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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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Posted in European football, Manchester United, Park Ji-sung | Tagged: , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Star Performance – Park Ji-sung

Posted by Seamus Walsh on March 12, 2010

Well, what can I say about Park Ji-sung’s performance on Wednesday night for Manchester United against AC Milan in the Champions League? For that matter, what more can be said about United that they haven’t already said with their performance? Park was one of the best, most influential players on the pitch, perhaps even the best. Rooney will undoubtedly steal the headlines with his superb two goals, taking his tally up to thirty for this season. Beckham may grab a few with his long anticipated return to Old Trafford. But this was an inspiring team performance by united.

Rooney scores his 30th of the season

At the back, Ferdinand and Vidic were immense and impassable, and they showed why United miss them so much when one or both is out injured. For United’s sake, they need them both now to stay fit for the rest of the season. In midfield, Fletcher was brilliant, and seemed to make no mistakes whatsoever. Scholes was his usual industrious self. Valencia showed once again why he was the perfect player to bring in once Ronaldo was sold to Real Madrid – another astute signing by Ferguson. Nani had a sloppy first half, but absolutely terrorised Milan in the second half with his pace and skill.

But for me it was the tactical decision by Ferguson to play Park centrally just behind and supporting Rooney that allowed United to play such a fantastic game, with flowing attacking football and an airtight defence.

The Manchester United lineup for the match was:

Van Der Sar

Neville          Ferdinand          Vidic          Evra

Scholes          Fletcher

Valencia                    Park                            Nani

Rooney

This isn’t the first time Ferguson’s used Park in the centre this season, but it is the first time he’s done so and also played both Nani and Valencia on the wings at the same time. I think we can be expecting this lineup a bit more often in future. Having Park in a central position allowed Fletcher and Scholes to play slightly deeper, to pick up any attacking runs from the Milan midfield, and most importantly, it gave them time and space to play accurate, creative passes from deep to the more attacking players.

Park’s performance was key for United against Milan

Park is probably not quite as quick as Nani and Valencia, and less likely to dribble round the opposition full backs, so this formation also gave United added width in attack, and more pace than Milan could handle. Park’s energy levels meant that the Milan defense just couldn’t track his runs, which were clever, and either meant he received the ball in a good attacking position or created space for Rooney to.

When United didn’t have the ball, Park was man marking Andrea Pirlo, the player who pulls all the strings for Milan in midfield from a deep-lying position. With Park never more than a metre away from him when Milan had the ball, Pirlo was essentially useless, unable to find the time or space to direct Milan’s attacking play, making the job much easier for United’s defense. Also, with the creative playmaker so tightly watched, Nani and Valencia don’t have to overcommit themselves in defense, meaning they can break quicker when United break.

Now, I couldn’t analyse Park’s performance in this match without discussing his excellent goal. After Rooney had scored two already, essentially killing off any Italian hopes of a comeback, Park produced a slick finish for United’s third.

As this clip shows, United started the move with Park in a defensive position, which allowed Nani to react to quicker to go on the break. Then, with Park playing in the middle of Nani and Valencia, he was able to receive the ball from Nani on one wing and spread it to Valencia on the other, before receiving it once again from Scholes in the area. His first touch was perfect, and it allowed him to beat the defender and head for goal. He stumbled, but recovered well to pull off a fine finish low to the keeper’s right. A well taken goal, and very well deserved.

Here we see Park’s direct contribution to United’s fourth of the match, scored by Darren Fletcher, as he wins the ball back with a clever turn with United in an attacking position. Young Rafael provided the deep cross, and Fletcher was making the run to the back post to head in. It’s important to bear in mind that this was after United were 3-0 up, and they were still looking to attack, with running across to recover the lost ball. There’s really no need for him to do so in that position, there’s no real threat for Milan in a position like that, but I think it shows how he’s willing to go above and beyond what is simply necessary for the good of the team.

Park slots his finish past the goalkeeper

Park celebrates his goal

An excellent performance by Manchester United, who go on to the next round, and a wonderful performance by Park Ji-sung, crowned with a goal in the champions League. I’ll finish with the words of one Manchester United fan regarding Park: “He made the two victories possible really, he’s a great player to have form a tactical point of view,” and those of manager Sir Alex Ferguson: “Ji-Sung Park, in particular, showed sacrifice, intelligence and discipline and we needed that against Andrea Pirlo.”

Posted in European football, Highlights, Manchester United, Match Review, Park Ji-sung, Star Performance | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

What do Korean players need to succeed in Europe?

