A legendary solo goal from Kwon Changhoon after the Mexicans threw everything at the Korean Olympic team was enough to send the Taeguk Warriors into the quarter-finals at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Shin Taeyong’s team selection was very surprising. There were 3 changes from the lineup that drew Germany on Sunday. Goalkeeper Kim Dongjun (Seongnam) was dropped in favor of pre-tournament number 2 Gu Sungyun (Consadole Sapporo). Centreback Choi Kyubaek’s (Jeonbuk) head injury meant that captain Jang Hyunsoo (Guangzhou R&F) dropped into centreback. Lee Changmin (Jeju) formed a new DM partnership with Park Yongwoo (FC Seoul). The front four saw Moon Changjin (Pohang) leave after a terrible showing in his first two games. Kwon Changhoon (Suwon Bluewings) moved into the middle and Ryu Seungwoo (Bayer Leverkusen) started on the right flank, with Son Heungmin (Spurs) on the left. Hwang Heechan (Salzburg) started again up top, Shin Taeyong opting not to play Suk Hyunjun (Porto).
Mexico lined-up as follows:
XI MÉXICO vs Corea: Talavera, Abella, Montes, Salcedo, Torres Nilo, Pérez, Gutiérrez, González, Cisneros, Torres, Bueno.#VamosMéxico
— Luis Flores (@Luisitno) August 10, 2016
The first half was possibly the worst 45 minutes of football this Olympic team played… ever. The midfield pairing of Lee Changmin and Park Yongwoo simply did not work – the former replaced Moon as this team’s giant black hole. He was included for his passing “ability”, but he failed to justify why at all he should have been selected for this game, never mind included in the 18-man roster. His partner, Park Yongwoo, often had to drop back into defense.
The reason? Mexico’s wing players were very threatening. Lee Seulchan and Shim Sangmin – the fullbacks – had trouble keeping their passes out of the box. The Mexicans did not opt to deliver sweeping crosses in the air, but rather balls to forwards playing with their backs to goal, forcing Korean centrebacks to push them out instead of simply heading away. If they didn’t cross, they would run at the Koreans diagonally, forcing wide players – and even wingers Son Heungmin and Ryu Seungwoo – to backtrack at times.
Not only were they threatening, but also very effective. Bueno had a shot right on Gu Sungyun in the 11th minute, and the pressure kept on coming. Korea couldn’t break out and counters were sparse and short-lived. To cope, at times the Koreans were almost playing with a back 5 – having three Mexicans against four Koreans when the Mexicans were in the final third was a major concern, given the ability (or lack thereof) of the fullbacks and their fatigue (having played the entirety of the last two matches). Park Yongwoo would drop in and the 4-2-3-1 became instead a 5-4-1 (flat midfield 4).
In the 25th and 31st minute, the ball breached Korea’s centrebacks, but Jung Seunghyeon’s desperation tackle as well as a good 1v1 save by surprise starter Gu Sungyun kept Mexico just barely at bay.
In attack, it was a total shambles. Son Heungmin and Ryu Seungwoo were over and under-hitting passes, taking uncharacteristically poor touches, giving the ball away far too easily. To be fair, other than the fullbacks pushing up, they had no one to pass to – Hwang was in his position higher up, waiting (maybe even pleading) for a decent pass to come his way, and at fault are the midfielders, Kwon Changhoon but more particularly Lee Changmin. The Jeju man supposedly the more distribution type in DM, but there was no foundation, nothing for Korea’s attack to lean on, no structure to work with.
Shin Taeyong was visibly frustrated, Son Heungmin arguing often with the referee’s tough calls not going his way. Once again, almost like against Germany, I was pleading for halftime, sounding the alarm bells:
— Taeguk Warriors (@taeguk_warrior) August 10, 2016
There were calls for Shin to make a quick sub in the second half or maybe even at halftime. The structure just wasn’t there to attack, and defensively there was a massive hole in midfield for the Mexicans to reset in when things got cramped up out wide. If they genuinely had a player who could score from distance, we could have been dead.
