After a dismal draw with Jordan in Korea’s penultimate group stage match in the 2024 Asian Cup, it was not a question of if Korea would advance to the knockout stage, but in what fashion? The answer is now clear: in absolute shambolic fashion, struggling to get a result over a team that had already packed their bags to go home. Korea managed to get over the line to finish runners up in Group E…just. An exhibition of Klinsmann ball, falling backwards into the Round of 16. We will update throughout the day as we cover the fallout over an unconfident KNT looking over their shoulders while Klinsmann’s continual lack of a game plan haunts the Taeguk Warriors.
The question before the match was whether Klinsmann would make the correct gamble on rotating his squad, given less breathing room after merely drawing with Jordan. Only 3 changes with the starting XI:
With Lee Ki-je injured – Seoul Young-woo shifted out as left back, and Kim Young-gwon replacing Jeong Seung-hyeon at CB, while Park Yong-woo made way for Jeong Woo-young (Jeong tasked with left wing attack, Lee Jae-Sung dropping deeper in a CDM role).
Korea lined up in roughly a 4-4-2 formation, morphing into a 4-1-3-1-1 with Son playing a makeshift freewheeling raumdeuter (space interpreting – think Thomas Muller) role. Again Korea left to their own tactical devices as there didn’t look to be a cohesive game strategy.
Korea took time in the first half to get into gear; while maintaining overwhelming ball possession, Klinsmann’s side struggled for answers on how to break down Malaysia’s low block. But Korea kept on the attack to probe for weaknesses. Son made a spectacular run, a shot on goal with a reaction save put the Malaysians on notice; it was only a matter of time before Korea could break the deadlock. Cue the 20th minute where Lee Kang-in’s whipped in corner found the head of Jeong Woo-young, his header smacked the hand of Malaysia’s keeper and initially ruled a save by the on field referee. Korea protested that the ball crossed the plane of the goal line. A quick VAR check confirmed that and Jeong’s header put Korea ahead. Despite the lead, Korea were unable to capitalize on their possession rate clocked over 82% by the end of the half. Paramount’s game announcer observed: “this is like a 90 minute rondo at the moment.” However, Korea’s inability to be ruthless in front on net (Cho missed a great chance that went begging/ Seol Young-woo’s cutback passes were too passive and easy to defend) would give the Malaysians, coached with aplomb by Kim Pan-gon (ex KFA technical director who led the hiring decision for the previous KNT manager Paulo Bento), increased confidence that they could get back into the game. When the halftime whistle blew, Klinsmann’s side were left wondering how they could still have just a slender 1:0 lead?
The 2nd halftime talk by Kim Pan-gon was just what team Malaysia needed. An aggressive forward press forced a crucial mistake by Hwang In-beom in the backfield; a goalmouth scramble and chaos in the box forced Jo Hyeon-woo off his line in a misadventure that allowed Faisel Halim to score from a narrow angle. That was followed up by a penalty awarded when Seol Young-woo was judged after VAR check to have fouled Arif Aiman. Suddenly Korea were staring at defeat at the hands of already knocked out Malaysia.
Immediately Klinsmann brought on Hong Hyun-seok and Hwang Hee-chan and pulled off Hwang In-beom (possibly injured) and the ineffective Cho Gu-sung – who may have only registered 5 touches throughout the game and struggled for his 3rd consecutive start as the center striker. After several fruitless crosses by Seol Young-woo, Son drifted to the left and offered up several tantalizing cutback crosses – perhaps to show his compatriots how it’s done. Time was running out. At the 72nd minute mark, Klinsmann rolled the dice again, bringing on Kim Jin-su and Oh Hyeon-gyu to replace Jeong Woo-young and Seol Young-woo. All the substitution were beginning to make impact – Oh in particular was proving to be a pest to Malaysia’s defense.
In the 81st minute, a rampaging Lee Kang-in was fouled in a dangerous central area. Lee took it upon himself to take the 30 yards freekick … and nailed it in the top right corner of the net! On replays it showed the ball bouncing back onto the outstretched arms of Malaysia’s keeper Syihan Hazmi and back into the net – nevertheless it was a well struck freekick to equalize. With a bit of the clock remaining, Korea attempting to recover some semblance of respectability, kept in the hunt for a game winner. Just as regulation time expired, Son laid off the ball to an overlapping Hwang Hee-chan, his cross found Oh in front of goal when he got cut down in the box. After another extensive VAR review, the penalty was awarded. Captain Son took PK duties and stuck his penalty well. That should have sealed the game, but Klinsmann ball took another twist.
Well past 12 minutes of stoppage due to the multiple VAR checks, in the 113th minute, well past the 20 Korean corner kicks, waves of attacks, and attempts on goal, Malaysia with less than 20% possession press Korea again, won the ball in their half, and sliced through the Korean midfield to find Romel Morales in the half space with room to shoot. His Hail Mary shot went into the back of the net, past Jo Hyeon-woo who was perhaps too close to his near post and into the history books. Never before have Malaysia scored 3 goals in an Asian Cup game. They accomplished that despite the odds.
Klinsmann ball is synonymous with really no ideas, no coherent strategy, and fake it ’till you make it philosophy. With a pretty talented set of players, it’s clear he was hoping their individual qualities could paper over the cracks in his lack of real preparation. With a group that on paper, Korea would normally clean up, they instead wind up as runner ups behind Bahrain. Let me repeat: behind Bahrain. Let that sink in. The tournament isn’t over, but the reckoning and inquest has already begun, even before Korea limps into the knockout phase of the tournament. Kim Pan-gon out played and out witted the hype that is Jurgen Klinsmann and a Korea lacking a plan will somehow need to figure out a way to advance in the tournament, despite Klinsmann at the helm.
With Saudi Arabia playing Thailand to a nil nil draw, the stage is set for the Round of 16. Korea will play Saudi on Jan 31st. We will update later today as the reaction from Klinsman (who in post match comments blamed the referees for the humiliating result) and from others around the world chime in on the performance. We will also look with a bit more focus on some of the key moments and tactical decisions (and lack thereof) that resulted in this historic low moment in Korean football. We have more reactions and thoughts after the CBS Golazo recap…
*We’re back. The withering criticism of Klinsmann has only grown louder. Prior to the start of the tournament, he drew shade for not living up to his stated obligations to move to Korea full-time. His frequency as a talking head for ESPN near the beginning of his stint as Korea manager (perhaps due to KFA minders advising him – he hasn’t been as prolific on the network lately) coincided with his glaring absence in Korea. If you’re not there, it becomes more difficult to research all aspects of Korean domestic football, ergo the ability to select the proper players to complement a deep squad. What’s becoming crystal clear: Klinsmann is being exposed for not only his lack of a plan A, even more damning is there’s not even a plan B. He has exposed his regular starters to a 3rd consecutive start in a less challenging group. The likes of Son Heung-min and Lee Kang-in has played nearly the entire group stage, including 1113 minutes today – calling into question just how effective or leggy they will be going forward into the knockout stages.
For our last update, we’ll break down the game a bit further and perhaps a possible way forward…
All is not lost – there is still a pathway to winning the competition – albeit just a tad bit shakier. Confidence is never a constant quantifiable element. While said confidence will take a hit – if the players can keep things in perspective – rally around each other and come up with their own game plan (a la Spain Women’s unorthodox World Cup victory in spite of their manager) they just might have the 배짱 to take things into their own hands to make this a worthwhile tournament run. Let’s briefly dive into what that might look like against Saudi Arabia (and presumably Australia in a hypothetical quarterfinals).
Saying there still is a lot of quality on this roster is an understatement. This squad can boast having of 2 of the top goal scorers in the Premier League. PSG’s Lee Kang-in is making waves in Ligue 1 and in the Champions League. What could be a way forward has to be player driven at this stage. Not unprecedented – again think Spain’s Women in the 2023 World Cup. In this scenario- before the January 31st showdown with Saudi Arabia, hypothetically the players demand a meeting with the coaching staff of Klinsmann and company – behind closed doors to be discreet and advance ideas on tactics and best players to occupy positions. No offense to Cho Gu-sung, he’s simply ineffective at the moment. He has to be replaced by either Oh Hyeon-gu up top, or with Sonny. Lee Kang-in is simply too isolated wide right; bringing him more central will open up more opportunities to control the midfield and add more attacking options. Today Korea was overrun in the midfield – Hwang In-beom and Lee Jae-sung are excellent players but they were simply outnumbered. Adding another midfielder – perhaps Park Jin-seob or Lee Soon-min could complement -and likely a better option that Park Yong-woo (perhaps it’s no coincidence that Klinsmann brought him on in the closing minutes in the lead up to the final humiliating goal conceded in minute 112). It’s too bad the likes of Lee Seung-woo wasn’t called up to add a creative attacking threat to help control the midfield….
Extra Time: Son went on the record to plead with football fans to tone down the unhelpful and over the top comments of the team raging on social media.