South Korea 2023/2024 Asian Cup Preview

On 12/27/2023 Jurgen Klinsmann announced the squad that will represent South Korea in the upcoming Asian Cup in Qatar. There were no surprises but with Hwang Ui Jo’s legal issues, Son Jun Ho’s unjust and arbitrary detainment in China, and the expansion to 26 players, a few up and coming young players will make it to Qatar as well. I watched Klinsmann’s entire press conference afterward, and he had a message of hope – that this is our chance to finally win this damn tournament. A lot of the Korean pundits, including Lee Young Pyo (whose commentary I respect more than anyone’s), also think that this is our best chance in years. And I completely agree. So in this post let’s delve into the squad, our strengths and weaknesses, our prospects, our recent form, and why so many in our camp think this could be our year – even above the hottest Asian team right now, our archrivals Japan.

Short history lesson *skip if you’re a Tavern regular*

A little bit of background for those new to Korean football: Korea, despite being among the best Asian sides with 10 consecutive World Cup appearances (obviously the highest in Asia) and boasting by far the most well known and successful players (Cha Bum Kun, Park Ji Sung, Son Heung Min, Kim Min Jae… I could go on), has not won the Asian Cup in 64 years. The last time was in 1960. That’s an insanely long wait and unacceptable for Asia’s best side. For some reason we keep falling short whenever it comes to the Asian Cup. An excuse I often hear is that we have not always taken the Asian Cup seriously as it does not grant us exemption like the Olympics or the Asian Games. This was certainly the case in the past and even still the Korean public cares very little about the Asian Cup. And of course, the Olympics or the Asian Games are far more important for us. But still… not winning the continental title for so long is not OK. In the time I’ve been following Korean football… we lost in the semis on PKs after a likely rigged game in 2011, lost in the finals to Ange Postecoglu’s Australia in 2015 after a extra time mistake from Kim Jin Su (in a recent interview between Ange and Son, they explicitly mentioned how a mistake from the left back cost us the game), and in 2019 lost in the QFs to Qatar who would eventually beat Japan in the final. This year I am willing to bet that it’ll be a Korea-Japan final. More on that later.

The squad

Klinsmann has named essentially the exact same squad all year. So there really wasn’t any surprise to see the core squad called up. But with the expansion from 23 to 26, we had the opportunity to call up Yang Hyun Jun at Celtic (never called up before) and Kim Ji Soo at Brentford B (called up once but didn’t play). I don’t expect KJS to see any minutes as he is only playing for Brentford’s B team at the moment but given Yang’s form at Celtic he could be a good option off the bench.

Overall, this is one heck of a team with some truly world class players in the mix. It’s to the point where a lot of pundits and news articles are saying that if we can’t get to the final with this squad it would look terrible on Klinsmann. But of course there are some weaker positions as well. Let’s take a brief preview through the roster:

In goal we have Kim Seung Gyu, Jo Hyun Woo, and Song Beom Keun. These picks were obvious. Most likely Kim Seung Gyu, who is in extremely good form for his Saudi club, will start between the sticks. Moving on…

In CB we have Kim Min Jae, Jung Seung Hyun, Kim Young Kwon, Kim Ju Sung, and Kim Ji Soo. This was the core CB squad all year for Klinsmann. There is a top 3 or top 5 CB in the world in there, and according to the Ballon D’Or 2023 rankings, he is THE best CB in the world. Moving on…

