Korea‘s finesse attacking mindset needed extra time to get the result it needed, but nonetheless was able to edge out Iran‘s stingy defending in a battle of two contrasting ideologies. Iran managed to trouble Korea more than any other side so far at the Asian Cup with their rugged midfield operation and constant pressing high up the pitch. However, defending resolutely brought with it some glaringly evident limitations in creating their own scoring chances.
Iran manager Afshin Ghotbi came out with a tactic that the Koreans were all too familiar with — a “broken” system with seven defensive minded players stationed deep which left three attackers to carry the load going forward. It was an identical strategy used by the Koreans in the same tournament four years ago under Pim Verbeek. Ghotbi who was then the Dutchman’s assistant seemed to have inherited the same pragmatic system predicated on conservatism.
Both sides cancel each other out
Iran employed the same tactic and formation which worked wonders against Korea last September in Seoul when the two teams met in a friendly. Three defensive midfielders — Javad Nekounam, Andranik Teymourian and Pejman Nouri — sat in front of the back four and even the full-backs rarely seemed interested at all in making forward runs. The gap between the seven defensive men and the front three widened even further as Gholam Reza Rezaei, Mohammad Reza Khalatbari and Karim Ansarifard pressed high up around the box to prevent Korea from initiating the attack. This gap prevented Iran from enjoying any kind of fluidity themselves with their passing, but it did help them to a great degree in terms of forcing the Koreans to bypass the midfield as Cho Kwang-rae‘s defenders had to hit long balls to get out of trouble.
To counter Iran’s high pressure, Cho Kwang-rae withdrew Ki Sung-yong as far back as possible in midfield, putting the Celtic midfielder virtually on level with the central defenders in order to have him collect the ball in support and start forward play. It was still a monumental task for Korea to create significant scoring chances nonetheless as Iran firmly clogged up the middle defensively and refused to get dragged out of position. Ji Dong-won this time around was insistent on drifting strictly to the left hand side rather than actively shifting from wing to wing as he did in previous matches, making his movement far too predictable to trouble Iran’s central defenders Hadi Aghili and Jalal Hosseini, both of whom had a solid match protecting the box. The 19 -year old striker did pose more threat in and around the box, but not quite enough to take on multiple defenders.
[Starting line up]
As Iran maintained their stubborn defensive set up despite a few moments of promise shown by Ji Dong-won, Korea’s inverted wingers Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong as well as the advanced midfielder Koo Ja-cheol were limited to operating in tight spaces. Korea, with a far more proactive approach, still dominated the first half and found some success exposing Iran’s right-back Mohammad Nosrati, but poorly timed passes and runs in the final third saw them struggle to create clear cut chances.
Despite being troubled by Iran’s reactivity, work rate of Lee Yong-rae and Park Ji-sung allowed Korea to maintain control of the match as they continued to regain possession time after time. Lee Yong-rae, in particular, was instrumental in retention as he tirelessly put Iran’s deep-lying midfielders under pressure to win the ball.
[Lee Yong-rae led all players on both teams in distance covered]
Although the best scoring chance of the half belonged to Iran when Khalatbari’s free kick in the 27th minute took a deflection off Ji Dong-won’s head and forced Jung Sung-ryong to make an excellent reaction save, Ghotbi’s men never got close to scoring from a chance created on their own.
Iran fail to punish exhausted Koreans
Iran replaced Nosrati with Khosro Heidari at half time to rectify their only defensive flaw in the first half, but while this substitution added some much needed solidity on the right side of their defense, it in turn gave opportunity for Korea to explore more options to find balance in their attack. This change almost worked its way to perfection for Korea when Cha Du-ri was released on the opposite wing in the 62nd minute after a brilliantly worked one-two combination with Lee Chung-yong, but Ji Dong-won’s header following the veteran full-back’s well played cross went straight into the hands of Mehdi Ramati.
