East Asian Cup – Day 2 Observations

Another East Asian Cup day goes by and Tom Danicek returns with his main talking points.

It’s probably fair to say that yesterday’s action was nowhere near as exciting as the first day’s one, but what’s most important is that three participants can still technically be crowned the champions so there’ll be plenty to play for in the final round, if nothing else.

South Korea are in pole position with four points, while Japan are out with a poor one point from yesterday’s 1:1 draw against their arch rivals. Jang Hyun-soo, one of only two outfield players kept in the line-up by Uli Stielike, gave South Korea the lead via a penalty kick only to see Hotaru Yamaguchi equalize minutes later with a wicked, wicked shot.

In the afternoon, China and North Korea played out an overly physical contest, I would say. There were plenty of tactical fouls in not at all dangerous areas and so the game was exhaustingly scrappy.

In any case, China were superior in almost every aspect of the game. Alain Perrin went for a classic 4-4-2 formation with two rather big strikers upfront and mainly due to fine crossing ability of their wide players, China actually made most of their robust tandem in Yang Xu and Yu Dabao. The latter even scored the winner and then won a penalty in a 2:0 victory.

Overall, there wasn’t too much to analyse in the latter game, therefore we will once again focus solely on Japan and South Korea. However, I promise I’ll dedicate the majority of my last post to North Korea and China, who’ve both taken this tournament as an opportunity to genuinely prepare for the upcoming World Cup / Asian Cup qualifying matches, so they surely deserve a fair share of our attention…

Uli Stielike got carried away with his change in team selection

Yesterday’s haniljeon, as the derby between South Korea and Japan is commonly known in the former country, was certainly the most boring one I’ve witnessed recently; if not ever.

This observation may not be too negative, mind you, if there was some sense of a tactical battle or anything. Instead, though, the game was pretty dull, mostly due to the sheer incompetence of some players, which doesn’t bode well for both national teams whose future regulars were supposed to showcase their potential here in China.

To be entirely fair, both managers didn’t help their case at all, and what already looked like weird line-ups on paper inevitably transferred into weirdly set up teams in practice.

Uli Stielike decided to rotate his squad, a lot. And it was to no one’s pleasure, as only the defensive line functioned pretty well. Jeonbuk’s centre half Kim Kee-hee showed that he’s ready to be called up more often and although I still find the right-footed Jeong Dong-ho to be more effective at left back, where he usually starts for his club, we can shrug this point off as a detail.

The situation higher up the pitch was much more worrying. The midfield lacked Kwon Chang-hoon’s tremendous drive as well as Lee Jae-sung’s flair, while Jung Woo-young was trying to make up for his inability to dictate tempo with some hopeful long-range efforts. Striker Lee Yong-jae was left drowning in an unfamiliar position on the flank and Ju Se-jong… well, he did this, and that was basically it.

South Korean crossing had been god awful all game long and it’s sparked an interesting debate on Twitter, since the game action has helped many supporters to realize that – as Lee Jae-hyeok put it – “for a nation so obsessed with wing play, Korea is really lacking in players who can actually cross”. That’s indeed a long-standing issue and you’d probably need to go back to the early 2000s to find someone truly capable, as Jun Kim concedes here.

Shall we, I don’t know, maybe persuade Cha Du-ri to make another comeback…?

Baby steps for Halilhodžić and his Japan

For Samurai Blue, the situation is only more alarming given the fact Halilhodžić didn’t field a patently weaker eleven compared to the one he chose for North Korea.

Yes, Halilhodžić dropped the influential Yuki Muto, but he did the same with the insipid Takashi Usami, and instead formed an offensive trio that, I felt, was great at pressing the opponent’s build-up in the first half. However, the same trio ultimately proved to be a bit too imbalanced – most notably when going forward.

Kensuke Nagai, Shu Kurata and Shinzo Koroki could barely string a few passes together and accounted for only one promising but ineffective attack before the break, whilst showing no clear dissimilarities in their play and hence not complementing each other effectively (which was, above all, Nagai’s fault).

