This year’s East Asian Cup is a thing of past now, and so Tom Danicek returns for the last time with his takeaways.
The East Asian Cup tradition remains intact; hosts continue to crumble under the added pressure. Granted, in the last three editions, all three powerhouses failed to even finish as runners-up on home soil, so this year’s China did quite alright at least comparatively, but still – six tournaments, no gold medals for the organizers. Shame.
On the other hand, as far as I’m concerned, South Korea are utterly deserving champions. Even though they couldn’t beat two opponents on paper, the last game was a complete travesty, hence I’d suggest not to include it in the sample. The Taeguk Warriors outshot their rivals in the most emphatic fashion and only failed to win because of the brilliant Ri Myong-Guk and their own atrocious finishing.
The following game, where China could have clinch the historic title thanks to that, was noticeably different and – predictably – more even. The first half offered some counter-attacking heavy show, while the second one was marked by the rather mild Japanese dominance. Either way, the 1:1 draw was probably a fair result to both teams.
Now, onto the actual takeaways, with the main focus on North Korea and China, as promised earlier, and some bonus write ups to recognize the notable lows and highs of the tournament…
They are different, the North Koreans
To Australia, the then DPRK head coach Jo Tong-Sop brought a brand new team, further confirming North Korean status as an eternally obscure side. Then the same process was pretty much repeated by the incoming manager. Naturally.
But since the World Cup / Asian Cup qualifiers began, there’s finally some sense of highly-valued continuity hanging around North Korean side. The East Asian Cup clearly wasn’t any testing arena for Kim Chang-Bok; the goalkeeper plus eight outfield players started against Uzbekistan on June 16 as well as in the opening EAC game almost two months later.
Hence, it’s not too difficult to see some sort of tactical patterns in there. The main idea is obvious: sit back and counter-attack. Counter-attack with great urgency, I hasten to add and underline.
Indeed, North Koreans are not particularly cautious and they are not afraid to hit you in big numbers. Just look at their 4:2 win against Uzbekistan; two goals from open play and rebounds at the same time. The art of one-twos still needs some polishing, as most of them ended up being uncompleted, but even then DPRK looked better than Japan for example.
In any case, Kim Chang-Bok simply knows that Ri Hyok-Chol (no. 7) and Jong Il-Gwan (no. 11) can pull some rabbits out of their hats and he seems to be encouraging them in doing so, which also gives Chollima some previously unseen unpredictability.
It would make utter sense to state earlier that Chong Tese wasn’t allowed to flourish within the extremely defensive setup. But that’s not the case anymore; and the Japanese-born forward would now probably be able to replicate his fantastic spring form for Suwon in the national team, too.
This has its drawbacks, most notably a burning right-hand side (where Jong Il-Gwan operates, and which South Korea exploited a lot yesterday), but we should seriously learn to respect North Korean front line; especially in the future when Pak Kwang-Ryong, a skillful six-footer, actually turns up.
Another North Korean strength would be their aerial presence. Even without Pak Kwang-Ryong, DPRK carry a significant threat at both ends of the pitch.
For most of the yesterday’s game, Lee Jeong-hyeop was completely neutralized by the defenders (partially by himself, as per usual) and South Korean set pieces were dealt with routinely – even though here again, the takers made it way too easy for the goalkeeper with their (overly) in-swinging corners.
In front of the opponent’s goal, an improvised alternative plan for this tournament – with Pak Hyon-Il as the ace for late stages – worked wonders against Japan, as his headers played an instrumental part in both goal moves. Otherwise, Pak Kwang-Ryong usually functions in the same role from the beginning, and once again, two outswinging corners (you see, neighbors?) resulted in two goals vs Uzbekistan.
To sum up, the physical North Koreans have spent the past months relentlessly beating the crap out of the silly stereotype about ‘small, frail East Asians’ (which is, genuinely, the type of saying you’d find a normal Czech football fan perpetuating) and only that alone makes them a dangerous, if not outright interesting side.
Alain Perrin’s Chinese, the ultimate counter-attackers
Look, I know it’s nothing new, but it’s worth repeating. It started with this vine I still watch for fun and guaranteed smile occasionally and it’s been going on to date.
China have simply mastered the skill of rushing out of the starting blocks, and hell, they don’t make it too easy for themselves as they often sit so deep in their own half. Simply put, Chinese transition from defence to attack happens to be undefendable every now and then, perhaps most frequently among all current Asian national teams.
