Words by Tim Lee
After a miraculous bronze medal triumph at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, expectations are high back home for this generation of South Korean U-23 talent to replicate the success of four years ago. The stakes are always high at such tournaments for the young Taeguk Warriors, with exemption from career-disrupting military service on the line. But such a special, career-changing prize can only be awarded if Shin Taeyong’s men do the realistically unexpected and land themselves a spot on the podium.
This Olympic team’s generation isn’t as star-studded as the one that 2002 World Cup hero Hong Myungbo oversaw in London. That side boasted established or on-the-fringe national team players like Augsburg duo Koo Jacheol and Ji Dongwon, Guangzhou’s Kim Younggwon and others. This side has far less international experience and less threatening names on the team sheet. Of course, overage call-ups gave tinker-man gaffer Shin the opportunity to boost his squad, and he certainly didn’t shy away from the option, securing the services of Tottenham Hotspur’s Son Heungmin and late-blooming Czech Republic-terrifying target man Suk Hyunjun.
How they qualified
In the qualifying stages, without overage options, the Korean team acquitted themselves quite well. Manager Shin Taeyong, despite not having much experience of managing in the youth system, prepared one of the most tactically flexible youth teams the KNT has ever seen. The AFC U-23 Championship saw a variety of formations being employed and players being tried out. A 2-1 victory over Uzbekistan was a respectable start to their qualification campaign, followed by a 5-0 crushing of Yemen before the reserves mustered a draw against Iraq.
A questionable performance against Jordan was followed up by a thrilling semi-final win against the hosts Qatar, where the back five crumbled the Qatari midfield core. The final seemed set to be the team’s best performance of the tournament, with Korea running rings around their nemesis Japan until around the 65th minute. We don’t talk about what happened after the 65th minute. No one talks about what happened after the 65th minute. A horrific meltdown saw the Japanese score three goals in the space of 15 minutes to snatch the Asian title away from the Koreans’ grasp.
Three key players
Kwon Changhoon is my favorite player on this team, and with solid reasoning. The Suwon Bluewings star has recorded 7 appearances for the senior side under Uli Stielike and scored three goals in World Cup Qualifying. Although usually deployed in central midfield for the seniors, Shin Taeyong prefers him on the right flank.
His greatest attribute is his direct and unforgiving vertical runs which, although work more effective centrally, remain nonetheless a dangerous threat out wide. He isn’t a conventional cut-inside winger, tending instead to receive and give the ball from more central positions. Aside from that shining skill, Kwon is all-rounded and seems to do things just a little bit better than everyone else from his generation. When he is on his game, there is no reason for Korea not to be a team to take seriously.
A three key players list would not be complete without the mention of Son Heungmin. The once Hamburger SV teenage sensation became the most expensive Asian player in history when Tottenham Hotspur signed him for 22 million pound sterling last year. Despite struggling to settle in at his new club, Son needed to leave Spurs’ pre-season preparation to join the Olympic squad in the pursuit of much-needed military exemption, which the 24-year old has not yet secured, having not been a part of the 2014 Asian Games-winning side.
Although not the team captain, players will be looking to Son to bring something extra to the pitch, be it his explosive pace, quasi-ambidexterity or powerful shot. He is a notch above this side and most of the U-23 players, and as such, his streaky form will have to be replaced by constant danger to hoist this relatively average Rio bunch out of the group stage against Germany and Mexico.
Although this team abounds in attacking threat, it’s the defensive side of things that is the greatest of concerns. Jang Hyunsoo wasn’t the first choice overage call-up in defence – that was Hong Jeongho – but Shin will still be happy to have the 2014 Asian Games captain at the centre of his defensive block.
Jang is an extremely versatile player, having been deployed previously in left-back, centre-back, right-back as well as defensive midfielder. It is largely expected, however, that Jang will start in a central position (friendly indicates in defensive midfield) at the Rio games, in order to help a fairly untested if not extremely worrying defensive set-up remain organized, structured, mentally strong and to withstand the test of Germany, Mexico and potentially others.
