Stark Test for Shin’s Troops Ahead of Final A-Match Friendlies of Year

It really has been a tumultuous time in Korean football. After another World Cup qualification, rumours swirled that the KFA had turned down Guus Hiddink for the national team job, with the Dutch manager later going on camera saying he wanted to help. The backlash was fierce and furious on the Football Association, and earlier this week Technical Director Kim Ho-gon resigned from his post. Many fans were calling of a “boycott” of the national team’s next friendlies.

On the pitch, things weren’t much better. Though a positive first 45 minutes against Russia gave fans some hope that an average, cautious performance would be enough to see the team leave the match in good spirits, the subsequent unraveling of the Korean defense in the second half – fronted by Kim Juyoung’s unfortunate two own goals – continued to reveal what we all suspected: Korea just cannot defend. This was confirmed a few days later against a rotated Moroccan side who dominated from kickoff against a lethargic, unorganized and unexciting Korean side.

Though controversy off the pitch has receded, and Shin Taeyong can enter this game without the distraction of hot public pressure and media-bomb distractions, on the pitch the team has much to answer to. If traditionally playing on their own turf has helped the Korean side, seldom will they have faced such a daunting, demanding duo of opponents over this international break – in 13th-ranked Colombia and UEFA Group D winners Serbia.

Though FIFA Ranking is far from the best indicator, here is a look at the “strength” of the sides Korea has played against over the last two years, going backwards into time.

Daunting opposition

Though the Colombians have been in bad form of late, with only 1 win in their last 5 and essentially falling backwards into Brazil, they remain a indomitable side with individual talent and superior raw players than the Koreans. The obvious example of this is Bayern Munich’s James Rodriguez, who, despite having a quieter start in the season on his loan stint to Germany, still has 2 goals in 6 league games. Juan Cuadrado and Carlos Sanchez, both of Juventus, will be sure to worry Koreans in midfield, while Davinson Sanches has surged onto the Colombian and Spurs’ scene with his assured performances in central defense.

Meanwhile, on the Serbian side, it is perhaps not individual skill but form that is the concern. The Serbians breezed through their qualifying group with only one defeat in Vienna and have only dropped that game this year. They’ve also kept 4 clean sheets in their last 10 games and have looked confident and assured on their way to their first World Cup qualification since 2010, with Newcastle’s Aleksander Mitrovic bagging the goals and a spine of Matic, Tadic and Ivanovic make the side creative but hard to play against.

Defense a la Shin

As Tom Marcantonio pointed out in his earlier article, the Koreans are in deep trouble defensively, with Jeonbuk rising star Kim Minjae out of the lineup due to injury. After conceding 7 goals in 2 games in the last international break, Shin Taeyong has turned to these defenders to clean up the mess of the last group:

Two patterns emerge – all four fullbacks are the aggressive type, but none of them are pure stay-at-home defenders. Similarly, three of the centrebacks are on the lighter, more “progressive” side of defending, while Jeong Seunghyun being the only prototypical tall English defender in Ferdinand’s mould.

It’s easy to recognize, then, what Shin is expecting from his defenders, and Kim Jinsu perhaps best sums it up:

It’s not about kicking and hashing away at your opponents, but rather about being aggressive, getting to the ball before your opponent when you can and fighting hard.

This attempt at combative defense was what we saw in the last friendlies, and it resulted in 7 goals for the opposition. Shin seems hell-bent on retaining the 2 WB-3 CB system, so the question now becomes if the players are fit for the system, and how long it will take for them to gel together. Under Stielike, we didn’t see an identical defensive corps in any of the 10 qualifiers, and if Shin and I had to meet halfway, I’d tell him to stick with his system – but choose the players and stick with them, god dammit.

If this side cannot blunt Mitrovic, Rodriguez, Bacca and company, then it will find itself heaped under pressure from the Korean media about how the side just isn’t cut out for the World Cup.

A Test for Korean Stars

Fact: Korea heavily relies on Son Heungmin and Ki Sungyueng.

Also a fact: But neither have been good in a KNT shirt in the past two years.

If Korea is to have any success in these friendlies and in the FIFA World Cup, both Son and Ki will need to carry this side as consistent, dangerous pillars who can either a) win games on talent alone b) find ways to make other players better as they are marked out of the game c) do both.

But Son’s goalscoring record for the Korean national team only shows dry patches. Since his injury time equalizer against Australia in the 2015 Asian Cup, Son has scored 8 times for the national team – 6 were against Myanmar and Laos, and 1 was a penalty. That’s right – against opposition who are in Korea’s ballpark, Son has only scored 1 goal in open play in the last two years. Against sides who explicitly mark him out of the game, Europe’s most prolific Asian has been unable to find an exit strategy, or been unwilling to peel deeper and try to influence the game as only he can. But Asian qualifying and potential World Cup quarter-finalists are a different kettle of fish, and one can wonder if the latter will allow the “luxury player” to thrive more than the former.

