong was deputized as the defensive mid sweeper in front of a interesting backline of Hong Chul, Kwon Kyung-won, Kim Min-jae and Kim Moon-hwan.
Quick assessment on Bento’s defensive selection: LB Kim Jin-su is out sick, otherwise perhaps was more likely to start. Kwon Kyung-won is a curious pick to pair with Kim Min-jae – who one would expect to be part of the CB setup. Conventional wisdom would say Kim Young-gwon would be pipped but if there’s a time to experiment in this fixture, perhaps Bento is saving Young-gwon to start against Colombia. Finally Kim Moon-hwan at RB is a welcome change. He was quite the revelation at the Asian Games and it was only a matter of time before the enterprising 24 year old Busan Ipark fullback got a proper look for the senior Korea squad.
The midfield selection is where Bento experimented a bit more: Na Sang-ho and Kwon Chang-hoon (back from a achilles rupture that tragically took him out in his last Dijon game before the World Cup – his last appearance was nearly a year ago) took the wide areas, balanced out by Vancouver’s new attacking midfielder, Hwang In-beom. Another suprise perhaps was Bento installing Ji Dong-won and pairing him in a 2 striker system with Son Heung-min (rather than Hwang Ui-jo, who would get into the action in the 2nd half).
Did it work? Yes…and no. Korea dominated possession and was able to concoct a number of opportune scoring opportunities despite Bolivia’s ultra-compactness. However, both Ji Dong-won and Son Heung-min missed the target in the first half with respective golden looks on goal (1v1 with keeper, Ji missed a sitter, heading it out wide while later Son intercepted the ball, went 1v1 with the keep, missing the net just wide). Korea kept up the attack and nearly opened their scoring account – but shots on target were met with some outstanding goalkeeping heroics from Bolivia’s Cordano. Korea’s build up looked fluid and bright and kept Bolivia penned into their own half. The few times Bolivia were able to break out, Korea’s defense shut them down, leaving netminder Kim Seung-gyu for the most part as a bystander.
The second half largely mirrored the first half. Hwang In-beom, who was quieter as an attacking mid – got into prime position to score in the 53rd minute, but his shot at the keeper typified the fruitless offensive despite the overwhelming possession rate. Bento opted to swap out Ji for Hwang Ui-jo. That led to an interesting shift in team chemistry. While Hwang got a shot or two on target, he wasn’t as mobile as Ji – opting to statically stay put centrally. It should be said at this point that Son Heung-min, despite not finding the back of the net, was looking lively. Son was linking with Ji and both players swapped out their positions to keep the Bolivian defense hard at work to cover. With the introduction of Hwang, Takeuchi twittered his observation:
Son realigned to play in Hwang Ui-jo, but several headscratching misses by the Gamba Osaka striker just continued Korea’s ongoing goal drought. Bento brought on Lee Seung-woo and minutes later he deftly weaved around the defense to square up front of goal. Like his compatriots though, he missed the target and the ball harmlessly went well over the crossbar. The agony of Lee Seung-woo was magnificent however, and the display lasted close to 30 long seconds, transitioning with shades of contrition, virtual self flagellation and frustration. Nevertheless, he might be forgiven as his dribbling prowess kept things moving forward throughout the latter stages of the game. In one promising attack late in the half, Son footwork trickery left Bolivia’s centerbacks falling over themselves – the Spurs man nimbly drives towards the goalline and passes across the goal to the waiting foot of Hwang Ui-jo —except that Hwang was unable to connect! Bento’s last move was to install Lee Chung-yong, the battling veteran left standing in the wake of Ki and Koo’s retirement. The Blue Dragon took up where Hwang In-beom left off (the laggy stream I had for 65% of the match left me wondering – was Hwang In-beom better as an attacking-mid for Vancouver recently or as a deep lying playmaker as he was for the Asian Cup?). With time running out, Korea mounting attack after futile attack, the break through finally came in the 85th minute. Hong Chul- who’s middling performance up until that point delivered a long, forever hanging cross in the air towards – and as just as we described it – Lee Chung-yong read that beautifully with a powerful header.