Posted by Seamus Walsh on March 8, 2010

This is obviously a pressing issue for Korean football, and one which it looks like they’re getting closer to solving, with a number of players now having played in Europe. The first thing to note is that Korea has as much chance as any other country of producing top quality players. The reasons there have been so few are fairly obvious:

  • The domestic league has only been running for less than thirty years. The leagues in England and Italy are over a century old, with those in France, Spain and other countries approaching that.
  • The league only has 15 teams. Less teams means less players. Less players means less top quality players.
  • Education Fever. It’s well documented how important education is to building a future for kids in Korea. I worry that with so much pressure on them to study every hour of the day and night, less kids are getting a chance to play sport, or to follow their passion if the opportunity arises.

Empty seats for the K-League’s biggest team, FC Seoul

These are big issues, and solving them is beyond the scope of this blog, although I would like to quickly stress that with time the situation will inevitably improve, and I don’t think it will take a century before Korea is also producing players of the quality of those produced by the top footballing nations in Europe and South America. Having quite a small population inevitably means there will be less great players than there are coming from somewhere like Brazil, but the important thing is to raise the overall quality of all Korean players. In my view, a youth system like that in France would be best suited to the South Korean football climate. This would involve talented young players attending a footballing institute which also functions as a school, meaning they would receive both standard and footballing education, while also allowing them to be attached to the academy of a professional club. I’ll deal with this issue in more detail in a later post, however.

As for Korean players in Europe, one stands above all the rest in the contemporary game: Park Ji-sung. He’s achieved phenomenal success, perhaps most notably being the first Asian player to win the Premier League, to play in the Champions League final, and to win a Champions League winners medal, and the first (and only) Asian player to play in four Champions League semi-finals.

Park Ji-sung, Korea’s leading light in Europe

So what’s been the secret to his success? Well, the first reason was Guus Hiddink, his coach for the national team and then PSV Eindhoven. Hiddink obviously saw the potential Park had, and luckily he was in a position to offer him the opportunity to come to Europe. Unfortunately, not many Korean players have that sort of relationship with successful European coaches who can ensure they make it to Europe.

After moving, however, I think Park simply played his natural game, and let his talent show through. He works very hard in every aspect of his game, and that’s something you can really see in his performances – he never stops running, never gives up, and that’s always been the case with him. Two prime examples are the winning goal he scored against Portugal aged only 21 in the 2002 World Cup, and the equalizer against France late on in their group encounter in the 2006 World Cup.

This is an attitude that players such as Ki Sung-yeung, Lee Chung-yong and Park Chu-young, who have recently moved to Europe, need to have if they are to really succeed. They need to show dedication, to play to their best under any circumstances, and to understand that there is always more they can do – never be satisfied with what you’ve already achieved. It’s not simply enough to get to Europe, you need to perform once you’re there as well.

Park Chu-young scores for Monaco

On top of that I think it’s sensible to note the differences in the style of football between Europe and Asia, and also the standard level. Park Chu-young probably has the easiest transition in terms of the style of football in France, because they encourage a quick passing game, much like he will be used to playing in Korea. What he will have to do is keep working on his pace and power, which are superior in the French game to the Korean one. For Ki Sung-yeung and Lee Chung-yong, however, their period of adaption will inevitably be longer and more difficult. The British game is a lot more physical, a lot tougher than the style of football played just about everywhere else in the world. Of course there are smaller, skillful players, but even they have to get used to the harder tackles.

In this way, Park has adapted himself brilliantly. If you compare photos of him from the 2002 World Cup, or when he first moved to PSV with photos of him now, he had a much slighter frame than he currently does, and he’s clearly put a lot of effort in to improving his power and strength, as well as speed and stamina and his all round game.

Park in the 2002 World Cup

Park has improved his physical presence since moving to Europe

Lee’s pace will be an asset in the Premier League, but he will have to overcome the fact that he will be put under a lot more physical pressure in England than he’s used to, and also the fact that on average players in the Premier League will be faster than in the K-League. In my opinion, Ki will have the toughest time of all. He’s a central midfielder in a very physical, tough league. In fact, his natural technical ability – which is excellent – may actually make him more of a target for tough tackles in Scotland. Although he’s quite tall, he’s still young and has yet to completely fill out, I would say. He’ll definitely get physically stronger playing in Scotland, and the higher level of competition should mean his game improves overall as well.

There was interest in him from Manchester United a while back, although in the end nothing came of it, which I think is probably for the best, as he wasn’t ready at that time. I think he needs at least a couple of seasons playing in Scotland to try and adapt to the lifestyle, and the style of football, as well as to play more, improve his game and get stronger. This will take at least two or three seasons, and I don’t think it would be a good idea for him to move to the Premiership before then. But don’t get me wrong, he absolutely has the talent, and I think he can potentially exceed even what’s been achieved by Park. Time will tell, but for now he knows what needs to be done.

Posted in European football, Ki Sung-yeung, Manchester United, Park Ji-sung, Uncategorized | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »