Sep 10, 2010
The difference in this match was quite simple — Korea‘s soft midfield was largely exposed by the physical toughness of Iran.
Soft midfield has been a weakness of Korea’s for years now. The concern started to rise since the retirement of Yoo Sang-Chul in 2003, and evidently, Lee Eul-Yong and Kim Nam-Il at their best were proven to be the last of a dying breed in this country.
Credit the Iran manager Afshin Ghotbi, whose tactical brilliance unsettled his former pupils. His deployment of players and demand for physicality through the center exposed Korea better than any other away side has done in Seoul in recent memory.
[Graphic 1: Starting formations]
Aside from the midfield shape, Iran’s deployment of three forwards made the biggest difference.
Gholamreza Rezaei, on the far right, was earmarked to hold off Lee Young-Pyo from going forward. Contrary to Rezaei, Masoud Shojaei wasn’t assigned a defensive duty, but his role was to make runs behind the advanced wing-back Choi Hyo-Jin and force Hong Jung-Ho to drift out his central position. This was a key tactical decision made by Ghotbi as it offset the balance of Korea’s three-man back-line.
Iran created a comeptetive environment, unlike Nigeria
In Cho Kwang-Rae‘s managerial debut against Nigeria last month, Kim Young-Gwon and Kwak Tae-Hwi, the two stoppers on lateral ends of the back-three were consistent throughout the match with their passing out of the defense. This provided an outlet for the fantastic ball movement by the Koreans as they went on to win the match rather comfortably.
Aside from Hong J.H. who played a few brilliant build-up passes, this outlet passing against Iran was non-existent despite Cho’s attempt at retaining the same shape and tactical traits from the match against Nigeria. Unlike the Nigeria boss Augustine Eguavoen who approached the match with the intention of testing individuals and willingly let the defense allow open space to Korea, Ghotbi made it clear going into this match that he will seek for a win.
With Ghotbi’s approach clear, Iran pressured high up the pitch, allowing no time or space for Korean defenders to play the ball and build continuity, as well as forcing them to give up possession in dangerous areas.
[Video 1: Korea's initial plan of building plays starting from the back was taken away as Iran pressured high up the pitch. Perhaps Korea missed the absence of Cho Yong-Hyung, a skilled center-back capable of withstanding pressure.]
Korea forced to rely on wings
Korea, being held from playing outlet passes from the back, ultimately lost the midfield battle. Combine the inept outlet passing with unfit Ki Sung-Yong and inexperienced Yoon Bitgaram being pounded in midfield by Iran’s rugged midfield consisting of Andranik Teymourian, Javad Nekounam, and Pejman Nouri, the Koreans were in serious trouble.
This forced Korea to rely heavily on wing-play, but even still, the options were limited as Lee Young-Pyo on the left was being occupied by Rezaei. The onus then fell on the right wing-back Choi H.J. to carry the attacking load.
Admittedly, Korea put on a few nifty passing displays led by Choi H.J. through the right flank, but this insistence on wing-play was proven to be inefficient as it lacked a solid backing from the central area.
[Video 2: Passing sequences through the right were too far from the goal to create scoring chances, and were ineffective as Iran continued to hold down the center brilliantly.]
[Video 3: Korea created far more dangerous chances with attacks through the center, even with limited attempts.]
Soft tendency all around gets punished by Iran
The physical nature of Iran was too much for this soft Korean side, which clearly wasn’t ready for a such well-prepared opponent. Ki was no longer the fit and audacious central midfielder who once put in a dominant performance at Tehran just a year ago, and Iran almost always outnumbered Korea in midfield battles throughout the match, because Cho’s 3-4-2-1 insisted on having a spare man at the back. He initially stated before the match that Lee Jung-Soo, playing at the center of the back-three, will be given license to freely advance to midfield to provide protection, but such movement was nowhere to be seen.
Iran’s goal, which ultimately decided the outcome, summed up the story of this match quite nicely in the sense that Iran’s hustle play punished the soft defending of its opponent. Lee Y.P.’s mistake, while humiliating, was only the face of the problem. As soon as Ki’s free-kick into the box was cleared, not one of three Iranian players who made the run forward was picked up by Korean defenders, notably Choi H.J. who was designated to stay back in case of an Iranian counterattack.
[Graphic 2-3: Korean defenders fail to pick up Nouri and Shojaei]
On the attacking end, the two attacking midfielders — Park Ji-Sung and Lee Chung-Yong — were playing far too narrowly, unable to provide width and overlapping each other’s positions. Park Ju-Young, struggling to find form, once again showed that he needs an appropriate striking partner to be utilized properly.
Midway through the second half, Cho tried addressing the soft central midfield of his side by slotting Park J.S. deep into midfield, but by then, Iran had already changed its shape and started to look comfortable with defending the one-goal lead.
Not all was lost for Korea, as Yoon once again played a solid match. His wide range of passes supported by excellent vision continued to impress, even in limited times he was given the opportunity to play the ball. However, he was not the defensively sound midfielder Korea desperately needed against this type of opponent. Yoon, too, was the victim of Korea’s lack of true holding midfielder, because he wasn’t given the defensive support he needed to fulfil his role.
Ghotbi’s tactics prevail
All in all, this was an excellent tactical win for Ghotbi and Iran. Tactical wins in friendlies in modern football are rare, but Ghotbi proved that a lot more can be given and earned in a match that could have easily been wasted.
In a sense, the real beneficiary of this match would have to be the Koreans as they were given a rare experience in a friendly to be stripped of power at home. Depending on how this side responds to the aforementioned problems, this coule be a good wake-up call ahead of the Asian Cup.