It was an unconvincing performance by Korea for the most part amid the 1-1 draw, but a bit more resiliency after the go-ahead goal could have helped them see out the match. Instead, Australia fought back and deservedly pulled level by exposing Korea’s obvious flaws.
Korea’s weaknesses exposed in this match were more or less a confirmation of what most already knew — aversion to physical midfield battle, fragile central defense and committing lousy fouls in dangerous areas. Yet, Cho Kwang-rae‘s men could still have been able to ride a bit of luck and grab all three points, but constant pressure by Australia was too much to be withstood by the exhausted Koreans in the second half.
Battle of two ideologies
It was a battle between two teams with two completely different ideas — Korea’s skill- and aesthetic-based football with pace against the directness of Australia. And while both sides played well enough to trouble each other and scored the goals which they deserved, neither did enough to enable their style to dominate the other.
To deal with Australia’s directness going forward, Cho Kwang-rae played his defenders deep unlike the match against Bahrain. Cha Du-ri‘s superb performance on the right contained the Australian danger man Tim Cahill throughout the match. The right-back had to be a bit more conservative going forward, but still managed the push the ball up effectively when necessary and his makeshift functionality on defense provided Korea’s fragile central defense some much needed support. Lee Young-pyo‘s savvy on the left, going forward at least, was crucial as Korea struggled to cope with Australia’s solidity in the central area. It was a refreshing performance by the 33 year old who has been mediocre for his country at the very least over the last few months.
[Cha Du-ri and Lee Young-pyo versus Australia]
On the contrary, Korea’s central midfield pairing left a lot to be desired. Granted, Lee Yong-rae who was unexpectedly deployed slightly higher than Ki Sung-yong managed to play a key role in circulating the flow of passes, but the two midfielders for the most part were swamped by the rugged Australians. Ki Sung-yong at times dropped himself to stay on level with the central defenders, picking the ball out of defense to initiate the attack, but neither he nor Lee Yong-rae seemed capable of breaking out of Australia’s pressure to give their side an attacking thrust by going box to box. Ji Dong-won up front was once again instructed to shift from wing to wing in order to drag the opposing defenders out of position, but Lucas Neill — who was nearly unbeatable — and the rest of the Australian defense firmly clogged up the central area and contained Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong despite the high level of activity by the two inverted wingers.
Koo Ja-cheol who played in the hole put in another solid performance as he made the most of his limited touches, but the question worth asking regarding the midfielder is if he was earmarked to stay in the attacking half by design. With the Australian midfield harassing Lee Yong-rae and Ki Sung-yong, having Koo Ja-cheol drop deeper at times to have an additional ball-winning presence would have given Korea a numerical advantage which they desperately needed. Koo Ja-cheol, playing a deeper role for Jeju United, was arguably the K-League‘s best player last season which initially was what made the idea of deploying him in the attacking midfielder position so attractive — not only does the 21 year old have the ability to go forward to set up or score goals, he’s also capable of providing defensive support. However, he was freed from carrying any kind of defensive responsibilities for whatever reason.
[Australia's pressing unsettles Korea]
For Australia, veteran Harry Kewell was key in exposing the Korean defense. Showing his versatility by cutting in from the right and at times staying tucked in to hold the ball up front, Kewell’s presence in and around the box brought his teammates into plays. His ability to keep the ball allowed Australia enough time to send enough men forward, giving themselves an attacking thrust and various options in front of Korea’s goal.
Cahill had a quite match for his standard as he was often forced to drift to the left wing to hold Cha Du-ri from bombing forward, but his neutralized presence was negated by Brett Holman‘s tireless runs. Additionally, David Carney at left-back put in a fine performance as he had Lee Chung-yong covered for most of the match.
Plan B helps Korea take the lead
Korea’s goal was scored from a play that was quite an antithesis of Cho Kwang-rae’s short passing football. It was a full cross-field goal-kick by Jung Sung-ryong which, amazingly, found Ji Dong-won inside the box on the other end. The 19 year old chested the ball down on his first touch and laid it off to oncoming Koo Ja-cheol who applied a well placed finish into the bottom left corner.
[Korea's go-ahead goal comes from Plan B]
The sequence came only seconds after a dangerous attack by Australia. It was a simple punt into the final third that enabled the two youngsters to combine for the goal which was an unexpected build up by Korea who momentarily switched gears and scored by altering to Plan B.
Australia’s patience pays off
Although the goal itself came from a scrappy build up following a set piece, it’s worth reviewing how Australia went about putting themselves in that position to score the equalizer. The corner-kick which eventually led to the equalizer was awarded following a combination play of Holman and Kewell who have tormented the Korean defense for much of the match. Holman’s deflected cut back following an excellent run down the right flank to get to the byline was retrieved by Kewell who skipped past a couple of defenders with ease and fired the shot which nicked off a Korean defender for the corner.
[Holman and Kewell combine to win corner which eventually led to Jedinak's equalizer]
As for the goal itself, one may suggest that it was a poor decision to rush out by Jung Sung-ryong, but what really led the goalkeeper to make such an ill-timed decision was the mistake by Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yong who were caught ball-watching as Neill lofted the ball over them to pick out Mile Jedinak.
[Lee Chung-yong and Ki Sung-yong fail to pick up Jedinak]
It was a goal of patience by a well coached side led by Holger Osieck who has a track record of finding success against the Koreans in a tournament setting. Under his tutelage, both Canada and Urawa Reds in 2002 CONCACAF Gold Cup third place mach and 2007 AFC Champions League semifinals defeated Kim Hak-beom‘s Seongnam Ilhwa and Korea led by Guus Hiddink, respectively, as they came from behind to get the necessary results needed after giving up early leads in both matches.
Many might have thought that Australia would either fold or go out of their way in search of an equalizer after they fell behind in the first half, but Osieck decided to stick to his guns, retaining the same shape and disciplined defensive organization. The German tactician’s decision to be faithful to his philosophy was rightfully rewarded.
Back to ground zero for Korea
From a psychological standpoint, Korea are now back to where they were prior to the start of the tournament. After getting off to what was comparatively a flying start against Bahrain, they were in for a reality check against the Socceroos. Their new look style of football is still in the beginning stages of being developed and while it may flourish against teams that play a certain style, they will inevitably find themselves struggling in a grind-it-out situation when playing against teams that are as physically intimidating as Australia.
With that said, the ultimate goal for Korea in this tournament still is to lift the trophy. Consequently, teams with rugged midfielders like Australia and Iran will naturally expose Korea’s weaknesses, but that doesn’t necessarily mean these teams aren’t beatable. It may be too late for Korea to rectify their weaknesses at this juncture of the tournament, but maximizing their strengths further as they continue to advance is still within the realm of possibility.
Click to read FootKorean’s 2011 AFC Asian Cup preview