However, Shin doesn’t seem to do half-time subs unless he must, and the same XI started in the second phase. The Mexican manager, maybe nothing this, promptly made his first substitution mere minutes into the second half, bringing on danger man Lozano.
Unafraid to run at players and fresher than the rest of the Mexican side, the winger was a massive threat. Son Heungmin was often caught flat footed by the drifting in of the Mexican substitute. Clearly recognize the danger, Shin Taeyong brought on Gwangju’s Lee Chandong to replace Lee Changmin. The substitution was inherently a defensive one – Lee Chandong’s no nonsense physicality a big need for a side without structure. Normally this would have been sacrificing some passing ability and throwing away a connection to our front four, but in truth, Lee Changmin was so bad the team just need to avoid drowning before thinking about passing the ball upwards.
The whole “we’re in it to win it” tough talk by Shin Taeyong post-Germany match turned into “oh god please help us” as in the 62nd minute, Cisnero’s shot rattled the inside of the post and thankfully stayed out. As Mexico’s pressure mounted, an unlikely hero emerged – Ulsan’s Jung Seunghyeon – who, despite the flaws of his teammates, was relatively solid all game long, pushing out players, staying in position well.
In the 70th minute, our collective heart attacks were reignited as Lee Chandong took a necessary booking off of a Mexican counter-counter. A 9-man wall from Shin Taeyong- everybody back – and yet the Mexican was nearly able to find the back of the net – his shot precariously grazing the crossbar and ruffling the netting on top of goal.
Shin Taeyong made his second sub here, bringing on the target man Suk Hyunjun. Perhaps he was still holding out hope that Korea could counter a get a winning goal? No one else had any, just begging for the clock to expire and to scrape into the Quarter-Finals. Especially not after in the 77th minute, Son found space and was running threatening at the Mexican penalty box… before allowing himself to be invaded by opposition players swarming the dangerman and regaining the ball.
But somehow, Mexico turned it over, or something (my memory makes the next few moments an absolute blur). Shim Sangmin, the leftback – who was having a god-awful game, mind you – picked up the ball on his side, ran down his flank, looked up, saw Suk just beginning to make his run in the box – and hopefully attempted what would have been a bad cross, since he was trying to cross to where Suk was, not where he was going. Thank god Shim Sangmin didn’t put any effort into his pass (like every other pass he makes). It took a solid deflection, went out of touch and Korea had a corner.
Again, the intrigue of it all, as Hwang Heechan looked over asking “are we going with number one?” Son Heungmin, standing over the ball, raised two fingers instead – the same set piece as the Hwang Heechan goal against Germany (I think, I gotta see the replay). Hwang stood on the near post… there was a near post run… only this time, it wasn’t the set piece that got us the goal.
It was the recovery.
Mexico cleared the ball and Kwon Changhoon was there at the top of the box. He picked it up, rounded one player. Noticing that Son Heungmin, who took the corner, was offside, he kept barging in. A heavy touch as he split two more Mexicans, and it looked like the play was doomed. But Son Heungmin was boxing out the Mexican centreback, standing his ground, preventing him to get in and make a tackle. Kwon had rounded three defenders and was in the box, guns blazing, and with his left foot…
Delirium. Commentators going crazy. Fans behind the goal jumping around. The entire team, who looked so gassed the whole game, collectively got that adrenaline boost and chased Kwon around the pitch.
Mexico, you just got baked.
News was in that Germany was up 6, 7, 8, 9-0 against Fiji… I don’t remember. Ahn Junghwan summed it up well in the commentating booth: “Germany could win 100-0 now, it doesn’t matter. If Korea hold on, they win the group.”
Mexico now needed two to advance. If Korea conceded, they would finish second with the Germans set on destroying Fiji with a larger margin than we had.
