Tactics Talk: South Korea vs Tunisia (Part 1)

Here we take a more in-depth look at the game between South Korea and Tunisia.

Starting XI and Formations

Hong Myeong-Bo sent out an as expected side that featured: Jung Sung-Ryong, Lee Yong, Hong Jeong-Ho, Kim Young-Gwon, Yoon Suk-Young, Ki Sung-Yueng, Han Kook-Young, Lee Chung-Yong, Koo Ja-Cheol, Son Heung-Min, and Park Chu-Young.

SK starting formation












The formation itself was fairly flexible, at times shifting to a 4-2-4, 3-3-4, or at extremes a 3-1-6. Park Chu-Young had license to roam, and he often would drop deep and/or wide to pick up the ball. Lee Chung-Yong also notably dropped very deep on a number of occasions, sometimes even coming all the way to the right back spot. Son Heung-Min switched sides a few times, and Koo Ja-Cheol roamed a bit too. This high flexibility possibly contributed to some of Korea’s attacking problems as players could not instinctively move to the ball to certain positions as they didn’t know who (or if) someone was there. Players had to look up and see who was where and then decided, causing the overall attack speed to be on the sluggish side.

In this part we’ll address the five points that I raised in the preview. In part II we’ll look at some possible fixes for some of the problems seen against Tunisia.

Tactics Point #1 – Yoon Suk-Young

Yoon Suk-Young got forward regularly, but his position did seem more fullback than wingback (compared to Kim Jin-Su against Greece). Yoon found himself in lots of space on a few occasions, as Korea’s shifting created an overload on the right. Unfortunately for Korea, Yoon seemed to be nervous/recovering from jet lag as his crossing was quite poor. The first two were horribly over hit, while the third was better (took a touch, pulled it back).

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In the two images above, you can see the first example of Korea’s overload. In image 1 you can see Son Heung-Min has switched to the right side while Lee Chung-Yong has dropped a bit deeper. Korea switched the play just quick enough for Yoon to get a cross off unchallenged, but it was unfortunately poorly executed.

Yoon clearly has a lot of natural ability, and some of his performances for QPR towards the end of the season indicate that despite not playing many games, he hasn’t gone to complete sh*t. The news that Kim Jin-Su has dropped out and Park Joo-Ho will join the squad throws a new wrinkle into proceedings. Park Joo-Ho is probably the most offensively talented left back of the three, but it remains to be seen if: A) He’s back to full health, and B) He’s capable of breaking Hong’s trust/preference in Yoon Suk-Young.

Yoon would be a fine option as long as he can get his body and conditioning right in time for Russia. Certainly it won’t help that in a couple days he’ll make another around the world flight to the US. But from then, he’ll have a couple weeks to sort himself out. Despite the popularity of Park Joo-Ho amongst the average fan, I’d still expect Yoon Suk-Young to get the nod come the Ghana match.

Tactics Point #2 – Possession and Defensive Positioning

Korea did enjoy the bulk of the possession. I think they had about 60-63% at the end of the game, and throughout the match it was about that or more (touching as high as 70% at times). Yet, Korea’s possession was largely aimless. Tunisia did well to clog the middle of the pitch and force Korea down the flanks. With numbers in the middle and poor service from the wide players, particularly the full backs, that was a battle Tunisia was always likely to win.

Tunisia defending 1In the above image you can see Tunisia’s basic defensive shape. They have five across the back and 3-4 players close together in the middle. Knowing that Korea’s wide players (Son Heung-Min and Lee Chung-Yong) will drift inwards, the have plenty of players (6-7) to deal with that threat. The fullbacks can remain wide to defend against the Korean fullbacks. The red circles show where Tunisia is willing to concede possession to Korea.

Once again Korea’s defensive positioning was suspect. I’m not sure (since it hasn’t been specifically said), but it seems like Korea always tries to play this in-between defensive system. It’s not really deep, but it’s not really high either. The problem of course is that it allows the opposition forwards space in your half, but also enough space to run into from balls over the top or directly through the middle.

