Loss to Japan offers bleak outlook for Korea in Qatar
Korea’s 3-0 loss to Japan at Toyota Stadium on Wednesday night not only ended the Taeguk Warriors’ EAFF E-1 Football Championship campaign, but also offered a brief glimpse of the bleak future that could be in store for the squad at the 2022 Qatar World Cup.
It was a humbling night for the Taeguk Warriors, who had ridden back-to-back 3-0 wins to top the table at the regional tournament going into the final game.
Suddenly finding themselves on the wrong side of the score card, Korea collapsed under the pressure, with a worryingly shoddy defensive performance allowing Japan to continue to hammer on the Korean goal.
After a scoreless first half, the host nation pulled off a tour de force in the second half at Toyota Stadium in Toyota, Japan, with quick goals from Yuki Soma, Sho Sasaki and Shuto Machino.
Korea, meanwhile, seemed unable to do anything but sit back and watch the host nation mount attack after attack. While in the first half the Taeguk Warriors were able to hold their own and just about controlled the majority of the ball, that team was nowhere to be seen after the break, as a resurgent Japan walked all over the Korean midfield.
The result was a killer blow for Korea, who entered the game with a two-point lead on the EAFF E-1 table. With the win, Japan edged Korea out by a single point to take the regional tournament title.
Wednesday's result is hauntingly familiar to the last time Korea and Japan faced off in a friendly last year. Japan also won that game 3-0, with the loss blamed on Korea's inexperienced squad and the lack of the more dominant players based in Europe.
That exact same excuse could be rolled out this time around as well, as Korea had to play the game without the likes of Son Heung-min, Hwang Hee-chan and Kim Min-jae, all of whom are with their clubs in Europe, and Hwang In-beom, who is in the process of signing with Greek club Olympiacos.
But the loss to Japan, which ranks four spots above Korea on the FIFA world ranking, highlights a far more serious concern for head coach Paulo Bento’s squad: Defense.
Of Korea’s absent players, only two have much to do with defense: Center back Kim Min-jae and goalkeeper Kim Seung-gyu.
Kim Min-jae, who joined Napoli this week, may be a formidable presence in the back line, but he is only one man. His return to the squad for the 2022 Qatar World Cup will certainly give the defense a boost, but he is likely to be joined by mainly Korea-based players.
Against Japan, Bento played a fairly inexperience defense, with the likes of Hong Chul, Lee Yong and Kim Young-gwon all absent. In the World Cup squad, he is likely to fall back on some of the more seasoned players, but the defense will remain a concern.
Part of the blame for Korea’s lack of defensive ability will inevitably fall at Bento’s feet. Since taking the helm of the Korean squad he has focused on increasing possession and there has been a noticeable shift toward plays that build up at the back before attempting to drive forward.
While increased possession is good, that approach does leave Korea open to quick break away attacks and unable to handle the pressure of a sustained offensive. With so much of the game concentrated in the midfield, the defense is often left with little support when the attack does come.
Bento is also fairly inflexible when it comes to tactics, preferring to keep the same formation throughout the game with very few changes. That approach leaves him little room to adapt to the changing nature of the game, especially when Korea falls behind and a change of plan is needed.
Speaking after the match, Bento admitted Korea were outclassed.
"The difficulties were expected," he said. "I don't think there is much of a story to tell. Japan was better than us, throughout the game, I think that they deserve to win."
With four months to go before the 2022 Qatar World Cup, Bento still has time to iron out these issues, but he will need a very strong iron. The “wait until Son Heung-min gets back” excuse can only carry Korea so far, especially because in Qatar, every other team will also have their Sons back.
Of the 29-man team that Japan called up for the Kirin Cup earlier this summer — a squad that is believed to essentially be the World Cup squad — only seven players are based outside of Europe. That means that 22 possible starters missed out on the EAFF E-1 Football Championship, far more than the handful that Korea was lacking.
Korea’s first game at the World Cup will be against Uruguay on Nov. 24. That gives Bento just under four months to work out a new game plan and, crucially, strengthen his defense.
BY JIM BULLEY [firstname.lastname@example.org]