Following an insipid friendly performance against Georgia in Istanbul, Korea kicked off its ’22 World Cup Qualification journey with an away win against Turkmenistan.
We ditched the three-at-the-back formation and started with a more familiar line-up:
A significant change in personnel to the line-up v Georgia; Kim Seung-gyu, now all but Korea’s starting goalkeeper, started over Gu Sung-yun between the sticks. Lee Yong came in for Park Ji-soo, completing what now seems to be our standard back four. Jung Woo-young, Hwang In-beom, Lee Jae-sung, Na Sang-ho, and Hwang Ui-jo took over for Paik Seung-ho, Kwon Chang-hoon, Lee Kang-in, Hwang Hee-chan, and Lee Jeong-hyeop — thank god for that.
Our familiarity with how we set-up was apparent as early as 7 minutes in. Hwang Ui-jo starting the row of opportunities with an off-target header at the top of the 6-yard box from a delicious cross by Lee Yong.
Despite our compact shape, it was clear that we were a side that utilizes wing play. In the 9th minute, Na Sang-ho managed to nick possession down the right only to squeeze in a parried shot to the goakeeper’s near post. Then just a minute later, Lee Jae-sung found Hwang Ui-jo, clear of his last man, with a curled through ball. Ui-jo could just manage to send his first-time shot straight to the oncoming goalkeeper who did well to clear his lines.
But Korea would finally capitalize on early momentum; in the 13th minute, Hwang In-beom carried the ball into the box, and after two quick passes, Lee Jae-sung set up the oncoming Lee Yong, whose first time cross found the legs of a defender and pinged out to Na Sang-ho.
Despite the lead, Korea failed to raise the tempo, and despite sitting deep, Turkmenistan had a chance of its own; Orazsahedow, their number 9, found himself one-on-one with Kim Min-jae, who was uncharacteristically sluggish, and made enough space for himself before releasing one just inside the box. Kim Seung-gyu was up to the task.
Beyond that, we had the majority of possession, and our opportunities continued to develop from play on the wings. We nearly had two to show for it before the end of the first half — it was Lee Yong once again who put in another deep cross and found Kim Jin-su after the Turkmen goalkeeper failed to collect. From within the six yard box, Jin-su thumped it through three defenders. It would be ruled out for offsides.
The first half fizzed out to an ugly end after that early spurt. Unfortunately, there wouldn’t be much to build on as we languished in the following half.
If there ever were a game to show that Korea plays at its opponents level, it was this one. Turkmenistan came away with chances within the first fifteen minutes of the restart — Kim Min-jae the guilty party for exposing our side, either losing possession, his man, or his positioning.
But the best chance came from the Turkmen’s left channel; a deft flick off a throw eliminated Kim Min-jae from play, and the lost man whipped in a low-cross, mercifully skied.
After that spell, we regained some semblance of control in the game. We were comfortable sitting in the middle of the pitch spraying possession around opposition looking to catch us off the break, but there was no penetration or change in tempo. Kwon Chang-hoon was introduced to the game in the 66′ for Na Sang-ho. It didn’t change anything.
Our attacking strategy didn’t change from the first half. In fact, it seemed to be worse. Lee Yong continued to operate as a crossing machine whenever he received the ball. Son Heung-min sat sat so deep, and our midfield was utterly bereft of creativity. Jung Woo-young seemed to be the most influential in midfield amongst personnel that includes Lee Jae-sung and Hwang In-beom. That’s not great.
But he gets a pass this time; In the 82′, Son was chopped down at the top of their box, and with a free-kick awarded, Jung Woo-young would thump in a bullet past the diving keeper that even Kim Seung-gyu couldn’t help but stride across the pitch to show some love.
Beyond two late subs with Kim Shin-wook in for Hwang Ui-jo, and Hong Chul for the booked Kim Jin-su, nothing happened. Play remained sluggish with low bursts of poor football. Son Heung-min sat deeper and deeper, more often found in the middle of the pitch regaining possession than near the opponent’s box making runs. Our midfield remained anonymous. The ball would find itself on either side of the pitch, and we’d end up just crossing it in.
We actually scored another goal too, but it was ruled out for a foul after Kim Shin-wook completely bodied the Turkmen goalkeeper. At least the referee is fair in not booking him considering how many challenges Turkmenistan had gotten away with.
In the end, job done. In World Cup Qualifying, every point is valuable, and a clean sheet is always something to appreciate. Our play was suspect, but hopefully the answer to that is time. Bento may have found an answer to how Korea plays against bunkering AFC sides by making us patient playing compact in their half, but there remains a lot to be said about unbalanced work from our fullbacks with our midfield providing no creativity to lighten their offensive responsibilities.
But — again — job done. The road to ’22 starts now. It begins with 3 points.