South Korea: organised but prone to mistakes

June 10, 2014

When you think of South Korea at a World Cup, you still think of their amazing run to the semi-finals in 2002.

There’s more reason to think about that now Hong Myung-Bo, the superb sweeper who captained the side in 2002, is in charge. He’s a Korean legend – their most-capped player, who appeared in no fewer than four World Cups. He’s worked his way up their coaching ranks, too – he was an assistant for the 2006 World Cup effort, then took charge of the U20s with some success, then took Korea to the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics.

He’s had a significant impact upon Korea’s style since taking charge a year ago, scrapping the ugly long ball football they played under the previous regime, and turning to a more technical approach based around attacking quickly down the flanks. Arguably the best two players are the two wingers, and Korea will get the ball out wide as quickly as possible.

Double wing threat

The two wingers are different players, however. Right-sided Lee Chung-yong gets up and down the touchline and is very talented on the ball, twisting and turning away from defenders before sending in crosses. He’s a very good ball-carrier and is capable of turning defence into attack smoothly, so should be perfect for Korean transitions.

On the other flank, there is Son-Heung-min. He needs to receive the ball higher up the pitch, preferably in the final third, running against the last defender. His counter-attacking performances for Leverkusen this season have occasionally been sensational – he single-handedly destroyed Dortmund – and there’s a very ‘German’ feel about him, determined to attack quickly. However, he’s not yet entirely efficient in the final third, and doesn’t seem particularly at home for the national side. Still, if anyone is to be the star of this side, it’s Son.


Korea’s problem is the lack of a top-class striker. Kim-Shin-wood is stylistically no more than a Plan B in this side, and Park Chu-young remains something of a mystery – signed by Arsenal three years ago, but barely noticeable and twice loaned out. He’s still first-choice for Korea, but the Arsenal failure prompted a dramatic decline in his goalscoring ability at international level, too – he has 24 international goals, but just one since November 2011. He’s playing in a group with some strong centre-backs, and therefore it’s difficult to see him scoring goals.

Probable South Korea XI

Attacking midfielder Koo Ja-cheol is the Michael Ballack figure. Another based in Germany, he’s a good all-round technical player, but also tall, strong and excellent at arriving late in the box, although he’s another whose goalscoring return has declined in the last couple of years for Korea.

Cautious holders, attacking full-backs

The midfield duo are steady and reliable. Ki Sung-Yeung is very intelligent with his use of the ball, rarely attempting penetrative balls but instead spreading the play from side to side, encouraging Korea to attack down the flanks, and holding his position for a return pass.

His midfield partner remains undecided – Park Jung-woo is a basic scrapper, and his place looks to have been taken by Han Kook-young who is more forward-thinking. Hong will presumably pick according to the situation of the game, and the nature of the opposition, as these two are completely different players.

Korea traditionally produces exciting full-backs, so it’s surprising to see the lack of quality in these positions. Kim Jin-soo is probably the best of a bad bunch, but has been ruled out through injury so Yun Suk-young will play instead. Both he and Lee Young fly forward into attack to create overloads against the opposition full-backs, but leave Korea’s centre-backs exposed. To guard against opposition counter-attacks, the central midfielders stay at home. To be frank, it’s debatable whether it’s worth the full-backs attacking so relentlessly, because their end product isn’t great.

Perhaps Hong’s legendary centre-back play in 2002 inspired a new generation of intelligent, ball-playing defenders. Both Hong Jeong-ho and Kim Young-gwon are modern defenders capable of bringing the ball out from the back, and are good positionally. Neither guarantee good performances as both are just 24 and lack experience at this level, but they help Korea to play high up the pitch, and are ones to watch for the future.


Hong’s arrival as coach feels like the start of a new generation, but it’s in future tournaments – the 2015 Asian Cup, or perhaps even the next World Cup – where they could make their mark. This side feels too raw – inexperienced centre-backs, Son not yet a top-level player, and probably not enough players used to such a high standard of football.

This is one of the few groups where any side could progress, however. The second round is a realistic aim.

Quick guide

Coach: Hong Myung-Bo – legendary player, promising coach

Formation: 4-2-3-1

Key player: This is a counter-attacking side, and Son could star on the break

Strength: Quick wingers

Weakness: The lack of goals

Key tactical question: How good are the transitions?

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