Anyway, at least the aggressive approach to defending was a fine starting point, and on top of that, fullback Kosuke Ōta along with central midfielder Gaku Shibasaki both promised an instant upgrade; the upgrade that was supposed to make the real difference and unexpectedly didn’t arrive.

Ōta was mostly ignored on the left-hand side, whereas Shibasaki surprisingly couldn’t connect the midfield and attacking line any better than his teammates did in the first game. The Kashima Antlers star wasn’t keen on taking on a greater deal of responsibility, failed to get involved properly and even showed some signs of poor concentration.

Finally, although Japan may have defended better as a whole unit, which Halilhodžić also stressed at the post-match press conference, the experienced centre back Tomoaki Makino was once again shaky on his own.

The Urawa Red Diamonds mainstay was extremely clumsy against North Korea and lost some key air battles, this time around he was, for a change, one massive burden especially when it came to ball distribution. Makino simply couldn’t deal with so many banal situations that I was just stunned by. And he’s so far been the worst performer at the tournament; quite overwhelmingly so.

Kim Shin-wook as a starter is a bad idea. And always has been.

As depressing a thought it is for a regular fan, when it comes to their current options for the no. 9 position South Korea very much resemble the under-performing Ulsan Hyundai. While both sides are of course linked by the character of Kim Shin-wook, or Wookie, they both feature one much more complex alternative at the same time.

We’ve already seen plenty of Lee Jeong-hyeop in South Korean jersey since the start of the Asian Cup. And albeit most people agree on him not being an ideal long-term solution and the fact he’s sometimes invisible as if he’s consciously hiding frustrates me a lot, it’s still not difficult to see he comes rather close to an ideal striker for Uli Stielike.

What the German head coach demands from his lone striker is an obvious physical presence up front, hard-working nature and adequate hold-up play, which Lee Jeong-hyeop offers all; to some extent anyway. Yang Dong-hyun, the Ulsan alternative, wouldn’t mean any change to that. He’s particularly capable in link-up play, or at least he was in the first four rounds of the season ­until Kim Shin-wook returned and began to slowly suffocate him.

And that, you see, is my general problem with Wookie: with his limited skill set, he simply does more harm than good and he has a detrimental effect even on his teammates.

We saw it as early as against Belgium more than 12 months ago, when he could’ve been easily blamed for the poorly executed counter-attacking plan by Hong Myung-bo, who was desperately trying to convince himself that Kim Shin-wook can be used in more ways than as a dumb flagpole, hoping for the ball to hit him.

Uli Stielike, for some odd reason, is now doing the exact same thing; even though Kim Shin-wook himself is arguably in a worse shape than he was at the World Cup.

He’s still not mobile and lacks a soft touch, which he once again showed yesterday when he failed to capitalize on a terrible error made by Makino in dying minutes of the match. Moreover, though, Kim has seemingly gotten weaker – he’s not capable of holding off his marker the way he used to be able to, he loses air battles more often than not, he’s forgotten how to time his jump and all that remains, basically, is his tall body frame.

That shouldn’t be enough for a national team invitation, surely, yet Kim Shin-wook’s inclusion is somewhat understandable nonetheless.

Lots of national coaches want to have different kinds of strikers at their disposal. Alain Perrin has brought here a big forward in Yu Dabao as well as an agile one in Gao Lin; North Korean plan B (used to perfection against Japan) is to bring on a sturdy defender in Pak Hyon-Il and move him upfront. But Stielike is not like that.

His surprising move with Lee Jeong-hyeop, the endless ignorance of Joo Min-kyu (who’s collected an impressive 17 goals in 21 starts for newly founded Seoul E-Land in the second division) and all the confidence put into the struggling Kim Shin-wook suggest Stielike isn’t prepared to test anything new.

He simply wants his team to rely on an old-fashioned target man at all cost and for that reason – I suppose – we need to pray for Ji Dong-won’s health. Only the Augsburg striker now seems to be capable of connecting all important dots for Stielike as well as a hopeful KNT supporter…

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