Stielike’s Lost The Players: A National Team (Almost) In Crisis

I was planning on using this time to prepare my analysis, but something more urgent has come up. Anyways, my analysis isn’t going to be a very groundbreaking one – it’s the same old Korean failures against the same old Iranian side, and it’s the same old result. But this same old result, and the aftermath of it, has revealed what is now a public rift between Korean national team manager Uli Stielike and some of the team’s star players. Read on after the jump.

Final whistle blows – another frustrating 1-0 loss to Iran at the Azadi Stadium. A fourth consecutive largely unsatisfactory performance from a team and a manager who are feeling the heat. But this time, it wasn’t details to be worked on – it was the entire gameplan. A toothless attack, an inept defense and a sloppy link in between the two – Korea was destroyed in every phase of the game, at every time, at every moment. The 1-0 scoreline doesn’t reveal how poorly we played and how much the Iranians deserved the victory.

Understandably, the players and the manager are of course disappointed and worried. But the comments post-game – on both sides, players and manager alike – reveal, for perhaps the first time in Stielike’s tenure, the degree to which things have spiraled out of control behind the scenes.

I’m going to translate the quotes that genius Korean football columnist Seo Hojeong picked out in his column today, and then deal with them in order. You’re free to disagree or to agree, and let’s absolutely get a debate going in the comments. Because this is (for Korean standards) borderline…. I don’t want to say crazy, but it’s pretty unusual and indicative of where things are right now.

Enough rambling, let’s get on to it.

Stielike’s remarks:

First, Stielike’s interview post match had this absolute gem of a quote:

In this place (Tehran) no Korean manager, no Korean players have ever won… no team could have won here today, that is the basic reason… We don’t have any strikers such as Qatar’s Sebastian Soria, and this is a problem… The real issue is that Korea’s youth system isn’t fundamentally strong…

Son retaliates (in a not-so-thinly-veiled-way):

It’s really unfortunate that a different player was mentioned. The players, especially the forwards, were doing all the preparation they could to write history here today. Each team has good players, so to say that we lack a certain type of player… I think that we have a lot of good players, so the manager’s words were just…

Ki tries to reconcile (sort-of-not-really):

Foreign coaches and we (Korean players) have different ways of thinking. In hearing those remarks, I understand why some players could be insulted, but I hope the manager said those things out of a sense of responsibility. We all need to accept responsibility.

Stielike’s Criticism of the Youth System

We’ve heard the latter part of rhetoric before from Stielike, and we’ve also discussed it at length on this site. It is a real issue, how up-and-coming Korean youth spend time on the bench at their K League clubs, playing un-competitive football in the “R League” or languish in university ranks dominating easier opponents until they feel ready to switch into an environment where they can have consistent minutes AND be challenged. The years between university and making the jump to K League are years they lose to develop and to grow as footballers.

This is obviously a very institutional, complex issue that is far from a quick fix. For all our discussion and complaints about it, we cannot change a thing here on a football blog somewhere in the interwebs with no influence in Korean football or the majority of “netizens”.

Stielike is the manager of the Korean national football team! He, presumably, has at least some influence within the KFA that should allow him to air that grievance with the right people at the right time. To do so publicly in the aftermath of a heated game like this is making excuses and astonishingly pathetic. The only scenario where saying such a thing makes logical sense is if he’s trying to put some pressure within the KFA on youth directors to accept reforms that he (presumably) has put forward.

Somehow, I don’t think that’s the case. Stielike may have identified numerous issues within the youth system, and as a former youth coach of the German “Golden Generation” that won the 2014 World Cup, he probably knows about these kinds of things more than anybody else. And let’s accept for a moment that he was doing some sort of politicking by blaming the loss (partly) on the youth system. So what? He’s not the youth director. He’s the manager. Of the national team. Which lost today in a terrible performance. It’s not the time to advocate for institutional change – it’s time to put your head down, accept failure and reaffirm confidence in the team for the next time around.

Stielike’s Soria comment + “no one could have won here”.

First off, Sebastian Soria isn’t some sort of God. He had a very good game against a very poor Korean defense and he should be commended for that. To say that his play was exceptional after the Qatar game would be simply a manager complimenting an opposition player on a game hard fought.

Stielike’s attempt at saying that with a Sebastian Soria, the Korean national team would be stronger, is therefore, in my view, not only somewhat false, but more importantly, completely unnecessary.

We’ve long lamented how “Korea has no strikers” and that was most certainly true during the 2015 Asian Cup, when our go-to players were Cho Youngcheol and Lee Jeonghyeop. But it’s the greatest, most ridiculous of falsehoods now.

