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East Asian Cup Preview: South Korea

The 2015 East Asian Cup will kick off in just a few days on August 2nd in Wuhan, China. South Korea, North Korea, Japan, and hosts China will be the four nations participating. In the last edition (2013), South Korea finished 3rd behind winners Japan and runner up China. So, will this year be any better or is another sub-par showing on the cards?
The 2008 South Korean team. The last time they won the EAFF EAC (coincidentally in China). Photo courtesy of Nagahama Koki via eaff.com

EAFF East Asian Cup - A Primer

So, just what is the East Asian Cup? It is a tournament held every two years beginning in 2003. Prior to that there was a tournament called the "Dynasty Cup" (run from 1990-1998) which is largely considered the EAC's predecessor as it was operated and run in largely the same way. The current version of the tournament is run by the East Asian Football Federation, a 10-member group consisting of: China, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Guam, Hong Kong, Macau, Mongolia, Chinese Taipei, and Northern Mariana Islands.

There have been five EAFF East Asian Cups with South Korea and China winning the thing twice and Japan once. The tournament is not recognized by FIFA as an A level competition, and as such clubs are not required to release players for the tournament. There is however something of a gentleman's agreement amongst member nations to release any player called up to the event. The tournament was created to help develop East Asian football, and in that spirit the tournament does see a fair bit of experimentation from managers and players that might not normally play for the national team get a chance to do so.

The squad and schedule. Courtesy of the KFA's Twitter account (@thekfa)


Called: Kim Seung-gyu (Ulsan Hyundai), Lee Bum-young (Busan IPark), Koo Sung-yoon (Consadole Sapporo)

An unfortunate injury to Cerezo Osaka's Kim Jin-hyeon pretty much guarantees that Ulsan's Kim Seung-gyu will don the gloves and get his chance to stake his claim to the regular starting job. Kim Seung-gyu is probably the most athletic of Korea's normally called keepers, but he's prone to poor decision making that sees him get caught in no-man land type of situations. Busan's Lee Bum-young was the man to replace Kim Jin-hyeon in the squad, and should be the backup. It's possible that Lee could get a game, but it seems unlikely. Koo Sung-yoon is the young, unknown keeper and is likely just there for Stielike to see him in training, and for Koo to get some senior squad time.

Kim Seung-gyu should be the man between the sticks


Called: Lim Chang-woo (Ulsan Hyundai), Jeong Dong-ho (Ulsan Hyundai), Lee Ju-yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai), Hong Chul (Suwon Samsung)

With Cha Du-ri retired, Kim Jin-su getting ready for the new season with Hoffenheim, and a more experienced option like Kim Chang-soo not called, it's lots of inexperience at fullback. Suwon's Hong Chul is the "experienced one" here with five caps to his name. The two Ulsan backs should be in line for the left back spot with Jeong Dong-ho likely to get the nod since he has played for the senior side before. Hong Chul should take the right back spot, but Lee Ju-yong could see a game.

Can one of the Ulsan boys establish themselves as the regular right back?


Called: Kim Young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande Taobao), Kim Ju-young (Shanghai SIPG), Kim Min-hyeok (Sagan Tosu), Kim Ki-hee (Jeonbuk Hyundai)

Kim Young-gwon was named team captain which certainly implies he'll be starting in central defense. The former FC Seoul defender Kim Ju-young would be his likely partner, but Jeonbuk's Kim Ki-hee could see time too. In this group, it's Sagan Tosu's Kim Min-hyeok who is the new boy. I suspect he won't play much, if at all, but given the team's recent iffyness in defense, Stielike may want to check him out.

Kim Young-gwon will need to provide leadership and steadiness

Central midfielders

Called: Jung Woo-young (Vissel Kobe), Joo Se-jong (Busan IPark), Jang Hyun-soo (Guangzhou R&F), Lee Chan-dong (Gwangju FC)

Jang Hyun-soo was named the team's vice-captain which would indicate he'll start. Jang is normally a centerback with Guangzhou R&F, but Stielike (and other NT bosses) have frequently used him as a holding midfielder. Jang was once again named in the official squad list as a midfielder which would indicate he'll play there again. Should that be the case Jung Woo-young would be his likely partner as the Kobe midfielder did a decent job in his NT debut as a "Ki-replacement". An alternative would be Busan's Joo Se-jong who offers a bit more verticality with his passing. Gwangju's Lee Chan-dong is another new face, and probably won't see much time.

