According to BBC television coverage in the build-up to the World Cup Group B match between South Korea and Nigeria, 80% of South Koreans believed they would go through from their tough group. Undoubtedly this represents the rise in both expectations and achievement of this South Korean national side. Before this World Cup, South Korea had only ever advanced past the first round of the competition on one occasion when they co-hosted the tournament in 2002 and reached the semi-finals.
This time round the coach, Huh Jung-moo, the players and the Korean people were all confident that second place in their group was possible, although all knew it would be tough. Argentina were undoubtedly firm favourites to win the group, but behind them Nigeria, Greece and South Korea all seemed to be fairly evenly matched. This is how it proved, with all three losing to Argentina, but South Korea beating Greece, who in turn beat Nigeria.
It all came down to this final day, then, with the remaining two fixtures in the group being played out at the same time on Tuesday afternoon. Greece were looking to get a positive result against Argentina to further their hopes of qualification, although this always looked unlikely, despite the South Americans rotating some of their key players. With Nigeria and South Korea both anticipating that Greece would struggle against a revitalised Argentina, those two sides would have felt that their match was the second place decider; a winner-takes-all encounter.
South Korea vs Nigeria was a crucial and tough match for both sides
Korea just needed to do better than Greece, with Nigeria not having secured any points in their opening two games. This meant that in all likelihood a draw would do, but Nigeria would certainly come out fighting.
Nigeria is a team of pace and power, who up to that point had not really found their feet in this tournament. Korea had lost 4-1 to Argentina in their last game, but had always identified this as their most important match.
The lineup was a relatively familiar one:
Cha Du-ri Lee Jung-soo Cho Yong-hyung Lee Young-pyo
Ki Sung-yeung Kim Jung-woo
Lee Chung-yong Park Ji-sung
I was dubious about this lineup for two reasons, both of which I have talked about extensively before. At the back, the selection of Cha Du-ri was the biggest surprise. Clearly Huh opted for him over Oh Beom-seok because he felt Cha would be able to cope with the power and pace of the Nigerians better. Unfortunately, Cha has played the majority of his career as a striker, and has only relatively recently converted to right back. His defensive positioning and reading of the game are clearly lacking, and a coach such as Huh should have known that the possession of attributes such as pace and power alone is not enough: they have to be applied correctly. Against Greece, who were a poor side that offered little in attack, Cha was the perfect option, because he could get forward as he pleased, using his surging runs to trouble the Greek defence and to create space for teammates to attack. Against Argentina Huh opted for Oh, the more defensive-minded of the two, and a good technical player. He didn’t have the best game against Argentina, and really struggled against their attacking players. In my opinion, however, this would have been the case for just about any right back in the tournament, and I don’t think Oh will be the last in this World Cup to suffer a the hands of the likes of Messi and Tevez.
But was that performance by Oh enough for him to lose his place against Nigeria? Only Huh can know what his state of mind was like after the Argentina match, but I was very surprised that in a game when the main goal was not to lose – a draw would have been enough to see them go through assuming Greece lost to Argentina – Huh selected the attack-orientated and defensively ill-equipped Cha to start. What Korea needed in that game was to play calm, safe and clever possession football. Yes, Cha made a couple of decent runs forward, troubling the Nigeria defence, but his own defensive performance was abysmal. He was completely at fault for the first goal, revealing his utter lack of defensive awareness at the worst possible time. Furthermore, because he was so keen to get forward he repeatedly left huge gaps at the back that the Nigerians constantly looked to exploit on the counter. He hasn’t built up an effective defensive partnership with the centre backs or the midfield, and so he never gave them the chance or direction to cover him when he bombed forward. If I was the coach I absolutely would have gone for Oh from the start, and possibly would have brought Cha on in the second half when the Nigerians were already showing signs of cracking under the pressure to try and kill the game off with attacking football.
Cha was at fault for Nigeria’s opening goal (The video has been flipped – sorry)
The other decision I was not entirely appreciative of was that to stick with Yeom Ki-hun up front. I still don’t think Yeom has enough quality to play at this level, although this was probably his best game of the World Cup so far. The biggest plus-point in playing Yeom is that he’s left footed – an evidently rare commodity in this Korean side. That said, he brought little to the side, and has still failed to form an effective working partnership with Park Chu-young. Yeom is not a natural goal-scorer, and because he has failed to become a proper supporting player for Park the team lacks a cutting edge in the final third of the pitch.
I have to assume that Huh would only have chosen Yeom over Lee Dong-gook if the latter was still not entirely fit. If that is the case, then I think he should have sacrificed a second striker altogether, and gone for a more standard five man midfield. I’ve always said I want to see Ki Sung-yeung playing further forwards were he can cause more damage, and this would have been the perfect opportunity to give him the freedom and encouragement to do so. I would have started with Kim Jung-woo and Kim Nam-il as holding midfielders, with Ki Sung-yeung given a freer, more attacking role ahead of them down the centre. It then would have been his responsibility to release Park Chu-young, Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong to try and get behind the Nigeria defence and to create more cohesive attacks closer to the penalty area. There’s always the option to bring on another striker, be it Yeom, Lee Dong-gook or even young Lee Seung-yeoul, if it’s needed later on.