Similarly, though Ki is a mainstay of the KNT, without whom the side cannot function (see: friendlies vs Russia and Morocco), it will be an important personal test for him to see how he fits into Shin Taeyong’s brand of football, which so far has been notable for a slight shift away from Korea’s usual “meaningless majority of possession” game to a “meaningless minority of possession” strategy, with the ball being recycled along the back 3/5.

Korea’s possession stats in their last 10 World Cup qualifiers + 2 friendlies under Shin. Note how gradually possession decreases, but takes a jump down when Shin takes over. Is this because Ki Sungyueng was injured? Or is this because of the manager/tactics? Is it because of the 3-4-3 system? (Matches in which a 3-back was utilized is marked by a blue dot.)

These games will give us the continuation of that graphic and regression line. Is Shin Taeyong’s system/formation less conducive to grotesque amounts of possession, and if so, what role does Ki Sungyueng take in the national team? As a central centreback? As a holding midfielder in a two-man midfield? In what way and in what spaces will Ki Sungyueng be controlling this team? The answer is in the matches ahead.

Just Give Us A Reason

The last two friendlies gave us no reason to believe that this national team could do anything in Russia. On home turf, in the final A-match friendlies of the year (there will be the infamous East Asian Cup in Japan this December for domestic players), in front of what should be near-capacity crowds in Suwon and Ulsan (the “boycott” turned into “omg 언니 let’s go watch James”), the silly, foolish hope is that despite this stark end-of-year test, the KNT just gives us a reason to believe in them heading in to the New Year.

About Tim Lee 321 Articles
The maple syrup guzzling kimchijjigae craving Korean-Canadian, eh?


  1. If the Korean team relies on Son the way they have been, they’re gonna fail. The difference between the talent on Tottenham Hotspur and the Korean National Team is so vast. It’s night and day for Son- does any player at the World Cup have such a huge gap? That doesn’t mean I feel sorry for him- he’s gotta (at the very least) pull his weight and use the talent he has for the team. I get that he is the “best Asian in the Premier League”, but he has Harry Kane and Dele Alli flanking him. Where is that level of talent on the KNT? Don’t tell me Koo or Ki is at that level, because they’re not. This is obvious, right? I guess what I’m saying is that it’s pretty unfair to expect him to recreate club success on the international level when he’s got some of the best players feeding him the ball. Not only that, they have an established system of teamwork and leadership. He’s not even a leader on Tottenham, just one of the many talents. So… how can he lead Korea, especially when age is so important in the K-League and most of the players come from the K-League?

    I’m rambling, but I’m just wondering if people realize that teamwork is so much more important than individual talent at the World Cup. That’s not only for Korea, that’s every team. That’s why a Moroccan team with some very talented, but no FAMOUS, players can obliterate Korea. Relying on Son for leadership is way too much. I’m sure at some point he will be a great leader for the team, but not now. Someone like Ronaldo can do that for Portugal because he is already the LEADER on his club team and on top of that has a fairly experienced Portuguese team. I’m only using him as an example because people call SHM “Sonaldo”- sorry, but it’s a huge overstatement.

    Maybe they just need a jolt of confidence- a couple of wins will help them all with that.

    • Tim here
      I guess my point is he isn’t integrated in the team. Other players are out shining Son on the team despite Son boasting better individual quality, and for Korea to be a more consistent attacking team, Son has to flourish. Inside a team unit, yes, but also with his individual talent. He is doing neither. As a player in the Prem, you would expect him to lead by example or be that clutch player in the team (see Messi in WCQ) and the frustration is he has seldom demonstrated that’s kind of “if we can’t do it I will” quality he does at Spurs.

      Given how little time this side will have under Shin, I think success at the WC depends on Ki and Son shining individually and the side being built around them, as opposed to building a cohesive team.

      • I hear ya. That strategy makes sense since that’s kinda their only option at this point. Still, it feels like a desperation play (again, maybe their only play).
        I guess the difference to me is that Messi has been the leader for the past 8 years for Argentina, so it is entirely fair and also actually strategic to build the team around him with young talent flanking him. He has so much experience as the leader for club and country and he is still young enough that Argentina can do that. The huge time gap between a Park Ji-Sung and Son Heung Min is kinda rearing its ugly head now.
        It really should be a “Park Chuyoung” or “Lee Chung Yong” who leads the team right now (“” because I don’t think those two should be the leaders. I just mean SOMEONE who was a young, up and coming player between 2006-2010) and obviously those two through many circumstances have not developed the right way since then. There just isn’t anyone to fill that gap and take the reigns right now as the leader. So… I guess it has to fall on Son’s shoulders…?
        I don’t think national team failure right now is bad for Son in the long run unless the Korean media and fans hold it against him and it drags him down. I feel like this team really can rebuild and be super threatening at the next 2 World Cups, but in 2018 I think it’d be wise for fans to keep expectations low and hope for the best/expect the worst.

        • It’s definitely been their only play. I don’t think KNT tries to rely on Son, but they just end up having to rely on him. When Korea struggles, Son puts the burden on himself and tries to pull off a miracle for the team. While KNT doesn’t have a Harry Kane or Eriksen, I think they can still make some tactical and personnel changes to take some of the burden off of Son.

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