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EAFF-E1 Preview: South Korea vs Japan

Despite winning their first two matches, South Korea have looked less than convincing in doing so.  Up next, they face a Japan side which fired five past Hong Kong last time out.  Can the four time champions take their game to another level and win on home soil, or will the trophy be claimed by their rivals for the first time since 2013?  KLU's Branko Belan sat down with Stuart Smith to discuss the all-important upcoming tie.
(Photo courtesy of the-afc.com)

Branko Asks, Stuart Answers

Branko Belan: How do you rate Japan's performance over the first two matches at this year's EAFF? 

Stuart Smith: They’ve done what they had to do – beat inferior opponents (and dodge flying kicks to the head while they’re at it).  They blooded some new players in the “game” against Hong Kong with Koki Ogawa scoring a hat-trick on his debut for the national team, and also used the game to give a debut to Teruhito Nakagawa (more on him later).  

In the past, Japan have lacked a ruthless streak up front, wasting a lot of their good possession by not being proactive enough in scoring situations so to see Ogawa (who spent a lot of this year on loan at a second division club in Japan) not waste his chances was very promising.  Overall, Japan have been okay, but that is all they’ve had to be, and it will be interesting to see how much they can step up against what will surely be a much stiffer challenge against the hosts. 

BB: Will Hajime Moriyasu change anything tactically for the match against Korea? 

SS: I doubt it.  Moriyasu is pretty steadfast in his tactical preference for a (very fluid) 3-4-2-1 set up.  The thing to remember is that Moriyasu has been, and is, building for the Olympics next year and a lot of groundwork has been put in with these players.  The only reason he would change is to expose his players to potential adversity.  

I expect Genta Miura & Shinnosuke Hatanaka to return to the defence, and maybe the slightly bigger physical presence of Consadole Sapporo forward Musashi Suzuki might be returned to the team.  Other than that, it will all depend on what Moriyasu has seen (or is yet to see) in the first two matches and what he wants a greater look at. 

BB: If you had to choose one player that Korea should pay particular attention to, who would it be and why? 

SS: It is difficult to say who will play on Wednesday given that Moriyasu is likely to chop and change.  What I will say though is that for organizational purposes, midfielder Yosuke Ideguchi is likely to be important.  At Gamba Osaka this year, he showed signs of rehabilitating his reputation after a disastrous move to Leeds United and various other European clubs.  He has big game experience in the senior national team (he scored in the win against Australia which sealed Japan’s qualification for Russia 2018) and his nous will probably be important for Japan as they come up against an experienced Korean lineup.  

I really hope Teruhito Nakagawa is given another run, but the 2019 J.League MVP played the full 90 against Hong Kong so I’m unsure as to whether he’ll start.  If he plays any time at all, he is an electric player with a keen eye for goal and Korea would do well to watch out for him. 

BB: When the sides met at the last EAFF in 2017, Korea won by a 4-1 margin. How much will that serve as a motivating factor for the current squad? 

I don’t think that game will be used as a motivational tool for this one as this is a new group of players that aren’t stained by that result.  However, Moriyasu will be acutely aware that that result really set the events that eventually led to then boss Vahid Halilhodzic’s firing in motion.  

He’ll be able to gloss over a defeat by saying that it is good experience, but a heavy defeat will be difficult to explain away.  Korea vs Japan games are always hard fought affairs and I expect this one to be no different.

BB: How do you see the match playing out?

SS: I actually think it will be interesting.  Korea obviously will not want to lose to Japan on home soil, while Japan will be putting out their Olympic side against what looks like a pretty decent Korean back line.  Korea’s defensive unit contains genuinely continental class players, so this will be a great test for Japan’s attacking unit and the movement they seem to be very adept at utilizing.  

I’m not sure Japan have the experience and street smarts to go over to Korea with this kind of squad and beat the hosts, and so I’ll say that a draw would be a decent end product for Hajime Moriyasu. 

Stuart Asks, Branko Answers

Stuart Smith: What is the deal with these attendances?  There look to be hardly any people there.  Are the Korean football public not particularly enthused by this tournament? 

