Three strikers have emerged as Korea’s best offensive options: Son Heung Min, Hwang Uijo, and Hwang Heechan. Son has become a world-class superstar who is on pace for his fourth consecutive season scoring 18+ goals for Tottenham. Hwang Heechan has enjoyed a breakout season for RB Salzburg, contributing 9 goals and 14 assists to a team that is dominating the Austrian League. Hwang Uijo, while still adjusting to his new French team, has been the leading scorer under Bento’s regime with 9 goals. This is more than double the amount of the second-leading scorer, Kim Shinwook, who scored 4 goals in one match against the weak Sri Lanka squad.
When considering how well these 3 strikers have been playing, it only seems natural for the 3 to be all be regulars in the starting 11. However, Bento seems to be reluctant to use the three together. Following the Asian Cup, out of 8 matches in which the three players were in the 23 man squad, the three players started together only once, in the 0-3 loss to Brazil. Bento seems to have the most trouble incorporating Hwang Heechan into the lineup, who has been used mostly as a substitute. This is rather disappointing when seeing how electrifying his performances have been for RB Salzburg. However, using Hwang Heechan with Hwang Uijo and Son Heungmin may not be as easy as it sounds.
The Brazil match may show why it is so difficult for Son and the two Hwangs to fit into one lineup. In this friendly, Bento used a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Son and Hwang Heechan occupying the two wing positions and Hwang Uijo playing as striker. However, on defense, Bento regularly uses the 4-4-2 line system, and attempted to do the same against Brazil: while Hwang Uijo and Lee Jaesung played in the front two on defense, Son and Hwang Heechan took up the two sides of the second line on defense. Simply put, Son and Hwang were too attack-minded to have any defensive impact. Their limited defensive liabilities were exploited by Brazil as overlapping wingbacks frequently forced Kim Jinsu and Kim Moonhwan to defend two players at once. While Son and Hwang Heechan may be effective in pressing the defensive in the offensive third, their defensive liabilities make them vulnerable defending in the second line. Furthermore, such a system is ineffective particularly for Hwang Heechan, whose greatest strengths include pressing the opponent’s defensive line (“gegenpressing”). If Bento wants to effectively use a 4-4-2 defense, Son and Hwang Heechan must play on the front 2. However, using the two players in front two leaves Hwang Uijo as the odd man out.
Clearly, the 4-4-2 defensive system leaves a conflict between the three players. There are two spots for three players. Using any of these three players in the second line is ineffective for two reasons: 1) all three players like to penetrate behind defenders, which becomes unrealistic when playing so far back on defense 2) none of the three players are adept in defense and can be replaced by more defensive-minded wingers such as Lee Jaesung, Kwon Changhoon, Na Sangho, and Lee Kangin (with the right development).
Against a future World Cup opponent such as Brazil, in which defense is essential to success, it is understandable why the three strikers do not fit in one lineup. But the question is, what about when Korea is playing against slightly weaker teams and can focus on offense, such as throughout qualifiers? When defense isn’t as important, can the three players effectively play together?
Based on the sample size we have, I believe the answer is no.
In his earliest matches, as well as the Asian Cup, Bento experimented with using Hwang, Hwang, and Son in the starting eleven. Similar to the Brazil match, Hwang Uijo would play as the striker, and Son and Hwang Heechan would play as wingers. However, Son’s performances were quite underwhelming in these matches. Son played more as a playmaker than as a scorer; not only were his shots limited, his playmaking abilities were underutilizing his abilities. When put as a winger, Son has a tendency to try playing as the “Eriksen” or “Dele Alli” of the Korean National Team. This was also true throughout the Asian Games, when the three were regularly used in the starting eleven. Although in the end, the team won Gold, it is hard to say that Son played his best throughout this tournament. It is also important to remember that Hwang Heechan was under quite a bit of scrutiny throughout this tournament for his lacking performances as winger.
In my mind, there are two international breaks when Son played in his usual club form: the 2017 friendlies against Columbia and Serbia, and the 2019 friendlies against Bolivia and Columbia. In terms of goals, Son played best against the matches against Columbia, scoring two goals the first time and then one the second time. However, I would argue that Son played better in the two other matches against Serbia and Bolivia. While Son did not score in these matches, he took more high-quality shots in these two matches in comparison to all of the other KNT matches. In all of these matches, Son played as the left striker in a two-top formation. In 2017, his partner was Lee Keunho. In 2019, his partner was Hwang Uijo. Furthermore, the wingers in these matches were Lee Jaesung, Kwon Changhoon, Na Sangho, and Lee Chungyong, whose play styles are quite different from Hwang Uijo or Hwang Heechan.
As well as Hwang Uijo has been playing for the KNT, or how well Hwang Heechan has been playing for RB Salzburg, the best player out of the three is undoubtedly Son Heungmin. It must be Bento’s priority to optimize the skills of Son, and the best way to do so is playing him in a two-top formation with “inside wingers” behind him. When the three play together, Son is underutilized and put in a position that can be outperformed by other players.
Regardless of whether the opponent is a weak one playing a 10-back defense or a powerful attacking side, it is difficult to see how Son and the two Hwangs can all mesh into one lineup. It is understandable why Bento has trouble using the three players at once. Although this is disappointing right now, I think that Bento can use this tendency to his advantage in tournaments with difficult schedules. Instead of relying on the three to play every single minute of every single tournament, Bento can employ a rotation system within the three players. This also addresses the issue of Bento overworking Son, even against weak opponents. I envision a lineup such as this:
Against a weaker opponent, this can be played as a 4-1-3-2, while against a stronger opponent, the defensive 4-4-2 defensive would be primary. Of course, most, if not all other positions have strong alternatives as well, such as Lee Kangin, Baek Seungho, Na Sangho, and Ju Sejong.
Bento has limited using the three best Korean strikers today all at once, and a little bit of analysis provides insight as to why. It is better to effectively use two of the three players in comparison to ineffectively using two out of the three players by putting them all in one lineup. Instead of trying to find a way to utilize all three players at once, Bento has and should continue to try to optimize the performances of two of the players at once, and use the three stars in a rotation system.
Comment below if you agree, or think that there is a way to use the three players together.