A few unanswered questions still remain, but it was nonetheless a bright start to the tournament by Korea as they defeated Bahrain 2-1 and grabbed all three points from their opening match in the Asian Cup for the first time in 23 years.
Well thought out tactics by Cho Kwang-rae was brilliantly interpreted on the pitch by the Korean players for most of the match despite the edgy ending.
There were three major points of interest in Korea’s win — initiative defending at the back to prevent Bahrain’s counterattacks, strikerless formation and Cha Du-ri‘s darting forward runs from the right-back position which worked out tremendously as an additional attacking option.
[Ji Dong-won's tendency to drop makes Korea's formation a 4-6-0, but Cha Du-ri's advanced position at the same time makes it a lopsided shape]
For most of the match, Korea’s central defenders — Lee Jung-soo and Kwak Tae-hwi — were positioned significantly high up, almost in the area that would be occupied midfielders under normal circumstances. The positional advancement of defenders was predicted as Cho Kwang-rae mentioned prior to the match that he’ll attempt to implement a defensive system which would be predicated on the concept of fore-checking, allowing his central defense pairing to advance forward in order to take the initiatives and break up plays to prevent the opponent from working with the ball in the final third. It could be argued that pushing up the last line of defense significantly high and leaving excessive amount of space behind as a consequence is too big a gamble, but because Cho Kwang-rae doesn’t have a true defensive midfielder, he was forced to tweak the functions of his central defenders which, against Bahrain at least, worked fairly well. Seeing how effective this strategy was, it’s hard to argue that it wasn’t the best defensive strategy to deal with Bahrain whose bread and butter in getting goals over the years has been through counterattacks.
[Korea's initiative defending -- fore-checking]
It doesn’t mean such strategy was flawless, however, as the aggressive nature this system required led to defenders committing far too many fouls, presenting Bahrain an unexpected option of creating chances from set piece situations. It is indeed true that some, if not many of referee Abdullah Al Hilali‘s decisions were questionable to say the least, but much of football, especially in a tournament setting, is about managing your own luck. Cho Kwang-rae must now realize that this defensive system is a risky strategy to be retained for future matches especially if the officiating for the rest of the tournament continues to reject leniency towards aggressive defending.
Another predicament that comes with employing the initiative defending strategy is its inability to be altered once the defender fails to break up the opponent’s attack. If the defender challenging the opposing striker high up the pitch fails to track the ball, he and the rest of the team would give up acres of space behind for the opponent to exploit. Bahrain were able to cut into Korea’s lead in the 85th minute in a similar situation when Kwak Tae-hwi helplessly, or rather lousily, fouled Abdulla Al Dakeel to give up the penalty after getting beat soundly on the run.
Although Korea employed a 4-2-3-1 formation by default, the actual formation that was displayed on the pitch was closer to a 4-6-0 with Ji Dong-won playing the false nine role. The 19 year old, as predicted in FoorKorean’s tournament preview, drifted from wing to wing and even dropped deep into midfield. His movement allowed the inverted wingers, Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong to cut infield, but more importantly played a huge role in Koo Ja-cheol‘s contributions.
[Ji Dong-won continued to drift from one wing to another to create space for his teammates]
Koo Ja-cheol was initially expected to play the role of a modern day #10, playing decisive passes into the box to create direct scoring chances. But whether it was by design or accident,the Jeju United midfielder found himself in scoring positions for both of Korea’s goals as Ji Dong-won’s false nine role dragged Bahrain’s central defenders out of position.
For the first goal in the 40th minute, Koo Ja-cheol made a run into the box as Ji Dong-won’s movement created the necessary space in the final third, allowing Ki Sung-yong to pick him out for the simple finish. The second goal had more to do with the impact Cha Du-ri had on the match, but it was once again the space that was created in front of Bahrain’s goal due to Korea’s fluid movement which allowed Koo Ja-cheol to be at the right place at the right time.
Cha Du-ri, the difference maker
FootKorean’s tournament preview also predicted that the advancement of full-backs will be crucial in enabling Korea’s narrow shape in midfield to function properly.
It was Cha Du-ri whose constant runs down the right flank that allowed Korea to dominate Bahrain with ease. His presence up and down the right wing liberated Korea’s midfield and prevented the likes of Koo Ja-cheol, Ki Sung-yong and Lee Yong-rae from having to work in heavy congestion. The Celtic full-back even made a direct impact on Korea’s second goal as his strong shot that was drilled on target allowed Koo Ja-cheol to score easily on the rebound.
[Cha Du-ri put in a near perfect performance on both ends]
A thigh injury for the past few weeks has put Cha Du-ri’s availability against Bahrain in serious question until only a few hours prior to kick-off, but fortunately for Korea, he was ready just in time and proved to be the game-changer. It also helped that his defending was equally phenomenal.
As well as Korea played for 80 minutes, it’s fair to say that Bahrain just didn’t have enough quality to match them until Kwak Tae-hwi picked up the red card. It will be a huge test for Korea against Australia in their second match, and Kwak Tae-hwi whose forte is his aerial prowess will be sorely missed against the likes of Tim Cahill who can head the ball home at any given moment.
Another concern for Cho Kwang-rae is Lee Young-pyo‘s prolonged struggle. The mediocrity on the defensive end for the left-back has been glaringly evident during the World Cup in South Africa, but what’s become more worrisome now is his inefficiency going forward. He has now failed to put in an above average attacking performance for Korea in five straight matches.
Overall, it was an excellent start for Korea, but this match by no means is capable of foreshadowing their fate as effectiveness of a new system can only be proven over a string of matches, but never after one match against a sub-par side.