Another World Cup in the books, another Tavern series. We’ll be unpacking the World Cup that was for the Korean national team in the coming teams as we come down from that high of the Germany game and untangle the lows together. For now, however, a quick recap of how each player fared at the World Cup squad in The Report Card.
Grade is from A+ to D-. N/A indicates not available. Grades are also skewed for expectations/role in team (i.e. if Hong Chul gets B+, and Ki Sung-yueng B, this doesn’t mean that Hong Chul is a better player than Ki Sung-yueng…).
Cho Hyun-woo (Jo Hyeon-woo):
In 1 word: Superstar
National team future: Keep. Keep. Keep.
Wasn’t even supposed to be the starter at this competition, with Kim Seung-gyu appearing highly likely to be the number one based on experience and getting the big friendly games (Bosnia and the last start against Senegal). However, Shin Tae-yong made a gutsy decision to start him in the opening match against Sweden, admitting that though it was a risk, his condition was much better than his teammates’. Cho didn’t fail to repay Shin’s trust, making a stellar close range save on Marcus Berg in the first game in De Gea like fashion, heroically using his slender build but highly athletic sleet-footed movement to stifle the shot. This crucial save, combined with absolute confidence in claiming crosses against the giants of Sweden, kept Korea in the game.
But it was against Germany when he made himself known to the world, what with his stellar save on Hummels’ header from 6 yards, and stretching athletically to deny not one but two curlers from the top of the box. His 6-save performance earned him the man of the match award and international acclaim, including from David De Gea and Rio Ferdinand. Though Cho remains unfailingly humble, it is absolutely surreal for who appeared to be Korea’s second or even third-choice goalkeeper at the start of the tournament to be lauded by current and former players of his dream club, Manchester United. Kim Hak-bum, the Asian Games manager, will have to think long and hard about calling up Cho to the Asian Games, where a gold medal could free him from his scheduled military service and open up negotiations with European clubs.
He could become the first Korean goalkeeper in Europe, and has pulled off the goalkeeping performance of the entire World Cup’s group stage. His saves eliminated the reigning world champions. It’s perhaps the best set of sporting performances in Korean history. A+
Kim Seung-gyu / Kim Jin-hyeon:
In 1 word: Cheerleaders
National team future: Keep for now / Drop
Didn’t play a minute. For Kim Jin-hyeon, this was rather expected, but for Kim Seung-gyu, he’s effectively been entirely replaced as Korea’s #1 goalkeeper. It will be interesting to see if either one is dropped when the senior team rolls into the Asian Cup in favour of a younger generation of netminders. N/A
In 1 word: Finally!
National team future: Keep (and hope his form stays like this)
Finally, after years of confusion, frustration, errors and disappointments, Kim Young-gwon has landed. Though he has at times regularly put in these kinds of performances for Guangzhou Evergrande, he disappointed heavily at the 2014 World Cup, and fans had come to expect the “brainless mistakes” and ball-watching he had embodied. However, he was clutch in all three games, being the more reliable half of the centre-back build-up, making crucial last-second tackles and blocks that were as good as goals in every game, and scoring the winner against Germany with striker-like composure. Europe is snuffing around him, and rightfully so. A
In 1 word: Destructive
National team future: Drop. Drop. Drop.
Sadly, he’s not even the disappointment of the tournament, as we had all expected this kind of performance from Jang. He clearly wasn’t fit for the senior level, but because of ‘leadership’ and ‘communication’ reasons, Shin Tae-yong arguably elected to build the entire defense around Jang. Teams seem to have targeted his irrational tendency to be over-aggressive and super reactive, and his slide tackles cost the team terribly. A shocking tackle resulting in a hand-ball against Mexico killed off any momentum the team had in that game, followed by a quite random going-to-ground on the second goal. Apart from that shocking performance, his general distribution was questionable, decision-making was poor and though he showed some improvement as a defensive midfielder against Germany, he struggled in effectively using his defensive positioning properly and gave Germany too many outlets through the centre. D
In 1 word: (a) Shame…
National team future: Drop (too old)
Terrible that he got injured early in the tournament, as he probably wouldn’t have made the defensive mistakes that his immediate successor had made. N/A
In 1 word: Clumsy
National team future: Drop
This wasn’t the Kim Min-woo that we saw in the K League. He sadly offered very little of worth in either match he had a part in, offering close to nothing going forwards, and proving to be a major liability in the back. A panicked and clumsy foul to concede the penalty against Sweden (never tackle if the player has his back to goal…) and a poor turnover against Mexico that led to their opener. I can’t suspect he’ll be around for much longer. D+
In 1 word: Gif-worthy
National team future: Keep… for now (until better options arise)
Hindsight is 20/20, but if he had been able to perform as he did against Germany ahead of Kim Min-woo in the left-back slot, it’s quite possible that things would have gone better for Korea. Hong was instrumental to the German win, essentially shutting down the left-flank with I believe double-digit blocks and clearances. He also wasn’t afraid to relieve pressure by simultaneously deking Kimmich and Muller in that moment. B+ (on limited sample)
In 1 word: Clutch
National team future: Drop
Hindsight again is 20/20, but Shin Tae-yong knew his man and may regret not having trusted him from the beginning. Against Germany, his tall frame and no-nonsense mentality was vital in the air and while stretching out for crucial blocks. Though he at times lost his man in that game, he made up for it (some would argue in spades) by helping out his ‘keeper in crucial moments. B
Jung Seung-hyeon / Oh Ban-suk:
In 1 word: Wasted
National team future: Keep / Drop
No disrespect to either player (I’m quite keen on Jung, to be honest), but Shin calling up 5 centre-backs was clearly overkill. I think Jung could challenge to be the KNT’s leading “no-nonsense” defender with an aerial presence. A mission for the (new?) manager. N/A
In 1 word: Why…
National team future: Slowly drop (is there really a better option out there?)
Sort of a mixed bag for Lee Yong. Against Germany, he was the team’s most solid defender, disciplined in his positional and a rock in making life hard for Die Mannschaft. And he did threaten with the cross of his career that simultaneously perplexed Sule and Boateng. However, in the earlier group games, he was by far over-used, sort of as a wing-back/winger, and failing to put in any meaningful ball nor solidify the right side of the defense as well as he would have been expected to. B-
In 1 word: Tactical
National team future: Slowly drop (again, is there a better option out there?)
Replaced Hwang Hee-chan against Germany, presumably because Hwang wasn’t carrying out his defensive duties well, and Shin wanted a two-way defensive winger to both kill off of the game but try to attack. Didn’t start in midfield as a mobile man-marker as we may have suspected might happen at some point. N/A
In 1 word: Redeemed
National team future: Slowly drop (but if Ki retires, keep, but probably not until 2022)
Never believed I’d be saying this, but… the midfield looked very messy without his presence. Shin tried to integrate Koo Ja-cheol into the team at his expense, but in hindsight (20/20!) it may have just made sense to play Jung for the sake of simplicity. Sure, he too was guilty of straying out of position against Germany a little and lacking exact defensive discipline / reacting to runs, but Germany is Germany. As a substitute, no matter how weird it was to bring him on in a trailing situation, he showed ability to spray out dangerous passes. Plus his free-kicks are quite good. Earned him a move to Al-Sadd, where he’ll play alongside Xavi. B
In 1 word: Beleaguered
National team future: Likely to retire
Koo Ja-cheol likely played his last major game as a Korean national team starter (unless he’s kept around until the Asian Cup) against Germany, coming off due to injury, and truthfully it wasn’t a major loss. Koo certainly didn’t have his best tournament, but he certainly wasn’t asked to play a role that he can settle into comfortably. Indeed, that enigma of “where is his best position” will haunt him for the rest of his career, as he struggled both in a 3-man midfield, a 2-man midfield and as a second striker. Poor passes, invisibility and fatigue seem to be the words that immediately come to mind, sadly. C
In 1 word: Mixed
National team future: Not sure… probably drop
Okay, okay, the assist. He’ll forever be remembered as the legend that juked Neuer off the ball and hit a mile-long assist (the longest assist in World Cup history?) for the 2:0 goal. And it was weird to see Shin try and deploy him as another one of those defensive winger types and impact substitute, when his more natural position is in the heart of midfield. And against Mexico, he was pretty bad at that, with poor passing and bad tackling decisions that left Korea exposed on the break. C
In 1 word: Receding
National team future: Likely to retire
This team certainly wasn’t built around Ki Sung-yueng, as it may have been in previous years. Nor were the tactics – he wasn’t never asked to control the tempo and handle possession easily and ably as he can. And there’s also no fault in any of his passing stats, easily exceeding 92% in both games he took a part in. However, given Korea’s desire to play on the counter and make the most of a decreased amount of ball-time, he was much too conservative for my liking, and also less willing/capable of hitting the long angled passes that he’s known for. Nonetheless, our standards are higher for the captain because we know what he’s capable of. Sadly, even as a receding player he could play a major role in the next few years in a more curbed role – but he seems set on an early retirement from the national team, either now or after the Asian Cup. B
In 1 word: Settled
National team future: Keep! Keep!
