Along with the Korea Football Association’s appointment of Cho Kwang-Rae as the manager of its national team came the notion that he’s all about attacking, stylish, and artistic football. On surface, this assessment of work by Cho with Gyeongnam FC in the last three seasons certainly rings true. Gyeongnam this season has established itself as one of the most feared attacking sides in the K-League.
It’s worth bringing up, however, the defensive capabilities and tactical mastery which have been the substantial foundation of Gyeongnam’s success this season. For all its excitement and praiseworthiness, attacking football will rarely equate to successful results without defense that’s equally as impressive. At the end of the day, attacking brings in goals, but defending makes the difference between winning and losing.
Those who praise Cho will applaud Gyeongnam for the reputation it has built with skill-based attacking style of football, but while this is hard to argue, the success itself has been achieved on the defensive end. This fact becomes glaringly evident when statistics are involved, as Gyeongnam are merely eighth in the league in goals scored with 18 goals in 13 matches, but first in goals conceded with just ten.
Most football fans in Korea welcomed Cho with an anticipation of seeing their national team further showcase its skills, ball artistry, and free-flowing attack under the tutelage of the new boss. However, while these are certainly cherished values in his football philosophy, it’s the defensive intensity he successfully instilled in Gyeongnam this season that the national team must inherit more than anything else.
[GRAPHIC 1] Gyeongnam’s default formation and starting 11
Defending in numbers allows Gyeongnam’s fluidity going forward
The default formation of Gyeongnam this season has been 3-4-2-1. It’s worth noting that all three defenders at the back are conventional center-backs who, individually, aren’t exactly in the upper echelon of defensive players even by the K-League’s standards. Combine that with neither of the two central midfielders being defensively sound, it’s mind-boggling to see this side forming such a potent defensive unit.
The credit belongs to its manager, Cho, who got his players to buy into the concept of team defense. When not in possession, Gyeongnam will draw back as many as nine players, have them sit deep in its own half to limit open space. Both central midfielders – Yoon Bitgaram and Lee Yong-Rae – are incapable playing the holding role, but they’re disciplined enough to trackback to provide extra numbers defensively. The lateral midfielders – Kim Tae-Uk and Kim Young-Woo – share the same responsibility.
[GRAPHICS 2-5] Gyeongnam’s set up off the ball
Ultimately, Gyeongnam’s habit of defending in numbers is what allows this side to be so good on the attack at the same time. Because the midfielders often drop deep, it allows the two playmakers – Seo Sang-Min and Lee Hoon – with plenty of skills and flair to use the open half of the field on the other end as an empty canvas every time the two are given the chance for a breakaway along with the athletic Brazilian Lucio.
Most sides will struggle to be functional on the attacking end with a similar shape, but because the likes of Yoon Bitgaram and Lee Yong-Rae are such gifted passers who can provide quality service even from the defensive half, fluidity in Gyeongnam’s ball movement as they go forward is lethally dangerous.
It’s no secret Cho calls for maximum discipline from his players off the ball defensively, but he rewards them with just as much freedom on the ball when they go forward. Although sitting Yoon Bitgaram and Lee Yong-Rae deep in midfield to create space for the front-three is Gyeongnam’s primary scheme, there are abounding variations in the pattern this team uses to break down its opponents.
Although the difference in quality is evident, Gyeongnam’s free-flowing attacking pattern is very much comparable to that of Germany’s from the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa. Joaquim Low’s side possessed plenty of individual brilliance, but the Germans were very disciplined with their first and foremost duty of defending before getting out in transition in a breakaway as Mesut Ozil facilitated the counterattacks with the three-man combination of Lukas Podolski, Thomas Muller, and Miroslav Klose doing most of the damage in and around the opponent’s box.
However, just as the Germans added variations to their default shape, giving license to Ozil, Sami Khedira and Bastian Schweinsteiger to go box to box, all four of Gyeongnam’s midfielders take turns in inviting themselves to the attack. Yoon Bitgaram swiftly makes his runs forward as he interchanges give-and-go passes with his teammates, while Lee Yong-Rae, the default deep-lying playmaker, advances forward when the ball is being shielded up front by Lucio. Kim Tae-Uk and Kim Young-Woo, despite being lateral midfielders (wingbacks), get tucked in-field when attacking to get involved in the passing flow.
The national team has the pieces to complete Cho Kwang-Rae’s football
One of the biggest reasons why Cho is such an attractive manager for Korea is because of the players he’ll now have at his disposal to complete his style of football. Gyeongnam’s three conventional center-backs attempt an awful lot of audacious passes out of the defense, but most of them fail to find the target. It’ll be a different story with the national team as Cho Yong-Hyung will surely be given the chance to flourish as his passing at the back for Korea will be essential in bolstering the new manager’s transition football.
Korea’s biggest weakness at the World Cup this summer has been the simple fact that this team, despite the talent, were lacking on both ends. Huh Jung-Moo’s side missed cutting edge in the final third and was wobbly on defense due to the scarcity of true holding-midfielders. But Cho’s coaching style which calls for transition football based on fast pace, fluid passing, and defending in numbers just might make the team’s long sought need for a traditional defensive midfielder unnecessary.
[GRAPHIC 6] Half-time statistics of Gyeongnam’s away match at Jeonbuk in May. Cho Kwang-rae’s men, without a prototypical ball winner in midfield, were overwhelmingly out-possessed but still managed to dominate, out-shoot, and take the lead against the reigning champions.
Expect Lee Chung-Yong and Park Ji-Sung to be encouraged to do what they do the best – running in open-field – as they will be Korea’s Seo Sang-Min and Lee Hoon. Lucio’s role of tracking down lob passes, interchanging positions, and running into channels will be handed to Park Chu-Young who is a notch or two above the Brazilian in every facet, but with the same set of skills. Yoon Bitgaram’s role, playing clever passes and finding space to get forward, will likely be pursued by Ki Sung-Yong who may finally find a permanent position instead of being overwhelmed with so many responsibilities as he has been in the past.
One might argue that Cho’s football with Korea could be completely different considering the fact that the national team isn’t as limited in resources as Gyeongnam. However, the truth is, Korea is to world football what Gyeongnam is to the K-League – clearly limited, but can be competitive with the right coaching. The biggest question is whether or not Cho can integrate his philosophy to the team in limited time given the nature of international football. But if he can, Korea will be a team with a recipe to impress on the world stage.