It wasn’t exactly a compliment when Iran manager Afshin Ghotbi, who had been part of Korea Republic‘s coaching staff for a good part of the last decade, said that the Koreans need to take pride in the way they’ve played football in the past.
Whether by design or accident, the underlying message in Ghotbi’s comment, which came at the aftermath of Korea’s 1-0 loss in Seoul last September, was that change may not be necessary for a team that’s coming off their best World Cup performance on a foreign soil. Korea have always been known for being a blue-collar side, at least outside of Asia, and despite the plethora of young players — the ones whose primary attributes are ball skills and flair — rising to international prominence, changing the face of an entire team’s tactical concept is undeniably a completely different matter as pragmatism has been deeply ingrained in Korea’s football culture for nearly a century.
Make no mistake, Korea have always played proactive, attack-minded football within Asia, but their approach has generally been far more conservative outside of the continent. Perhaps that’s why they’ve struggled to perform up to expectations at continental level as flipping the switch and transforming from a devastatingly pragmatic team at the World Cup to an attacking one playing against opponents that commit ten men behind the ball will inevitably create confusion, particularly over a six-game span of a knock-out tournament.
However, the newly appointed manager Cho Kwang-rae, a long time advocate of skill-based playing style, is trying to bring a change of paradigm to Korean football. He not only aims to lead Korea to Asian Cup glory for the first time since 1960, but he plans to achieve it in style. Cho has declared that while the goal of course is to win the continental championship, the ultimate aim is to instill his philosophy into the team for the long-term.
Projected starting XI
It’s a perplexing situation for Cho Kwang-rae up front as the preeminent striker Park Chu-young will miss the tournament with a knee injury. Initially, part of Cho Kwang-rae’s tactical plan prior to the tournament was deploying the AS Monaco man as a withdrawn striker in a 4-4-1-1 formation, giving him license to play behind the solitary striker — either Ji Dong-won or Yoo Byung-soo — to take the role of spearheading Korea’s attacking load.
Instead, the likely formation now is 4-2-3-1. Cho Kwang-rae has opted to play an additional midfielder as he decided that it’s a bit dicey to have two unproven forwards start in the absence of Park Chu-young. While some may argue that the K-League’s top scorer Yoo Byung-soo should start, it’s worth considering the fact that the Incheon striker has yet to impress in an attacking system other than two up front which is also part of the reason he was omitted from the Asian Games squad last November. Koo Ja-cheol, after impressing in a pair of warm-up friendlies prior to the tournament, will start as the primary playmaker. Supporting him will be Celtic midfielder Ki Sung-yong and Suwon’s new acquisition Lee Yong-rae, with the former likely to be given freedom to go box-to-box and anchor the transition from defense to attack.
Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong, in a positional sense, will be on the wings, but both will look to cut infield to carry playmaking or scoring duties, putting the onus on the full-backs to provide width to the attack. While Lee Young-pyo is more or less an undisguised starter on the left side of the defense, Choi Hyo-jin who has dipped in form and Cha Du-ri who has been struggling with a thigh injury throughout the training camp left Cho Kwang-rae to consider putting central defender Cho Yong-hyung laterally.
Injury to Park Chu-young in the last minute allowed promising young defender Hong Jung-ho, who has been superb in friendlies against Iran and Japan, to snatch the remaining spot in the squad, but a calf injury has ruled out the 21 year old for much of the training camp, forcing Cho Kwang-rae to inherit the same defensive pairing of Lee Jung-soo and Cho Yong-hyung from the World Cup in South Africa last summer. The latter, as mentioned above, will be shifted to the right, leaving room for Kwak Tae-hwi to start. Jung Sung-ryong in all likelihood will retain his starting job between the posts.
Lubricating the mechanism
For all the hype and hoopla about the importance of Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong, two players who hold key roles to Korea’s success in Qatar, at least from a tactical standpoint, are Koo Ja-cheol and Ki Sung-yong. Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong will conspicuously be given the responsibility to realize Cho Kwang-rae’s attacking ambitions, but like any other side around the world, it’s simply impossible for attacking players to be fully utilized without a solidified team system, a strong base that allows star players to flourish.
Using Asian standards as a yardstick, it’s no secret Korea’s squad consists of a set of top level individuals in every position. But it’ll ultimately come down to the deployment of these individuals and how each of them will function in their respective areas on the pitch that will determine what they’ll accomplish together as a team, and the two players who will hold the biggest role in lubricating the mechanism are advanced playmaker Koo Ja-cheol and designated box-to-box midfielder Ki Sung-yong. Korea’s biggest flaw over the course of its recent friendlies under Cho Kwang-rae has been its lack of smooth transition from defense to attack as forwards were helplessly isolated without quality service while physically vulnerable central midfielders were swamped by the opponent. Whether or not Korea can boast a functional system in this tournament will be entirely dependent on how well these two players fulfill their respective roles.
Koo Ja-cheol is expected to be deployed just between the final third and midfield, supporting Ji Dong-won and the two inverted wingers with decisive passes into dangerous areas. Although he has played a deep-lying midfielder for most of his career (e.g. 2009 U-20 World Cup), he has taken a far more attack-minded role for Jeju United and led the K-League last season with 12 assists to prove that he’s more than capable of being a modern day #10. Ji Dong-won will freely shift from wing to wing in order to create space for infield runs of Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong, but this will be effective only if Koo Ja-cheol, as Korea’s attacking machinery, can inject lively passing flow.