The fullbacks. Our weakest position. We ended up calling up 4 – Seol Young Woo and Kim Tae Hwan on the right, and Kim Jin Su and Lee Ki Je on the left. On the right side we expect Seol to start most of our games – Klinsmann, in a question about the fullbacks, alluded to the fact that the right side is locked down by Seol who’s having, in his words, a “breakout season” (accurate if I say so myself). He then explained the situation of Lee Ki Je, who has struggled for playing time at Suwon and has not been getting too many minutes – he acknowledges the situation but stated that whenever he is on the national team, he has worked hard and put in solid performances, warranting him and Kim Jin Su locking down the left back spot. The unfortunate reality is that we don’t have much depth here. There was a question of whether Park Kyu Hyeon could make the cut on the left, but even Klinsmann probably saw that a young German third division player may not be the best pick. Don’t get me wrong I love PKH for his showing at the Asian Games, but the senior Asian Cup is a totally different beast. On the right Kim Tae Hwan may have also raised some eyebrows but again, there is little depth here and Kim Mun Hwan over in Qatar isn’t in the best of form either from my cursory internet research. For a detailed discussion of the fullbacks’ roles in the team and why Klinsmann’s system so far has actually worked pretty well, read on to the next section.

Defensive midfield is our other controversial position as it has been a sore point since, depending on who you ask, Park Joo Ho in the mid 2010s, Lee Yong Rae in the early 2010s, or Kim Nam Il (arguably the best we’ve seen). This time we have called up Park Yong Woo, Park Jin Seop, and if you count him as a DM, Lee Soon Min. In all of our prior friendlies, at the World Cup, and for almost the entirety of this decade, DM was a bit of a liability with players like Park Yong Woo or Jung Woo Young the elder frustrating on many occasions, and makeshift DMs like Son Jun Ho or Paik Seung Ho being… well… too makeshift. Of course against the weaker Asian teams someone like Hwang In Beom or Hong Hyeon Seok is more than enough as a lone holding midfielder but against stronger opposition… I hate that I’m saying this but a Wataru Endo-esque player would solve a huge problem for us. Given Klinsmann’s preferences, I suspect Park Yong Woo would be our starting DM. Park Jin Seop only has one cap, against China, coming on in the 91st minute, while to this day I’m not entirely sure what kind of player Lee Soon Min is (have not watched enough of Gwangju FC, my apologies). It makes me wonder if we should just place a hard working, industrious player in DM like Lee Jae Sung or Hong Hyeon Seok or even a CB like Kim Young Kwon in the DM position to play alongside HIB.

Out wide and in attacking/central midfield we have the heart of the team and where we have the best dept. So many great names. Son Heung Min, Hwang Hee Chan (two of the top 5 scorers in the English Premier League rn with 11 and 10 goals respectively), Lee Kang In, Hwang In Beom, Lee Jae Sung, Hong Hyeon Seok, Yang Hyun Jun, Jeong Woo Young, and Moon Seon Min. We will get into how Klinsmann can get the best out of this great talent pool later (every single guy except Moon plays in Europe), but before that… why Moon Seon Min? There was lots of debate online whether we should be calling up Um Won Sang, Song Min Kyu, and Paik Seung Ho – surely they deserve a place on this squad. But none of them made it. I guess on the bright side it could give them a better chance of making a move to Europe, and maybe that’s just the reason why.

Up top there is Oh Hyeon Gyu and Cho Gue Sung. No surprises. And as many of you may have heard, there is some serious legal trouble brewing with Hwang Ui Jo who has been accused of illegally filming and distributing a sex tape…. yeah. He always was a bit of a player. His scoring prowess (on the field) will be missed but Oh and Cho are more than capable of leading the line.

How we’ll play

The recent results give us some optimism. After a string of disappointing results against Colombia, Uruguay, Peru, El Salvador, and Wales, the initially winless Klinsmann turned things around to make it 5 wins in a row, albeit against weaker opponents (the kind we’ll be playing in the Asian Cup until the quarters or semis). Weaker teams, yes, but it is noteworthy that the KNT – a team that never reliably scored lots of goals or even defeated on-paper-weaker teams with ease – scored 18 goals and conceded 0 in the last 4 games. For the time being Klinsmann seems to have found a system that works – at least against teams weaker than us on paper. Winning 4-0 against Tunisia (admittedly they were very tired and jet lagged), 6-0 against Vietnam, 5-0 against Singapore, and 3-0 against China – these big scorelines did not happen under Paulo Bento even against Asian minnows, with whom we often drew 0-0.

