For our fourth and final team preview of the East Asian Cup, Martin Lowe casts his eye over the outsiders for the tournament, North Korea. Fresh off the back of two comprehensive victories in the World Cup Qualification group of death, the Koreans will be slipping under the radar, but much will depend on their Jekyll and Hyde form whether they can provide a true upset in China.
It may be cliché but Korea DPR as a nation are often portrayed as mysterious and suspecting due to their governmental restrictions, and their football mirrored it. In the run up to January’s Asian Cup, we had only a few friendlies within a 3-year period since their last competitive exercise at the AFC Challenge Cup in 2012 to assess. We even went on to concede that while as much as our predictions were heavily researched, the lack of matches could lead to some unpredictable squad/team selection.
Six months after the Asian Cup, we’ve been spoilt by North Korean football. After their limp exit in Australia, they’ve started like a speeding train with an “away” victory over Yemen followed by an impressive win over group favourites Uzbekistan – a complete role reversal from the side that struggled to get hold of the ball from the same opposition in January.
This quick turnaround in results has largely been suggested has come through home advantage, given the strict passage into the country and partisan support on show within the Kim Il-Sung Stadium in Pyongyang. However, the tactical philosophy and individual confidence of the playing personnel might have had a larger impact.
Since their modern day re-emergence to the wider footballing world at the 2010 World Cup, Korea DPR have been seen as rearguard defenders, which they’ve attempted to live up to especially against stronger opposition (within the Asian Cup for example). However, within that time they have performed some of the most fluid and inventive attacking play in the region when playing those in and around their modest ranking.
The confidence shown to pour forward at will on the break in the recent qualifiers is a far cry from those seen in Australia where lone front man Pak Kwang-Ryong was left too isolated. Ahead of this tournament this new approach clearly should be the focused starting point given the success they’ve achieved recently.
Kim Chang-Bok, who took over on a full time basis after the Asian Cup exit, has reinstalled the confidence that is starting to bare fruit throughout the national team structure, which has been demonstrably seen by their successful youth sides. With the likes of Japan and rivals South Korea sitting back on largely B squads, it might be North Korea’s best chance to showcase what their capabilities actually are.
Key Question – Can the Koreans exert their own attacking style on superior opposition?
The psychological difference between the Asian Cup North Korea and the World Cup Qualification North Korea has been demonstrable. The attacking necessity has now lead to exuberant interplay that will at the very least make the opposition wary of a quick counter and at the most see their defensive line retreat. The fear of defeat has seemed to weigh heavy on the shoulders of North Koreans in major tournaments as they too easily revert back to a ultra conservative flat back five.
Regionally, North Korea tend to make the greatest impact, through AFC Challenge Cup, Asian Games and U19 successes. A full strength squad that includes the likes of Ri Chol-Myong in midfield and the attacking balance of Jong Il-Gwon or So Hyun-Uk playing off the target man forward is a threatening prospect if they only dare to take the game to their opponents.
Main Man – Pak Kwang-Ryong
The physical presence of Pak Kwang-Ryong is the only player to be represented at this tournament who plys their trade outside of the continent, notably due to his struggles to break through with his club side in Switzerland. His club side’s loss has been Korea DPR’s gain, as he led his side through non-FIFA dates in East Asian Cup qualifying for this final stage.
His unarguable talent for hold up play and his aerial presence have been crucial in North Korea’s development, while his experience in Europe also rubs off on those around him. He seems to have been around for ever, winning two AFC Challenge Cup trophies already, with his first coming when he first broke through as a 17 year old. Now at 22, he packs a punch mentally and physically to drag his team forward into China.
One to Watch – So Hyun-Uk
Much was made of the emergence of Jong Il-Gwon ahead of Australia as North Korea’s greatest outlet on the break. When it didn’t pay off, the incoming Kim Chang-Bok immediately instilled usual impact sub So Hyun-Uk from the start which has immediately paid dividends.
The attacking midfielder, who usually slots in on the left, had a fantastic match against Yemen to kick of World Cup qualification, beautifully capping off an energetic performance both defensively and in attack with the rifled winner from outside the box. When I talk about a more counter-attacking approach, So is the catalyst behind it. While his now-back-up Jong had the greater skill and footballing brain, So has the willingness to continually join the attack and hurriedly become a thorn in his East Asian rivals’ side.