What Went Right? South Korea is still one of the best conditioned sides there is. For the first time in a World Cup not on home soil, they controlled pace and tempo and played with a lot of confidence, especially going forward. Decent attacking buildup, and good linkup play between the back players and the forwards. Showed better movement and width than their previous incarnations; surprising when you consider they didn’t attack in numbers. Very good at getting behind defenders. Surprisingly good use of the center of the field; you would have thought they would have been more likely to build their attack on the flanks. Made effective use of counterattacks and opposition mistakes. Got good performances from the few star-quality players they have.
What Went Wrong? Worst defense they’ve ever had. Didn’t use their conditioning and pace to break down defenders and showed very little communication or discipline in the back. As bad as their defense was you would have thought they would have put more players back, but they didn’t. Their effectiveness at getting behind defenses was offset by their inability to keep opposition forwards from getting behind them. And because their third of the field was under siege most of the tournament, the goalkeeping wasn’t nearly competent enough to save them. Didn’t make effective use of attack going down the flanks. Didn’t make effective use of ball possession, choosing instead to concede possession. Most of their shots came from long range shots and they weren’t very good at it. Easily got outmuscled by the more physical teams they had to face. Quite frankly, if it wasn’t for Greece they’d have gone home after one week with their tails between their legs.
Who Stepped Up To The Plate? Park Ji-Sung has learned a lot about spacing, width, movement and direct attacking during his time at Manchester United, and it shows. Lee Chung-Yong was an attacking force just to the right of Park. South Korea got reliable finishing from Park Chu-Young. Lee Chung-Yong and Kim Jung-Woo were good orchestrators in the break. Kim Nam-Il was useful coming off the bench.
Who Didn’t Show Up? Backline from left to right of Lee Young-Pyo, Lee Jung-Soo, Cho Yong-Hyung and Oh Beom-Seok weren’t even a rumor. Jung Sung-Ryong clearly needs more seasoning as a goalkeeper. Lee Chung-Yong and Kim Jung-Woo were totally useless as stoppers in front of the backline. Forward Yeom Ki-Hun did a great impersonation as a stop sign up front. The rest of their bench was next to useless.
How Was The Coaching? Not bad. Nothing really remarkable about Huh Jung-Moo or his coaching. Tactics were pretty straightforward.
Did They Finish Where They Were Expected? Actually South Korea did better. Most people had Nigeria getting out of this group. South Korea was able to score some goals, even against the Indomitable Lions.
Now What? There is some football talent on the ground in South Korea. They are finally getting players into some of the better leagues in Europe. Keep doing it, and in the process you might want to see if you can get some of your coaches in them, too. It can only help at home and for the national side.
Some random observations after the First Knockout Round:
Uruguay 2-1 South Korea: Quick attacking movement from both sides from second one. Neither team were going to waste time waiting for counterattacks; both Uruguay and South Korea put the pedal to the medal, spread the field and took long, direct passes upfield into the attacking end. Both teams were very effective in the midfield, but Uruguay was a lot more solid in the back (Uruguay quietly went through the group stage without giving up any goals). Diego Forlan was on target early, not letting grass grow beneath his feet. The first counterattack for Uruguay resulted in a Forlan cross behind the Korean backline to Luis Suarez on the right, who one-timed it into the Korean goal. After that South Korea got a lot more disciplined going forward, looking to buildup their attack with sustained ball control. Uruguay exposed holes in the Korean backline, spreading them thin on the flanks with their furious counterattack and ability to switch play like nobody else in this tournament so far. Uruguay showed fantastic ability to close down the Korean attack in the midfield.
After the 30th minute Korea began to take quality chances on the Uruguayan goal. Park Ji-Sung was a monster on the left flank, using his speed to get the ball forward and showing a deft touch getting the ball to the forward players in the final third. You had to figure that one or both of these teams was going to get tired due to the furious pace of the game by both teams. Slightly more accurate long-range shooting from South Korea. Furious attacking by Korea after halftime, putting Uruguay’s backline under siege. For whatever reason Uruguay took their foot off the gas, letting Korea dominate possession in the attacking end. Park was now playing more centrally and much more forward as a target man in the box. No panicking from the Koreans, they were finally able to get the first goal past Uruguay this tournament on a poorly defended set piece, setting up Lee Chung-Yong to finish the rebound in the 68th minute. Finally getting their attacking mojo back, Suarez scored with a brilliantly sublime shot on the right upper corner off a set piece rebound in the 80th minute. Fantastic attacking match from both sides. Madd Props to Uruguay for a tactically proficient match that they grinded out for the win. And Big Ups to South Korea for always showing great workrate and never giving up.
