WCQ: How to solve a problem like Korea?

With qualification for the World Cup in 2018 running side by side with qualification for the Asian Cup in 2019, interest in the format will continue to grow throughout the group stages, with an increased incentive of finishing as high and to collect as many points as possible. Group G for example, initially looks a foregone conclusion when considering where top spot will head. Korea Republic further underlined their favourites tag with a comprehensive result and more importantly performance in this week’s international friendly against a strong UAE outfit.

This arguably leaves Kuwait and Lebanon in behind, in pursuit of a potential shot at World Cup qualification if they can end the group in 2nd position. For this to be fully realised, points will need to be taken not just off those teams below them but also from the sections strongest squad in Korea Republic. The Middle Eastern rivals, kicked off their qualification campaign in Saida on Thursday, Kuwait coming out of it the victors after an enthralling contest finally saw the breakthrough late on by substitute striker Yasser Naser. While Lebanon’s chances are decreased, the next year could drastically change things around. Martin Lowe poses the question of how, and where both countries can target to reel in the big fish that is South Korea.

Utilising their wide men

It was a clear game plan of both Lebanon and Kuwait to threaten each other down the flanks. Both nations are fully equipped with willing runners with bags of tricks and flicks that forced much of the breakthrough moments in Thursday’s encounter. Lebanon’s Hassan Maatouk was demonstrably one of the players of the match as he twisted and turned the Kuwaiti right hand side to bits. But despite his guile, his creation was wasted as Lebanon continued to bottle it whenever a chance arose. Down the left, Husein Awada also looked to stretch the side with direct running towards goal preferred to simply running to by-line before crossing.

Kuwait of course have looked a regular threat down the flanks over the last few years. The cult figure of Fahad Al-Enezi has continually been looked to for inspiration, and on his return to the national team picture after some off the field disagreements at the turn of the year, his mere presence illustrated what Kuwait had been missing at the Asian Cup. In the last year, especially at November’s Gulf Cup, the front three of Al-Enezi, Bader Al-Motawa and Yousef Naser worked in harmony, quickly rotating positions, starting off wide only to cut in impressively.

This direct and fluid style was of course under previous boss Jorvan Vieria, who has since been replaced by Tunisian Nabil Maaloul. While Maaloul’s tactics differ slightly from the Brazilian, the returning influence of Al-Enezi and the instant impact felt by Al-Motawa and Naser off the bench on Thursday could see a return to the wide attacking play of his predecessor.

Focusing this ability on Korea Republic looks to tie in as an obvious counter to their opposition’s possession based methods. The Korean’s are fresh off the back of losing experienced Cha Du-Ri to retirement and despite a solid defensive record at the Asian Cup, can be stretched by pace. Kuwait posed Korea little issue during their encounter in Australia, but they pursued a more centrally focused attacking plan that ultimately played into the hands of the Koreans. A shift in tactic could spark some extra threat from Maaloul’s side.

Upcoming Group G Fixtures

Date

Home Team Result Away Team

11 June

Lebanon 0-1

Kuwait

8 September

Lebanon

V

Korea Rep.

8 October

Kuwait V

Korea Rep.

13 October

Kuwait V

Lebanon

24 March

Korea Rep. V

Lebanon

29 March

Korea Rep.

V

Kuwait

Intimidation techniques

There’s always been a divide between East and West Asia, be it between their style of football, the standards in refereeing or the atmosphere created from the fans. This is always an area in which smaller nations can build upon when facing an opposition from another region, notably seen by the exploits of the Philippines and Maldives as they frustrated Western nations Bahrain and Qatar respectively in this week’s qualifiers. Lebanon and Kuwait will no doubt focus on this when Korea visit West Asia. Utilisation of the differing conditions and long distance logistics involved will lead to a less certain Korean side that’s performances are likely to drop.

Two key areas were noticed when Kuwait travelled to Lebanon on Thursday – the leniency of the refereeing and the ferocity of the supporters. Over the last year, the increase in overly excessive tackling has risen in the Middle East, most pertinently shown in the Saudi Pro League and at their recently hosted Gulf Cup. These types of tactics are becoming too familiar now when watching internationals taking place in the region. Countless times on Thursday, you saw foul after foul waved away, with a number of yellow card opportunities ignored by the referee. While it’s not a pretty technique to adopt an overly physical approach, especially in the home internationals this could well force the upper hand.

When considering the crowd’s impact on the match, it’s clearly a demonstrable shift from what you can expect from a home Korean international. While, the crowd’s passion isn’t under question, the hostility is clearly a notch or two lower in the East than it is in the West. Of course this can have a detrimental effect, the partisan crowd witnessed on Thursday in the end proved Lebanon’s undoing as the home player’s visibly shrank under the pressure, while Kuwait embraced the role of pantomime villain.

Suppressing Korea’s strengths

Ever since Uli Stielike took charge of the South Korean national side, the notable effect has been clearly tangible. Initially, he focussed purely on their previously shaky defence, which went through January’s Asian Cup without conceding a goal up until the final. The second area was to utilise their greater technical ability on the ball when facing weaker Asian opposition. Previously Korea tended to sit back on pumping long balls up to the lone forward or relying heavily on giving the ball to their talisman Son Heung-Min, in hope he’d do it all on his own.

This newer possession based approach has seen results and performances sky rocket and will likely be the bed rock of their World Cup qualification approach. The question for Kuwait and Lebanon will be, how to best counter such a philosophy given their squad’s strengths and weaknesses? As discussed previously, a high press game wouldn’t be the worst place to start, given the aggression both sides possess and the amount of time in control of the ball Korea desire.

Another area is a direct attacking approach, ideally quick runs in behind the full backs. In Australia, Korea generally coped with any opposition wishing to sit back, soak up pressure and counter on the break. With the calm and experienced players that Korea have at their disposal, the likes of holding anchor Han Kook-Young and all action left back Kim Jin-Su, the Taegurk Warriors excel when they are given time to think and space to manage opposition attacks.

However, the Middle East’s greatest threat will come from the nations’ two wide attacking forwards; Fahad Al-Enezi and Hassan Maatouk. Perfectly for this scenario, both work best from the left, in an area Korea are rebuilding in since the retirement of Cha Du-Ri. High press and constant probing on that side of the pitch is already a plan well utilised at the start of qualification for Kuwait and Lebanon, and clearly a route which should provide the greatest results in the future. Korea are far from a side with gaping holes in their armoury, but picking them apart could see either Middle Eastern side put together a decent shout of making it to the next stage of qualification.

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