They threw everything – everything. But if initially Korea’s defense looked nervous and rattled, this time apart from stupid Shim Sangmin mistakes that made me want to punch the screen – it stood tall. Mexico were teasing with chances all game long, but they forgot about the final touch, and because of Korea’s solidity in central defense, it never came.
So of course, there were nerves and then some, as Kwon missed a significantly easier chance than his goal on the counter, bringing back memories of Suk’s big choke against Germany. But the best chance was a corner kick, the header right at Gu. Fierro, Lozano, anyone and everything, desperate for a goal. The clear-cut chance didn’t come for Mexico after Kwon’s miraculous goal.
Hwang Heechan’s time-wasting antics of cradling the ball in touch, refusing to give it to the furious Mexicans, earned him a yellow card, but it was the furious reaction of substitute Lozano – shoving him to the ground, prompting manager Shin Taeyong to start yelling at the Mexicans and gesturing angrily at the referee – that was the icing on the cake. Lozano was sent off, shown a straight red card.
A subsequent Mexican freekick went through without a touch. Gu Sungyun’s goal kick was deep, we were all looking to hear that one magical sound:
— Taeguk Warriors (@taeguk_warrior) August 10, 2016
And as the Mexicans tried in vain to mount another attack, the French official blew his whistle.
Korea had topped the group.
Gu Sungyun – 7 – Didn’t make a single error, saved what was at him and denied Torres 1v1 with help from Lee Seulchan (not sure if Gu could a touch on it, but in any case, he made it tough and came off of his line well).
Shim Sangmin – 4 – Shit again. God awful. Passes too ambitious. Defensively average.
Jung Seunghyeon – 8 – Excellent! Really superb. The rock in CB, last-ditch tackle and all. We kept a clean sheet and it would have been impossible if it wasn’t for his great positional work.
Jang Hyunsoo – 6 – As captain, you’d want him to have a stellar game like Jung, but was overshadowed. Was caught ball watching and reacting late in first half while Jung excelled. Improved in second, hence the generous ‘6’ rating. They kept a clean sheet, after all.
Lee Seulchan – 6.5 – Did the simple things right, did his best against dangerous Mexican attacks. Didn’t show much in offense but this team didn’t get in their groove today in the transition game so can’t blame him. Genuinely think he can’t be blamed much for the onslaught of Mexican chances and coped well.
Park Yongwoo – 5 – If against Germany he had a quietly solid game, against Mexico here he quietly had a poor game. Team needed a link between FW and DF – he couldn’t be it. Team needed a defensive mid to stop Mexican chances – they had a couple big ones. Sub-par game from him, but he should get it together fine for Honduras.
Lee Changmin – 4 – Torrid. Black hole x100. Attacks or counters died through him, and did nothing defensively, nothing at all.
Son Heungmin – 6.5 – He did everything he could, but didn’t do much, simply because he didn’t receive help from below him on the pitch. Inevitably fell over too much and softly and ran into players but with more time on ball and solid defense I think he would have been his usual self. Put in good shift defensively at times, but obviously not his best attribute.
Kwon Changhoon – 8 – Bullied around in midfield in a start in the center for him, but it’s all about the goal. And what a goal it was. Winning our MOTM poll on Twitter (think JSH deserves it a bit more imo but… the goal… clutch.)
Ryu Seungwoo – 6.5 – Again, like Son, did everything he could, dribbles promising, attacks encouraging but short lived because of combination of fatigue/nothing in the middle to work with. Should still start vs Honduras.
Hwang Heechan – 7 – Love this kid, positive signs from him even in the little time he had on the ball. Smart play to block Mexican player from getting to KCH right before the goal. Worry about his fatigue through, playing 270 minutes in a week.
Lee Chandong – 6.5 – He can’t pass… we know it. But he bullied around Mexicans in MF in his trademark “headless chicken” style (Takeuchi often calls him that over on Twitter). Still massive improvement over Lee Changmin on defensive aspect.
