October 16th, 2012
Obviously if you’ve been tuned in to the headlines, you know South Korea lost to Iran by a score of 1-0. Iran was down to 10 men after a red card to Masoud Shojaei in the 2nd half, yet still were able to find holes in the Korean defense for Nekounam to score on a set piece 20 minutes later. The big surprise was a shake up in the Taeguk Warrior starting XI. Kim Shin-Wook got the start over Son Heung-Min. Yun Suk-Young got his first international start as did Park Jong-Woo. Overall, while Korea got in several excellent, incredibly close opportunities to score, 2 shots winded up hitting the crossbar, and none of their strikes found the back of the Iranian net. At times, Korea suffered from being out of sync and lacked any creative spark to get their offensive engine humming consistently. Once again, boss Choi’s main strategy was not really a strategy: employing the long ball, the overuse of such blunt lobbing essentially the equivalent of the Hail Mary pass. That speaks volumes on his ability or lack thereof, to helm the Taeguk Warriors in Brazil for 2014.
1:30 am: not the most convenient time frame to tune into a game, much of Korea is waking up to the news; those citizens who stayed up to watch it are in for a mighty hangover. There’s sure to be plenty of hand wringing on numerous outlets -I think the best use of time would be to break down the match into the Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
Some risk taking needs to be commended. John Duerden talked about just that, referring to Korea’s penchant for future thinking as a reason for allowing Ki Sung-Yeung, Son Heung-Min and Lee Chung-Yong as teenagers to step up for the senior National team a few year back (writing yesterday in Fox Sports Australia). Representing the future, left back Yun Suk-Young and midfielder Park Jong-Woo got their first international caps for the Taeguk Warriors. Both played passably, but it was Yun Suk-Young who made an impression in the first half. He could have altered the course of the match in the 23rd minute when he manhandled the ball away from an Iranian player, drove down the left side of the field and fired a quality shot that kept the Iranian keeper Rahmati on his toes.
The first half for the Taeguk Warriors saw their best efforts and best chances for scoring. Ki Sung-Yeung‘s set pieces were brilliant, and there was that feeling in the air -judging by the hushed 100,000+capacity crowd Azadi stadium as each cascading ball from Ki was curving back towards the earth, that the Taeguk Warriors were on the cusp of breaking Iranian hearts. Ki’s set pieces were akin to increasingly dangerous mortar fire, raining smartly placed balls right towards Taeguk Warriors at the right places near the net. They were close several times, rattled the post twice, the ball ping-ponged all over the penalty area, and in the end: no goal. Ah, the beauty and tragedy of football…
Some individual efforts need to be recognized (and for the future such efforts needs to be followed up with better back up support and organization, but more on that in the bad section). Lee Keun-Ho was one of the most fiery Taeguk Warriors on the pitch, and was as dynamic as he has demonstrated for his Ulsan Hyundai club. Jung Sung-Ryong was yet again coming up with huge saves, preventing further embarrassment for his side. Son Heung-Min came in the 53rd minute and provided some danger for the Iranians, at times moving quickly around their penalty area, and eventually getting a good shot at goal in the 76th minute from 18 yards out. Oh Beom-Seok earned some Tavern kudos for an excellent timed tackle near the edge of Korea’s penalty box that knocked the ball loose from an oncoming Nekounam. There were other individual efforts from each of the players that deserve merit, but will be lost in the simple fact that the game slipped away despite Iran’s shorthanded status for much of the 2nd half.
The Taeguk Warriors’ strategy appeared to be a simple one: long balls, possibly to the very tall Kim Shin-Wook, bouncing off his head and magically falling into the Iranian net. It didn’t work. When there is the talent in Korea’s roster that can play a more elegant and creative passing game, the question the Korean FA has to ask is why be just a one-trick team? There were cringe-worthy elements, starting in the first half and brought to a crescendo in the latter half that highlighted Korea’s inability to sync up the offense. Again, it points to the ineffectiveness of the long ball strategy; with each lob, Iran’s back line were better able to predict, adapt, break up and regain possession. Korea’s usual control of the ball, their ability to circulate it around to string up passes and set up goal chances was largely absent, particularly in the 2nd. Subject to debate is Choi’s choice of starting Kim Shin-Wook over Son Heung-Min; the choice is instructive in understanding Choi and possibly his lack of faith in the K Team’s passing ability – a self fulfilling prophesy from top down. This also happened in the last match that ended in a disappointing 2-2 draw.
At the 68th minute, possibly a pivital moment, Choi executed a substitution. He didn’t take out Kim Shin-Wook or Kim Bo-Kyung, who both didn’t factor in the offense up to that point. Instead, he took out Lee Keun-Ho, who was pretty dynamic, nearly scoring in the 66th minute. He was causing grief for the Iranian defense when the surprise change up occurred. Choi’s decision making in managing the lineup was baffling.
