Olympics Debriefing: Where We Came Short

The 2016 Rio Olympics are coming to a close, with the Brazilians winning dramatically in the penalty shootout with Neymar (who else?) scoring the winning spot kick. Germany and Nigeria round out the medals, while the Korean team is already at home, arriving last week. Although they weren’t pelted by candy like the last time a Korean football delegation returned from Brazil, it’s no doubting that these players are still feeling just as disappointed.

As are we. As Korean football fans, perhaps we sometimes expect more from our team than we get. Call it the 2002 effect if you will. Or maybe, in this situation, the 2012 effect. Nonetheless, this team’s ultimate objective was a place on the podium. They haven’t achieved it, and thus military exemption evades them. There’s an excellent discussion going on about this on Roy’s Lee Chungyong round up post.

In this post, I’ll just give some final thoughts on Rio 2016. If you’ve been closely following our Olympics coverage on Twitter and in past posts, things might be a bit redundant, but honestly this post is for me as well – just to get everything out of this system and bring some closure to these games.

What We Learned From Rio: The Negatives

    1. Shin Taeyong is no God

I couldn’t hide my affection for Shin Taeyong when I saw him become temporary caretaker manager of the Korean national team. He didn’t fear experimentation – even setting up the team in a 3-5-2 formation. But the real moment where I believed was that AFC U23 Championship, when as a relatively new Korean national team supporter, I saw something, which was, in my eyes, glorious: tactical experimentation. Not the 4-2-3-1/4-1-4-1/4-4-2 style of Hong Myungbo and to a certain extent Uli Stielike – but 4-4-2 diamond, 3-4-3, 4-3-3. Fresh ideas from Shin Taeyong, which may not have been arguably better, but which were, from a Korean national team standpoint, refreshingly different.

Take the AFC U23 Championship semi-final, for example. Against a dangerous Qatari team on their home turf, with pace abounding in every position and expert passers in the midfield. Korea’s 3-4-3 shape broke up the Qataris midfield groove, styming their flamboyant play and forcing them to resort to longballs to a striker – no target man was he. I remember writing this recap into the early hours of the morning of that fantastic win in Doha – that was the night I believed in this team.

However, when it came down to an 18-man roster, we saw the obvious shortcomings of the squad Shin Taeyong had selected – the predominant problem being that there was no one obvious playmaker in the team. The way this team created chances was “unique” because it was toothless by design. Fullbacks were expected, too often, to be the catalysts of the attack, taking multiple touches in deeper positions, instead of the more modern style whereby they make lung busting runs up the pitch and threaten consistently on the overlap.

One cannot doubt that in many respects, the squad selection by Shin Taeyong and his footballing philosophy did not allow for there to be a focal playmaker or two, and as such this was the most pragmatic approach by Shin. However, this pragmatic route was easily avoidable had Shin elected to address this problem earlier and taken a more serious look at a player such as Hwang Inbeom.

This one glaring example among many other possible criticisms, showed quite simply that Shin Taeyong is indeed human, and will learn from this tournament as all managers should. This shortcoming doesn’t mean he should be ruled immediately out of any other position for as national team manager – far from it. And indeed this team had its successes, which I’ll get into below. But the KFA should pause and think twice before hurriedly promoting yet another Olympic team boss to the senior team managership.

    2. Korea will be Korea

The struggles we had against Honduras are so quintessentially Korean, it is almost depressing. I would try to tactically analyze in Jae-esque styles about why I think we couldn’t make the breakthrough, but in truth, I don’t have the heart to re-watch the performance, and such shortcomings have already been well-documented.

Think, for example, about why this team struggles against nations like Iran. Consider for a moment that 2013 qualifier against Iran, when we struggled to break down Iran’s defensive shape and Ghoochannejad scored on the breakaway. Or the 2014 disaster World Cup send-off against Tunisia, where in defense the Tunisians set up in a 4-4-2 diamond to which the Koreans had no real answer.

This game was yet another example of why, when Korea morphs from underdog into favorite, against stoic defenses and counter-attacking excellence, we can expect about 60 minutes of dull, toothless possession, then a predictable counter-attack goal by the opposition, and then another half hour of chaos, panic and no end result.

“I’m not even surprised”, was the reaction of so many Korean fans. This kind of mediocrity was almost expected as soon as we realized that Son could not find the back of the net to save his life. Honduras didn’t execute their gameplan to perfection, but it doesn’t even seem that the execution needs to be perfect for Korea to struggle against such opposition – it’s the idea that works.

“Tengo una idea claro”, said Honduran boss Jorge Luis Pinto. “I have a clear idea of Korea.” After the trifecta of failures against these sorts of teams – Iran in 2013, Tunisia in 2014 and Honduras in 2016 – we’ve handed the most dangerous blueprint to beat Korea on a silver platter to Asian opposition for years to come. After these shortcomings, who else wouldn’t have “una idea claro” too?

A final note: we can’t counter-attack. Suk and Kwon had chances against Germany and Mexico to convert on the break and yet unable were we.

    3. Positional Failures and Pointless Players

My other major criticism of Shin Taeyong is his persistence with certain individual players despite their pre-tournament form as well as his calling up of dead weight players.

