Park Ji-sung cut a frustrated figure as he left the pitch at Sangam World Cup stadium on Tuesday night. The national team captain had been battered by an aggressive Iranian midfield and came away with little to show for his effort but for his bruises and the echoes of his complaints to an uninterested referee. Perhaps more disappointing to the Manchester United workhorse was the inefficacy of the Cho Kwang-Rae‘s formation, an attack-minded 3-4-1-2, despite all of the pre-match hype about breathing strategic novelty and elegance into the Korean game. While a similar tactic had worked against a lackluster Nigeria, a compact Iranian side, displaying aggressive pressure and determination, exposed glaring deficiencies in almost all areas of the pitch. While the ramifications of the match were about what you would expect for a friendly, the loss, nonetheless, highlighted some serious areas of concern ahead of the Asian Cup — in particular, Cho’s player selection.
From the infancy of his tenure as national team manager, Cho has made it a point to emphasize the fact that he intends to bring about a transition from the older generation of World Cup 2006 to the younger generation of World Cup 2014. Against Nigeria, Cho sparked a media blitz by calling up several promising youngsters such as Ji Dong-won (Jeonnam Dragons) and Yoon Bitgaram (Gyeongnam FC), a player Cho himself has nurtured at his former club. In defense, Cho picked out towering 21-year old Hong Jeong-ho (Jeju United) and imposing 20-year old Kim Young-kwon (FC Tokyo) as having considerable potential as national team defenders. While some raised speculation as to whether or not the players were experienced enough to merit consideration, Cho remained adamant that it was the right move and a necessary step in making progress towards transition. This time around, however, there was not so much a criticism of the inexperience of some of the youngsters being selected as question marks regarding the players selected and their respective roles within the team. With only Seok Hyeon-joon (Ajax) and Park Ju-young (AS Monaco) called up as forwards, the message was clear that the teamsheet would emphasize the strength and versatility of midfield and that the attack would rest on the potent, fluid triumverate of Park Ji-sung, Lee Chung-yong and Park Ju-young.
However, Cho’s adherence to and self-belief in the 3-4-1-2 formation has consequently hamstringed the current national selection. After the loss against Iran, it became patently obvious that finishing continues to be a persistent problem while lingering questions have been raised over the current selections for positions that have not been challenged for in recent memory, including Lee Young-pyo’s favored left-back slot. The Iran match served as an excellent opportunity to blood some of the more inexperienced players in and while defense saw two potential starlets step up, there was a sense that attacking positions could have used an infusion of fresher faces. Case in point, two strikers who have continued their excellent rookie performances in the K-League, Incheon United’s aggressive Yoo Byung-soo and Gangwon FC’s intelligent Kim Young-hoo, were yet again missing in action from Cho’s initial 22-man roster. The former, currently leading the goalscoring charts with Jeonbuk’s Enio Olivieria Junior (“Eninho”), is unlike many national team forwards in that his lack of versatility is also his strongest point — his physical, powerful game is suited towards pure striking, something the incumbent K-League Rookie of the Year has proven to excel at this year (and last) with 13 goals to his name but no assists. The latter literally emerged from the netherworlds of the Korean football leagues, leaving teams in his devastating goalscoring wake, and continued to rampage with an impressive inaugural showing in the K-League with expansion team Gangwon. Goalscoring isn’t Kim Young-hoo’s only talent, however, as last weekend’s hat-trick of assists against a shambolic Jeonbuk defense showed that he’s as crafty a creator as he is an opportunistic fox-in-the-box. For someone who has, until recently, been immersed in the K-League both as a manager and player, it comes as somewhat of a surprise then that Cho Kwang-rae would consciously omit both players from contention in favor of the unproven Seok or the already proven Park. Other players who have impressed like Kim Eun-joong and Ji Dong-won were also nowhere to be seen.
Yoo Byung-soo’s impressive goalscoring ability on display
In midfield, continued and justified criticism of Ki Sung-yong’s listless, uninspired performances continue to harangue both team and player. Although earmarked for having untapped reservoirs of footballing potential, Ki Sung-yong has continually disappointed since his well-publicized move to Glasgow giants Celtic. After manager Tony Mowbray’s tenure was cut short, Ki has found himself at ends with Neil Lennon’s strategic and tactical philosophies as well as the subsequent lack of playing time . Rumors during the summer transfer window of a possible move to former FC Seoul manager Senol Gunes’ Trabzonspor could not have abated the general uneasiness about his playing situation. At the national level, this malaise has manifested as a series of irregular and insipid showings, often an unremarkable shadow of his performances during World Cup qualification and for FC Seoul. Cho’s reluctance to impose an ultimatum on the player via increased competition in midfield means that the national team continues to look effete in midfield play and inconsistent at set-pieces. A clear alternate stands out in the form of Jeju United’s Koo Ja-cheol who has had a wonderful season, leading at the top of the assists column, and leading his perennially underachieving club to the upper echelons of the K-League. Although some fears abounded that the player would not be able to lead the island team into footballing terra incognita, Koo has responded in kind by putting consistent, commanding performances in midfield. Given his youth and abilities, it remains a bit bewildering why the Jeju lynchpin has not had the chance to assert himself for the senior team.
Given the issues exposed by Iran’s high-pressure, relentless approach — namely an over-reliance on an awkward formation and lack of positional depth — it seems reasonable that some new faces with talent be given an opportunity to prove themselves to the national team before the Asian Cup. With only the friendly with Japan remaining in October, Cho Kwang-rae has a last opportunity to test out potential players before the Asian Cup kicks off in January. While his insistence on youth players and commitment to streamline the generational shift in the senior team has been refreshing, the last two friendlies indicate that perhaps more substantive and thoughtful practices are needed in the player selection.