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AFC U23 Group Stage Recap: Three Wins in Three for South Korea

Oh Se-hun winning goal against Uzbekistan 01.15.20


South Korea wrapped up the group stage portion of their tournament on Wednesday night with a 2-1 victory over defending champions Uzbekistan thanks to a brace from striker Oh Se-hun, whose second goal just under twenty minutes from time proved to be enough for Korea to take all three points from the match and finish top of Group C with a perfect record.  KLU's Branko Belan looks back at what worked and what needs improvement heading into the knockout stages.

Wins over China, Iran, and Uzbekistan in succession, albeit with very different lineup combinations have made South Korea into perennial favorites to win this AFC U23 tournament and secure qualification for this summer's Tokyo Olympics.  Whereas things got off to a slow start against their regional rivals, performances in each of the past two matches have improved, and Kim Hak-bum's men now have garnered a swell of momentum as they prepare for the next phase of the competition.

Group C Overview


South Korea 1-0 China


Lee Dong-jun winner against China 01.09.20
Lee Dong-jun celebrates his injury-time winner against China. Photo courtesy of AFC.


South Korea were on the ropes at times against China, who were successful in pressing their opponents high up the pitch at various times during the match, but could not capitalize on their opportunities.  Korea's back line looked out of shape at times and both passing and possession were lacking as they failed to mount any consistent pressure offensively in the first forty-five minutes of the match.

Things did not change much after the re-start and it was the Chinese who would have gone in front if not for some alert goalkeeping from Song Bum-keun who denied Yang Liyu from getting on the score sheet early.

A poor performance was saved at the last by an injury-time winner from Busan IPark's Lee Dong-jun, with the 2019 K League 2 MVP slotting home a left-footed shot with what was essentially the final kick of the match.

Despite the performance, Kim Hak-bum was quick to come to the defense of his troops, saying in a post-match press conference that the lack of compactness and finishing up front came down to it being the first match of the tournament and that some of the players simply needed to get their legs under them.

Iran 1-2 South Korea


Korea hold on to defeat Iran 01.12.20
Two first half goals were enough to make it back to back wins for Korea. Photo courtesy of AFC.


The second match against Iran provided a different look to the Korean side as several changes were made to the starting eleven, and it seemed to pay off as they found the net twice in the first half.  The first goal came through the same man who was the match-winner against China, as Lee Dong-jun pounced on a rebound in front of goal after Maeng Seung-woong's initial shot had been saved after just over twenty minutes of play.

Cho Kyu-sung, who starred for FC Anyang in K League 2 in 2019 made it two with under ten minutes to play in the first half, his rocket from outside the area finding the corner to Habib Far Abbasi's left.

Iran would strike back on 54 minutes, as Reza Shekari gave them some hope of a comeback cutting the deficit in half with a headed effort thanks to a cross from the left.  Korea's back four looked to take their foot off the gas just for a moment and they were made to pay.  It wasn't the best second half performance, but it turned out to be enough to secure the result they needed.

Uzbekistan 1-2 South Korea


Jeong Seung-won against Uzbekistan 01.15.20
Jeong Seung-won has been instrumental to Korea's success at the tournament. Photo courtesy of AFC.


Kim Hak-bum opted for more experience in the final match against Uzbekistan and it paid off, as Oh Se-hun's pair of goals were the difference, with his sublime strike from just outside the area with under twenty minutes left bringing Korea yet another win.

Bobir Abdixolikov's looping header looked to get the defending champions back in the match, and they held on well until conceding the go-ahead goal.  This match was by no means a walk in the park for Korea, as they struggled to cope with the likes of Khojiakbar Alijonov, Aziz Ganiev, Oybek Bozorov, and Jasurbek Yakhshiboev, but a lack of finishing along with some suspect goalkeeping from Abduvakhid Nematov between the sticks allowed Korea to preserve their advantage in the end.

Tactical Analysis

Korea's opening match against China was too heavily centered on wing play in attack, and it made them look much too predictable moving forward, which is one of the reasons why they faltered for most of the ninety minutes to create scoring chances effectively.  The Chinese simply knew where they were going to be on the pitch and were able to counter them for the entirety of regulation.

It wasn't until a last gasp effort in injury time that the match turned in Korea's favor, as the only time they successfully built out of the back, it resulted in a goal.  Kang Yun-sung opted to play through the middle for Kim Dong-hyun, who found Kim Jin-gyu in space just around the centre circle.

Korea's number eight then put a ball over top of the Chinese defense which Lee Dong-jun was able to latch on to and put in in the back of the net with a crisp finish low and away from Chen Wei.  It was by far not a textbook performance, but it would serve as a building block for the matches to come.

