The Experts: Reflections and Repercussions of Korea vs Sweden

We at the Tavern have sought to provide you with all of our analysis on the match that was Korea vs Sweden. However, we’re just humble writers. Those who are able to offer unique perspectives on the match – and its repercussions on the matches to come – can give us a newer angle to better understand the 1-0 result. Joining us to give their managerial, player and journalistic angles are international manager Steve Darby, MLS youth product Seo-In Kim and reputed journalist Steve Han.

What are your general thoughts on the Korea-Sweden match?

Steve Darby: I think you had two teams that were very similar, both athletic and powerful with minimum flair, with Son Heung-min perhaps being the greatest flair player on the pitch. I think they almost cancelled each other out and the VAR decision was the crucial factor. It must be remembered that this is the toughest group in the World Cup and there are 6 more points available. The Korean media and social media appears very negative and this is infectious. The nation should be proud of their team and support them.

Seo-In Kim: I think Korea’s first mistake was playing with a conservative mindset and implementing a game plan based around the Swedish team instead of focusing on our own strengths; we should have used a system that supported our dynamic attackers and made Sweden sit back on their heels. Korea’s philosophy was reinforced by a negative of not being “scored on first”, which caused the team to play scared and make nervous mistakes. Playing with aggression, confidence and to our attacking strengths was going to be the only way we were going to be successful in this tournament. I personally think the tactics are what caused us the most problems and it was frustrating to see our quality players struggle to even get the ball or have decent service. We had Son, our best player, defending alongside our back 4 throughout the match and that’s not we needed to score. We definitely made the game easy for Sweden.

Steve Han: In all honesty, the 1-0 scoreline is respectable given how the KFA has operated this team over the last six to seven years. That being said, I’m of the opinion that the manager and the players did themselves no favor by handicapping themselves out of fear and settling for fighting against losing rather than playing their own game. Son mentioned that the defensive tactics had to be used, because in his own words, “Korea isn’t at a level to attack opponents at the World Cup” which was really hard to hear for someone like me who’s followed this team for over two decades now.

There have been times in the past when the national team was much weaker than it is now in terms of individual talents, and yet, no player in the 90s ever suggested that Korea is too weak to try to win games at the World Cup. It seems like the consensus within the team is that the way they lined up against Sweden was the most “realistic” way to try and win, but I really think both Shin and the players should be asking themselves, “Did we really try to win? Or were we just scared of losing and the backlash that could come from it?”

What kind of preparation goes into playing a defensive mindset (both as a coach and as a player)?

Steve Darby: Sometimes you have to be realistic… if you attack teams you can get picked off and the opposition can score more easily. If you defend and keep the opposition to minimum goals you always have a chance. Sometimes you have no choice in defending! Such as in the Laos v Korea World Cup Qualifier we just couldn’t get the ball out of our half. We were physically dominated and technically Korea were better players.

That being said, Korea losing 4 good players to injury meant that finding goals was always going to be hard to come by. However, this is an Asian problem as most Asian leagues have foreign strikers, and so local strikers just don’t get the time on the pitch to improve.

Seo-In Kim: I’ve personally struggled with situations where a coach wanted me to defend all game and specifically man-mark a player. It takes a lot of focus and grit to stay in tune the entire match, so I know it wasn’t easy for the Korean squad to do. Its extremely taxing, mentally and physically. With that being said, i think that a defensive system in that particular fashion is counter-intuitive because you spend the entire game worrying about their doings. When you’re committed to an aggressive attacking style, you are able to play freely and cause more problems for the opposing team.

Why was Shin Tae-yong so negative? Do you think this newfound conservatism of Shin’s was affected by the pressure of fans or the administration in any way?

Steve Han: I might have tweeted about this a couple of weeks ago, but Shin said after the U-20 World Cup last year that Korean football will never progress if the national team bunker down and only play defense in international tournaments. I’ve really come to respect Shin exactly because of that attitude, so I’m really curious to know what it is that inspired him to make such a radical decision. I don’t think it was the outside pressure that affected his decision to get the team to play this way. I think it was a decision he made internally after holding discussions with the players, many of whom have clearly lost confidence in themselves.

After a demoralizing defeat like this, what kind of dynamic do you think Shin TY is facing at training camp? How does one, as manager with their staff, approach these kinds of situations?

Steve Darby: I think the biggest issue will be team morale or team spirit. In this space of time a coach cannot get the players fitter or technically better. All they can do is get their heads into a positive frame of mind and work on team organization – especially set pieces. That is an area Korea must maximize. So there must be leadership from the coach and senior players, as well as organization practice at training.

A lot of national team fans were turned off before the match; now they will be even more disillusioned. Is that a good or bad thing for the team (and Korean football in general, in some way)?

Steve Han: It’s a terrible thing. Most Koreans will tell outsiders that while domestic football may not be popular in the country, national team football is. I personally think that’s an ignorant statement at worst and misinformation at best, because the national team has lost their popularity years ago. The Red Devils didn’t even organize a trip to Russia for the World Cup. This reality that Korea doesn’t have an organized traveling supporters group for a World Cup was unthinkable 10 years ago. The fan base for football in Korea has never been big to begin with, but it’s smaller than ever now. Last thing the national team needs is another reason for the general population to lose even more interest. People have to realize that the KFA and the national team losing public interest has severe consequences on their revenue stream, as they rely heavily on their sponsors, which in turn will inevitably hurt the game in the country starting from the grassroots level.

