Our second team preview ahead of next week’s EAFF East Asian Cup highlights one of the stronger performers in the region recently and arguable favourites, South Korea. An impressive record since his appointment, Uli Stielike has developed a strong defensive unit, but without his European based starters could we see some experimentation in the attacking third from the German?
Fresh off the back of a surprisingly effective progression to the final at the Asian Cup, Korea Republic have continued where they left off with victory after victory in preparation and at the start of their World Cup qualification. You would be hard pushed to find a more difficult opponent in the continent than Korea at the moment, but that’s only the start of the potential they could build upon.
Defensively yes, Stielike has made what once was a catastrophic shambles (memories of Brazil, in particular against Algeria) into a well drilled stable unit that kept five clean sheets out of five on the way to the Asian Cup final in Australia. But attacking wise they hardly get your heart rate skipping. Stielike’s project is building momentum, but this area desperately needs some work if they are to compete on the global platform in three years time.
The focus has almost universally been pinpointed on Son Heung-Min, the Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Kore,a who clearly is the most talented player, not just in his nation but that the continent has produced recently. But finding how to get the best out of him has been a clear struggle during Stielike’s early tenure.
With Son’s forced absence from this tournament comes the relaxing of pressures into how to the build the attack around him. In its place come a new set of questions, over who’s best in the number 10 playmaker role, deeper creators who can dovetail with Ki on his return and the illusive question of who’s best to lead the attack?
Stielike has already come out and dampened his side’s chances due to a lack of preparation time with his squad, and the enforced selection criteria that hasn’t burdened the hosts China. This offers Stielike, in his own mind, time to tinker without any real consequence. Win or lose, Stielike can fall back on that this is a broadly B squad but at the same time run the rule on domestic talent that might have been overlooked previously.
Whether you buy that their chances are so slim is up to you. Personally I still believe the squad still packs a punch regionally. Kim Young-Gwon will command a strong defensive unit who are well versed in Stielike’s ethos, while further up the pitch the likes of Lee Jae-Sung and Jang Hyun-Soo are worthy creative midfielders, and the target man attack, that has always looked a threat under Stielike, has three worthy bodies to blood. The Taegurk Warriors look ready to challenge no matter what Stielike claims.
Key Question – Who can win out in Stielike’s search for a dependable number 9?
One area of concern has plagued the South Korean national side for over a decade now is their search for a regular centre forward. It can be argued that Korea have been without a dependable force in attack since Park Chu-Young’s career went missing at Arsenal and the issue has predictably reared its head again as Stielike aims to run the rule over three archetypal target men in China.
The man in possession is Lee Jeong-Hyeop, who on the back of a strong yet hardly explosive Asian Cup at the very least assured a quick route out defence without ever being too mobile. The other options include Lee Yong-Jae, who impressed on his debut against UAE last month, and the returning from injury Kim Shin-Wook, who has been hyped up in the media by Stielike’s in the run up to the tournament.
Main Man – Kim Young-Gwon
Without the capacity to call up European based internationals, in particular Leverkusen’s Son Heung-Min, many Koreans will be looking for one or two within the East Asian based contingent to step up to the mark as the side’s talisman. Regular centre back Kim Young-Gwon, as the most experienced player in the squad, clearly fits the bill while he continues to struggle under his immense hype.
Kim has always been seen as a defender with immense potential, spectacularly thrown into the worldwide consciousness when coach at the time Marcelo Lippi tipped the youngster for a move to Manchester United. Since then, he’s shown his capabilities with the ball at his feet, but also his fragility in key defensive areas highlighted by notable lapses in the previous World Cup campaign. Another English club, Everton, are muted to be watching Kim, can he warrant a move from East Asia?
One to Watch – Lee Yong-Jae
A striker who’s debut last month only added to Stielike’s headaches as he desperately searches for a No. 9, impressively leading the line before scoring with invention against UAE. Lee has been on the radar previously, but only showed glimpses domestically (plying his trade in J2), so it’s clear his German national coach sees something in him that has been generally overlooked.
In the build up to the tournament, spotlight has been focused on the giant Kim Shin-Wook, but Lee looks to come in under the radar. The East Asian Cup usually discovers a talent or two, so it would be fitting if this relatively unknown talent could make a name for himself without playing outside a country’s second tier domestically.