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Still experiencing World Cup withdrawals six months after the fact? Fear not, dear reader, for while it may be another three and half awful years before the World Cup returns, the Asian Football Confederation has rewarded our suffering with the return of the Asian Cup.
With action set to kick off on January 9th, Just Football will be covering the tournament, starting with detailed previews of all 16 competitors. Next on the list: South Korea.
Previously – The 2015 Asian Cup’s host nation, Australia.
By Tim Lee
South Korea: The Basics
Country: The Republic of Korea (better known as South Korea)
Group: A – with Australia, Oman, Kuwait
Asian Cup History: Champions (1956, 1960), Runners-Up (1972, 1980, 1988)
The story line
The South Korean National Team is traditionally a powerhouse in Asian football, and the facts don’t lie – nine World Cup qualifications, eight of them consecutive, and the first Asian team to reach the World Cup semi-finals. You would think that this success would translate into continental championships, however, that’s not the case.
The Asian Cup remains an important but frustratingly elusive tournament for the Taeguk Warriors and their demanding fan base. In fact, the South Koreans have only taken the Asian crown twice – in 1956 and 1960. In both years, the runners-up were lowly Israel. Since winning the first two editions of Asia’s continental showcase, the Koreans have come up painfully short for 55 years and counting.
Captain Ki Sung-Yueng and his teammates are attempting to bring an end to this drought. However, it will not be an easy feat. On the back of a terrible World Cup, which saw the Taeguk Warriors luckily draw with Russia before succumbing to underdogs Algeria and a Belgium side who finished the game with 10-men, Koreans have grown disenchanted with their national team’s exploits.
It didn’t stop them from calling for the head of the legendary Hong Myung-Bo, who captained the famous 2002 World Cup side. Hong, who was appointed as manager of the KNT in mid-2013, was forced to resign after the Brazil debacle.
Despite all that angst, a new dawn is approaching for the Korean national team, and their slogan for this tournament is “Time for Change”. However, with little time to regroup and rebuild under a new manager after a poor showing at Brazil, Korean fans will wonder if they will see a positive change in results mere months into new manager Uli Stielike’s tenure.
What to expect
The call-ups for the national team reveal an obvious flaw – a lack of depth at centre-forward. The Koreans play in a rather fluid 4-2-3-1 formation on paper, which we’ll get into later, but the lone striker is a position the KNT have failed to fill.
Lee Dong-Gook, 35 years young, was the top scorer in the 2014 K-League. But he’s injured, as is Kim Shin-Wook, the towering center-forward now known as the “Korean Crouch”. Ji Dong-Won has been battling injuries all-season long at Borussia Dortmund, and the once-feared Park Chu-Young now finds himself struggling at Al-Shabab, in Saudi Arabia, after a disastrous few years at Arsenal. Now, take your pick of strikers!
In the end, Stielike called up Lee Keun-Ho, Cho Young-Cheol and Lee Jung-Hyub as his center forwards. Lee Keun-Ho has great work rate but struggles to finish while Cho and Lee Jung-Hyub are inexperienced and virtually unknown.
The expectations back in Korea are not very high, and understandably so. After the disappointing World Cup result, fans understand that Stielike has had little time to prepare his squad, and the general consensus is, “Yes, the tournament has come too soon.”
With a lack of offensive options and a national team with glaring flaws, including the inability to break down defensively-sound opponents, it will be difficult – not impossible, but difficult – for the Koreans to make a run to the final. A semi-final spot is something South Korea would be very happy this early into a new World Cup cycle.
The tactics of the Korean national team have varied incredibly depending on their manager. 2011 Asian Cup manager Cho Kwang-Rae instituted a possession-based totaalvoetbal system, which led to some peculiar call-ups. After a poor start to World Cup qualifying, he was dismissed in favor of Choi Kang-Hee, a successful K-League manager who wanted his teams to play more directly, with Cho’s short passing giving way to Choi’s long ball.