Shin Taeyong’s sides are notorious for their sort of “flowing attack”. There is good understanding among the midfield, the distributors and the receivers. It’s almost an eloquent style of football, with good passing combinations that will ultimately lead the team to crash the box, bringing the fullbacks high up the pitch, and goals coming from a variety of players.
This is indeed a Shin Taeyong side. There are a variety of goalscoring threats, like the aforementioned Son and Kwon, but also Pohang Steelers’ Moon Changjin, scorer of a brace against Sweden in the tune-up match earlier this week. Shin has alternated in the past between using a more agile, team-player striker such as Red Bull Salzburg’s Hwang Heechan, and a target man, who in this tournament will be Suk Hyunjun, newly signed for Trabzonspor. And even if only one of the two lone forwards can start, the other will be a potent threat off of the bench against tired defensive ranks.
So in that respect, this is a dangerous team in attack. Distribution from deep isn’t the greatest of Shin’s concerns, as Jang Hyunsoo’s recent performance alongside FC Seoul’s Park Yongwoo allowed for a physical, defence-first double-six that did nonetheless start attacks with good passing. Jeju’s Lee Changmin is the more attacking option there, while Gwangju’s Lee Chandong brings unabashed physicality to the field.
But it’s all about the defence, isn’t it? Outscoring Germany in a goal-fest is a thrilling sort of idea, perhaps a KNT fan’s wet dream, but it isn’t pragmatic, and Shin Taeyong will be the first to recognize that. And beyond Germany, if the Olympic side would be so bold to tread on such ground, Argentina and Portugal are likely quarter-final opponents. As such, defence has been Shin’s priority for a while and yet remains a glaring weakness.
There are no stand-out names, no potential CSL hot-shots. Choi Kyubaek has put in impressive shifts for Jeonbuk but has a Mertesacker-esque love of drifting out of position needlessly. Ulsan’s Jung Seunghyun has potential and is an aerial threat, but remains confidently average, while neither of the fullbacks are renowned for their defensive ability but rather for their storming up the field.
As mentioned above, Shin Taeyong is a manager who likes having as many cards to play as possible. However, it remains to be seen if in a ridiculously miniscule 18-man squad and with a frail defence (as demonstrated by conceding 2 goals to Sweden in a friendly match this week) we’ll see much tactical variation from this team.
A 4-2-3-1 sounds the most likely scenario, with the main alternation being due to the deployment of Jang Hyunsoo either in DM or CB. Shin, also likes to keep his cards close to his chest, and you hardly ever know what surprises he’ll employ and what players he’ll deploy until a ball is kicked. I’ll take the plaudits, however, if he opts for more defensive clout in a 5-4-1 shape against the Germans.
Full Squad List
1 – Kim Dongjun (Seongnam FC)
18 – Gu Sungyun (Consadole Sapporo; JPN)
5 – Choi Kyubaek (Jeonbuk Hyundai)
4 – Kim Mintae (Vegalta Sendai; JPN)
15 – Jung Seunghyun (Ulsan Hyundai)
2 – Shim Sangmin (FC Seoul)
3 – Lee Seulchan (Jeonnam Dragons)
13 – Park Dongjin (Gwangju FC)
6 – Jang Hyunsoo (Guangzhou R&F; CHN)
16 – Kwon Changhoon (Suwon Samsung)
8 – Moon Changjin (Pohang Steelers)
10 – Ryu Seungwoo (Bayer Leverkusen; GER)
14 – Park Yongwoo (FC Seoul)
17 – Lee Changmin (Jeju United)
12 – Lee Chandong (Gwangju FC)
7 – Son Heungmin (Tottenham Hotspur; ENG)
9 – Suk Hyunjun (FC Porto; POR)
11 – Hwang Heechan (Red Bull Salzburg; AUT)