Suk Hyunjun had a formidable 2015-16 season, and though his form is waning a bit in Turkey, he’s picked it up time and time again, so patience is a virtue. Ji Dongwon scored a screamer after over 2 years last week, and had put in solid shifts for the KNT consistently prior to this game. Kim Shinwook’s doing well in the Asian Champions League and K League, and although never “flash” in his shifts, he does what he’s expected to do fairly well. Hell, even Son Heungmin’s on absolute fire and can play up-top.

So why say we need a Soria?

What we need, Stielike, is institutional reform… on how to approach games against Iran. The same old approach of passing it around midfield aimlessly, letting them score on a set-piece or counter and then not changing a single fucking thing has not yielded any results. 

He’s right, no Korean manager has won here, and no Korean player then has either. That’s a real shame and a real cause for frustration. But if we were to, for once, shake up our approach and try something gutsy or different, perhaps we’d exploit a weakness we previously didn’t tap into.

Stielike’s insinuation that things would have gone better with a different mould of forward is yet again passing on the blame. It is squarely on his shoulders to get the most out of the players he has available for selection, not moan about would could have been.

Is this the end of Stielike?
Stielike’s humbled, aweful expression as Carlos Quieroz wins again…

The players’ response

It goes without saying that the players should never openly criticize their manager, even if in modern football, often are the times where the manager will criticize the player. I’d return to my Stielike rant and mention how his criticism of the team today was far from helpful or motivational, but rather downright disappointing, but I’ll digress.

Instead, we’ll just collectively accept that Son’s decision to even address Stielike’s remarks in public and take offense to them is wrong, and we’ll also accept that Ki Sungyueng, as captain, shouldn’t even offer a veiled criticism or passing suggestion of a rift, certainly not in public, and certainly not as he is a player with quite a lot of baggage. (Remember his comments on Choi Kanghee?)

So we’ve criticized Stielike (in length) and the players (to a lesser extent, and in sum), but what does this all mean?

A national team (almost) in crisis

The comments post-game today are telling. The players don’t seem to have much faith anymore in the manager, while the manager is deflecting blame off of himself, effectively declaring he is somewhat powerless. It is very rare for these kinds of things to surface and happen so publicly (apart from the Choi Kanghee-Ki Sungyueng row, which was supposed to be private, anyways). If Son and Ki are willing to tell the media they disagree with the manager, and Stielike is willing to tell the media he doesn’t have the players for the job, then what on earth is going on behind the scenes?

How has Stielike, who on the outside seems to have a coaching style resembling more of a “fitness coach” than a “studious tactician”, and therefore, probably more of a humanist, man-to-man approach, let things degenerate so poorly behind-the-scenes? How has he lost his players, and why is he saying nothing to help their cause?

I’d love to dig up old comments on post-Iran game or tough losses, but Hong Myungbo took the blame more often than not. Shin Taeyong defended his players in the aftermath of the Olympics. Both managerships were flawed ones, but seldom did they complain about things beyond their control in order to avoid saying “I take responsibility”.

I’m not unconditionally defending the players. Football is played by 11 men on both sides, and our 11 men didn’t get the job done today. But they know, more than anyone, that responding to Stielike’s quietly incendiary remarks can create anger among the Korean netizens and is a direct shot at Stielike’s popularity and job safety.

And Stielike should know better than to blame everyone and everything but himself.

Maybe these things were said in frustration or in anger. They certainly were said out of passion. Nonetheless, they were said in public, by a suddenly unpopular manager and by players who seem to feel somewhat betrayed by their boss’ lack of faith.

I said at the beginning of this international break that the court was in session for Uli Stielike’s managership of the Korean national team. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but after this result and this debacle, the verdict seems ever closer to a damning conviction.

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


  1. Interesting. Very good Tim. This was well written.

    Yeah, it’s not gonna do us any good when the players and manager have this sort of thing going on.
    I hope the drama doesn’t get bigger.
    Seriously, Stielike needs to take a lot of the blame. He is the manager. Gosh dang it. Same tactics. Lose to Iran again.
    It’s time we experiment with something. My gosh, this result and how Korea played was frustrating.

  2. Well said, Tim. Same old lacklustre Korea turned up at Azadi – but Iranians were different this time. They looked confident and energised last night, tbh their previous wins vs Korea were very “lucky” as Korea actually dominated Iran, but last night, Iran thoroughly deserved their win and showed Korea how to play football. Queiroz is doing a wonderful job with Iran and the people love him.

