Three Hopes, One Fear: South Korea at the 2018 World Cup


Photo Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images AsiaPac-Zimbio

Appearing in their tenth World Cup finals, South Korea have a storied history in the tournament. Since their first finals appearance in 1954, when they shipped sixteen goals in two games, the Taegeuk Warriors have rarely been dull.

Semi-finalists as hosts in 2002, Korea provided one of the most thrilling runs the competition has seen. A gloriously controversial march through some of world football’s biggest names was only halted by Michael Ballack’s Germany in the last four.

Abroad Korea have never managed to hit the same heights. They have only progressed past the group stage once in eight attempts on foreign soil, two goals from Uruguay’s Luis Suarez ending their run in the last sixteen in South Africa.

The draw has not been kind to South Korea. They have been placed in Group F alongside Germany, Sweden and Mexico.

Hope #1 : That the system settles.

All the talk in the run up to the World Cup has been of systems. South Korea qualified playing mostly with four at the back, but Shin Tae-yong has dabbled with a back three in preparation. While this has caused some consternation among fans and the media, Korea’s chances of success at this tournament will hinge on making the transition from being a big fish in the Asian qualification pond to being a small fish at the World Cup. With this in mind it seems reasonable to have used the warm-up matches to try some new ideas.

The smart money is now on a back four for the tournament and look out for the effective pressing Korea displayed after switching to this arrangement during their friendly against Poland in Warsaw. Look out for the full-backs pushing on to try to provide the width to stretch opponents.

Hope #2:  That Korea will be more ruthless.

Korea can expect to spend more time on the back foot in Russia than they are accustomed to in qualifying matches. Fortunately, one of the promising features of the side’s recent friendlies has been their ability to make good use of early passes into the channels to find space on the break.

Korea are relatively well-off for attacking players, despite lacking a goal-scorer as such. Tottenham’s Son will be joined by Hwang Hee-chan of RB Salzburg and Hellas Verona’s Lee Seung-woo.

In their 2018 friendlies Korea have used early balls into the channels to find good space in dangerous areas but have often been guilty of lacking the composure to capitalise on these positions. Being more ruthless with the opportunities they make on the break will be key to Korea’s chances of getting out of the group.

Hope #3 – That the side can play free from pressure.

Expectations are low in Korea in the lead-up to the World Cup. Korea did not qualify particularly impressively having won only four of their ten games on their way to second place in their group in the final round of the Asian qualifiers, only two points better off than Syria and Uzbekistan. Performances in friendlies since qualification have been mixed. The side leaks goals and is prone to individual errors at the back.

The side will also be going to Russia without some key players. Dijon’s Kwon Chang-hoon, recently linked with Spurs, and the experienced Lee Keun-ho of Gangwon were both recently ruled out.

That’s the bad news. The positive side of this could be that the side can go into the World Cup under relatively little pressure. A combination of a recognition of the team’s weaknesses and a tough draw should allow Korea to play with the freedom of a side with little expected of it.

The big fear – That Son will be wasted.

Son Heung-min had a fine season for Tottenham in the English Premier League and is likely to be key to any success his country is to enjoy in Russia. However, it remains to be seen whether the structure of the team will allow him to flourish in the World Cup. Son seems at his best when running at defences, but coach Shin Tae-yong has seemed keen to deploy him in a more advanced role with the national team. This could limit his ability to produce the kind of thrilling performances he has shown for his club.

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