Korea improved over the course of 90 minutes after a horrible start to the match, but hardly deserved anything more than what it got. In all honesty, even a draw was a flattering result for the home side considering its sheer mediocrity for the majority of the match that was controlled by Japan.
Japan, having lost to Korea in previous two meetings earlier this year at home, came to Seoul as a much better team and fearlessly took the match right to its rivals. Honda Keisuke‘s aggression superbly tormented the Korean defense, as he was supported by Hasebe Makoto and Endo Yasuhito, both of whom patrolled the center of the park rather easily against a highly dysfunctional Korean midfield.
It’s worth questioning the Korea Football Association‘s repeated reluctance to take full advantage of FIFA‘s double fixture week. Korea, in order to avoid further complications with the K-League Association, once again settled for having one match on the second day and it was clear the Japanese were far more in-sync and collectively functional after coming off the match against Argentina in the previous week.
Korea, after being assembled just two days prior to match-day, had a team chemistry of an arbitrary squad playing in a charity match.
Perhaps if the KFA can start taking full advantage of all FIFA match-days instead of scheduling needless senior and U-23 matches for domestic players on random dates, it won’t have to suffer from having impaired relationship with the K-League Association and will likely have more leverage in future negotiations regarding player call-ups.
Japan’s control of midfield dictates overall flow of the match
Two days prior to the match, Japan captain Hasebe courageously told the Korean press that Alberto Zaccheroni’s men are superior to Korea. Surely, the Korean players couldn’t be happy about the Wolfsburg man’s comment especially after winning the last two encounters, but on the pitch, they did nothing to prove otherwise.
[Graphic 1: Starting formations]
The biggest difference was made in the battle that was fought in midfield, where each and every single one of Japan’s midfielders had clear roles. Hasebe was designated by Zaccheroni as the workhorse of his side’s midfield and also a provider of subtle short passes. Endo, deployed a tad bit deeper than his partner, looked to play long cross-field passes in an attempt to spread the Korean defense. Honda was given a free-role to roam and often drifted wide to the left flank, swapping positions with Kagawa Shinji. Daisuke Matsui was assigned to be the traditional winger, adding width on the right as well as holding Lee Young-Pyo from going forward.
Conversely, Korean midfielders seemed perplexed with understanding their individual assignments. Theoretically, Shin Hyung-Min seemed to be the designated defensive midfielder, but Yoon Bitgaram, too, was positioned significantly deep while Cho Yong-Hyung was also thrown in their vicinity as the advanced center-back. The two attacking midfielders – Lee Chung-Yong and Choi Sung-Kuk – neither added width nor showed tendency to make cutting runs in-field towards the goal to seek for scoring chances as both sat in front of the two central midfielders rather narrowly and failed to make any impact.
Inevitably, Japan’s intelligence in midfield took advantage of this tactical ineptitude displayed by Korea. Hasebe’s short and crisp forward passing often bypassed Korea’s defensive cover and Endo’s deep-lying playmaking created pathways for Maeda Ryoichi up front and kept the Korean center-backs occupied. The biggest beneficiary of Japan’s superiority in midfield was Honda as he was supported by his teammates to freely make his movements all over the attacking half.
[Graphic 2: Poor defensive cover by Korea's midfield]
On top of all this, Japan’s pressure high up the pitch as well as in midfield forced Korea to give up possession and play errant passes on far too many occasions. Even the most glamorous Japanese footballer Honda was tirelessly providing defensive cover and dispossessed Korean midfielders, particularly Cho Y.H., consistently.
[Video 1: Japan dominates midfield]
To be fair to Cho Kwang-rae’s side, most of Japan’s chances were hardly direct scoring opportunities, but had the Blue Samurai been awarded a penalty kick for what appeared to be a clear handball by Choi Hyo-Jin inside the box following Matsui’s cross in the 77th minute, the two teams might perhaps be looking at a different result.
Korea manage to hold Japan scoreless despite being outplayed
For all its lackluster showing in midfield, however, Korea had a few positive points to take from this match which eventually held Japan scoreless. Korea’s last line of defense was impeccable throughout 90 minutes as Hong Jung-Ho and Lee Jung-Soo on the lateral ends of the three-man back-line played a flawless defensive match, and the wing-backs on the flanks completely shut down Japan’s wing-play.
Korea’s superb defending at the back erased Japan’s center-forward Maeda out of the equation, and two wingers, Kagawa and Matsui, were largely ineffective as both of them failed to get past Choi H.J. and Lee Y.P. time and time again in one on one situations. Although Korea were dominated in midfield, its defending in and around the box as well as on both wings took away the attacking balance Japan desperately needed to create match-winning situations in front of goal. As an aswer to this, Zaccheroni made an adjustment in the second half which sent Matsui to the left with the second half substitute Hosogai Hajime occupying the right, but neither of them turned out to be the different makers.
Choi H.J., barring the fact that he was fortunate enough to avoid the horror moment of conceding a penalty with a handball, was excellent in going forward as well as completely taking Kagawa out of the match. Defense has always been his biggest weakness, but his pace and aggressiveness was critical in stopping the Borussia Dortmund forward who has been on a tear in the early stages of Bundesliga this season. It’s just a pity that without Park Ji-Sung, there wasn’t anyone to fully utilize Choi H.J.’s exquisite ability to play link up passes.
[Video 2: Effective defending by Korea]
Even on the attack, Korea enjoyed moments of brilliance when the likes of Lee C.Y. and Park Chu-Young made aggresive moves quickly after receiving the ball. When the Koreans moved the ball swiftly and made aggressive runs into available space, the team was reminiscent of Cho’s Gyeongnam side at its best with its build-up and ability to tear down the pitch in transition.