    I can’t say the same for Stielike, I’ve always defended him but time and time again, he’s failed to show us any tactical acumen over the course of his management career with Korea.

    I really liked his initial enthusiasm; attending domestic league games, participating in KFA events, but to be quite frank, we hired him to be the manager of Korea men’s national team, not a technical director or a youth director.

    Despite his numerous visits to K-League games, he’s stuck with the same group of players that were used by Hong; I know some of those guys (esp Son, Ki and Koo) are crucial, but he had to do something about the defence.

    Using Kwak AND Kim Keehee behind Han Kookyoung was a mistake. None of them are comfortable with playing the ball from the back. It may have been better off to play Jang Hyunsoo as CB next to Kwak instead of at RB (then CDM).

    But the final nail in the coffin for me was his comment about Sebastian Soria – are you shitting me? He has many capable attackers at his disposal – Son (arguably the most inform player in Europe right now), Suk and Ji (although he was poor) who ply their trade in Europe and several others who have shown class in Asia.

    In my opinion, before the next game vs Uzbekistan or after the game vs Uzbekistans, Uli must go.

    Aufwiedersehen, Uli.

  3. Modern game is not about tactics, it’s about conquering space. You have to press your opposition out of existence! Just look at how Spurs played against Man City.

    • Perhaps I’m misinterpreting your comment, but “conquering space” is very much a tactical idea. How the players move and cover and press in a coordinated manner = tactics.

  4. Great article.

    It’s interesting that he blames the lack of quality strikers or the youth system when what I saw today reeked of bad tactics. Our back line was high up the pitch, and we couldn’t move the ball forward due to the pressing that the Iranian players were doing. Their press forced errors and left us vulnerable to counterattacks, and we effectively lost the midfield. Our defense was too far away to connect with our attack, and we had to resort to long, inaccurate passes that were easily intercepted or long balls that were inaccurately headed down to no one in particular. Our transition from an attacking shape to a defensive one was slow and confused, leading me to believe that the team did not drill hard enough in this aspect, and it utterly, utterly annoys me how the Iranian coach utilized his few attacking players so smartly to always present a threat while also organizing 7 – 8 players behind the ball at all times. Uli was outsmarted badly, and he needs to go back to the drawing board to hash out the game plan moving forward because we cannot play like this again. It’s too easy to figure out. Teams like Honduras and Iran are out-muscling us, out-pressing us, out-running us, and out-defending us using similar approaches.

    It’s demoralizing, not fun to watch (and I assume, not fun to play), and bad for Korean football. Uli needs to turn this around and quick.

  5. Stielke shouldn’t have publicly said that for sure. But actually I kind of get what he’s saying.
    Just to play devil’s advocate. I haven’t been impressed with the KNT for the past few years (since way before Stielke showed up). The last time they looked consistently good and I felt like they might do damage to an actually strong team was when Park Ji Sung was on the team. He was the leader and I don’t remember ANY behind the scenes drama (correct me if I’m wrong).
    Right now, Son and Ki are the leaders. In the past few years, I can count at least 3 managers Ki has had some sort of issues with. Son (+ his father, no?) have had several public rifts with management as well.
    Noticing a trend anyone?
    If these guys are the “leaders” of the team, then I’m hesitant to point the finger at Stielke. Yes his tactics didn’t work today, and he’s been an “ok” coach, but those are 2 star players and they were invisible today. Do you think Messi would disappear in a high stakes match for Argentina, even if that’s what the coach wanted? Son barely touched the ball today. Not saying Soria is better than anyone (it was kind of a weird example choice from Stielke), but he did create chances and showed no fear against a superior opponent in a hostile away stadium. Son plays in one of the most competitive leagues in the world… where was he today?
    Ki and Son are INCREDIBLY talented at the game itself, but time and again they seem to have a few flaws when it comes to strength of character. I’m honestly not surprised that there are behind the scenes issues. Just my two cents.
    No use comparing anyone to Park Ji Sung, but I can’t help it since he was he centerpiece of the last semblance of consistent quality from the national team. This team needs real leadership from the PLAYERS. That can’t be taught or coached..
    If Stielke gets fired, I’m hoping the new coach knows how to find the right leader for the team and build the team around him.

  6. Ki is absolutely useless garbage that’s allergic to defense. Uli needs to find a pacey midfielder who’s willing to press the opposition. If Uli is unwilling to drop Ki, then there is no hope for this team.