Leftback: Shim Sangmin was a shambles. No secret. His passing was rusty, his positional play questionable, his clearances shaky, his football IQ close to nil. It was almost as if he hadn’t been playing any professional football this season. Hang on, he’s played a full 270 minutes this season! And let me voice this frustration a final time – what was the point in calling up Gwangju rightback Park Dongjin? Lee Seulchan was significantly more in-form than Shim and getting triple his playing time. It was illogical to call a replacement rightback instead of a leftback who was playing consistently in the K League and who could hold Shim’s feet to the fire. Incheon’s Kim Yonghwan comes to mind.

Other examples of dead weight players include Kim Mintae, the Vegalta Sendai midfielder having not even played a full 90 minutes this season. There were other players who deserved a spot on the 3-man replacement shortlist that Kim found himself on.

Why Would Anybody Sign a KPA Now?
I have to wonder this aloud. Son Heungmin had a lot resting on his shoulders at this tournament. Military exemption to save his career from 18 months exile in Sangju. But also to give himself a better shot at Spurs. The Asian Player of the Year, with an Asian record transfer fee, had transferred to Tottenham Hotspur. Son’s re-sale value has now certainly plummeted with that military service looming (his last chance is in Indonesia at the Jakarta Asian Games in 2018). With that kind of precedent for Korean stars, why would it make any fiscal sense for European clubs to make big forays into the market for South Korean football talent? Is the risk worth the reward?

In Son’s case in Europe, it most definitely isn’t. He’s struggling in London and his eventual sale will not come close to that sizeable 22 million Euro transfer fee. Spurs will lose money big-time and his tale will be a cautionary one for future clubs to come.

Note: For all our anger at Son for failing to convert his golden opportunities against Honduras, you cannot doubt his passion. His tears in the Algeria and Honduras debacles reflect the incredible emotional weight he has to bear.

But It’s Not All Doom and Gloom
It really isn’t. Certain players really stood out at these Olympics and the performance against Germany was one to remember.

    Jung Seunghyun

The Ulsan defender really shone at this tournament. Strong, physical, intelligent. He single-handedly carried Korea through to the knockout stages with the last ditch tackles against Mexico. The Central Americans knew full well that the Korean centrebacks were strong in the air – but turns out Jung is just as good at pushing away opposition strikers with their backs to goal. Positionally aware to cover for Shim Sangmin multiple times against Honduras, if Elis and Quioto found it easy to negotiate a way past the Korean leftback, they ran into a brick wall in Jung. He could be on Stielike’s radar for a call-up to the KNT later today – and he probably is on the radar of CSL clubs who love that Korean defensive talent.

    Hwang Heechan

Stielike has already promised that the Red Bull Salzburg man will be called up to the KNT, and if it came purely down to skill, Hwang certainly deserves it. Whether or not KPA’s should be permitted to skip international duty this time to settle in at their European clubs is a different discussion – on play, he deserves it more than Seongnam’s Hwang Uijo. This Hwang has incredible, endless stamina, nimbleness and speed. He can hold his own against physical defenders. In this tournament, he played a false 9 of sorts, but he’s probably stronger on the wing simply because his finishing isn’t striker-quality yet. Nonetheless, he’s certainly one to watch in the future because of his successes in this tournament.

Moving on…
As Korean football fans, this Olympic adventure is over and it is bittersweet and deja vu. But a whole world of excitement awaits as World Cup Qualifying intensifies. Later today, Uli Stielike will announce his call-ups for the qualifiers against China and Syria.

The state of Korean football is far from strong, and problems linger still. Those issues must continue to be repeated and discussed until the day that they are exist no more. But in these Olympics, I’d ask us all to look at the positives. The aforementioned individual breakthroughs. The goals raining in, defeating that stereotype that we cannot blow out opponents or cannot cope against the greats. 12 goals. A victory against Mexico, the reigning Olympic champions, courageously outlasting their barrage of attacks. But for me, the words I wrote in the emotion of the post-Germany game will be a moment of pride:

“It was right in sight, because we, little Korea, against mighty Germany, were going for it. We were going for the win because we had the upper hand, because it didn’t matter what clubs the players played for, or how many pro minutes they had had, because right then and right there KOREA was so obviously on the verge of victory.”

That’s the key. We were on the verge. A couple of other things gone our way and we could be speaking of a medal. And I would be lying if I did not say that speaking of the positive among the negative, speaking of what could have been, can sometimes get a little tiring.

So maybe these words ring hollow still in the pit of disappointment. But it is my hope that they ring true one day. The Koreans outlasted Asian opposition. They stunned the Germans, shocked the Mexicans. They announced to the world that they are no push-overs. Korea stood tall, here at the Rio 2016 Olympics. And if it finally fell against Honduras, it’s only because they will rise up again, stronger than ever.

About Tim Lee 321 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?

1 Comment

  1. Hear hear. Let me add: Son had glaring misses but so did Neymar during this tournament. Both have enormous pressure on them. The difference is Son’s pressure was of a career stake with regards to military exemption on the line. When conceding against Honduras, the players reacted in a telling way that reflected the undue distraction placed on their shoulders. That reflects on Korea as a country badly when needed reforms with regards to needed flexibility – it is their country and 20th century laws held over from the park Chung Hee dictatorship that has failed these young men.

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