A slightly non-specific question: Son Heung-min has previously grumbled a lot about not getting service from his teammates (though he didn’t do it on Monday). As a teammate, is it annoying or motivating to have a player like that that demands better from the team?

Seo-In Kim: I think Son has every right to keep his teammates accountable. He’s been at the top level and he clearly knows what it takes to win and score goals. I, personally, would be very motivated to assist in any way that I could in hopes of winning the match. Being a professional is about keeping yourself held to a certain standard, so I would never perceive it as annoying.

Do we stand any chance against Mexico and Germany? What has to change?

Steve Darby: I think the biggest issue is mentality. When Korea play in Asia they are confident and almost arrogant, but when they play other world opposition they appear to have an “inferiority complex” and don’t play to their strengths. This is crazy as they have world class players in Ki and Son. You don’t play every week in the Premier League or the Bundesliga if you are not world class.

If I have to be honest, I can’t see Germany playing as badly again, but perhaps Mexico can’t play as well again!

Seo-In Kim: Mexico and Germany are top class teams that can really play & dictate games. It’ll be tough to break down Mexico’s confidence and momentum at this moment. But if I know one thing, it’s that Koreans are fighters and they’ll make sure to give it their all for their Country. I definitely still believe we can make it out of group stages; we really have nothing to lose so hopefully they come out with some fiery passion and cause the upsets we need. I believe we can do it, anything can happen in the World Cup.

Steve Han: Anyone who’s followed this team through the 90s like I have will know that this is not an unfamiliar territory. Those teams back then would get off to a bad start at the World Cup, mainly due to lack of experience and shortage of proven talents, but they always found ways to put up a much better fight once they realized that they had nothing to lose. Then again, that’s when social media and Naver detgeul didn’t exist, which made it easier for them to block out distractions. These players today are clearly being affected by those things more than necessary. People talk about how there needs to be a cultural change in the Korean football landscape as a whole, but I think what’s just as imperative is a culture change within the team itself. When I was covering Mexico, there was a Spaniard staff member traveling with their team, whose job title was literally “mental coach” and he served as something of a counselor for the players. I think someone like that, if utilized properly within the team, could do wonders for Korea.


Steve Darby is the former manager of the Laos national team. Follow him on Twitter.

Seo-In Kim is a Sporting KC Youth Product and played NCAA soccer at Duke University and UC Santa Barbara. Follow him on Twitter.

Steve Han is a Korean football journalist for Goal Korea. Follow him on Twitter.

About Tim Lee 321 Articles
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  1. It’s going to be a hack job. Koreans are going to get physically dirty (dirtier than with Sweden). Mexico is definitely going to retaliate. I predict at least 1 hard Red and 1 Red through accumulation from Korea. It’s going to be a stain on Korean soccer. Against the Germans they’ll just park a bus and look for the exits the entire time.

    • Keno, no way. I can’t support you on this one. Come on man no way! So I am an eternal optimist and you can call me on that. But, I just do not see a hard red or 2 yellows from any Korean player. We aren’t that type of hard fouling team and won’t play like that. When have we ever played dirty? Please tell me if there was a time when that happened. The only yellow I can see from Korea against Mexico is Lee Seung-woo getting in the face of a Mexican player twice his size with some ridiculous Spanish banter. I am calling that one. Lee SW makes us proud by taking a yellow for arguing with a Mexican to get into his head.

      Against Germany I could see us parking the bus but I could also see us trying to unleash Lee Seung-woo, Son and Hwang on the counter just as Chucky, Chicarito and co ran wild over Germany. This team is not going to play like they played against Sweden and Steve Han made a great point as to why. They’ve messed up already and now they’ll fight and play like there’s nothing to lose.

      • Two yellows from accumulation from the last game so they have to miss the last match. We’ve played chippy- some might say dirty in the past. V. Japan in the London Olympics. V. Italy in 2002. Maybe dirty has too much negative connotations, maybe I should say they played with heavier aggression?

        • I mean sure there’s definitely potential for some nasty fouls. Jang Hyun-soo probably for sure, Ko Yo-han if he plays may also get a few challenges in. But it’s true that we’re not really much of a chippy side or have a hard tackler / destroyer in the team.

  2. Whoa, there were so many intelligent, well thought out points in this article, thank you very much for this! I’m not an expert like the 3 interviewed in the article, but when I think back to the way the KMNT defended in WC 2010 & WC 2014, I can understand why the players were concerned about defense. I think it can be easy to say “we should have attacked more & played to our strengths, etc” and I can’t deny that. But that’s just 1 aspect of the game. The biggest achilles heel in my 24 years of watching the KMNT at the WC has clearly been defense, with GKing being 2nd. I know people should just focus in on the moment, I get that, but there is a consistent, recurring pattern of behaviour that has torpedoed this team since Mexico 1986 and that clearly has been defending.

