Shake-up means success for U-23s against IranVery seldom do you see a football team change more than half of its starting lineup from one match to the next, especially after a victory.
The decision couldn’t have worked out better, as two of the new starters, midfielder Lee Dong-jun and striker Cho Gue-sung, scored a goal apiece to lift Korea to a 2-1 victory.
By winning the first two of their three group matches, Korea locked down a spot in the quarterfinals of the tournament, which doubles as the continental qualifying event for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The top three nations will compete in the Japanese capital this summer, and Korea is chasing their ninth consecutive Olympic appearance in men’s football.
After Korea barely beat the underdogs China, with Lee, as a second-half sub, scoring the winner in the dying seconds, Kim declared there would be some changes. But few outside the team could have predicted such a massive overhaul to the lineup.
Goalkeeper Song Bum-keun stayed in net for the second straight match, and seven of 10 players in front of Song got their first starts against Iran.
Of those seven, two were second-half substitutes against China, and five, including Cho, didn’t even play in the first match.
Kim said he felt comfortable making these changes because of the depth of his team and his trust in every player. “No matter who’s on the pitch, these players will get the job done,” Kim said.
These lineup changes were so drastic that they even caught Iranian coach Hamid Estili off guard. “We have a good team of advanced scouts and analysts, but we couldn’t predict every one of these changes,” Estili said.
In two matches, 19 of 23 Korean players have seen action. Excluding two backup goalkeepers who won’t get into any match barring injury to Song, that means all but two field players, defenders Kim Tae-hyeon and Yoon Jong-gyu, have played so far.
One potentially positive side effect from Kim’s unusual approach is that it keeps everyone mentally engaged and continues to foster internal competition during the tournament. Coaches typically rotate about a baker’s dozen of big players in a tournament like this, and that tends to leave a good chunk of the team without a hope of getting into the starting lineup.
From the first match to the next, Coach Kim changed half of his back-four defensive line, replaced four of his five midfielders, and switched his starting striker, sending the message that even if you start one match, it doesn’t guarantee you another one. And on the flip side, it gives those on the bench hope that they could start in any match if they stay ready.
That was exactly the mindset for Cho, who watched the China match from the bench as starting forward Oh Se-hun had trouble finishing his chances.
“Even though I didn’t play in the opening match, I wasn’t sad or disappointed,” Cho said. “I just thought I had to prepare myself for another opportunity.”
Sure enough, Cho got the starting nod and he delivered a thunderous goal in the 35th minute that provided the margin of victory.
Granted, Kim might just have doled out a less-than-optimal lineup against China, believing he could beat them with his “B” squad and conserve his best players for later matches in the process. Things didn’t quite go that way, as Korea barely avoided getting held to a scoreless draw, which would have felt like a loss.
Korea will close out the group stage against Uzbekistan on Wednesday. Korea only needs a draw to grab the top seed, so Kim may yet make more switches to his lineup.
Asked if more changes are on the horizon, Kim smiled and said, “I can’t tell you at this moment.”