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Park Ji-Sung’s Best Position

Posted by Seamus Walsh on April 2, 2010

Something I’ve written about before on this blog is how Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has begun to deploy Park Ji-sung as a supporting forward to Wayne Rooney in the centre of the United attack this season. The most recent example of this was the match last week against Liverpool, which United won 2-1 thanks to a brave second half diving headed winner by Park himself (Highlights). The other recent occasion when Ferguson decided to play Park just behind Rooney was in the second leg against AC Milan in the Champions League, a match in which Park also scored to help United to a 4-0 win.

Ji-Sung Park heads United into the lead

Park scores the vital winner against Liverpool

Park may be more used to playing on the wing for United – the position he has played almost exclusively – but Huh Jung-moo the South Korean national team manager has played him centrally before. It’s clear that in these two examples where Park has played just behind Rooney recently he played superbly, adding the final missing ingredient to his game – goals. So what is his best position?

Well, I think a lot of this depends on the situation. With the squad Manchester United currently have I believe that they play their best football as a team when Park is playing centrally with Rooney. On the other hand, however, I think the opposite is true for the South Korean national team: they are at their collective best with Park out wide. I’ll now outline why I think these different strategies are right for each team, and also why it seems to be now that Park has become so important to both.

Firstly, Manchester United. The easiest and most practical way to analyse the strengths of a football team is to look at their results. Winning and scoring are good, losing and conceding are bad – simple. This week United played a crucial Champions League Quarter Final first leg away at Bayern Munich. It was always likely to be a tough match, as Bayern have strong players in all positions, and some incredible attacking talent. I believe it was the concern over what the likes of Franck Ribery could do in front of their home fans that led to Ferguson’s decision to play three more conventional central midfielders, with Park on the left and Nani on the right, and Rooney alone up front. With Rooney in the team United are always likely to score, which they did, naturally enough through Rooney early on. The five man midfield, therefore, was designed to protect the defense and to keep the attacking players of Bayern at bay, with Nani the best attacking outlet of the midfield five with his pace and directness down the wing.

This, however, was not to be enough in either attack or defense, and where I think Ferguson went wrong (Very rarely will I ever criticise Alex Ferguson) in this instance was to play Park on the left, leaving Valencia on the bench, and with three central midfielders. Scholes, Carrick and Fletcher are all fine footballers, but now that Scholes is no longer able to get forward at every opportunity to support the striker(s), all three of them tend to play very deep. This gave Bayern far too much possession, and they eventually made United pay, scoring the winner in the last seconds of the match. Once United did get hold of the ball they had no creative outlet, no way of breaking through the Bayern defense and getting the ball to Rooney in a goal-scoring opportunity. None of the midfielders looked like they were willing to run ahead of the others and support Rooney down the middle. This meant that they were only left with two options to get the ball forward. Either Nani had to dribble the ball up the pitch on his own and try and find Rooney in the box, or they had to start playing long balls and hope they caught the defense in a lapse of concentration. Neither of these tactics worked.

Had Ferguson decided to play with only two central midfielders, Fletcher and Carrick for example, with the pace and skill of Nani and Valencia on the wings and Park supporting Rooney up front, things might have been different. In this setup, Rooney is the focus of the attack, but Park provides another attacking option for the midfielders to pass to. He creates space with his runs, and adds another “layer” if you like to the United attack, which means they don’t have to resort to just punting the ball from defense to the other end of the pitch to create an attack. Also, Valencia offers more pace on the wing than Park, which can really stretch the opposition defence, again leaving more space for Park and Rooney to take advantage of in the middle.

This is why I consider Park’s best position for Manchester United at the moment to be in a central attacking position in support of Rooney. For the South Korean national team however, Park has to play a very different role for them to be successful in my eyes. The foremost reason is that south Korea do not and probably should not play with a lone striker, as Manchester United do with Rooney. I’ve written about the strengths of Park Chu-young before, but I do feel that he needs a partner up front to be at his best. Very few international sides would risk playing with a back three in this day and age, and South Korea certainly should never consider this, especially not considering their World Cup group, which leaves them with four in midfield.

Park and Rooney have complemented each other well in attack this season

The national side’s biggest strengths are their organisation and teamwork, but I would also add to that their playing style. South Korea like to play a short, fast passing game at high speed, relying on their fitness and dynamism to make up for the fact that they are often on average smaller than most sides they come up against. A key aspect of playing like this is stretching your opposition as much as possible, creating space for other players to run into and wearing out your opposition quicker. To do this a team has to play with two excellent wingers. In my view, South Korea only really has two players capable of doing this out wide: Lee Chung-yong and Park Ji-sung. Therefore, when Park is played centrally Korea lose one of their best assets.

Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the reasoning of playing your best player centrally so that they get the ball more, but this just won’t work for Korea. Firstly, without two quick, capable wide men the middle of the pitch becomes more crowded, which means Park wouldn’t get as much of the ball as hoped, and he’d have less time to do anything with it. Park is not the most creative player, that’s just not his game. With him on one wing and Lee Chung-yong on the other, however, things are very different. Korea have options to each side, they make the most of the whole area of the pitch, making things harder for the defending team, and there’s more space in the middle for Ki Sung-yeung to be creative – which is his natural game, and for Park Chu-young to drop deeper and evade his markers to make things happen in the danger areas.

So, we have to sides to Park’s game, and his ability to adapt to both teams and formations is what makes him so valuable to both his club and his country. He enables both teams to play their best all-round game. He may not get the most credit for his performances, but his tactical awareness, work rate and ability mean that when he is used properly, both teams he’s part of perform better, score more and get better results.

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3 Responses to “Park Ji-Sung’s Best Position”

  1. john said

    Hi Seamus,

    This is John from Mundo Albiceleste. Did you get my email?

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