Lee Jae-sung settled into the World Cup. It took him some time, as Korea’s tactics often required him to play in weird positions and very defensive shapes. Therefore, it’s safe to say that until the Germany match, Lee was more or less anonymous. He was good as always at playing quick, short passes in order to open up some spaces for counter opportunities, but half the man we’d expected to see. Against Germany, his superb energy and a desire to be more direct and create a chance made him almost look like 2 players in 1. Still, he didn’t take charge of the game because of Korea’s muted approach sacrificing his habitual flair. I don’t know if it was enough to attract a European deal, but a low-key move to a French club is my best guess. His domestic form is too good to be ignored. B+
In 1 word: One-trick-pony (ok, cheating)
National team future: Drop (but could be a utility player…)
It took me a long time to understand why Shin would start Moon in the last two matches, but his ability to hustle his butt off for a good hour without fail makes it more understandable. That’s about it for Moon’s strengths in his tournament – he’s lightning quick and will keep going for as long as you ask him to. However, at some point, he gets burnt and you have to burn a substitution on him – a sacrifice Shin accepted. Sadly, Moon boasted very little in terms of composure or skill – he just runs around a lot. In that respect, perhaps he could be used as a kind of ‘utility player’ in certain games against Asian teams where a high-press is an advisable tactic. Otherwise… nah. C
In 1 word: Protected
National team future: Keep, obviously
Lee Seung-woo seems to have been shielded in this World Cup. Kept away from the cameras after being the ‘it’ item when the squad was announced, the coaching staff didn’t seem ready to ask the 20 year-old Lee to start a match. His youth and inexperience could have been a helpful asset had he been brought into games earlier in order to try and change them, but his physical uselessness and disinterest in defending rendered him largely incompatible in Shin’s tactical approaches. Nonetheless, we all wanted Lee to get World Cup experience before 2022 – his tournament – and he did just that. B (for lack of much of a meaningful sample)
In 1 word: Frustrating
National team future: Keep
Hwang Hee-chan follows in the strain of Lee Chung-yong and Lee Keun-ho as being one of the “high-potential but unable to score” type of national team players. With few touches in build-up or many other responsibilities, Hwang’s job was essentially to be fast and work with Son on the counter. In both of the matches we started, we saw sporadic moments that reminded us why he deserved a national team selection and why he’s one of Salzburg’s prized possessions – speed, skill, energy ability to open up a man at a quick cadence. But, in front of goal he was wasteful with poor decision making. What if he had tucked away the 94th minute header against Sweden? What if he had shot and rounded Ochoa instead of backheeling? We may be not be writing this post at this moment in time had he been more clinical… B
In 1 word: Tryhard
National team future: Keep
Son was… pretty much as expected. He didn’t go on a tear and become Sonaldo, but he certainly was more threatening and played with more vigour and passion than… in all of qualifying. Teams gave him a lot of respect, doing all they could to avoid allowing him the opportunity to run at defenders with his ambidexterity and dribbling prowess. He scored a peach of a goal against Mexico, and he worked harder than anyone against Germany, sacrificing so much by helping with link-up and defensive duties in every. single. game. He carried this team on his sleeve, but not as much as needed with his boot. A- for effort
In 1 word: Dropped
National team future: Probably still kept
Was pretty useless against Sweden, and then in the game where we could have used him for aerial dominance (Mexico) didn’t play any part, not even as a Plan B. Nothing much else to say. (Suk Hyun-jun and Ji Dong-won would have been better selections.) C-
In 1 word: Over-tinkered.
National team future: Gone
This will be for another (longer) post, probably, but at “his first World Cup” Shin was all over the place. Against Sweden, he caved to pressure and reneged on his idealism and attacking mindset for a hyper-negative approach that wasn’t working. When Korea was still looking for a goal, he was too slow to transition to a compelling attacking approach, not least because the team was devoid of impactful attacking players off of the bench. Against Mexico, he embraced more of an attacking mindset, but the team remained muted, chopping off strengths of every player here and there for a collective product that was… not too competitive. Not to mention his absurd substitutions, which speak to poor judgment and failure to embrace modern tactical approaches. Against Germany, we’ll refrain from criticism – though pulling Hwang after 22 minutes was very weird, the side was correctly pragmatic.
It’s hard to say that any of Korea’s goals at this tournament came as a result of Shin Tae-yong’s tactics. Son had a screamer and an empty net goal, while Kim was gifted a golden chance on the corner. It’s also hard to say that he revealed adequate judgement in squad selection & training regimen, with the players only peaking into form in their final game against Germany, but struggling to reach the excellent levels of fitness in prior games that they had been working towards. It’s easy to say two things, however: a) don’t give him a microphone, please, because he’ll go on about “tricks” and “facial recognition” and b) don’t ask him to stay on. Shin remains in my eyes a promising manager, but the national team right now doesn’t need a rising star – it needs identity. The “tinkerman”‘s failure to instill any semblance of an identity – not even a shred – is disappointing. His sacrifice of idealism for “let’s try this” is also disappointing. It just didn’t work. C-