Iran slowly started to gain control of the match shortly thereafter as Korea began showing signs of fatigue. Koo Ja-cheol, particularly, seemed physically overwhelmed by Iranian’s stringent midfield pressure and was later taken out to make room for Yoon Bitgaram. Iran took advantage of the gap created in midfield due to the drop in activity level of the Koreans, but neither Nekounam nor Teymourian was aggressive with making box to box runs despite having the abilities to do so and settled for giving Iran numerical advantage deep in midfield. Having someone higher up who can play off the front three would have given Iran some much needed attacking thrust especially when Korea loosened up in midfield, but Iran were resigned to hold seven men deep at all times. Such reluctance put too much pressure on their forwards against a Korean backline who had a solid team performance of their own.
Substitutes ignite both teams, but Korea prevail in extra time
Just past the midway through the second half, managers of both teams made key substitutions to inject fluidity into their respective attacking schemes.
Ghotbi pulled the trigger first by introducing Masoud Shojaei in the 75th minute for Ansarifard who hardly even saw the ball throughout the match. Granted, Shojaei wasn’t the direct cause of providing spark for Iran’s attack, but bringing him on allowed Iran to slip Khalatbari infield, enabling them to have a dribbler through the middle to test Korea’s defense.
[Line up in extra time]
Cho Kwang-rae answered with a substitution of his own by replacing Koo Ja-cheol with Yoon Bitgaram. The crafty Gyeongnam midfielder created havoc on a couple of occasions with his runs near the top of the box.
The match went into extra time and it was Korea who were eventually rewarded for their willingness to send men forward and create chances unlike Iran who either continued to rely on limited number of players to create or waited for the Korean defense to make an error. After receiving the ball around the right corner of the box in the 105th minute, Yoon Bitgaram made a weaving run towards the top of the arc and drilled a wonderfully hit shot into the low left corner with his left foot.
It was only then that Iran started sending men forward, but the structure of the Iranian team meant they weren’t suddenly capable of being inventive against the Koreans who comfortably sat on the one-goal lead for the remaining 15 minutes and advanced to the semi-finals.
Ghotbi’s passive approach
Despite the insipidity going forward for 120 minutes, it’s still hard to hold Ghotbi solely accountable for Iran’s loss. After all, this was the same exact tactic that deservedly gave Iran the win over Korea just a few months ago. Even in this match, Iran’s defensive set up was largely effective with taking Korea out of their comfort zone and it would be easier said at this point to suggest that Ghotbi was foolish to wait for the opposing defenders to make an error especially seeing how vulnerable Korea’s central defense was in the group stages.
One criticism Ghotbi won’t be able to escape was his refusal to take the initiative when Korea lost their intensity in midfield for a sizeable portion of the second half. Iran certainly could have used more attacking flair in midfield during this period especially when Shojaei was introduced to enable Khalatbari’s contribution through the middle. Bringing attacking midfielder Iman Mobali off the bench would not only have given Iran an attacking thrust, but would have meant that Team Melli would have had a top-class set piece taker which they certainly could have used.
The corollary effect of the pragmatism Ghotbi has introduced to Iranian football is the inevitable question it will face — has Iranian football taken a shift of paradigm? What happened to the Iranians who, in the past, so willingly played an end to end match against their rivals? Iran were one of very few teams in Asia throughout history that would face Korea with confidence in taking risks and playing aesthetically-pleasing football and the fact that Ali Daei and Ali Karimi still remain as the only Asian footballers to score a hat-trick against Korea is a testament to their past footballing ideology. Has Iranian football succumbed to the recent trend of playing reactive football?
Deserved win for Korea
For Korea, Cho Kwang-rae respectfully stayed true to his philosophy even through the struggles and was duly rewarded with a dramatic goal in extra time. It was an emotional win for a side that’s still in the process of adapting to a new style. This win will undeniably give them more confidence in their football going into the semi-finals.
That’s not to say that Korea are without a concern as Japan, one of the fittest teams in the tournament, await them with an additional day of rest without having to play 30 more minutes in the quarter-finals. A lot will depend on how Korea will control the pace of the match and their ability to decide when to go for it and when to conserve energy by getting behind the ball and absorb pressure.