Several changes against Iran led to a more attacking approach netting a pair of goals in the first half, but a shaky second half almost cost them a victory.  Two things stood out for Korea in the match - the development of depth in the squad, but also the tendency of the back line to loosen up when defending the pass in their own third.

Reza Shekari vs Korea 01.12.20
Reza Shekari scored Iran's lone goal against Korea. Photo courtesy of AFC.
  

Shekari should not have scored for Iran; Korea will have to guard against such tendencies when they face tougher competition in the knockouts.

The final group match against Uzbekistan saw them get out to a fast start as they were in front after only five minutes but conceded before halftime and parity was restored by the interval

There were a number of players who put forth strong performances, in particular Won Du-jae, who donned the captain's armband for the match and was everywhere he needed to be to help Korea preserve a result which guaranteed they finished top of the group.  

Several players who featured in previous matches did not play against Uzbekistan, further allowing Kim Hak-bum to determine just how deep his squad is, and at the same time giving certain players some much needed rest.  

Being fresh for the quarter-finals and beyond will be of importance if Korea should have to go to extra time against future opponents.  Conditioning will now become a major factor if they fall back to playing too much possession football and feeling an opponent out instead of attacking from the outset in hopes of staking out to an early lead.

Success Ahead Means Sticking to the Gameplan

Kim Hak-bum file photo from 2018.
Kim Hak-bum has led his side to three consecutive victories at the tournament thus far. Photo courtesy of AFC.


In the end, Korea found a way to win, and that sort of mentality should give both the players and the coaching staff a great deal of confidence moving forward.  It would have been easy to fall back after allowing the tying goal, but they relented and found a way forward at a point in the match where things could have gone either way.  The team has shown that when they attack with purpose, it has led to positive results, and that is something they can't allow themselves to get away from as any of the remaining teams are capable of pulling off a surprise.

It is not to say that this Korean side will underestimate anyone, but they have to stick to the things which have brought them success, and continue to believe in the group as a whole.

"We've been preparing for every match like it's our last and that mindset will not change.  Our players executed the game plan really well," Kim said after the win against Uzebekistan.

He also pointed to the performance of Oh up front as a catalyst for the rest of the team.

"Oh Se-hun has to be playing at a high level for us to get better as a team.  I think this match [against Uzbekistan] has given him a boost of confidence," he added.

Up Next: Jordan

Jordan Starting XI vs UAE 01.16.20
Jordan played to a 1-1 draw with the UAE to secure their place in the quarterfinals. Photo courtesy of AFC.


Jordan qualified for the quarterfinals by virtue of their 1-1 draw with Group D winners United Arab Emirates, but still would have gone through regardless of the result as Vietnam lost to North Korea in their final encounter.  After an opening 2-1 win against the North Koreans, they settled for draws in their final two matches and finished second in their group only on goal difference.

Korea will have to be wary of their opponent's defensive capabilities as they only conceded twice in the group stage.  They should also pay attention to the effectiveness of Jordan's wing play, and in particular the presence of Ali Iyad Olwan, who prominently takes up an attacking position on the left.  

The midfield battle will be very important in the match; whoever can control the middle of the park will have an upper hand to victory.  Korea will have to capitalize on both their time and opportunities in the attacking third, as Jordan will attempt to keep the ball out of their own end and hit on the counter whenever possible.

Kang Yoon-sung could be a pivotal player for Korea at the fullback position, as it will be chiefly his responsibility to shut down anything that comes down his side of the pitch.  The positive is that he can play on both flanks, as he started on the right against China and on the left against Uzbekistan.

There are options as to who will play opposite him, as Kim Jin-ya started the first two matches of the tournament, but Yoon Jong-gyu and Lee Yoo-hyeon also made appearances in the starting eleven.

Jordan didn't particularly dominate possession against their weaker opponents, but had more than fifty per cent of the ball against the UAE, so they may opt for a more possession oriented approach against Korea.

They are not a team to be taken lightly.  Despite not scoring a wealth of goals, they have proven able in several areas, including being able to shut teams down and play from behind, both of which Korea will have to guard against.

Individual quality will not decide this match; whoever is the better team is likely to advance.  Jordan are aware of what they can do on the pitch and they will play to their strengths.  If it translates into a victory remains to be seen, but they will nonetheless be up for the occasion.

The quarterfinal between South Korea and Jordan will be played on Sunday January 19th with kickoff at 17:15 p.m. local time or 19:15 p.m. KST  



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