A tie for the North, clues for the South
Huh and national team coach Park Tae-ha attended the friendly match between Greece and North Korea in Altach, Austria. It was the first time Huh has seen the Greeks in person since they won the 2004 Euro Cup, and the scouting trip was all the more valuable because Greece’s opponents have a physique similar to the South Korean players.
“The Greek national team members were called in on May 18, they’re still in the preparation stage so it’s hard to give an accurate assessment,” said a cautious Huh. “However, there are certain elements of their game that won’t change even if their conditioning improves. That’s what I came to see.”
The game was closer than many expected. Greece, ranked 13th in the world, and North Korea, ranked at 105, tied at two goals apiece. Kostas Katsouranis scored the opening goal two minutes into the match, but Jong Tae-se answered with a goal in the 24th minute. When Angelos Charisteas put the Greeks up again in the 48th, Jong again came to his team’s rescue with a second goal in the 52nd minute.
“The Greek national team is known around the world for their defensive prowess. In preparing for today’s match, we placed emphasis on our attack,” North Korean manager Kim Jong-hun said after the match. “Despite giving up an early goal, our players recovered well and stuck to their assignments. We played an up-tempo style of attack and when that didn’t work to our advantage, we went with rhythmic passing work on offense.”
The biggest change for the Greek national team in yesterday’s friendly was their four-man defensive unit. Greece usually uses a three-defender formation, but switches to four defenders on some occasions.
“The change was expected. When they are facing a must-win situation or weaker opponents, they go with four defenders with fullbacks who contribute to their attack,” explained Huh. “Greece and we are facing a situation in which we have to secure a win in the opening match [June 12]. We know the other three teams in our group are looking at us as a team they must defeat. Greece will not come out playing defensive at the World Cup.”
The North Koreans showed that speed and strong midfield play can contain an attack-minded Greek squad.
North Korea used speedy forward Jong Tae-se and wingers Hong Young-jo and Mun In-guk to spearhead their attack. Whether it was in one-on-one or give-and-go plays, the North Korean attack kept the Greek defenders on their heels much of the game.
The Greek defenders, on average, measure 186.25 centimeters tall (6 feet 1 inch). Although they have the size advantage and are strong in the air, they lack the speed to react quickly in certain situations. Using Mun and Hong to initiate the attack down the sideline worked well, and it’s a plan that suits South Korea’s style of play.
“European players are definitely slower. If Lee Chung-yong, Ki Sung-yeung and Lee Keun-ho can play up to their capabilities, Korea can win the game,” said Jong. “It’s always difficult to battle against physically stronger players. But if you try to stay ahead by running more with Greek defenders in check, it makes it all the better.”
Another key element to Korea’s strategy against Greece should be the play of its midfielders. Although North Korea gave up an early goal, it was able to stabilize its attack and the overall flow of the match because Ahn Young-hak controlled the tempo from center midfield. Having participated in intense training for about a year together, the North Korean players covered a lot of ground and contained their opponents by double-teaming the player with possession of the ball.
“I explained to my team prior to the start of the game that North Korea is a well-organized squad which covers a lot of ground. I emphasized that they are not to be taken lightly,” said Greek manager Otto Rehhagel. “The game against South Korea, our World Cup opponents, will not be easy.”
By Jason Kim, Jang Chi-hyeok [firstname.lastname@example.org]