Uli Stielike’s approach resembles in many ways that of 2014 World Cup manager Hong Myung-Bo. The formation on paper is a 4-2-3-1, and Korea’s buildup is slow and patient. Ki Sung-Yueng and his partner, be it Han Kook-Young or Park Joo-Ho, make up the double-six.
Korea often penetrate the attacking third with diagonal balls being the method of choice, however, Stielike wants the KNT to play more centrally. In the friendly against Iran, the ever-dangerous wingers Son Heung-Min and Lee Chung-Yong often cut into the midfield for passing options. The fullbacks often push high up the pitch to compensate, with the ever-energetic Cha Du-Ri on the right side.
As for the infamous center forward position, it seems that Stielike is opting for Cho Young-Cheol. Cho is a newcomer to the national team scene and is to be utilised as a false nine, loading the centre of the pitch with wingers Son and Lee C.Y. also drifting inside. As alternatives, Stielike could also opt for the hold-up play of Lee Jung-Hyub or the work rate of Lee Keun-Ho.
However, as we saw in the Iran friendly this November, a defensively-sound team can simply drop deep and hit Korea on the counter, as the fullbacks tend to leave a lot of space behind them. This could be a spot of concern for Korea as group opponents Oman and Kuwait will certainly attempt to do this against the Koreans. The question remains if the Taeguk Warriors can break down their counterparts.
Ulrich “Uli” Stielike, aged 60 years old, had an illustrious playing career. He was affectionately known as “The Stopper” for his aptitude in the sweeper role for Real Madrid. Stielike was also named on four occasions as the “Best Foreign Player” in La Liga in the late seventies and early eighties.
But despite his experience on the playing field, he is relatively inexperienced as a manager. His most recent positions saw him at the helm of Al-Arabi and Al-Sailiya, in the Qatari League, before joining the South Korean national team.
However, one could make a case that he was the man behind Germany’s “Golden Generation”, as he led several German national youth sides in the early 2000s. His work bore fruit as that generation of players went on to win the FIFA World Cup this past summer.
Ki Sung-Yueng is South Korea’s key player, and not necessarily because of the (in this case, intentional) pun. Simply put, Ki makes Korea tick. His calm, reassuring presence in defensive midfield and his near perfect passing helps initiate Korean attacks, and he is a threat to score from long-range.
Lee Chung-Yong is a highly skilled player who operates on the right as a winger on paper. He has been stellar for Bolton Wanderers this season in a more central role under Neil Lennon. And considering he plays for a national team which sees a fluid interchange between the wingers and the number 10, this change could work in the 26 year-old’s favor.
Also look for Cha Du-Ri – the right-back is an energetic, hard-working player who often gets up the pitch into attacking situations. The 34-year-old has European experience (in fact, he was born in Germany), and is the son of the legendary Cha Bum-Kun. Cha Jr.’s crosses are often on the mark and although this is his last Asian Cup due to age, you wouldn’t know it by his pace and strength.
One to watch
Son Heung-Min. The 22 year-old ise Korea’s next superstar after the retirement of the legendary Park Ji-Sung. After 20 goals in 78 appearances for Hamburger SV, Son moved to Bayer Leverkusen. There, he is clearly in his element, with 11 goals this season alone. With his blistering pace and lethal finishing ability, Son has the ability to wreak havoc against slower opposition.
You may not know…
Only five of South Korea’s call-ups ply their trade in the domestic K-League. This is the lowest amount of domestic league-based call-ups among all 16 Asian Cup teams. This stat may make it seem like more Koreans are plying their trade in European leagues and gaining valuable experience, but, on the contrary, more than half of the Korean national team are property of Middle Eastern, Chinese or Japanese clubs.
There’s no denying that South Korea still has a talented group of individuals. However, this tournament has come too soon and at the wrong time for the KNT for them to be considered cup favourites.
With a relatively inexperienced manager entering after a disastrous 2014 World Cup campaign, it’s difficult to imagine the Koreans going all the way. That being said South Korea should easily qualify from their group – after which, a run to the semi-finals isn’t out of the question.
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Photo courtesy of the Republic of Korea via Flickr.