By the time Masoud Shajoei started his walk of shame, crying in the tunnel after receiving the red card, undoubtedly what was going through his mind was the grief he would receive for helping team Melli to lose the match. Or torture, but I digress- much to his relief and probably shock along with the rest of us is that Iran scored a short handed goal. Keep in mind, the red card was handed out [after a dangerous studs up challenge on Oh Beom Seok] in the 55th minute. There was 40 minutes in the game left (including 5 minutes of stoppage time plus an additional 2 minutes tacked on by time-wasting- feigned-injury-rolling-on-the-grass shenanigans by the Iranian netminder). 20 minutes went by in which we witnessed a Korean side in search of their own offense. And they paid a deep price for not grasping the clear advantage in front of them; they allowed Iran to control the pitch, get a free kick deep in Korean territory, and scoring shorthanded with a set piece finish by an unmarked Nekounam in the 75th minute. The Korean FA has to do some soul searching as to how to patch up a leaky defense. With 15 + 5 minutes left, despite a La Liga striker + the leading Asian forward in the Bundesliga + a stalwart EPL Swansea playmaking midfielder all on the same pitch, the Korean National team couldn’t get the deal done, opting to punt one long ball after another, down the field, and out of play. Occasionally, a Taeguk Warrior would make an individual dash forward, drive deep and eventually get stymied, with no back up as available options to pass around to.
Past Ugly: we could take another turn about the Taeguk Warriors style of play, but we beat that horse to death.
Present Ugly: Let’s turn to team Melli. They didn’t have the greatest of game, but were lucky enough enough to survive unscathed in the first half to create that one opportunity in the 2nd half that sealed the deal. Overall, Iran tried brute force to take Korea out of their game, which backfired with the Shaojaei red card dismissal. When they did get their surprise shorthanded goal, their time wasting and feigned injury tactics bordered on the ridiculous. No oscars for you.
Future ugly: the AA style intervention boss Choi has to undergo to detox from the blunt non-strategic long ball strategy. Add to that the fact that South Korea is now tied with Iran (save for goal differential) on points in Group A, they have now made their World Cup qualifying more adventurous than necessary. If they merely survive this group stage, there’s going to be enormous concern over their ability to have an effective run in the 2014 World Cup, particularly with all the European and South American teams that can tear up an unproductive offense and leaky defense. That disorganization is a direct reflection on coach Choi Kang-Hee’s management.
To contrast, in the Taeguk Warriors’ crisp passing that stretched the defenses of Europe and South America’s best teams during the Olympics, you can see manager Hong Myong-Bo’s imprint on that method. Granted, it was a hybrid/U-23 team, but it was impressive how much he was able to draw from his players, especially from a defense that most analysts had written off. With this embarrassing loss, if Choi finally faces scrutiny at this stage of the World Cup qualifying cycle, could Hong Myong-Bo be a better suited replacement? To go deep into the World Cup, would they need a European based coach like Gus Hinddink was able to do in 2002? We’ll keep these as open ongoing questions, the Tavern will continue to monitor this managerial crisis.
Some last thoughts: this is not panic time (not yet at least). Me, I’ve already gone through my stages of anger, sadness, grief and now acceptance. The talent is there; the management may not be. We will see a different dynamic once Koo Ja-Cheol recovers from his ankle injury. Finally, looking at the growing numbers of Japanese export players that are cultivating valuable experience in Europe, Korea may need to re-examine their mandatory military service requirements for their young talented football players. The requirement seems to be impeding some Koreans from landing contracts with European clubs. I’m brining this up because Japan defeated France 1-0 last week. This team is top heavy with Japanese based in Europe. In fact, 18 out of 24 members in the senior National squad is stationed with European clubs. South Korea doesn’t come close to that percentage. It doesn’t mean K-League players are somehow inferior to their Korean counterparts in Europe, nor the implication that the training provided domestically is subpar. But let’s be honest, Europe has some of the best competitive professional football around. It’s why Brazil, despite being such an amazing football nation, still expects their best to eventually ply their trade and grow experience further in Europe. Korea needs a strong domestic league, but they can simultaneously foster European trained players to help bolster the national team. Another late night at the Tavern is coming to a close. Looking forward to a November 14th tentatively scheduled friendly with Australia as well as resumption of club matchups this saturday. Good night!
Update: South Korean Soccer blog has another great perspective on the match, don’t miss their take on Chicks Dig the Long Ball – unless it’s in soccer — ouch!