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Take a look at images 1 and 2. They are taken three seconds apart. In image 1, the ball is just inside the Tunisia half, but Korea is about to lose it. The main thing is the positioning of the two centerbacks and Ki Sung-Yueng. The three have shifted far to the left to take up passing positions.The problem in image 1 is the position of Hong Jeong-Ho, who is far too deep and is keeping the Tunisian attackers onside. The result of Hong being too deep is seen in picture two. Also there are problems with the positions of Ki and Kim Young-Gwon.

For the deep playmaker to drop between the two centerbacks is a normal thing. Xavi, Xabi Alonso, Andrea Pirlo all do it for the club and national teams. The problem with the above situation is that the team has not taken the Tunisia attackers’ positions into account. Hong is in a position where he can deal with one attacker, but not the second one. Ki Sung-Yueng is also not in a great position to deal with the second attacker as he’s too far wide and not deep enough to get back in time. Kim Young-Gwon’s positioning has taken him completely out of the picture. If Tunisia just had a lone attacker it would be fine, but since there are two attackers either Ki Sung-Yueng or Kim Young-Gwon must take the second player into account. You could also argue that, given the position of the ball, they should take up more defensive positions in the event that the ball was lost.

Hong Jeong-Ho’s positioning must also be called into question, as there’s no reason for him to be so much deeper than his teammates. Besides the obvious space he’s allowing, there’s really no reason for it. Jung Sung-Ryong would serve the same purpose as Hong does in terms of passing options (a backpass to relieve pressure). The only reason for Hong’s deep position is that he doesn’t trust his ability to get back and catch an attacker. Which takes up back to the original point. You can play a high line, but everyone must play it. Or you can play a deeper line, but everyone must play it.

Tactics Point #3 – Transitions

Transitions were the key to the game against Greece, and they were problematic for Korea against Tunisia. Offensively the pace of the transition was pedestrian. Tunisia had far too easy a time getting back into their half and organizing themselves. Korea’s inability, or unwillingness, to push the tempo severely hampers them at this level where team’s much be opportunistic to take the few chances that come along. Going back to the general shape and play of the team, transitions is where those issues were also a problem. Watch the great counterattacking teams (Real Madrid, Chelsea, Liverpool, Dortmund, Bayern) and it’s not a random ‘go-go’ attack. The players have certain roles to fulfill and certain runs to make in different scenarios. Korea does not seem to fully understand that. Additionally, the players who can initiate those moves did not, or chose not, to do so.

Defensively, the organization during transitions were poor at times. The deeper two of Ki Sung-Yueng and Han Kook-Young could not properly screen the defense. Lee Chung-Yong did a decent job getting back while Son Heung-Min was a bit slower. The result was that Tunisia found ample space down the flanks and in the middle between the lines. Korea was probably fortunate that Tunisia lacks the technical and individual ability to exploit those situations.

korea defensive spacing 1As you can see in the image above, there is quite a large gap between the central defenders and central midfielders, by my estimate about 20 meters.You can also see that Tunisia has two players between the lines with space in front of them and no close challengers. Granted, for Tunisia to get the ball to those players in time would be difficult, but it still highlights a problem that Korea had in transitioning back in defense.

Tactics Point #4 – Han Kook-Young

Han Kook-Young had a decent game, but still presents a massive weakness in the team’s offensive output. Han is simply too limited at this point in terms of his passing ability and vision to provide a spark. To have him in the side is fine as he can do the so-called ‘Makelele role’, but it requires the other two central players, Ki Sung-Yueng and Koo Ja-Cheol, to be more dynamic. Both Ki and Koo were slightly too static without the ball, and it made it easier for Tunisia to mark them and keep them out of the dangerous areas.

This may be Korea’s biggest attacking issue, the lack of a player to ‘shuttle’ (or link) the defense and attack. While you can debate whether Koo Ja-Cheol is a midfielder or a forward, he tends to operate more as a forward for the national team, rarely dropping deep to pick up the ball and run at the opposition. Similarly, Ki Sung-Yueng will rarely carry the ball forward on his own, instead preferring to spread the ball from side-to-side, relying on the wide players to get forward. That leaves Han Kook-Young, but again he lacks the technical ability and vision to complete this task.

