Going into Wednesday night’s final group stage matches in Brazil, Asia still held hopes that all three of their participants would make it through to the Olympic knockout stages. In the end, despite three sound results, only one nation remains as South Korea go through as group winners to face Honduras in this weekend’s quarter final. Looking back at the highs and lows from the night’s football, Tom Danicek and Martin Lowe consider the main talking points from each squad’s group stage climax.
South Korea (1) v (0) Mexico
– South Korea are through but their build-up issues appear to be ever so pronounced
South Korea manager Shin Tae-yong had said prior to the game his team will go for a win. And he lied. Or the players listened to his pre-match speech with ear plugs in.
Granted, no one – not even in their darkest dreams – would’ve imagined that the incoming Lee Chang-min can prove to be more useless on the ball (and more suspect with his positional as well as reactive game) than the renowned black hole Moon Chang-jin, but still – it looked like a genuine game plan to limp through the first half worrying about every touch of the ball.
Even with their first ever Olympics progression from the group pole position ultimately achieved, there’s simply no excuse for most of the yesterday’s performance.
However breathtaking Kwon Chang-hoon’s winning goal was, it never should’ve felt that unfamiliar or indeed alien at the time. Yet it did, because up until that 77th minute, no South Korean seemed capable of passing the ball in a sophisticated manner, let alone dribble with any real purpose. Intricate passing moves down the middle were completely absent throughout, as the only adept ball distributor Park Yong-woo usually sat deep in order to help out with Mexican cut backs and stinking low crosses into the box.
As per usual, most of my anger was directed towards both fullbacks who have genuinely looked like proper nuisances all the way through the group stages, with Shin Tae-yong stubbornly refusing to react in any way. The switch to 5-4-1 halfway through the first half was a fine recognition of the painfully obvious weak spots defence-wise, but perhaps the fullbacks’ attacking support is even a bigger problem.
Shim Sang-min for some reason still believes he knows how to produce a precise long pass behind the line (he absolutely cannot), which leads to him hindering Korea’s attacking play way too needlessly and way too often. But it’s not only the left-back who fails to realize some shortcomings; it’s also the team as a whole, which bafflingly continues to build attacks down the flanks.
You see, Johan Cruijff was a smart football man, and he was also right in preferring depth over width in the build-up. The legendary Dutch was clever enough to insist on his teams ignoring fullbacks inside their own half and involving them only higher up the pitch to fully avoid situations where a wide man is trapped by opponents given his tricky receiving position.
That’s more or less what Japan have done the whole tournament, by the way, notably connecting with Muroya almost exclusively in the attacking half, if not third, and that’s precisely what South Korea should copy. With sub-par ball-playing ability of both Shim and Lee Seul-chan, it’s indeed imperative. But then again, do they have players who could build through the middle instead…? Yikes. TD
Japan (1) v (0) Sweden
– Too little too late, as Japan head home
The Samurai Blue may have finally got their act together in clinching three points in their final group encounter against Sweden last night, however it was a case of too little too late, as Colombia’s victory over Nigeria pipped them ahead of the Japanese in the race for the quarter finals. It’s been an all-round disappointing campaign for Japan; going into the tournament as continental U23 champions, a lot was expected of them, but in the end they fell down in a number of areas.
To start with, the overage wildcard picks simply didn’t fulfill their potential. Shinzo Koroki looked a threat in patches but didn’t provide anything extra to the cause that the likes of Asano and Minamino didn’t do in attack. Tsukasa Shiotani was hoped to lead the backline as an older-wiser head, but instead recorded similarly fragile performances to his defensive peers. The less we say about Hiroki Fujiharu’s tournament the better, given his last telling contribution was scoring Colombia’s second last weekend.
Compare the impact of these players to those of Japan’s main rivals Korea; the experienced Jang Hyun-Soo has organised and stabilised the Taegurk Warriors defensive set up, Son Heung-Min has provided nous and quality in the final third, while Suk Hyun-Jin has notched three goals in as many substitute appearances. All tellingly have experience outside their domestic league, with demonstrable impact they can influx onto the team. Putting it bluntly, the Japanese selection didn’t have any of this.