Branko Belan: Football culture still needs room to develop in Korea.  Busan is a wonderful city, but the local club has not been in the top flight for a few years until getting promoted this season, so hopefully it will bring more than a few fans back to the stands in the near future.

It’s a bit worrying to be honest.  It seems that many people in Korea don’t take this tournament seriously enough, but there’s still a trophy on the line, not to mention bragging rights.  The Asiad was filled to capacity for the friendly match against Australia in June, so knowing that Japan is up next, hopefully it will convince a few more through the turnstiles come matchday, even if it’s in midweek.

SS: What is Korea’s goal for this tournament? What are they hoping to get out of it? 

BB: I would like to say that their goal is to win, but they haven’t played like it at all.  Another goal I would put forth for the team is to gain some more exposure for the domestic leagues here, as most of the players chosen for the squad play here.  But, both performances thus far have left a lot to be desired, and it shows that Bento hasn’t evolved much as a manager since taking over after the World Cup.

On that note, most of his regular selections are playing for clubs who are in mid-season now, which shows that he has had too much dependence on them.  He should have been using the time allocated for preparation to build depth in the ranks, but Korea has looked unconvincing thus far.  Whether they have enough to put forth a respectable performance against Japan is something we will have to see.  It should be considered an honor to represent one’s country, especially at home, so the hope is that the players will step up in a big way and bring home a result.

SS: It seems from reading a lot of people’s thoughts on the make up of this Korean squad, it seems a bit light on forward options. Why is that? Is it only because of the unavailability of European players, or is there a more systematic problem with young Korean forwards coming through the K-League system? 

BB: Kim Seung-dae went down with an injury during the Hong Kong match and was ruled out for the rest of the tournament as a result.  Bento chose not to replace him.  

Quite a few were also surprised by the fact that Kim Shin-wook was not selected after finishing his season well in China.  

Korea has not traditionally been laden with talent up front, so a lot of it also comes down to scouting as well as coaching.  Lee Jeong-hyeop will be a key figure against Japan – how he responds to the pressure may factor into how the match plays out.

SS: What is your opinion of coach Bento? How has he been doing so far?

BB: I had very high hopes for him when he first took charge.  He is definitely an upgrade from Shin Tae-yong, but I don’t feel he has been able to get the most out of his players to this point.  He seems to depend on the same tactics and players much too often, and it has made Korea look very predictable.

The Asian Cup last year was subpar at best, and the World Cup qualifiers have not been much better.  He needs to step back and re-examine his methods as well as his player selections.  Withholding that, there will not be much improvement on what has been seen up to this point in the near future.

SS: Who or what is the key to a potential Korean win?

BB:  Korea’s overall game has been too passive for too long.  While I regard the need for solid defensive play, they need to be a bit more adventurous moving forward.  I question whether some of the players trust the process under Bento, but those who were selected need to realize that it is an opportunity to represent your country, and some of them may never get such an opportunity again once this competition is over.

Jo Hyun-woo will be potentially the biggest factor in the match against Japan.  He has proven already that he has capable shot-stopping ability and great reflexes, which I can attest to having watched him play in person.  He should be approaching the match with the impetus that it is indeed a rival, and not only that, but with the winter transfer window approaching, a potential move to Europe is not entirely out of the cards, so he will want to play well.

SS: How do you think this game will play out?

BB: It’s hard to predict how the match will play out, as matches between the two countries have been very tight for the most part, the last match between them notwithstanding.  I feel Japan have the edge going into this one as they have looked better form-wise and are not shy to attack.

Korea have done a good job defensively, but they will need to score a few goals if they have any intention of adding a fifth title in this competition to their collection.  This match has the potential to be a turning point for the national team, but it all depends on the approach.  If Korea are too passive as they have been over the first two matches, and as they have been many times in the recent past, it could cost them.  If it does in fact go Japan’s way, Bento will fall under some heavy criticism, and it could leave him on the proverbial hot seat going forward.

K League United would like to take the opportunity to thank Stuart Smith for taking the time to share his thoughts with us ahead of a very important match for both teams.  You can follow him on Twitter at @sushi_football.

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