    If what Steve Han said is more or less true, and that the players have lost confidence in themselves, then I suppose some of that has to be put on the shoulders of the manager. However the manager was hired 2 matches before qualification ended, and although he had about a year to whip this team into shape, seems like this has been a culmination of say since 2012-today. I refuse to believe that STY doesn’t know, as a football professional, how to line up a team and read the game at field level. What he doesn’t have is a depth pool of players to extract from, to provide him good options that can reasonably compete against above average/elite teams.

    Couple of other points I’d like to make as a non-expert:

    A) I remember watching the KMNT @ 2006 WC, and noticed the same players from the 2002 team (Son Chong Gug, Choi Jin Cheul, Ahn Jung Hwan, Kim Nam Il, etc), looked way slower. IMO they played their best game against Switzerland, which they lost, but looked good only in spurts. The drop off was very noticeable and should have been a warning sign. 2002 was a flash in the pan, with special circumstances, and that investment/blueprint/strategy/plan was going to be required to keep up.

    B) In 2010 I noticed that the skill level of many of the players on offense had risen considerably, and they had some really exciting moments, goals, and play going forward. But they were a tire fire defensively, except for the 1st game against Greece. That should have also been a warning sign. It’s nice to attack and go forward, but keeping the ball out of the net is as important as scoring.

    C) Although countries can be good at multiple sports, can anyone name a single World Cup winner that doesn’t have soccer/football as the clear #1 sport? Baseball is fine, but if it continues to be #1 in S.Korea, that’s another hurdle the KFA have to jump over.

    D) With Iceland being competitive, there’s no longer an excuse to say that you can’t compete (doesn’t mean winning, just going toe/toe with any of your opponents). But it’s clear they invested and identified a need to flood the country with licensed coaches. Question is, does the KFA want to do this? Do they want to try & really plan out a strategy & seriously invest in grassroots development, and initiate the formation of a real football culture? Time will tell.

    • Glad you enjoyed reading the post as much as I did editing it. Some really good voices on here.I agree that the narrative of “we should have attacked more” is great in hindsight, but I really don’t think anyone expected Korea to give Sweden this much respect. This was STY’s decision and he has to accept the responsibility for it. Would Kim Min-woo have made that foul? Maybe not, but we were on bought time after Cho’s save, KYG’s interceptions, etc…

      As for team confidence, obviously the injuries didn’t help, but it’s actually a little inexplicable to me. We had some winnable friendly opponents and experimented a lot / played funny tactics / were clearly jetlagged. A lot of it is the quality of the preparation work we don’t see, I guess. And the fitness of the players, something we also don’t really get to follow up on.

      Obviously Korea is no soccer country but like it or not the success of the sport largely hinges on the national team. There will always be UCL, K League, etc., but the national team is the one avenue to connect to casual fans and expand the base. We’re not looking for a World Cup but obviously by looking at the Iceland model (of which Korea has lots to learn) and things that have worked in European nations there is something wrong with Korean football (why do we do so well in youth tournaments U-20/U-23 but drop off so dramatically at senior level?) with regards to development. And that’s a fixable problem that’s got nothing to do with the popularity of baseball.

  3. I honestly think Shin might have pulled through with his tactic vs Sweden. The way I saw it, attack in the first 15(perhaps trying to catch them off guard) and last 15(when the swedish team is tired) and counter attack during the rest of the game. But I think Shin got his player choice wrong, Kim Shin Wook CANNOT counter attack. And Koo Ja Chul releases the ball way to slow or misses the correct pass timing skill for a counter attack.

    As for Mexico and Germany, chances are slim. But I’d like to support the korean team in the hopes that they do well.

  4. I’m not sure that this is the toughest group anymore. I think the end of this tournament will prove me right, but we’ll see. I’m thinking Group B, C, D, and G are pretty damn tough.

    SK is just not a good team right now, and we probably would have crashed out of any of the groups (except maybe Group A? If we had been in Saudi Arabia’s place we might have had a shot to get through) – just my opinion. I just hope the KFA gets that and doesn’t blame the “tough group”. We gotta change a lot of things and not make excuses.

    I also don’t think 1-0 is a good scoreline against Sweden- they are not a scoring team, and granted it was a PK but it was their first goal in months. 0-0 as a good scoreline is fine, but any end result where they have more goals than us is really sad.

    Not blaming the players- I love the players, and I really don’t mean to be negative. I’m blaming the coach and the KFA! Bad, bad leadership all around. Steve’s last point is so true- the players need positive reinforcement, like Mexico’s “mental coach,” and I personally suspect it needs to come from a non-Korean source.

  5. I’m not sure if it’s just me but if I remember correctly, Korea have never beaten any opponent during 2nd match on group stages. I want our team to win but a draw is more realistic against Mexico. I hope the game doesn’t get as calamitous as Algeria match four years prior…

  6. Actually, being overly confident and overly insecure are two sides of the same coin. There’s no reason to be one or the other. But both qualities can be found coming from the same person, and in our case, the same team.

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