Suk Hyunjun – 6.5 – Didn’t do much do warrant rating to be honest. He was intended target for corner kick and made it difficult like he always does. Twisted his ankle a bit and limped off, though he came back on at the end… think he’s not starting because of fitness after injury vs. Iraq and that knock at the end didn’t help, I’m sure.
Kim Mintae – No rating – Subbed on at death for Ryu Seungwoo since he’s taller than tiny Super Ryu.
I jokingly predicted that the team would keep a clean sheet in the Podcast, and yet somehow today the team has managed to do it. The opportunities were genuinely dangerous from Mexico in the first half, and they probably should have put the game away then while the Koreans were laboring and had a defensive midfield pairing of the lowest quality. They didn’t take their chances then, and their pressure, for what its worth, didn’t result in much in the second half except a post (and a few casual heart attacks on half-chances for Korean fans).
So if our defending was awful in the first half, it got superbly better in the second. A bit more control would have been nice, but it was clear that the Mexicans were on the front foot and that this team didn’t have the steam in them to reverse this trend. Jang Hyunsoo, but more particularly Jung Seunghyeon, deserve plaudits almighty for this. People rightfully doubted if the centrebacks could keep it together, but in the second half today, they need, not caving into pressure.
There’s lots of reflection for Shin Taeyong to do, however, and the most corrigible error lies in the middle, where he’s tried Lee Changmin, Moon Changjin and Kwon Changhoon in CM or CAM positions without much success. If he opts to stick with the 4-2-3-1, the midfield players are going to have to vastly improve. They need to be a solid foundation for the true stars of this tournament – Hwang Heechan, Son Heungmin, Ryu Seungwoo. They don’t need to necessarily all be Lee Jaesung’s – of this, they are not capable – but at least do as Park Yongwoo did against Germany and BE there and be there well. This is the team’s glaring weakness and it must be rectified. What remains to be seen is if Shin can rectify it in time for the next game.
Meanwhile, let’s talk about troubles in the fullback positions again – the only player without a minute so far for the Korean team is Park Dongjin, a rightback. However, leftback Shim Sangmin’s woeful performances make him a target for deselection, no matter how great Shin’s faith and persistence in the FC Seoul player may be. It will be interesting to see what, if anything, Shin does to address this issue – at the very least, he should encourage Shim to stick to the simpler option, as regular rightback Lee Seulchan is discovering and grasping very well indeed.
— FIFA.com (@FIFAcom) August 10, 2016
Finally – the brighter side. Guys, Korea has won the group. For the first time ever at the Rio Olympics, South Korea has topped the group. When the draw came out a couple of months ago, apart from my brief delight at drawing Fiji (I like obscure nations making it to major tournaments), I was concerned. We were all concerned. Germany are Germany and Mexico are Mexico, and both are usually superior to Korea.
And yet this team has left the group on top, and because of all the roller-coaster madness of the last two games I could not tell you how we did it. This team, for all its flaws, continues to win games – their only loss this year against Japan in the AFC U23 final – this team, for all its goddamn flaws just fucking finds a way.
Their “finding a way” would preferably be replaced by “dominate, control and score buckets of goals” but it wouldn’t be Korea if assured victory and consistent performance were usual.
The bracket is beginning to unravel as other games happen – Japan have just lost out, and no tears will be shed at the Tavern for their prompt exit – but what is clear is that Korea, by winning the group, has guaranteed a game against Honduras in the Quarter-Finals, avoiding Argentina or Portugal.
Korea must take this one step at a time – Honduras is nitty and gritty and physical. Commentators saying that Korea “can aspire to improve upon their 2012 performance” need to hold their horses. Paper means nothing once on the pitch, and on paper Germany and Mexico should have beaten us and confidently so.
Instead, the Taeguk Warrior lives on for another day, by virtue of fucking finding a way.
And what a wonderful, wonderful day this is… tonight, Korea stands tall.