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AFC U23 Recap: South Korea 1-0 China

South Korea narrowly escaped with victory in their opening match of the AFC U23 Championship against China thanks to a second half injury time winner from 2019 K League 2 MVP Lee Dong-jun.  Kim Hak-bum's men will have a lot to work on after what can be considered a lackluster performance in several areas of the pitch.  KLU's Branko Belan takes a closer look at what needs to change for Korea as they approach the matches ahead.
(Photo via AFC)

On paper, it looked very much a mismatch, but the match itself proved otherwise.  Korea struggled early to create chances, and China took advantage of their time on the ball to create pressure in their attacking third.  Korea did not do themselves any favors as they squandered the few chances they did have and would have had to settle for a draw had it not been for some last minute heroics.

Korea's starting eleven on paper looked strong, with Song Bum-keun starting in goal; Maeng Seung-woong and Lee Dong-gyeong in midfield and the trio of Kim Dae-won, Um Won-sang and Oh Se-hun up front, but things just didn't seem to click the way they were meant to.

China caused numerous problems in pressing Korea into mistakes in the passing game, and had they had better luck in front of goal, the result easily could have gone the other way.  Chinese captain Chen Binbin was a nuisance all night, while Duan Liuyu and Yang Liyu provided cause for concern on more than one occasion as well.

First Half

As expected, both sides went into the match with a cautious approach in the early minutes, but a great chance for Korea to go into the lead would present itself just inside the first quarter of an hour.  Kang Yoon-sung found space on the right to cross into the box for Oh Se-hun who met the ball well, but his headed attempt on goal flashed just wide of the post.  

China concentrated most of their early pressure up Korea's right flank but the back line was able to hold up well enough.  It seemed that things would get difficult for the Chinese when Zhang Yuning had to be substituted because of an injury, but they continued the match unfazed.

Both teams would trade chances before the break, as first, Kim Dae-won should have put his effort into the net, but his close range shot was too close to Chen Wei, who managed to punch it away from goal.  Zhang's replacement, Duan Liuyu then had a chance to score himself, but his shot from just outside the area was straight at Song Bum-keun, who only had to get down to bring the ball into his grasp.  The teams would go to the break with the match scoreless.

Second Half

Korea made a change at the half, with Maeng Seung-woong being replaced by Kim Jin-gyu, which looked a curious decision considering how much space Maeng had covered in the first half.  It was China who would come out on the front foot as they had a chance to go ahead only minutes after the restart when Yang Liyu latched on to Hu Jinghang's floated ball into the area, but his shot at goal was kept out.

Kim Jin-gyu proved to be a good switch for the coach, as he took on the role of distributor from just inside the midfield stripe, sending the wingers bursting forward; in one instance midway through the half, Um Won-sang sprung the right flank and attempted a ground pass into the area for Oh Se-hun, but it missed the target and was swept away for a corner.

Just when it seemed the match would end without goals, Korea's number eight floated a long ball over the top which Lee Dong-jun took a moment to settle before striking a left-footed shot low into the corner to seal a much needed victory even if the performance overall did not match the result.  Korea is now left with a lot of work to do in the days ahead to prepare for an even stiffer test against Iran on Sunday night.  China, meanwhile, put forth a great effort and will now face defending champions Uzbekistan next.


Post-Match Analysis

Korea's play through most of the match focused too much on wing play, and although Kang Yoon-sung had some positive moments making a few good runs and creating a few chances on the right, he will need to improve for the matches ahead.  Kim Jin-ya struggled on the left and will have to pick up his game if he wishes to maintain his position in the starting eleven.

Indeed, the final numbers from the match mirror this, as less than thirty percent of Korea's attacking play went through the middle of the pitch, suggesting they need not only to diversify the attack, but also have to work more on building out of the back.  There needs to be a greater degree of confidence shown in the players so that ball distribution can be spread evenly.  Korea looked too predictable going forward and a lot of their offensive chances were snuffed out because of passes being telegraphed by the Chinese defenders.

To this end, while Korea had 68 per cent of the possession over the course of the match, only five of their sixteen shots were on target.  Possession needs more to be concentrated in the right areas on the pitch, especially in the attacking third, and that wasn't the case against China.  Lee Dong-jun's goal was the only example where Korea was able to build out of the back the entire match, and it needs to be stressed in future training sessions to a greater degree.

Oh Se-hun vs China, AFC U-23 Championship 01.09.20
Oh Se-hun struggled on the night, and will need to be better in the coming matches against Iran and Uzbekistan.  Photo courtesy of AFC.

Oh Se-hun struggled up front, and there is a feeling he would be more effective if he were paired up top with one of either Kim Dae-won or Um Won-sang.  Based on his performance, there is also the possibility of Cho Kyu-sung seeing action in the coming matches, but Oh is a big target in the middle and didn't have the best service overall, another critical area in the passing game where Korea must improve if they are to match up well with tougher competition.

Kim Hak-bum did state at the post-match press conference that there would be changes to the lineup to face Iran, but also that the tactics for the opening match were very much based on China's style of play.

"We had a lineup tailor-made to handle China, but those players did not have as good a match as I'd hoped.  Several other players are waiting in the wings to take on Iran," he said.

He also put the performance, or in better terms lack of one, down to nerves because of it being the opening match.

"I am happy to have those three points in our bag.  We had a lot of opportunities, but the guys were trying to do too much.  They should have played with more composure but I think it was because this was our first match," he added.

Playing to the tactics of your opponent is never a good strategy when trying to win a football match, and this is especially true when it comes to an opening match in tournament football when there is a lot at stake.  This also speaks to the earlier point of the coach needing to show more confidence in his squad so they look like it out on the pitch.

If Korea really wants to progress in this tournament, they need to establish an identity.  Their linkage play was almost non-existent against China and that is not a good way to build chemistry in the short term.  It also needs to be taken into consideration that they are looking to secure their ninth consecutive trip to the Olympic Games, but if they put forth similar performances against Iran and Uzbekistan the way they did against China, that notion will quickly be laid to rest.

Korea will face Iran next on Sunday night with kickoff slated for 7:15 p.m., while China take on Uzbekistan in the later time slot at 10:15 p.m.

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