Ki Sung-yong’s assignment, while it may not be visibly attractive as the one that’s been given to Koo Ja-cheol, will be just as essential to Korea’s success as he’ll have to anchor the team’s ball movement from back to front. As a archetypal box-to-box man, he’ll not only be required to provide defensive support, but also be asked to explore all of his options in instigating the attack. His options on the ball will include collecting the ball out of the back-four and supplying it to the other end by taking it up himself, catching frontrunners with cross-field passes or getting it to Koo Ja-cheol or one of the two wingers with swift short passes. For over a year, Ki Sung-yong has struggled to make impact for Korea with anything other than his passes, but by recapturing his form over the last few months at Celtic, the midfielder has regained much of the mobility and activity rate he displayed for both Korea and FC Seoul prior to his move to Scotland in Janury 2010. This role will require him to run more than he ever has for Korea, so the higher his statistical figures are in distance covered in every match, the more likely it is that Korea’s tactics will come to fruition in this tournament.
Forward runs of the full-backs
Utilizing both full-backs’ attacking abilities to its capacity, particularly for attack-minded teams, have been a big part of the recent tactical trend across Europe. FC Barcelona, a side which plays against opponents that commit ten men behind the ball seemingly on a weekly basis, have been incorporating the forward runs of their full-backs Dani Alves and Maxwell simultaneously to add width to the attack, allowing the narrow shape formed by their front-three consisting of Lionel Messi, David Villa and Pedro to operate in space as well as providing additional passing options for Andreas Iniesta and Xavi. It’s a risky tactical decision as most sides playing against Barcelona look to exploit them on the counter, but Pep Guardiola consolidates this strategy by drawing the deep-lying midfielder Sergio Busquets even further down the pitch, making him an auxiliary central defender in between Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique to make sure there’s a spare defensive man in the absence of the full-backs who advance forward.
There’s an obvious and evident difference in pedigree between the two sides, but Korea will have to take a similar approach as the shape that’ll be formed by Ji Dong-won, Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong will be extremely narrow. The problem is, as naturally good as Lee Young-pyo may be with bombing the left wing, his end product doesn’t come close to being as prolific as Alves or even Maxwell. While Cho Yong-hyung does have the ability to pick out passes, his lack of pace and explosiveness as well as the fact that he’s naturally a central defender makes it hard to believe that he can be relied upon to be someone who he has never been. The decision to play Cho Yong-hyung at right-back is a questionable one to say the least in the first place as he has neither pace nor one on one defending skills which are two of a full-back’s primary necessities.
Nonetheless, given Korea’s narrow shape in midfield and up front, the full-backs will have to make darting runs on both wings to spread the opposing defense as much as possible. Their inability to provide quality service into the box will have to be negated by other methods. It’s indeed a huge plus for Korea that all three of their central midfielders are capable of shooting from distance and if the advancement of the full-backs drag an opposing player or two to wide positions, that will allow the likes of Koo Ja-cheol and Ki Sung-yong more space to shoot on goal, which may or may not become goals directly, but will surely help drag the defense out of the box even further, allowing the front-three even more space to do their damage.
Front-three’s free-flowing movement
Cho Kwang-rae has made no secret in instructing his front-three players to constantly swap positions to create space and to drag opposing defenders out of position. Against Syria last week, even 196cm Kim Shin-wook often found himself drifting wide to swap positions with Kim Bo-kyung and Lee Chung-yong. So with Ji Dong-won, a finesse player, occupying the solitary striker role, he’ll constantly move from wing to wing, sometimes even deep down into midfield while one of Park Ji-sung or Lee Chung-yong will cut infield to dictate plays and get into scoring positions.
Off the bench, the number one option is likely to be Son Heung-min of Hamburg SV. The 18 year old was impressive in his international debut against Syria last week and his pace and shooting will provide a spark should Korea’s attack seem sluggish. Cho Kwang-rae started the second half of the friendly against Syria with a 4-4-2 with Son Heung-min and Ji Dong-won up front, and the two youngsters were consistently drifting wide to directly switch positions with Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong which seemed to inject some much needed life into what seemed to be a dreadful Korean attack in the first half.
Yoon Bitgaram is another candidate to come off the bench as the designated game-changer. The Gyeongnam midfielder, at least in terms of playing entry passes into the box and creating direct scoring chances, is both ahead of Koo Ja-cheol and Ki Sung-yong. It was his decisive passing in the final third which proved to be crucial when Korea came back from being down 3-1 to beat Iran at the Asian Games in November.
Kim Bo-kyung, a wide player on the left who practically plays as a second striker, is likely to see some playing time as well.
The moment of truth for Korea
The Koreans are going into the Asian Cup under unusual circumstances. They’re undoubtedly in a “win now” situation as they look to lift the Asian Cup for the first time in 51 years, but at the same time, they also look to use this tournament as a springboard to finally become a side that can competitively play skilled-based football against the best in the world at senior level on a consistent basis.
If they can come out triumphant, Korea can very well claim with their new-look football that they’re on the right track with their goal of becoming a top level side. Should they fall short, however, it’ll not only be yet another setback, but it’ll also put the possibility of them ever developing into a skill-based team in immediate question.