A change of coach revives the magic for team Korea
In sports, coaches are hired to be fired, and especially on the coaching carousel of the Korean national soccer squad, the shelf life of head coaches could rival that of cottage cheese in a summer sun if they don’t bring concrete results to the table soon enough.
In this “what-have-you-done-for-me-lately” world, new head coach Dick Advocaat of the Netherlands has done his fair share of late.
Analysts say he is an excellent motivator and the charismatic leader his predecessor Jo Bonfrere never was. Advocaat is known in soccer circles as someone who provides positive feedback to his players and who believes in giving opportunities to lesser known, but hard working younger players.
And with the Dutchman at the helm since early October, the national team has yet to lose in three friendly matches, beating Iran last month and Serbia-Montenegro two weeks ago, and drawing with Sweden earlier in the month.
The same players who seemed lethargic and generally uninterested on the field as recently as three months ago now appear rejuvenated. Young players who were buried among more established stars have come on strongly, with the 20-something midfielders Cho Won-hee and Lee Ho playing big roles in recent matches.
While it is premature to count on Advocaat to do the kind of wonders in next year’s World Cup that Guus Hiddink did three years ago and is doing again now as head coach of the Australian national team, vaulting the Down Under squad to a World Cup berth for the first time since 1974, the players certainly appear closer to their former selves than at any point this year.
In the Nov. 12 match against the world’s 13th-ranked Sweden, Korea played an aggressive game, showing the flashes of brilliance that carried them to the semifinal at the last World Cup. Korea was clearly the better team in the match, and Swedish head coach Lars Lagerback admitted afterward that seeing this version of the Korean team “was like seeing them during the 2002 World Cup here in Seoul.”
Ultimately, however, the team came undone with defensive lapses after each of its two goals against their opposition, which rested top-two strikers, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Henrik Larsson, to give lesser known players a chance to play.
Korean forward Ahn Jung-hwan scored seven minutes into the game, but Sweden’s Johan Elmander fired the equalizer just a minute later on a nifty one-two passing play in the box. In the second half, six minutes after Kim Young-chul made it a 2-1 game at the 51-minute mark, Markus Rosenberg bounced the tying goal off the post from a tough angle on the right.
Both plays happened because Korean defenders inexcusably fell asleep.
In the next game four days later, pitted against Serbia and Montenegro, the Korean squad overcompensated for its earlier defensive deficiency by adopting a conservative approach.
Much like in the game against Sweden, Korea scored early, with veteran Defender Choi Jin-cheul banging in a header from a free kick by Lee Eul-yong at the 5-minute mark.
Following the opening goal, midfielders and forwards, with the exception of striker Lee Dong-guk, stayed mostly in their own zone, ostensibly to protect the lead and to avoid the embarrassment of squandering the advantage within minutes of establishing it.
Serbia-Montenegro was in control by midway through the first half, attacking the defense with the aggressiveness that Korea had demonstrated against Sweden.
It wasn’t until the second half that the Korean players picked up their game, and forward Lee Dong-guk blasted from the edge of the area to finally make it 2-0 in the 66th minute.
For the Korean squad, the lesson after these two games is simple. It’s all about balance. And with Advocaat in charge, things finally appear to be on the right track.
by Yoo Jee-ho