Another area of concern, which stretches back to January in Olympic qualification, is their slow starts. Again against Sweden, Japan sat back, initially affording possession to the opposition. A lack of pressing has allowed for easier transition up the pitch, but also has set Japan onto the back foot in each of their group matches, a trait that has had a telling effect throughout each of their matches, leaving them chasing games into the last quarter.
The second half against Sweden showed the excitement that Japan should’ve brought to Brazil on a more consistent basis. Flooding forward with much more regularity, Shoya Nakajima, while sometimes questioned for having an unreliable final delivery/shot, was a constant threat from the left, while the introduction of Shinya Yajima and Musashi Suzuki during the second period caused the Swedes plenty of trouble late on.
This was clearly Japan’s most accomplished all round performance of the last two weeks, but it’s by no surprise that it’s come against one of the weakest sides in the whole tournament. Consistency let them down across the group stage, something that should’ve been ironed out by better utilisation of experienced wildcard picks. We’ll look back over this period as an opportunity missed, rather than a time wisely employed in the months and years to come. ML
Iraq (1) v (1) South Africa
– Woodwork as well as poor substitutions deny Iraq a deserved place in the quarter-finals
Iraq leave Brazil unbeaten, having only conceded one goal, upset the hosts and dominated the play in their other two encounters. Crucially however, they couldn’t clinch the much needed victory that would have carried them over the line ahead of Denmark into the quarter finals, who instead qualify for the next round with a desperate looking negative goal difference.
As has been the case in their previous two encounters, coach Abdul-Ghani Shahad got the game plan spot on from the start of their match with South Africa. They may have gone behind within 5 minutes thanks to some uncharacteristically poor defending, but they replied immediately and dominated proceedings from that point.
The recalled Ali Husni, was fantastic, an inspirational figure who conjured chances at will, with Iraq going close (hitting the woodwork on a number of occasions) time and time again, it seemed to be a mere question of when rather than if the second goal would come. Regrettably, in one of the strangest decisions of the group phase, the two Ali’s Husni and Adnan, the star creators in this attacking line-up, were withdrawn on the hour mark, denting any chance they had of snatching a winner from the match late on.
Iraq’s strength has been its flexibility; from dominating possession and influence (as they did against Denmark), to getting behind the ball to nullify superior opposition (as shown against Brazil) and to pose a great threat from behind the attacking line (as seen with the deployment of Husni and Mahdi Kamel against South Africa). It could be argued that Shahad took this flexibility for granted, and after an hour, despite dominating, the second goal hadn’t arrived, he may have thought it was time to roll the dice once again, only to find his luck was now out.
It’s difficult to find an accurate single evaluation of Iraq’s time at the Olympics. So good for so long in all three matches but no victories to show for their efforts and only one solitary goal (which let’s be honest was a gimmee, a free header from a corner). Most of the big players stood up to the challenge admirably, captain Saad Abdul-Amir was a class act that made you forget about the sorry Yaser Kasim affair, Ali Adnan was a driving force down the left despite some wayward free-kicks, while Ahmad Ibrahim was a man mountain at centre back.
The only area that needs improving is in attack, which is hardly a new suggestion in Iraqi football. You can imagine Younis Mahmoud is sitting at home with a sly grin on his face, muttering “I told you so” regarding his non-inclusion in the squad. Mohannad Abdulraheem showed some bright movements off the ball, but missed too many big opportunities on it, while Hammadi Ahmad had more effect play acting and jibing opponents than he ever had with the ball.
It’s a case of what could’ve been then. There were plenty of occasions especially against South Africa if the ball had fell differently, we’d be sitting here contemplating a quarter-final match up with Nigeria. Instead, we’re attempting to pick holes, in what was in the end a positive but unlucky campaign. Quite the opposite can be said about the Danes, who could get demolished by the Super Eagles on Saturday. ML
Player of the Round
Ali Husni (Iraq) – The most baffling substitution of the tournament? Most probably. Up until his shocking withdrawal right after the hour mark, Ali Husni had been a true menace; seeking one-twos, producing cute through balls and setting up Ali Adnan for a nice volley that hit the post. Without him, Iraq’s deadly creative touch was gone.