[Video 3: Korea's quick attacking exposes Japan]
For most of the match, though, the Korean players, midfielders in particular, relied on thinking of what plays to make after they were on the ball rather than being prepared the execute their attacking plays ahead of time. Japan’s defending was far too solidified for the slow-thinking Koreans. The concept of “thinking ahead” is essential in Cho’s football, but his players did exactly the opposite as they spent excessive duration surveying the pitch and seeking for ideas after the ball was at their feet.
Another problem for Cho’s side even when it created decent opportunities was lack of aggressive runs from central midfielders to set themselves up for shooting opportunities. Stationary deployment of Shin H.M. and Yoon meant Korea failed to maximize its chances even when the ball was played into the attacking third, and this often left the side limited in options as there was no one making box-to-box runs. Things improved when Ki Sung-Yong replaced Shin H.M. in the second half with Yoon being released to make his runs forward, but it wasn’t quite enough to completely rectify the dysfunctional structure of Korea’s midfield.
[Graphic 3: Korean midfielders' reluctance to charge forward -- Choi Sung-Kuk forced to take tough long shot as there's no one from midfield he can play the ball off to.]
Things to ponder for manager Cho as Asian Cup nears
The K-League’s leading scorer Yoo Byung-Soo, who came on in the last ten minutes of the match, wasn’t given enough time to make significant impact but his appearance nonetheless was a thought-provoking one from an analytical stantpoint as the Incheon striker, at least on paper, has the physical and technical tools to compliment Park C.Y. in the final third. On paper, the best way to maximize the all-around skill-set of Monaco ace is to deploy a traditional goalscoring striker with pace and face-up playing style like Yoo.
Seeing how Cho is insistent on grappling with the idea of getting Korea to play the identical formation that worked so well at Gyeongnam this year in the K-League, Yoo could very be an integral part of the current experimental process. At Gyeongnam, Cho often times opted to replace one of the two playmakers in his 3-4-2-1 with Kim Dong-Chan when goals were needed. Kim D.C., alongside an all-around forward Lucio and playmaker Seo Sang-min, often came in and constantly made incisive cutting runs into the box to score some key goals for Gyeongnam. Perhaps Cho is tinkering with the idea of using Yoo in Kim D.C.’s role alongside Korea’s version of an all-around forward in Park C.Y. and a playmaker in Lee C.Y. or Park J.S. In a complex tactical system, it is essential for players to be able to deviate their roles from one another to avoid further confusion.
[Graphic 4: Can Yoo Byung-Soo be what Cho Kwang-Rae needs?]
Another issue that still hasn’t been addressed for Korea is its use of defensive midfielders. As mentioned earlier, there were three players for Korea who tried to play the role of a defensive midfielder in the first half, but none of them came even close to getting the job done due to the dysfunctional structure of Korea’s midfield. Shin’s presence in midfield was hardly felt throughout the entirety of 45 minutes, while Yoon uncharacteristically put in a solid defensive shift, but still struggled to help his team be functional as he was playing behind three attacking players who seldom showed any kind of chemistry amongst each other.
The experiment of making Cho Y.H. the de facto defensive midfielder was a failure as well. The former Jeju United center-back is eminently skilled on the ball and has top-notch passing abilities even by midfielders’ standards, but when it comes to defending, he is a reader of the opposing strikers who prefers to sit deep and play the role of a traditional sweeper. Having him advanced further up the pitch as the de facto defensive midfielder forces him to be physical which clearly isn’t his forte. Also, he possesses neither the work rate of a defensive midfielder nor the pace to keep up with the opposing players. As a result, he was torched by Honda on almost every occasion.
[Video 4: Honda's individual brilliance]
In all likelihood, Korea will go back to having two skill-based central midfielders once the captain, Park J.S., returns to the side as it did against Nigeria and Iran. Manager Cho believes in demanding maximum discipline on defense, but he goes about doing so by deploying two creative players deep in midfield. In theory, this should allow Korea to not only defend in numbers without a true holding midfielder, but also enable fast paced transition attacks as the two midfielders have the capabilities to creat fluid passing sequences even from deep positions. This strategy worked wonderfully for Gyeongnam this season, but Korea’s counter effect with it so far has been its players’ failure to grasp the details of Cho’s rather complex system.
Better days are ahead for Korea
In a way, being outplayed by Japan was somewhat inevitable for Korea as its opponents are building on what brought them success at the World Cup this past summer, whilst the Koreans are in a complete rebuilding mode in terms of tactics. It took Cho three seasons to get Gyeongnam to play the type of football he demanded, so surely, two days of practice for Korea prior to the match was never going to be enough, especially considering that the team played without its inspirational captain. What manager Cho needs is time, and he will get it when the squad gets assembled for the Asian Cup in January as there will be multiple weeks of preparation time ahead of the competition.
Whether or not it’s the right decision for Cho to start everything from scratch after what was considered a moderate success in South Africa last summer is debatable, but it’s also true that Huh Jung-Moo‘s Korea at the World Cup clearly showed its limitations on the defensive end. The consolation for Korea here is that Cho immediately addressed what has been an ever present tactical problem prior to his arrival — spacing in the defensive half between midfielders and defenders. Under Cho, the Koreans so far have done a brilliant job in limiting open space for its opponents.
Cho is an idealist at heart. It’ll require a lot of time and patience for his football philosophy to be fully instilled into a team that doesn’t have the luxury of holding daily training sessions. The tactics and ideas that are being suggested by Cho are almost too good to be true, and his challenge is getting the players to realize his ideas. Once that happens, this Korean side will be dangerous. It’s simply too early to assess him at this point in time.