Rather than a possession based style like Paulo Bento, Klinsmann likes to go full offense. In an interview he even said he prefers winning 4-3 than 1-0. How lucky is he that he gets a in form Son Heung Min, an in form Lee Kang In, and a very in form Hwang Hee Chan at his disposal? Klinsmann played for Bayern and Tottenham – the two teams where arguably our best players play. In all four of these games we saw:

Cho Gue Sung up top
Son Heung Min in a “free role”
Hwang Hee Chan out left, Lee Kang In out right
Two of Hwang In Beom, Lee Jae Sung, or Park Yong Woo in the middle (usually Hwang In Beom and Park Yong Woo)
A backline of Lee Ki Je, Kim Min Jae, Jung Seung Hyun, and Seol Young Woo
Kim Seung Gyu GK

So the lineup would either look like a 4-1-4-1, 4-1-3-2, or a 4-4-2 depending on where you put SHM or the defensive mid. The personnel seems pretty set, except the defensive mid – against some opponents we saw Hwang IB playing as the midfield “1” and against others we saw Park Yong Woo. Unless Klinsmann channels his inner Guardiola (unlikely as Klinsmann is not a tactician type) all of a sudden, this is the formation we’ll see.

And the good thing is, it works. First let’s discuss the flanks. On the right side we have LKI + SYW. Lee Kang In of course likes to cut in a lot and be all over the place as our main playmaker. Complementing this is SYW, who is quite the intelligent, multi-role player himself – he can play on either flank, can drift towards the middle, has good offensive output (better than his defending honestly), frequently makes overlapping runs, and therefore combines pretty well with Lee Kang In. Then there’s the left side with Hwang Hee Chan and Lee Ki Je/Kim Jin Su. Though our LB spot is probably our weakest link defensively, these guys do link up well with Hwang. Hwang, unlike LKI, is more direct and vertical. LKJ and KJS on the other hand, are not very good defensively but have quite the cross or through pass in them (don’t forget that for most of the early half of 2023 season Lee Ki Je was leading the league in assists). They’ve seen to taken up a slightly more defensive role than Seol YW, staying behind Hwang in the L sided half space to help him out on the left and whip in a diagonal cross from time to time. LKJ and KJS both have a good cross or through pass in them when they are on form at least, so they do contribute to the attack in this way (though their defending may need more work). I may have explained this poorly and please let me know if I did. Overall it seems that although we don’t have individually brilliant fullbacks, we’ve found a system that has worked reasonably well so far.

Next let’s talk about Son. For essentially all 4 years of Bento’s tenure, as successful as it was ultimately, we were super frustrated as it seems SHM could never recreate his club form for the NT. Well with Klinsmann SHM definitely seems to play better on the NT, at least in my eyes. What changed? To me, it’s 1) the system and 2) the emergence of Lee Kang In and Hwang Hee Chan as players who can take the burden and pressure off of SHM.

Speaking of whom let’s talk about Lee Kang In. Wow has this guy really turned up for the KNT recently. He has been dominating entire right offensive side of the pitch, singlehandedly, with his individual ability with great link up play with Son Heung Min and Cho Gue Sung in particular. This guy does everything – he’s creative, he passes well, he beats a man reliably, he takes great set pieces, he scores… so many of our goalscoring plays originate or end with Lee Kang In. We must build our team around him going forward.

Everyone else in Europe is on fine form for their clubs. We all know Hwang Hee Chan is killing it, Hwang In Beom is Zvezda’s best player (srsly he needs to move to a top league like ASAP) with a MOTM performance vs Man City in the champions league, Cho GS and Oh HG are doing decently well and scoring intermittently, Kim Min Jae has played almost every minute of Bayern’s games (alongside Harry Kane and Leroy Sane), and Lee Jae Sung is doing his part to help Mainz avoid relegation.

