With Korea failing to qualify for the semi-finals of the Asian Cup for the first time since 2004, the Taegeuk Warriors can only categorize their Emirati run this year as a disappointment.
After testy group stage qualification against Philippines, Kyrgyzstan, and China where Korea squeaked out two 1-0 wins, we labored for a victory against Bahrain in extra time, and were shut down 1-0 in the quarterfinal tie against Qatar.
We had come into this tournament as on-paper favorites in buoyant spirits from a successful Asian Games run, building off our shock upset in the World Cup. Yet we never got out of first gear from the moment we played against the Philippines.
What exactly happened?
Why were so many of our players injured?
Lee Jae-sung played one game against the Philippines and was never seen from him again. Ki Sung-yong picked up a minor knock early on and was projected to return upon conclusion of group stage play. Instead, he was re-diagnosed out of the tournament.
And that’s not even touching upon Jung Seung-hyun, Kwon Kyung-won, and Koo Ja Cheol all missing training here and there with their niggling injuries. Even Hwang In-beom fought through a recurring issue with his knee as the team progressed into the latter half of the tournament – a bit absurd, considering he was our like-for-like midfielder filling in for Ki.
Even if one may consider the most egregious lack of luck, these injuries seemed too common and too frequent to be tallied to misfortune, and it was the revelation regarding the KFA’s lack of administrative oversight with the national team’s medical staff that seemed to illuminate a whole different reason behind our players’ fitness – or lack thereof.
If any of this is remotely true…
…there is way more that needs to be done with the general state of the Korean Football Association than with our national side.
We’re an internationally competitive footballing side that has competed with some of the world’s finest, and even stood shoulder to shoulder to most of them. If there are staffing issues especially within our physio rooms where our players expect to be nurtured back to health, words would fail to describe this gross ineptitude by our KFA.
Our squad, especially in midfield, looked like a safe pick of experienced veterans over younger, untested players.
Understandable, but it seemed as if Bento followed through with this to a fault. Bento opted for the senior Augsburg duo of Koo Ja-cheol and Ji Dong-won, the latter our sole alternative forward option after Hwang Ui-jo, and they failed to deliver. Jung Woo-young was another selection begging for more, the like-for-like alternative in Ju Sejong a categorically better player in the central midfield role. Why bring both of them to the tournament?
In the end, this is a minor bit of postulating, as it would be daft to proclaim that results would be any different with a different selection of players, but this tournament’s call-ups seemed like a missed opportunity to blood in new figures, such as Lee Jin-hyun or 2018 K-League Rookie of the Year, Han Seung-gyu.
A number of call-ups came to players who hadn’t been able to take our side or their careers to that next level for the past few years. Players that should have left with Shin Tae-yong stuck around. Despite the Asian Cup being a perfect opportunity to transition a new generation of hungry players eager to prove themselves, we stuck with problematic personnel and still have unanswered questions in our squad, particularly at both left and right back as well as central midfield.
One of the biggest issues regarding Bento’s management has been all but revealed with Korea’s tournament run: an inability to properly rotate players, leading to flat performances and heightening fatigue.
Bento’s use of Son throughout this tournament was his biggest offense. In Korea’s final group-stage match against China, Korea had already qualified with two wins. With a win, we would benefit from a couple extra days of break prior to knock-out stages. Considering the circumstances of this match along with our squad’s ability, a Son-less Korea could’ve beaten China.
But Bento didn’t just start Son – he kept him on for 87 minutes against China. At most, Son should’ve played in the latter half of the game to either secure a win or provide something in our attacking play. Instead, just three days after Tottenham’s league game against Manchester United where Son had played for 60-odd minutes, he practically played a full game, and then followed with another full 90 plus extra time against Bahrain.
Beyond Son, Bento continued with more head-scratching decisions; the lack of Lee Seung-woo this tournament was yet another opportunity gone begging.
Lee Chung-yong made an impromptu visit back to Korea for his sister’s wedding between the China and Bahrain matches. He returned to the Emirates with a lackluster game against Bahrain.
It wouldn’t be difficult to anticipate the complications that may arise when a player returns to a team camp after a few days off. So why didn’t Bento start Lee Seung-woo against Bahrain? Why leave him on the bench until we’re fighting in extra time?
In fact, what is it that Bento saw in him that gave Lee Seung-woo his 11th hour call-up to this Asian Cup? And what was is it that Lee Seung-woo lacked for him to only receive a measly amount of time between two knock-out games – one of those appearance amounting to five minutes in a match where we were chasing the game, at that.
It’s hard not to empathize with Lee Seung-woo; he took Bento’s call-up to the Asian games just as it looked like he had nailed down a starting role at Hellas Verona. Now, he’ll return to Serie B possibly needing to fight to regain his place.
A multi-pronged array of issues debilitated our Asian Cup run – players, the manager, the KFA, even – into a perfect storm for Korea to lose like we did against Qatar, a team that rose to the occasion with their own program of naturalizing players in order to compete in the next World Cup they’re scheduled to host.
But that’s not an excuse. On another day, even with the compounding problems, Korea could have, and should have, taken care of business. It’s a game of inches–centimeters, even; Kim Jin-su freekick, Hwang Ui-jo being fractionally offsides upon VAR review, and of course Son’s golden chance inside the box – score on any of these opportunities and we would be writing about the Taegeuk Warriors looking on to a semi-final match instead of an autopsy of a quarter-final disappointment.
Bento’s Report Card
With that being said, it’s too early to call for Bento’s head. Despite the disappointment, Bento has shown his brand of football over the last half year, and it’s miles better than what we’ve seen with Shin Tae-yong and Stielike – the latter a stain on modern history of Korean football that ought to perpetually teach manners on humility.
If anything, this tournament has exposed some of Bento’s managerial habits – his arduous inability to rotate his players a concern echoed by Portuguese supporters who’ve shared their time with Bento – as well as his first-time experience playing against an array of Asian footballing sides. You aren’t provided the same space and luxury on the Asian stage as you are on the international stage if you’re Korea Republic – AFC sides have no problems with bunkering down and squeaking through a result.
Bento now has work to do; if he can overcome his tactical inflexiblity and start getting the best out of his players, Korea can get over this loss and improve for the long run. The same goes for our KFA – the association must provide our staff and our players the support and infrastructure they need to succeed. This situation with the national team’s medical staff is shocking. You wouldn’t expect that from a semi-pro team – let alone a squad with international professionals.
Work needs to be done. From the players, to the staff, to the association.