Tactics Point #5 – Pressing and Counter-Pressing

Korea’s counter-pressing (pressing high up right after they lost the ball) was decent, and on several occasions they won the ball in good positions from Tunisia. As a tactic, it was probably Korea’s most effective strategy, however it didn’t yield any solid results as Korea failed to make the most of their won balls. Yet, as a tactic it was fairly effective. The high counter-press prevented Tunisia from counterattacking effectively, and helped keep Tunisia in their own half.

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The above sequence of images shows one example of Korea’s counterpressing. As soon as they lose the ball, the players begin a very concerted and high intensity press to win the ball back.

Korea’s pressing however, was quite poor, and often resulted in players leaving spaces open. The initial press was fine, but players did not rotate or recover quickly enough to adjust to Tunisia’s ball movement. Usually this is not a problem for Korea, but in general the team’s efforts and energy levels seemed lower than normal.


Low energy levels and individual errors probably cost Korea in this one. The attacking players didn’t have the necessary ‘zip’, either in their movement or passing, to break down a tough Tunisia backline. The defense was unfortunate (slightly) to concede the goal they did, but those small mistakes will almost always be punished at this level. Korea certainly needs to continue to work on eliminating those individual errors before Brazil.

While the initial reaction to the Tunisia game (including from me) was one of doom and gloom, with a little time to reflect and re-examine things there is still promise for a good trip to Brazil. Hopefully, as many others have said, Korea learns from this game and can tweak their system and play accordingly.

About Jae Chee 339 Articles
A football fan who got bit by the writing bug.


    • I understand what you mean, but this team isn’t capable of playing Mourinho-esque football. They’re not physical enough, not disciplined enough, not “dirty” enough. Also, they don’t know how to counterattack (apart from Son Heung-Min).

      • We score a good amount of goals on the counter. I just dont see why we continue to try and play a technical game when we arent very near the required ability to pull it off. We lose the ball way too easily and we have no final third game.

        If we played a Mourinho team with our current team, we’d get schooled everytime. Cherrypicking then moving the ball to the other goal in lightening attack is something I think we could pull off a lot easier than what we’re trying to do now.

        • Do we score many goals on the counter? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Really, Korea should be comfortable playing both ways as the majority of teams will face in Asia are inferior to us. Against the likes of Qatar, UAE, Uzbekistan, China, etc. we can’t expect that teams will just come at us where we could cherrypick the ball off them and score on the break. We’ll need to be able to break down defensive teams.

          Beyond that, again I don’t feel we have the personnel to do counterattacking football. The defense has problems as is, do we really expect that if we have them sit back and encourage pressure that they won’t crack?

          • i gotta agree with jae. he’s right that son is the only natural/skilled counter attacker. I could see LCY and KJC being somewhat of a counter attacker, but not exactly since they haven’t really played that type of role much. Perhaps YSY, but he’s a fullback and we saw not the most accurate of passers. KSY can start the break from the back, but he’s more of a spread the ball and find cracks type rather than a counter attacker.

          • I do hope Mourinho writes a book on his musings one day though because the jist of his tactics are pretty spot on Art of War. He’s got me somewhat convinced right now that his way is the best way even though it might not be the most eye pleasing.

            You guys bring up some good points though.

          • Personally, I don’t think Mourinho’s tactics are that innovative. What he does brilliantly though is prepare his team for every situation they may face in a game. His style (tight at the back, strong in midfield, ruthless in attack) is highly effective but it needs the right personnel to carry it out. Chelsea this past season is a case in point, a lot of good players (like Mata, David Luiz) were put on the sideline as they don’t fit the system. Which goes back to my original point. Korea right now is based around skill/technique players, not power and pace.

  1. Just watched Algeria’s highlights against Armenia. Well… Fuck.
    Even though Armenia isn’t a great footballing side the way Algeria played would destroy korea at the moment.
    We need pace!

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