Outside of the individual positions we do have one more weakness – lack of a plan B. We already have a lot of goalscoring routes – Cho Gue Sung, Son Heung Min, Hwang Hee Chan, Lee Kang In with support from behind from guys like Hwang In Beom, Hong Hyeon Seok will find a way to put the ball in the back of the net. And we have plenty of great attacking options off the bench in Oh Hyeon Gyu, Yang Hyun Jun, Lee Jae Sung (can’t believe he doesn’t make the XI here), Hong Hyeon Seok, and more. But Klinsmann has only tested one system throughout his tenure. Can Klinsmann adapt to counter the play of an opponent? Can we play a 3 back system? Do we have alternatives? Can we defend against the fluid positional play of Japan? I’m not sure, and I have a sinking feeling that the lack of any tactical flexibility might pose a problem for us later.

Klinsmann’s interview

https://www.youtube.com/live/GDC5_Hn-DJw?si=9lulirSQePhNUiO_

Klinsmann was quite optimistic in his presser and he didn’t get any particularly difficult or sensitive questions from the media. He believes we have a very strong skeleton of core players around which to build our team. He acknowledges that the team a lot of time to find their rhythm – things were rough and bumpy at first but getting better now. States that us Korean fans, citizens, and journalists can be very proud of the team that we have, name dropped our usual suspects e.g. captain of a top EPL team, an attacker rivalling this captain on goals scored, best CB in the world, a young PSG midfielder really coming into his own, etc. States that he is in regular communications with the players’ club team managers (this was in the context of Kim Ji Soo and Yang Hyun Jun’s inclusions). Interestingly he also stated that SYW is the starter for the RB position and that GGS is the starter for the FW position (is this fair to KTH and OHG?). Also stated that 64 years is a very long time and that this is our chance to win it.

Our Prospects and Regarding Japan

I actually completely agree with Klinsmann. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Australia are strong and absolutely capable of beating us on any occasion, but this time around there seems to be a bigger gap between Korea/Japan and the remainder of Asia. Assuming that Korea and Japan top their groups, there is the chance of a haniljeon final. Would I be nervous if this happened? Absolutely. It would suck to hand the title to our biggest rival at a time when everyone is circlejerking Japan extremely hard. Which is why it’s that much more important to beat them to show the world that WE are superior.

Any Korean fan will know that when the stakes are high (WCQs, Olympics, Asian Games), more often than not we get the best of Japan. Why does this happen? I’ve always thought that the Japanese players are mentally weak. From their awful penalty shootout in the RO16 against Croatia to bottling that RO16 match against Belgium to their players consistently fizzling out at top leagues and never becoming world class (Kagawa lost steam, Honda never made it at a big team, and more recently Kubo and Mitoma are in bad form despite a fantastic start to the 23-24 season), something about Japan makes me suspect there’s weakness there. They also just don’t have any strong individuals who can dispatch a game or make a decisive move. Mitoma, Kubo, Ito, and Tomiyasu don’t hold a candle to Son Heung Min, Hwang Hee Chan, Lee Kang in, or Kim Min Jae. They may have a cohesive system, but no star power. The Korean commentator/pundit who I admire the most, Lee Young Pyo, had this to say:

Lee Young Pyo: Normally there are several teams considered strong in Asia, such as the Saudis, Australia, and Iran, but this year it’ll certainly be us or Japan. It’s a two horse race. And I’ve always been honest- when Japan is stronger I’ve always said they’re stronger, and when we’re stronger I’ve always said we’re stronger. Right now, in 1/2024, I think we are a little bit stronger

Park Moon Sung: But they can field a B team with entirely European players. Kubo doesn’t even make their starting XI. Why do you think that?

Lee Young Pyo: In decisive situations, Korea has something Japan doesn’t have. It’s not something that I can describe.

