Tavern Preview: South Korea vs Saudi Arabia 2023 AFC Asian Cup Round of 16 [updated with 3/5 back starting XI]

Update 4: full match recap here


Update! We are playing a 3/5 back. It appears to me like a 3-4-3 / 5-2-3. Ironically, Saudi Arabia also started out playing 4 back before switching to 3/5 back to better fit Mancini’s tactics.


This has the potential to be a great idea to be honest, and I truly applaud Klinsmann for recognizing that the old formation really wasn’t working. Thank you. After all if we do what we did against Malaysia and expect it to work against the Saudis, we’re gonna lose. That’s obvious. And maybe we have less players attacking, but our attacking players here are MORE than enough on paper to dismantle Saudi Arabia.

I suspect that LKI and JWY won’t be hugging the touchline anymore but instead being more central and helping press players. If we play our cards right this can most definitely rectify the issues that we’ve had (described below) in the group stages. In the absence of Hwang Hee Chan (who was seen in training wearing bandages on both knees, more on that later), Son Heung Min’s role will be more than important. In this role, in theory SHM should be able to focus purely on attacking and linebreaking. As Saudi Arabia plays a high line with very attacking football, it makes absolute sense to take out a CF and put SHM up top to let SHM do what he does best.

That being said, Korea has never played 3-4-3 before. The last time I remember us playing a three back was the 2018 World Cup vs Germany, though I’m sure we’ve tried it under Bento too. This time rather than JHS as the central CB, we have Kim Min Jae, which should be an enormous upgrade and I would think would give Kim Min Jae a lot of room to defend the way he wants freely and run up and down, intercepting balls and putting in through balls to SHM as he so often does. Surely they’ve practiced this in training this year… right? Right…? Either way this will be really interesting. I have no idea how this will go, but I have an idea that we’ll see AT LEAST one Son Heung Min goal, likely assisted by Lee Kang In. That connection, if used correctly, should be an absolute cheat code in the Asian football sphere.

One other interesting point here (besides the formation) is that Hwang Hee Chan doesn’t seem to be in the best condition yet, which is worrisome – that’s perhaps another reason why we went with this lineup (as opposed to a SHM – HHC two top). The Korean media all reported that HHC and Kim Jin Su would be OK to start, this game but perhaps not. I really hope HHC can come back against Australia – if we win this, we only get two days of rest.

Let’s go Korea. We can do this.

I spent the last few days in a mild state of rage and despair seeing our insanely talented team playing so poorly and making the exact same mistakes over and over again with seemingly no intent to correct these tactical weaknesses. Well I guess after every match Klinsmann says “we will improve” but conceding so many goals in the exact same fashion doesn’t make his words too convincing. Anyway, I got exhausted and said screw it to that post. A lot of Korean football Youtubers did the same, saying things like “what’s the point of analyzing the game if we’re just going to repeat the same things over and over again?”

But a preview of Saudi Arabia is due, better late than never. I’ll make this brief.

Overall I’m not too optimistic of winning this. Normally this should be an easy victory for us but after having to come from behind and settling for a draw with Jordan and Malaysia, things seem more difficult for us. They have Roberto Mancini who orchestrated Italy’s 2020 Euro victory – we have Jurgen Klinsmann. Enough said. Anyway, let’s break down very briefly (since it’s already 12 hours before the match) how Saudi Arabia plays, why they might score lots against us, and why we might score against them.

Saudi Arabia: from looking at their highlights in the tournament so far as well as our friendly with them in September in which we won 1-0, I can make the following observations about Saudi Arabia

They play a 5-3-2 with very high wingbacks. They are one of the most offensively oriented teams in Asia with quite the high defensive line – on par with us and Japan. It’s a very different dynamic compared to playing against Malaysia, Jordan, or Bahrain’s low block. They press super hard as well. They also play quite centrally with only the two fullbacks hugging the touch line for width (take note Klinsmann – you don’t need the FBs, HHC, AND LKI all out wide). Would be good to pack the midfield against this team.

Their positional play, facilitated by Al Dawsari in a seemingly “free role,” is excellent. They pass and move the ball, dragging out defenders and creating space for Al Dawsari and others to exploit. Kanno in particular seems good at taking up the space left by Al Dawsari. This is going to be an extremely big issue for us because our team ALWAYS leaves ACRES of space in the middle just ahead of the defensive line for the entire opposition midfield to exploit. Look at Malaysia’s first goal and Bahrain’s first goal. It’s the exact same situation, exact same issue. There’s too much space in front of our defensive line and we concede. Saudi Arabia are going to exploit this hard. We conceded lots of chances to them this way in September, and in the way they’re scoring goals this tournament, it’s evident to see that unless we rectify this issue we will struggle and probably lose.