As it was, however, Huh eventually did bring Kim Nam-il on to play in this formation. It backfired pretty spectacularly and pretty quickly, however, as he needlessly gave away a penalty when Korea were looking quite comfortable. Following that, though, the midfield looked a lot more secure, and I hope Huh considers playing like that from the start against Uruguay, who are a better team than Nigeria. It would, however, mean Ki playing a little differently to what he’s used to.
He’s such an intelligent player, and his technique is superb. He has great control and rarely gives the ball away, as well as being able to shoot well from distance and play outstanding passes. In my opinion he’s perfectly suited to playing behind a striker. If you’re not too familiar with him, I would say his playing style is somewhat similar to the likes of Portugal’s Deco or Croatia’s Luka Modric, although he still has a way to go before he reaches that level of course.
At the moment he seems a bit unsure of himself in this side. He’s being used as an orthodox central midfielder, partnering Kim Jung-woo. As I’ve already said, technically he’s excellent. What he needs to do if he’s to play in this position at the highest level, however, is to assert himself on the game more. He shouldn’t wait for the ball to come to him, he should seek it out, and he should have the confidence to try things and to try and make things happen for the team. Huh needs to fill him with this confidence, and I think using an extra central midfielder to offer more defensive security would take some of the weight off Ki’s shoulders. With Kim Nam-il and Kim Jung-woo anchoring the midfield and playing simple passes out, Ki would get more of the ball in situations where he can play the passes he wants to. He might find he has less time on the ball, but he needs to be able to compete under that sort of pressure, and I believe he can.
Ki Sung-yeung could be deployed further forward to utilise his attacking threat
As I’ve already said I feel Yeom contributes very little by way of attacking potency, summed up by his dreadful miss against Argentina when he was presented with the perfect opportunity to equalise. Park chu-young is obviously the outstanding striker in the Korean squad, but too often against Nigeria he was left isolated and so had to come deep to try and get the ball. With a more creative, passing player behind him in Ki Sung-yeung, Park would surely be able to get better service of the type he wants; through balls that he can run on to in order to use his pace to beat defenders and get closer to goal. Ki would also spread the ball out wide a lot better and in more attacking positions, meaning Park Ji-sung and Lee Chung-yong could get forwards more and provide more crosses and also get closer to goal to support Park Chu-young.
Talking of Park Ji-sung, he has been by far Korea’s best player at this World Cup. He’s so important to the team. I was doubtful when he was first named as captain whether he would have the leadership qualities necessary for the role, but he has proved himself over and over again. He’s really grown into the role; he inspires the team with his attitude and drive, but also with the quality of his play. He fully commits himself in defence and attack. I do think, however, that it’s about time the likes of Lee Chung-yong and Ki followed Park’s example. Lee especially can be a devastating player. He has such pace and trickery, and he loves to run at defenders. He showed against Argentina that he can score as well, and you can see he’s desperate to be given more of the ball. They need to bring him into play a lot more, and he can really add something to the way they play.
Park Ji-sung has been South Korea's inspiration in the World Cup so far
In the Nigeria game, Kim Jung-woo in midfield looked out of his depth. He looked slow and fragile and was beaten far too often. It was him who allowed the Nigerian right back to get the cross in which set up their first goal. It was poor midfield play, and unfortunately it was not the only time he was beaten so easily in the game. I remain unconvinced by the central midfield pairing of Kim Jung-woo and Ki Sung-yeung, so I’m desperate to see the five-man midfield I talked about above. Park Chu-young scored one excellent free kick and came close a number of other times. He has shown enough in the games so far that he can play as a lone striker as long as the service is good enough. Korea’s strength is in midfield, and they need to play to this.
Kim Jung-woo struggled at times in midfield, and would be helped by the introduction of Kim Nam-il
In the end, the Koreans showed they have the defiant fighting spirit that was so crucial to their success in 2002, meaning they could hold on to the draw and progress to the next round. There are some defensive frailties, but they have not failed to score in any of their three matches so far. To me it seems that all the components are there, but at the moment the team is playing within itself, never quite playing as well as it is capable of.
They can beat Uruguay, who have been very impressive up to this point, but it may take more than they showed against Nigeria. More clinical finishing is needed, as is more protection for the defence. I believe part of the solution is to change the formation, and it looks like maybe Huh Jung-moo is coming round to my way of thinking after he did adopt that formation after 63 minutes against Nigeria. Uruguay are a hard working team, but so are Korea. Uruguay have a few genuinely outstanding players in attack, so Korea will have to be careful. I don’t think Korea will get away with a 1-0 win because I think Uruguay will certainly score. This means Korea need to have enough about them in attack to put at least two goals away. Whether or not they win the game I believe will ultimately come down to whether or not they can play their best football in attack they way they like without leaving the defence too exposed.
South Korea showed fighting spirit to secure the result they needed
The team I would pick to play against Uruguay is:
Oh Beom-seok Lee Jung-soo Cho Yong-hyung Lee Young-pyo
Kim Nam-il Kim Jung-woo
Lee Chung-yong Ki Sung-yeung Park Ji-sung
I think it would also be necessary to bring on Cha Du-ri for Oh in the second half, and perhaps to bring on another striker and revert to a more conventional 4-4-2 formation.