  7. I wouldn’t be upset if Uli got fired before the Uzbekistan match. Our KNT needs to start playing with confidence.. Kwak Tae Hwi needs to go. We can’t keep on getting owned on the counter attacks. I’ve had enough of this BS smdfh

  8. We leak goals. The last 5 games China has played are:

    China 0-1 Kazakhstan
    Korea Republic 3-2 China
    China 0-0 Iran
    China 0-1 Syria
    Uzbekistan 2-0 China

    I notice that they haven’t been able to score against any team except Korea. Twice! We need a new coach who’s defensively minded and a strong character. If Ki and Son are bad leaders, then a no nonsense coach with charisma will do wonders for the team.

  9. Ki about playing in Iran: “I don’t want to come back here”

    ?? Um… you’re the captain!!!!! How about wanting to go back there, kick ass, and shove it in the Iranians’ faces?

    Sorry… blame Stielke all you want. He deserves blame for sure. Tell me Ki’s an incredible player. I know he is. But that comment tells me everything. What a loser.

  10. “We don’t have a striker like Sebastian Soria.” What the hell is he saying? We have one of the best strikers in Premier League. Uli

    (Does this senile, old fartbag understand that Son has the best rating in FIFA?)

    Son Heung-min “I’m disappointed (about what Stielike said). It demoralizes us. We have many good forwards.”

    It’s time to get rid of this German coward. He blames everyone but himself.

  11. Well written Tim.

    I was so disappointed with this match, Stielike, and the team that I have a lot of doubts. I don’t want to watch the national team game again only to be disappointed with shitty game play like this. Queiroz analysed our team thoroughly, dominated us in every aspect. They deserved the victory that’s for sure. I was fan of Stielike until now…excuses, lack of plan B’s and C’s and has tendency to use certain players over and over (JHS anyone?). There are also doubts about his reaction times when we all see that one player needs to switch out. I was hoping he would bring his A-game to this match and actually win for once in Azadi! We lost again with no win for 42 years! I’m just starting to recognize Iran for their abilities. They didn’t even initiate bed soccer tactic like they used to do! Iran team was organized, pressure us from every angle and etc. I was frustrated like all of you were.

    However, we can’t also just sack Stielike right now as this would only repeat the disasters of Brazil World Cup and going to have to roll with him until the World Cup. Though, I have no confidence as of right now he would do well in World Cup stage. It would most likely be three losses or one draw plus two losses.

    Here’s to my ranting!

  12. we have the hottest striker on the planet right now and he never received the ball in a spot to do damage.

    I think what Uli meant to say is that nobody could win in Tehran with HIM coaching the team.

    • This is spot on. Baffling to me. Stielike should have moved Son into the middle or up top at halftime instead of subbing instead of moving JHS to DM. Like that’s going to make the difference.

  13. Not sure you can blame Son at all. Heck, even the criticism of Ki is a bit of a stretch. This coach rightfully should get the blame (and I usually am slow to blame coaches) and this whole the players shouldn’t have said anything publicly is silly. Son is one of the forwards that Uli is saying wasn’t as good as Soria. Uh… That is a poor judge of forward talent if I’ve ever seen one. Ki has always been outspoken and I have no issues with that. He just needs to produce. That said, in the last several years, please tell me how often he (and for that matter many of our other Korean players) ever really been used to their strengths??? And why should Son, in particular, be quiet when being insulted? Unless we’re missing some kind of context to his comment, Uli has just lost all respect for me.

    • Definitely not useless, his intelligence of the game is pretty good and it just doesn’t look like he is moving around a lot but he actually covers a lot of ground. Swansea is in a shambles and I’m not all too worried that he isn’t really playing ‘well’. The team needs a major shift and Ki is at the heart of making this team successful again, skill and intelligence wise. Once a manager puts faith back in him things will start to change.

  14. Why isnt Uli taking a risk with the young spanish korean players we have….at least use them for friendies and see what they are made of…..if we wait until 2022 to play them, they will be already in their primes with no world cup experience in them….might as well use them now

    • The simple answer (imo) is that they just aren’t ready for senior level. Not necessarily b/c of lack of talent, but their understanding of the game, ability to gel with senior players, and the slightly upped physical level are barriers. It’s worth remembering that Jang Gyeolhee and Lee Seungwoo are still with Barca’s juvenil A squad (U-19). Going against players in your own age group is one thing, going against a teams that are largely 5, 10, 15 years older is another. Personally I’d like to see them at least playing consistently with Barca B (or another full pro team) before they are getting serious attention for a senior call up.

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