Asian powerhouse South Korea travel to Brazil after qualifying for the World Cup Finals for the eighth successive time. Most memorable in their international history was their fairytale run to the semifinals on home soil in 2002, which included triumphs over Italy and Spain. After a group stage exit in 2006, the Taeguk Warriors reached the Round of 16 in South Africa, where they lost to eventual semifinalists Uruguay. The Koreans have also finished third in the last two AFC Asian Cups as well as earning the bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics.
The Taeguk Warriors endured a below par qualifying campaign despite reaching the Finals without the need for a playoff match. In the end, the Koreans finished second in the final round behind Iran, only automatically qualifying ahead of Uzbekistan on goal difference. For a team that possesses some of the biggest names in Asian football as well as players in the top European leagues, the second place finish was underwhelming and saw the national team part ways with head coach Choi Kang-Hee.
In stepped Hong Myung-Bo, former national team captain and the coach that led the Koreans to third place in the Olympics. While performances have improved, there is a sense that the Koreans are not performing to their fullest potential, evidenced by defeats to Mexico, the United States, and most recently Tunisia in 2014. However, South Korea boasts a youthful squad with an average age of 25; as a result, the Asian nation will hope the exuberance and energy of youth will help the Warriors in Brazil.
The South Koreans will line up in essentially a 4-4-2, or a variation thereof. The presence of Bayer Leverkusen attacker Heung-min Son allows for a transition to a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-1-1, as the 21 year old has the license to drop deeper and roam freely.
Aside from Son, the Asian giants possess very little in terms of genuine quality, despite the likes of Arsenal striker Park Chu-Young and Bolton Wanderers winger Lee Chung-Yong. As a result, the Taeguk Warriors focus on organization and discipline; Hong has placed importance on high work ethic and has continued the tradition of high energy football. Such an approach could go two ways in the sweltering Brazilian heat: the team could either press their opponents into submission or exhaust themselves. Hong has instituted a fast paced, counter-attacking style of play to go along with organized, energetic defense. The Koreans’ lack of attacking firepower means that more often than not Hong has been forced to use Son, a winger at club level, in a central role. With FC Seoul winger Yoon Il-Lok not selected, Hong could turn to Cardiff City’s Kim Bo-Kyung on the left to allow Son to play as the shadow striker. In this set up, the whole team goes through Son.
At the same time, Hong’s regime has seen flashes of possession based football, most notably in the impressive friendly win over Switzerland last year. With a host of Bundesliga and Premier League (and Championship) based midfielders, the Koreans do have technically adept players who can create in the middle of the pitch. The versatility of Son is crucial here as the Leverkusen man is equally adept on the wings as through the middle. This allows Hong to use an extra central midfielder, switching Mainz’s Koo Ja-Cheol into the middle to play slightly ahead of Ki Sung-Yueng and Han Kook-Young. Against smaller teams, Korea has the ability to retain possession and dominate the ball; even without the retired Park Ji-Sung, the Taeguk Warriors have the ability to carve out chances for their attackers. While each of the three central midfielders will graft in the middle of the pitch, Han is the nominal holding midfielder in charge of regaining possession. Swansea City and Sunderland loanee Ki will set the tempo, and Koo will link up with the attackers.
The role of the two wingers, Son and Lee Chung-Yong, varies drastically in this set up. The Bolton wide-man Lee will look to provide genuine width and whip in crosses for Arsenal’s forgotten man Park, while on the other side Son will have a freer role. The two-footed attacker adds much needed flair to the side, and his teammates will look to find him whenever possible. With Park not exactly a consistent goal threat, the Koreans depend on Son to create and to finish, and the 21 year old will cut in and look to dominate the final third. Koo’s dangerous runs from deep are also a source of goals. The Koreans also have the weapon of K-League target man Kim Shin-Wook. The 27 year old striker brings a different dimension to the Korean’s game plan; at 6 foot 5, his immense aerial prowess could be utilized as a last resort.
Defensively, the Koreans lack household names even with some European-based players. Behind the backline, K-League keeper Jung Sung-Ryeoung has been suspect to errors but is still the number 1 keeper in the country. Hong’s back five is certainly the weak point of the team, and central midfielders Ki and Han will need to offer support and maintain defensive stability. Despite their hardworking style, their game could come apart with the defense.
Ki Sung Yeung: Swansea central midfielder Ki Sung-Yeung will be the man to hold the team together. Ki, who spent the season on loan battling relegation with Sunderland, played in a variety of positions this season, from attacking midfielder to deep-lying playmaker to holding midfielder to center back. For the national team, Ki will be used alongside Han Kook-Young in the center of the park. While Ki needs to protect the fragile backline, the midfielder will also have to dictate the game for the Taeguk Warriors. Ki is an accomplished ball playing midfielder and possesses the ability to set the tempo. Korea will need Ki to step up and bring much needed creativity to the side. Furthermore, his delivery from set pieces will be crucial for the South Koreans.
Park Chu Young: Arsenal’s forgotten man and current Watford loanee Park Chu-Young will be counted on to replicate the form that earned the striker a move to England in the first place. Park’s inability to finish has hindered the Asian powerhouse in the past, but a dearth of high-quality strikers sees Park on the plane to Brazil. Hong will hope his faith in the Arsenal man pays off and his selection justified. Park has shown glimpses of his ability recently, most notably in a friendly against Greece in March, and the Warriors will hope the Park gamble pays off.
TALENT RADAR– KEY YOUNG PLAYER
Heung Min Son: 21 year old Son Heung-Min is undoubtedly the most important player in the squad. The South Koreans struggled to score goals in qualifying mostly because of the shortcomings of their strikers. As a result, the Leverkusen man’s versatility, flair, and dynamism will decide the team’s fate in Brazil. The former HSV attacker will be the team’s primary threat wherever he plays, whether that is alongside Park, as a shadow striker, or out on the left. Son possesses breakneck pace and a devastating long shot and can contribute important assists as well.
The South Koreans are lucky to have been handed a group without a former winner or international powerhouse (although Belgium is widely tipped as the dark horse for the World Cup). With the Belgians expected to take top spot, the second qualifying spot will come down to a straight battle between South Korea and the Russians, with Algeria likely to finish last. South Korea lost to Russia 2-1 in November of last year, but their energetic style makes them a difficult opposition to face. South Korea has a good shot at reaching the knockout stages for the third time in the last four World Cups, and their opening game against the Russians on June 17th will decide their fate.