It’s been yet another turbulent, hopeless, pathetic World Cup qualifying campaign. 2013 on repeat all over again. A useless manager with no tactical acumen, a couple unexpectedly embarrassing defeats and a group of players who are passive at best, disjointed at worst. Group rivals Iran have, just a few hours ago, become the third team to qualify for the 2018 World Cup with a 2-0 victory at the Azadi Stadium over Uzbekistan. With that decisive result, we must mournfully regret that the mantle of Asian superpower which Korea has tried to wrestle from Japanese and Australian hands over the past decade must now be shared, if we haven’t already bequeathed it, with Carlos Quieroz’s formidable Team Melli.
However, that result took on an extra significance for fans just hoping we make the World Cup, as it leaves Korea with a great chance to extend their lead on 2nd place and the final qualifying spot to 4 points over the Uzbeks. Despite this, the despicable scoreless draw against Iraq last week doesn’t bide well for Korean chances as they journey away to Doha to face basement dwellers Qatar.
Last Time Out
Last time out, Uli Stielike lined up the side in a surprising 3-4-3, with Ki Sungyueng operating as the central centreback.
Though we can certainly applaud tactical experimentation from Stielike (though something tells me this probably wasn’t his idea, but rather that of the new assistant manager who Stielike is expected to answer to) the truth is that it simply didn’t work.
On the offensive side of things, the team was heavily reliant on Ki Sungyueng making a pass through lines or over the top. The side demonstrated an exceptional desire to stick to structure and predictable passing lanes (it was much too orderly) as well as a mournfully emblematic impulsion to pass backwards and retain possession instead of run at opposition players or create space. Several players demonstrated disheartening rustiness – Park Jooho, Lee Chungyong, Jang Hyunsoo, even Hong Jeongho – while others just showed they weren’t up for the job – particularly Kim Changsoo and even Son Heungmin, who was quite poor.
Iraq were also far more successful on the defensive aspect, opting quite predictably to compress and play fairly compact, retreating beyond the halfway line and allowing Korean passes among defenders while sticking to a heavy man-mark that demonstrated the Korean players’ passivity and inability to create their own space. Korea’s attempt at a press to force Iraq defenders to get rid of the ball quickly was a decent sign, but though it rushed Iraqi play a little it never really created a Korean chance.
I admittedly didn’t watch the second half, but reports suggest it was better than the first, with the side returning to a familiar 4-back. Lee Jaesung and Hwang Heechan appear to have been the best performers of the second phase (presumably because they are the two Korean players who are unafraid to make something happen, usually the other is Son but he had a really bad off night), while Lee Keunho failed to prove why he was called up.
Stielike bizarrely claimed in the media that the fact that the side kept a clean sheet should be hailed, as it demonstrated we can defend potently under two different formations, and though it certainly is positive that we didn’t concede, the bottom line is that this is Iraq and Korea didn’t score and that both sides were for large swathes of the game equally poor.
TLDR: No shots on goal, 3-4-3 experiment fails, a waste of two hours?
Whispers from Training
Korean journalists in Doha travelling with the squad have been struck by the nervousness of the Korean side ever since they touched down in Qatar.
Though the squad’s training sessions were described as loose and cheerful, both Uli Stielike and captain Ki Sungyueng were particularly nervous in interviews with media.
Stielike in particular was very passive aggressive with the press, angrily asking them to raise their hands before asking a question (the media rep opened the floor for questions, and the KFA reporter began before Stielike permitted him to). When that request was met by taken aback silence, Stielike remarked “if you don’t have any questions, then let’s just end the press conference”.
He then went on to chastise the media and downplay the importance of tactics, saying, “it is more important that reporters talk about our team’s aggression and spirit instead of staying fixated on the numbers and the tactics and the formation. It’s about the team’s play. It seems to me that the spirit of the players is more important than this.”
Other journalists indicate Stielike looked quite nervous, as if his tenure with the KNT was on the line, and his whole body language did not exude confidence.
Captain Ki Sungyueng was also reported to be very tense, as if he was trying to put on a brave face but looked quite uneasy. He seems to have taken a greater leadership role in training, telling his teammates and the media that the team must “show what we are really about”.