United States 1-2 Ghana: Mistake giveaway in the midfield by Ricardo Clark followed by the failure of the USA backline to close down gave Prince Boateng an easy goal in the 7th minute during the run of play for the first time in this tournament. Ghana did a good job of controlling the midfield early, even disrupting the USA attack before it could get to the final third. Decidedly uncharacteristic buildup by Ghana, which resulted in them having the advantage in possession and sustaining it going forward. Not very tactically smart approach by the USA, who wrongly decided to try to match Ghana’s speed and strength. Bad day for defensive/holding midfielder Clark, who had his pocket picked early and got a yellow on a hard challenge only minutes later. Great anticipation by Ghana, who also showed an ability to chase down lose balls and get back in numbers in front of their goal to defend a counter. Benny Feilhaber came on in the second half for the USA and the distribution got much better, sending diagonal balls inside if still not spreading play wide with any regularity. Tactically the USA got better chances on the attacking end. Big break in the 62nd minute when a defensive breakdown by Ghana led to a hard tackle in the box on Clint Dempsey resulting in a penalty converted by Landon Donovan.
After that the game became a war of attrition; a lot of back-and-forth through the center with both teams closing down the ball carrier. In extra time, once again on a long pass into the front Jay DeMerit and Carlos Bocanegra couldn’t decide which one was going to close down Asamoah Gyan, who picked the pass out of the air and put a laser past Tim Howard. Ghana just went about killing time by playing keep away and flailing around on the ground on phantom injuries to close out the game. The USA went to the well once too many times, giving up early goals way too often to be able to come back from. A winnable game for the USA that they should not have lost. Proof positive that mistakes in the back can be fatal and send you home. A shame, really, because the USA clearly has the talent to hang with anybody but clearly lacks a certain mental toughness. Ghana’s strength and ability to press was the difference.
Some random observations after the third group fixtures:
Greece 0-2 Argentina: The Greeks opened in 5-4-1 heavily defensive formation and the guess is that they did not want to be embarrassed and hoped for the best in the other Group B game. Diego Maradona made wholesale changes in his starting line-up, 7 new starters, knowing Argentina was virtually certain to advance, thereby giving him the ability to see what his second team could do while resting most of his starters. Predictably, Argentina dominated possession and despite the Greeks’ fortified defense, Argentina attacked the box and found cracks, forcing Greek goalie Alexandros Tzorvas to make several good saves. The half ended in a scoreless tie though. Unbelievably, Greek manager Otto Rehhagel brought on a sixth defender for one of his midfielders to start the second half. He must really have hoped to maintain the draw, but the strategy showed zero faith in his team. Why not go for it as the Greeks had little chance for advancement otherwise? Early in the second half, the Greeks did finally manage their first shot on goal when lone striker Georgios Samaras received a long ball and lifted a left-footer around a defender, but the shot was off-target. Maradona on the other hand, stayed confident in his second team and only used one of his three substitutions to bring on one of his normal starters. His faith was finally rewarded when Martin Demichelis followed up his own blocked header off a corner kick by blasting the rebound in. Even with the Argentine goal, the Greeks showed no urgency. Apparently they didn’t mind being eliminated. Really shameful. Lionel Messi did not do much creating in the game, probably by design as Maradona started him on the right wing instead of his customary center forward position behind the striker. Maradona probably told his star to take it easy and let his teammates handle the ball for a change. Messi still created the last goal when his rifled shot from the top of the box deflected off Tzorvas and right to Martin Palermo who buried it just before stoppage time. Then, and only then, did the Greeks show some urgency, getting off more shots in extra time than they had in the entire game up to that point. Their failure to go for it deservedly resulted in their elimination. Maradona’s coaching style is growing on me as his confidence in his team is contagious and the Argentines have responded to it.
Nigeria 2-2 South Korea: Despite having lost its first two games, Nigeria entered this match with a chance to advance if it won and Greece lost. Both teams were immediately on the offensive, but the Super Eagles struck first when Chidi Odiah beat several defenders flying down the right sideline before putting a cross into the box where Kalu Uche snuck around a defender and fired a strike into the net. Extremely poor defensive work by South Korea on the sequence, first failing to stop Odiah on the wing, then not compacting into the box to intercept any cross. Uche nearly scored again on a blast that hit the right post. Goals off set pieces have been few and far between this Cup, but Ki Sung-Yeung put a free kick from just outside the box on the left onto the back post where Lee Jung-Soo’s ugly header attempt failed, but the ball bounced off his leg past the goalie. Minutes into the second half Park Chu-Young curled a free kick into the far corner of the net for a South Korean lead. Nigerian goalie Vincent Enyeama looked to have been caught leaning the wrong way on the kick before his failed dive back at the ball. One of the few missteps by Enyeama who acquitted himself very well in losing efforts. Nigeria blew one of the easiest opportunities you will ever see when Uche played a perfect cross past the goalie in the goal box, where Yakubu Aiyegbeni had a 3-yard shot at an open goal from the middle of the box and still managed to push it wide. He made amends minutes later when he converted a penalty kick after a clumsy takedown by Kim Nam-Il in the box. With ten minutes left, Obafemi Martins got a through ball into the South Korean box and chipped the ball over the sliding goalie, but it went just wide. If Nigeria had not blown so many really excellent opportunities, they would have comfortably won the game. Instead the tie eliminated them from the tournament. With the Greek loss, the tie earned the first entry into the second round on foreign soil for South Korea.