Later in the interview: We’re better at football. This year for once is our best chance.

https://www.youtube.com/live/CUQyma5nk_s?si=59guWbyWr4fC6NiW

I really think it’s a mentality thing. Lee Young Pyo is right – Japan is scary but barring some bad luck we should be able to beat them in a final. And look at the rosters – our’s and Japan’s looks MUCH stronger, at least on paper, compared to the other teams in Asia. Yes, Japan may have gotten the better of us more often in the last few years with the last two friendlies going 3-0 in Japan’s favor, but I came across an interesting factoid – that Son Heung Min has never faced off against Japan’s senior men’s national team since the 2011 semifinal game. He was 19 at the time, and it’s crazy to me that Leverkusen Son and Tottenham Son has never once played against Japan’s senior team. That 2011 semifinal was the last competitive match that we lost against them (technically we drew, since we lost on PKs). It’s been over 12 years. Notice how I always say we usually beat Japan “when it matters” – in the last 7 games against Japan, we won 2 and Japan won 4. All seven games were either friendlies (2) or EAFF East Asian championships (5) which both teams send B teams to anyway. Weirdly we have only met Japan twice in the Asian Cup – once in 2007 and once in 2011 – both were draws in which we won once and they won once on PKs. Considering how often Brazil and Argentina face off, or how often USA and Mexico do, there really is a lack of Asian Clasicos – please fix this AFC. We wanna play Japan more.

Also as an aside, Lee Young Pyo has this way of explaining things in such a clear way that your understanding of football makes leaps and bounds whenever he talks about something. I highly recommend watching that entire interview. I watch Lee Young Pyo’s interviews whenever I can because his words mean so much to me.

One more thing: every team needs a healthy dose of luck in any competition. Think of every World Cup winning team – luck really needs to go their way. Whether it’s us, Japan, Australia, or Iran, there is always a difficult moment for every team no matter what, and there is a good chance of having to go through a PK shootout at some point. It’s taking the decisive moments that brings success. And in that aspect.. I think we have an edge.

Given the recent crazy form of Japan though, I’d agree that objectively they do look like favorites, even if we do agree that we would beat them head to head (and also because we just suck at the Asian Cup). Maybe our odds are 20%, Japan’s 20%, Australia 15%, Iran 15%, Saudi 15%, Uzbek 10%, Qatar 2.5%, 2.5% another team? Idk I completely made that up arbitrarily in 5 seconds.

For a good comparison on Korea and Japan and their prospects at the Asian Cup, watch the below video:

The schedule

The team, currently in a training camp at Paju, will fly out to Abu Dhabi 1/2/2024. The overseas players are all expected to join up with the team 1/2 as well except for Lee Kang In who will play in the Trophée des Champions against Toulouse (winners of the Coupe de France). We will play a friendly against Iraq on 1/6. Makes sense as Iraq is in Japan’s group. Also makes sense that Japan’s friendly opponent is Thailand, who will play us twice in March for the World Cup qualifiers. We will play our first match against Bahrain on 1/15, then Jordan 1/20, then Kim Pan Gon’s Malaysia 1/25.

So happy new year and may we win this damn tournament once and for all. Please stay tuned for writeups after every match.

About Jinseok 260 Articles
Diehard Korean football fan. https://www.taegukwarriors.com/jinseoks-story/

13 Comments

  1. I always wonder why Klinsman never calls up Kim Moon Hwan as backup RB?

    KYK won the league’s MVP as CB but Klinsman prefers JSH.

    Is this due to lack of form or individual skill?