The First Leg
After a positive start that saw Ki Sungyueng score from distance, naturalized Qatari forward Sebastian Soria won and converted a penalty before using his brute strength to shove his way into the Korean box for a second goal at the brink of halftime. However, the Koreans’ best spell of the game in the beginning of the second half saw Ji Dongwon and Son Heungmin capitalize on Qatari defensive improprieties in the 56th and 58th minute. The Koreans had to withstand Qatari pressure late with 3 substitutions made and Hong Jeongho sent off for a soft second yellow (for a few minutes, Ji Dongwon seriously played fullback) but a nervewracking 3 points were secured nonetheless.
Secretive Qatar Determined To Prove Their Strength
“We’ve lost the last two games because of difficult decisions by referees. It’s normal to make mistakes, but they haven’t gone our way,” claims Qatari boss Jorge Fossati. Though the hosts of the 2022 World Cup have been eliminated from contention for Russia 2018, the Qatar boss insists his team have a lot to play for. Indeed, many pundits quip that the Qataris’ status as basement dwellers in the group mask their quick attack and chemistry.
Many wonder however if Jorge Fossati will try out a new shape against Korea, especially given that Stielike’s favorite striker Sebastian Soria will not feature because of card accumulation. This is because a number of Qatar’s recent friendlies have been closed door with nothing more than the scoreline being reported.
Keys To the Game
- The conditions: Korea has struggled constantly in heat and/or humidity over this qualifying phase. Fitness was low in Malaysia vs Syria, low in Iran, low in UAE vs Iraq. Weather reports suggest the temperature could still be near 40 degrees Celsius (that’s 104 Fahrenheit) when the teams take the pitch at 10pm local time. The hotter it gets, the more the game will favor the Qataris.
- Stuffing Qatar’s mobility + watch the counter!: What Qatar doesn’t have in talent, they make up with mobility. They don’t play a structured game, but they do have a lot of players able to play a lot of roles (in fact, Fossati is notorious for keeping the same player personnel from game to game and just shoehorning them into different positions). Korea will best control the game if Han Kookyoung (a likely starter) and Korea’s midfield track their players with prudence and pass on players smartly. If they can accomplish this simple defensive element, Qatar can be handled, especially considering that Hong Jeongho won’t have to worry about Soria operating as a target man.
- Avoid the U-Shape: If Qatar play a 5-4-1 with a narrow midfield, as they did in Suwon back last October, Fossati will be counting on Korea to revert to that dreaded U-Shape where the ball is endless circulated between centreback to fullback to winger and back to fullback to the centreback. It’s a safe space, but it’s totally pointless. Korea will do best to use wingers to run into the box instead of expecting them to dribble from a wide position and create something. They will also do best if the creative midfield player(s) ask for the ball to make something happen, instead of letting the fullbacks do the building up.
Likely Starting Lineup
I don’t think even Uli Stielike can stick with that 3-4-3 after seeing how little the players got it and how bad he was at coaching it. Back to the 4-1-4-1/4-2-3-1 then.
I think Stielike played his best XI against Iraq in the first half, but surely he must have noticed that Lee Chungyong just is too rusty.
What I’d be happy with seeing:
But I suppose it’s just a pipe-dream, because Stielike will never play Lee Jaesung centrally because fuck me for wanting to play incisive passes in the final third and fuck me for wanting a striker that for all his flaws is nimble and mobile.
Korea vs Qatar
3pm Tuesday New York Time, 4am Wednesday Seoul Time, 10pm Tuesday Doha Time
Broadcast: JTBC (Korea), Tavern Facebook Live with commentary by Tim Lee & Jinseok Yang (to be confirmed), Twittercast (@taeguk_warrior)
Call me foolish, call me immature, I still dream of World Cups and Korea succeeding at them.
Though I don’t disagree that failing to qualify for one might be what it takes to awaken the KFA to its terrible shortcomings, it is entirely counter-intuitive for me to root against the national team.
We’ll hold the KFA’s feet to the fire regardless, but I do not accept that Ki Sungyueng doesn’t get one more World Cup. That Son Heungmin shouldn’t be able to play a World Cup in his prime. That promising K League stars including Lee Jaesung shouldn’t be able to play at a World Cup. Or Ji Dongwon, or Koo Jacheol, players who have worn the KNT badge with honor.
The team is in a sticky situation and nobody is under any illusions. The team
is underperforming, and this manager has to go.
But so as long as these players play with heart and passion, we need to back them. Even
if they blow right now. Especially because this is the easiest of Korea’s last three games (Iran and Uzbekistan next) and anything less than three points actually puts World Cup qualification in jeopardy.
If you can’t support them during the tough times, you shouldn’t during the good times. Get behind them.