It was a feeling of relief more than anything – all that hard work, all that possession, all the fruitless shots up until that one moment – it was the payoff that the team had labored and waited for 85 long minutes. Korea saw off the rest of the match and thanked the lit up crowd at Ulsan’s Municipal stadium.
Kwon Chang-hoon‘s return. Oh what could have been had the baker of Suwon not gotten injured in the waning moments of Dijon’s last game of the season? He would have been a vital impact player for Korea in the World Cup and the Asian Cup; that’s what Korea missed sorely in his absence. Part of the reason Korea dominated possession – look at Kwon and the inability of Bolivia to take the ball off of him:
Kim Moon-hwan: the young right-back was spot on today, driving the ball and doing it with aplomb. I’m currently looking for that replay that shows him nutmegging a Bolivian fullback and continuing his swaggering run.
Son Heung-min and Ji Dong-won – so the scoreline shows no goals between them, and critics can rightly point to their 2 missed shots in the first half that they should’ve done better on. But mistakes aside, the bigger picture is that Bento’s instincts were correct on the potency of the 2 striker system – namely with that pairing. They worked well together, swapped positions to keep the defense on their toes and created several solid chances. Mazy runs from Son nearly bagged Korea a first half goal, and a positionally astute Ji the same. On another day arguably, Korea could well have had a few goals in production with that crew.
Lee Chung-yong –the Blue Dragon is a reliable veteran baller. He bagged the game winner for Bochum recently and he provided a mature performance that steadied a Korean side frustrated with their inability to score. Spotting the opportunity with a lofted cross to the backpost, he didn’t hesitate. His experience on the pitch saved Korea from going home empty handed.
41,000 at Ulsan – Korea’s 5th consecutive sellout. Looked like a good football atmosphere for a stadium that usually sees a fraction of that capacity crowd for Ulsan Horang-i games. The everlasting question is – can the K-League capitalize on the energy and moment behind these KNT sellout matches and get the masses into domestic league games? There’s some encouraging signs that audiences are building back up in the K-League -especially at Daegu FC, who has impressively amassed 3 consecutive sellouts in their gorgeous new stadium, including an Asian Champions League game (shocking Guangzhou Evergrande with a 3:1 result last week!).
Missed chance by Bento to introduce Girona’s Paik Seung-ho and Valencia’s Lee Kang-in. This isn’t Colombia, 12th ranked in FIFA world standings. This is Bolivia…not necessarily a poor team per se, but they’re not top 20 opposition. If there was an international friendly game of little consequence to get these likely future KNT players into the fold, this game would have been it. The perception of Bento as a bit too conservative in his selections hasn’t been assuaged tonight in Ulsan.
Hwang Ui-jo It wouldn’t be fair to pile on Hwang for missing shots – Son, Ji and Lee Seung-woo all missed their chances too. That said, his movement off the ball as a traditional center forward is…for lack of a better term, too old school. As mentioned before, the fluidity of players like Son or Lee to slip in behind the defense gets clogged up with someone less inclined to be mobile and more fixed on a central position. That, and the perhaps the quality of his missed shots adds to the perception that Hwang isn’t the best fit for the squad. Does he inhibit Korea from playing a faster, more impactful offensive game? Debates will forever rage about this, but today doesn’t help Ui-jo’s case.
Next game: Korea v Colombia 8pm Korea Time/7am US EST
Korea’s U20 friendly with Ukraine ended with a 0:1 loss while the Korean olympic squad beat up on Taiwan 8:0 to start their AFC 23 Championship/Olympic qualifying run.
Korea U20 will square off against France and Korea U22/23 will clash with Cambodia – both games next Tuesday.
Last but not least, I’ve been following the F2 on youtube for quite some time. The hilarious and insanely talented freestyling duo has chummed it up online with the likes of Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar and now…in a rebooted show they debuted yesterday: none other than Son Heung-min! I had no idea Son has a knuckleball freekick in his locker. Check it out here:
Boom. Check out Son’s tekkers (he improvises a sort of backwards elastico – simply ridiculous). Note: always drama whenever a North London player comes on F2 as Jezza is a fervent Arsenal supporter while Billy opts for Spurs.