That’s – to rather great extent – a prime testament to the skills of one man: Wu Lei. The Shanghai SIPG mainstay, who’s recently registered an incredible 11 assists in space of two months and 10 league games (per Transfermarkt), possesses some tremendous acceleration, anticipation and can press the ball, for which he proves to be an absolute nightmare for most centre backs.
If you recall the first half of the Asian Cup quarter-final, it was Wu Lei and no one else who made Jedinak and Wilkinson look bad with his pace and next to no reaction time. He’d have burst deep into Australian defending third at least three times before the break and only some terrible lack of support from his team mates meant all those attacks didn’t generate any tangible danger.
Yesterday’s action was only slightly different (for better) and Wu Lei himself couldn’t control the ball well enough on an occasion or two, but he still remains a wonderful asset for Alain Perrin going forward.
That said, the Team Dragon looks to be vulnerable to their own weapon; or at least that was the case against Japan. Chinese defenders seemed to always be one step behind, always in need of recovering quite some space, and played a pretty high line for Asian standards in general.
On the other hand, I was reminded on Twitter after the final whistle that Alain Perrin still tends to be too cautious when facing more talented teams, and that’s arguably a true statement. However, Zheng Zhi is the main figure in this regard, and he was – oddly enough – left out of the starting eleven to face Japan.
The captain is the calming presence per excellence, possibly even the best carrier of it on the whole continent at the moment, and he also operates as the third Chinese centre back for majority of games.
That – plus the organisational skills of Zhang Linpeng – immediately makes China more focused and consolidated side, which creates the illusion of the overwhelming caution. I wouldn’t call it that way, to be honest, but fair enough; we shall indeed expect less adventurous and open Chinese setups in the near future.
Most intriguing find of the tournament: Kwon Chang-hoon (South Korea)
He’s awfully impotent, hesitant in front of the goal and he can’t take a corner kick, but it’s impossible to not look forward to what he can do in the future nonetheless. After all, Kwon Chang-hoon has just turned 21, which makes him the youngest member of the squad, and his playing style is somewhat unrivalled across the whole national team pool.
A bit stocky at first sight, Kwon Chang-hoon is a very dynamic and versatile player, combining some fabulous drive with rather poised passing game if needed. It seems like Stielike thinks of him as a central midfielder, useful both deeper down and higher up the pitch, but given he’s a leftie, he also naturally inclines towards the left-hand side, firing into some fine crosses from time to time.
If this tournament was mainly about finding some intriguing options for various positions, the Suwon Bluewings youngster ticks all kinds of boxes.
Best individual performance: Ri Myong-Guk (North Korea; vs South Korea)
He could well be the most ignored, yet quality goalkeeper in the whole Asia. While some of us have perhaps learnt to not even bother remembering the starters on North Korean teamsheets, Ri Myong-Guk falls into that scarcely occupied category of familiar names, and he has been the quiet force behind the relative North Korean success, too.
In fact, Ri has now won the best goalkeeper award once again – after seven years and his tournament debut at 21 – and he’s done so mostly due to his heroics against South Korea.
Ri Myong-Guk needed to claim and punch plenty of tricky balls directed into the penalty area from open play as well as set pieces (okay, those ones were titbits), while making some routine saves along the way. Many saves actually, as I doubt he’s faced less than 20 attempts. And even if he has, these stops felt just surreal at the time. He’s saved the best for last, that’s for sure.
Biggest disappointment of the tournament: Takashi Usami (Japan)
It could be Tomoaki Makino, whose overwhelming clumsiness surprisingly didn’t fade away as the Cup wore on. Or the utterly useless forward Kensuke Nagai.
Or the head coach Vahid Halilhodžić himself, in fact, for naming both flops in every single starting line-up and somehow forcing Japan into using the same ‘game plan’ we routinely applied in a local club as 12-year-olds: all of us chasing the kid with the ball, no matter what. I mean… he got the ball, right?!
Yet, I have to go with one of the most in-form and generally recognized tournament participants instead.
The Gamba Osaka mainstay couldn’t deal with a waterlogged pitch in the first game, failing to hold onto the ball on more than one occasion, and didn’t manage to put an adequate finishing touch to any of his promisingly looking counters in the last game. For a guy with 21 competitive goals to his name this year, Usami showed some baffling lack of confidence and composure.
Best goal of the tournament: Hotaru Yamaguchi (Japan; vs South Korea)
No discussion here, to be frank. A wicked, wicked shot. (And no, I can’t spot any deflection.)