There isn’t too much of a difference between their team from September and now. They played a 4 back against us, now they play 3/5. But one thing remains the same – the way they attack as described above, and the fact that pretty much their entire starting XI plays for either Al Nassr or Al Hilal. Their entire backline (four of the five) plays for Al Hilal. That’s a HUGE benefit in terms of getting everyone on the same wavelength and working together as a unit.

Also Saudi Arabia did the far more normal thing and actually rotated their team on the last day. They have an extra day of rest on us too. If we were gonna draw against Malaysia anyway we should’ve rotated too .. scratch that we should’ve done it regardless. The Korea B team is absolutely more than good enough to beat Malaysia. And if it meant going away from the Klinsmann style 4-2-4, then they prob would’ve been more likely to beat Malaysia.

What am I hoping Klinsmann will do (but probably won’t)

ADD MORE PLAYERS IN THE MIDFIELD AND STOP AFFORDING OUR OPPONENTS ACRES OF SPACE. TIGHTEN THE SPACE BETWEEN THE ATTACK AND DEFENSE. You cannot offer Saudi Arabia so much space in the middle as we did against all three of our group stage opponents. I am praying that this will change as now we are playing stronger opposition, but I am not even confident on this. Because this was an issue back in September as well – when we started seeing the 4-4-2 for the first time with so much space in the middle for anyone to work with, isolating the defensive line too hard. A 4-4-2 itself is not the problem. Plenty of teams do it. Aston Villa now, Atletico Madrid back in the day come to mind. If we stick to the usual lineup, which we probably will, I hope that Lee Kang In will not be hugging the touchline so far up, but rather more in the R half space in midfield, letting the RB to do the touchline business. LKI shined for Mallorca and became the focal point of the team’s attack because he was given the freedom to both play out wide but also join in the midfield and drive the ball up when need be. He is not doing that for us, and it’s very evident Klinsmann is not using Lee Kang In properly. He can do so much – but he is relegated to too rigid of a position – or so I think. What do I know I’m no tactician. But this way we are not going to be so barren in the middle – Hwang In Beom and Park Yong Woo can together cover much more ground than only one (or often times none of them) in the middle, denying Saudi Arabia the space to attack.

One more thing – Saudi Arabia plays a high line (maybe not so high against us) and plays a three back so conventional logic would tell us that Son Heung Min and Hwang Hee Chan will be ridiculously important in this setup. They are world class line-breakers in the Premier League competing for top scorer with 22 goals between them. A killer pass from Kang In could set any of them on goal. They are faster than any Saudi defender and should be able to beat any of them one v one. If Cho Gue Sung starts, which he likely will, he could still help by dragging defenders out to create space for HHC and SHM. He did this well against Saudi Arabia last time when he was in better form. But a SHM one top would be really nice as well, with HHC and LKI out wide and HIB, PYW, and either Hong Hyeon Seok or Lee Jae Sung in the midfield. Because Hwang and Son will be the main characters tomorrow I think.

So I would advocate for a 4-3-3. But regardless of whether we lineup with 4-4-2, regardless of whether we play Cho Gue Sung or not, I want us to have better balance in the midfield and better spacing between the front line and the backline. What I REALLY REALLY REALLY do not want to see is us playing 4 player super high, pushing the fullbacks up super high, and being EXTREMELY exposed defensively. We do not need to push 4 players super high in a three back system, and we do not have the personnel (3-4 Kim Min Jaes) to make this work. I thought we would have learned our lesson after the match against Jordan and Bahrain but we clearly did not. I seriously think Son and Hwang alone up top running behind the three CBs with Lee Kang In in support, and having everyone else in the midfield – JUST THIS CHANGE – should see us win comfortably. With this attack we should be able to score multiple goals against anybody. The issue is – can we prevent Saudi Arabia from scoring? If we make the same mistakes that we did against all the other teams, we will lose.

About Jinseok 260 Articles
Diehard Korean football fan. https://www.taegukwarriors.com/jinseoks-story/


  1. What we learned from this match: Never play back 3 again. Heechan needs to start every game. Son should play as main striker. Midfield should be double pivot of Park Yong Woo / Hwang In Beom and Hong as CAM.

    Heechan / Hong / Kangin
    Yongwoo / HIB
    Seol / KYG / KMJ / KTH

  2. Lol did you just post the Jo Hyeon Woo meme and go to sleep?

    Can’t wait for your write up on this!

    Cho Gue Sung – I love a redemption story, stfu haters. He was back to his ways. Chilly and aggressive.

    Also Hwang Hee Chan is not to be messed with. We need that bulldog mentality

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