    • Kim Moon Hwan, Kim Tae Hwan, *shrugs*
      I think the correct RB callup would have been Hwang Jae Won, who less than an hour ago won the KFA’s young player of the year.
      Jung Seung Hyeon I think is preferred because Kim Min Jae prefers LCB whereas JSH prefers RCB and KYK (who’s 33 now) prefers LCB. The KMJ-JSH synergy isn’t bad. KMJ-KYK is also fine. I suspect there may be some rotation there. I also wonder if KYK as a DM isn’t a terrible idea, something we did back in the day

  2. Wow! This is a crazy in-depth article. Nice work. Is it wrong of me to hope to Klinsmann fails so badly that he gets sacked so that a new manager can take over our golden generation? But also, doubt that KNF has any sort of plan or prospects for hiring a new manager.

    • lol while I don’t want our team to be completely embarrassed in front of the Asian teams, I still don’t think Klinsmann’s the right man for the job.

      anything less than at least a top 4 finish is a complete failure though.

      Bento didn’t get us past the quarter-finals when he was in charge but I guess his 2022 World Cup performance along with qualifying us EARLY to the World Cup made his tenure looked upon more positively. But of course we did lose to Japan twice by the same scoreline…

  3. Dude I want to beat Japan as much as anyone but you clearly let your hatred for them taint your opinions. Weak mentally? They didn’t look weak to me when they beat Spain and Germany in the effing World Cup in must win games. And the last time our senior teams played each other in a meaningful game, we were the ones who choked on PKs.

    If anyone looks mentally weak, it’s the KFA who refuses to schedule friendlies between us and Japan because we’ve gotten our asses kicked by them the last few times we’ve played them. I doubt severely that Japan is worried to play us.. it might actually be the other way around. Can SHM/KMJ/LKI inspire the others? Maybe, but we got a lot of holes on the field and Japan is loaded all over the pitch (and the bench). Kim might look unstoppable at Bayern but he has a world class goalkeeper, CB partner, and fullbacks around him. That’s not exactly the case with the KNT, when there are issues around superstars that can be exploited.

    Having said all that, fucking DAEHANMINGUK

    • Are you a troll? KMJ has been amazing for us thus far. Pair him up with KYK and you have an impenetrable wall in defense. The only weakness I see are FB and DM positions. FB, mainly the left side but Lee Kije showed his class with his crossing skills against Iraq.

      • Love KMJ! Swear I’m not a troll, he’s amazing. Everyone knows it. But 1 amazing guy with others around who aren’t exactly lighting it up could be problematic, that’s all I’m saying. I think deep down you agree and maybe just don’t want to admit it. I love KYG, so I’ll give him a chance but he hasn’t even been playing under Klinsmann. Even with him and our existing defensive unit, Ghana and Brazil put up 7 total goals against us. I know most of the AFC isn’t as good as them, but come the knockout round….

        • the only team that could feasibly put up 2-3 goals up against us is Japan. Our defense is worrisome. But our attack is OP compared to theirs. We will find out who prevails I hope…

    • I forgot to add: I see Korea finishing final with Japan in this tournament. Anything less than a final is a failure for Korea and the KFA should consider sacking Klinsman.

    • you absolutely have a point regarding the 2011 PKs, and I do not think you’re a troll at all. But you gotta admit that while Japan posts some insane results, they also fuck up miserably at times. They always did in the past and most recently the loss to Costa Rica, the RO16 PK shootout, and the RO16 loss to Belgium in 2018 come to mind. Tbh I am mostly hoping they get upset by the Saudis or Australia before we can even meet lol even more schadenfreude

      • Dude at the end of the day it’s such an unpredictable sport sometimes. I don’t think anyone thought Qatar would win the last tournament. Shit happens that we don’t expect, so I’m just gonna sit back and enjoy that our team actually has some respect for the first time in about a decade. Here’s hoping our boys win it all.

2 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Why South Korea Can and Will Beat Japan to Win the 2023/2024 Asian Cup | Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors
  2. South Korea's AFC Asian Cup So Far: Pros/Cons, Semifinal vs Jordan Preview, and Quick Comment on Iran vs. Japan | Tavern of the Taeguk Warriors

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