North Korea: a better side than you might expect

May 26, 2010

For obvious reasons, there hasn’t been a great deal of media coverage about the North Korean national team, making a re-appearance in the World Cup for the first time since their famous adventure in the north of England in 1966.

Of course, this has only contributed to a sense of anticipation about their side; there were suggestions that throughout the qualification campaign, North Korea played the most defensive game imaginable – telling their strikers to drop back into defence when out of possession. That seems doubtful, but regardless, they have new coach anyway

This week, they played their final warm-up friendly against Greece. The game ended in a 2-2 draw, with Korea twice conceding poor goals from set-pieces, and twice hitting back with stunning strikes from Jong Tae-Se – seemingly nicknamed either the “Rooney of North Korea” or the “Rooney of Asia”, presumably according to how well he’s playing at the time.

Reports from qualification suggested that they played with a six-man defence, but in truth their formation is fairly close to a 3-5-2, albeit in a very defensive manner that could be interpreted as a 3-3-2-2 or even 3-3-2-1-1, and with some important modifications.

Defending in numbers

The back three act as conventional centre-halves – it was difficult to judge whether a sweeper will be in action, because Greece fielded a central three-man attack that was relatively easy for the Korean three to pick up. There was no thought from any of the three to bring the ball out of defence, instead calm, short passes were played to the wing-backs.

The wing-backs were fairly far from the rampaging wing-backs we are used to in Europe -typified by the current Lazio side, who rely on theirs for most of their attacking moves. Instead, they rarely pass the halfway line, looking for passes to one of the front four before taking up their defensive roles again. The left-wing back, Yun-Nam, seemed slightly more interested in attacking and boasts both good pace and crossing ability.

This is how Korea's defence and midfield line up. The three centre-backs (marked in pink) stay central at all times. The two wing-backs (marked in yellow) close down when the ball is on their side, and drop in when it is on the opposite side. In front of the centre-backs lies a defensive centre-half in Yong Hak-An (marked in blue), whilst ahead of him are the two central midfielders (marked in green). The front two remain upfield.

Between the wing-backs sits Yong Hak-An, who is the midfield destroyer, but also seems to drop into the backline if one of the centre-backs are moved up the pitch when marking an opposition forward. He plays a fairly static, defensive-minded role – in fact, he is closer to a centre-back than a central midfielder in terms of the role he plays, just 15 yards further up the pitch.

In open play, North Korea defend frantically – multiple players pressure the man in the ball, and with six purely defensive-minded players, they seem reasonably happy for their centre-backs to be drawn up the pitch, knowing there is generally another player covering.

At set-pieces though, they were woeful – defending with a bizarrely high line and twice conceding when Karagounis free-kicks found someone unmarked infront of the goalkeeper at the far post. They’re also not the tallest side, so set-pieces might be a real problem for them in South Africa.

Closing down in numbers...


The main movement comes from the two central midfield players, who are also charged with finding attacking width when in possession. The onus upon them to take up more advanced positions means that North Korea find it relatively difficult to counter-attack through these players – they are generally met by opposition central midfielders, and then still have a defence to get past.

Their best moves on the counter came from direct balls to the front two from the defence, but when they managed to keep possession and build up play steadily through the wing-backs, North Korea were often very impressive with their movement and interplay around the penalty area. When the midfielders take up wide positions, they are attacking with four players in not a dissimilar way to how a 4-2-3-1 would, although they lack support from the centre of midfield, and need the full-backs to get forward to provide overloads in wide positions.

Quality in attack

If you expected them to be well-organised at the back but lacking technical quality upfront, think again. Their front two are the two best players in the side – Hong Yong-Jo plays a classic trequartista role, playing between defence and midfield and looking to play through balls for the striker. And what a striker he is – Jong Tae-Se makes intelligent runs starting from wide positions and has a lethal shot on him. In this game, his first goal was a tremendous dipping strike from 25 yards, in off the crossbar, and his second was arguably even better – he controlled a long, diagonal ball, took it past the defender and then smashed it into the top of the net. North Korea may be a defensive side, but they also offer a goal threat.

....and again


In all, North Korea look a better side than they have been made out to be, and the defensive nature of their game and constant harrying in numbers will certainly make them difficult to break down. They are, of course, in the toughest group in the competition – up against Brazil, Portugal and the Ivory Coast – and will be expected to leave without a point.

But with Brazil playing mainly on the counter-attack, and Portugal and Ivory Coast playing systems that rely on pace, North Korea’s ultra-defensive style could frustrate teams early on in games – you can imagine one of their opponents struggling to break them down early on, and going in 0-0 at half-time – whether North Korea will be able to defend resolutely for 90 minutes against a top-quality side is doubtful, however.

The best way to beat North Korea is probably by playing 4-3-3 with two high wingers, and getting your full-backs well forward – since North Korea don’t play any wide players ahead of the wing-backs, creating an overload on the flanks should be relatively easy. In that sense, all three of their opponents are fairly nicely set up to defeat them, but they might find scoring goals more difficult than they expect.

Here are the goals from the Greece game – two superb finishes from Jong Tae-Se preceded by awful defending from two free-kicks.

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