Can Jung Woo-young provide the service from midfield?

Attacking midfielders

Called: Kim Seung-dae (Pohang Steelers), Lee Jong-ho (Jeonnam FC), Lee Jae-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai), Kwon Chang-hoon (Suwon Samsung), Kim Min-woo (Sagan Tosu), Lee Yong-jae (V-Varen Nagasaki)

Of the attacking midfielders, only Jeonbuk's Lee Jae-sung can be considered a regular, having impressed at club and country (in the absence of Koo Ja-cheol). Lee Jae-sung should start either in the center of the attacking three or on the right side. Beyond him it's more a question of the skill set that Stielike wants. Lee Jong-ho offers workrate and the ability to produce that magical moment individually, but suffers from inconsistency. Kim Seung-dae is a converted center forward and offers a bit of a goal threat and vertical threat. Kwon Chang-hoon is young, but has shown in his first full season with Suwon that he is decent on the ball and capable of producing some defense-splitting passes. Kim Min-woo is a technically sound player similar to Lee Jae-sung. Lee Yong-jae is normally a center forward who has some pace and directness to him.

In a practice match Kim Seung-dae and Lee Jong-ho lined up with Lee Jae-sung, and that's what I'd expect to start on Sunday. Lee Yong-jae is an option as well as he offers a bit more verticality in attack given he's naturally a center forward.

Lee Jae-sung has been one of the bright spots for club and country.

Center forwards

Called: Kim Shin-wook (Ulsan Hyundai), Lee Jeong-hyeob (Sangju Sangmu)

Difficult to call who will start between these two. Lee Jeong-hyeob has clearly become a "Stielike guy", but the boss may want to see Kim Shin-wook in action. Kim Shin-wook obviously offers a more traditional target man kind of profile, and given the large number of central attacking midfielders that may be a good thing for them to work off of. Lee on the other hand offers a higher workrate and more mobility, but not a whole lot else. Given Stielike's preference for the 4-2-3-1 a more mobile forward like Lee Jeong-hyeob will probably be preferred with Kim Shin-wook offering an alternative off the bench.

Can Kim Shin-wook provide much needed goals?


Possible starting XI
Despite missing a number of Europe and Middle East-based players, Korea will still bring a competitive squad to China. However, like our blue-shirted neighbors the squad is light on experience and few have had the chance to really develop chemistry with the others. The attacking three have potential, and the absence of Son Heung-min could allow them to shine a bit more.

There are though a lot of questions for this squad to answer. Can the attack finally score regularly? Can the midfield gel and create and control? Can the defense maintain the solid statistics they've put up since the Asian Cup? Will there be any individuals that can shine and stake a claim in the full-strength KNT? Is this next generation of players ready to step into the international (and highly demanding Korean public) spotlight?

I fear that the answer to many of these questions is 'no'. I do think there is talent in this group, and that some of them will eventually be able to make the jump into the KNT, but I'm not sure they're ready now. I fear the lack of leadership without the likes of Koo Ja-cheol, Ki Sung-yueng, and Lee Chung-yong in the squad as I'm not convinced Kim Young-gwon and Jang Hyun-soo are quite up to the task.

That being said the team should be competitive. The attacking talent should be enough to see out a result against a likely organized North Korean outfit. The same goes for China, although their home field advantage could be an equalizing force. The big question, as it often is, is how the team copes with Japan. As mentioned before, Japan is also bringing a young and inexperienced squad to the games, and while I'm not an expert on Japanese football, I'd say there is more individual talent in the Japanese squad than Korea's. And in a short tournament (3 games for each) with a lot of experimenting that could be the difference between a narrow win and a draw.

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