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South Korea Stutters Out of the Gate Against Iraq

South Korea could not take advantage of home field in their opening match against Iraq in the final Asian qualifying round for next year's World Cup in Qatar.  A lack of communication between the midfield and attack hampered them for the duration of the ninety minutes, and, while they looked mostly sound defensively, the question remains as to who will step up to provide goals in the coming matches.  Hwang Ui-jo didn't have much to work with as the service to the front was far below average.  Iraq, fortunately, did not provide much of an attacking threat.  KLU's Branko Belan examines the takeaways from the match.
(Photo courtesy of AFC)

A Wealth of Possession With Little End Product

Statistically, Korea were the far better side with more than two-thirds of possession on the night.  They completed double the number of passes in comparison to their opposition and had fifteen attempts at goal, five of which were on target in comparison to Iraq's two with neither hitting the mark.  Despite such a lopsided discrepancy in the numbers, it did not translate where it needed to - on the scoreboard.  Particularly worrying is the fact that Korea also had eleven corners on the night but could not take advantage of their chances from the corner flag.  One is left to wonder if Korea has a strategy designed for that aspect of the game as not only the deliveries but also positioning in the box produced little worth noting.

Does it come down to the players under-performing or is it a matter of tactical shortcomings?  

Is Paulo Bento Capable of Making Adjustments?

The South Korean manager was reflective after the draw.

"We got the draw because we didn't play as well as we should have played and we didn't do certain things that we'd planned before," he said

"We should have collected the ball faster than we did.  We should have made more movements to space.  We had a lack of mobility and also a lack of aggressiveness in our ball possession," he concluded.

The above observations describe much of how the team has played since Bento took charge after the World Cup in 2018.  For observers of the national team, this problem has been a prevalent one for the duration of his tenure.  Of particular concern is the lack of aggressiveness in their overall play.  Korea struggled with their first touch on the ball against Iraq, thwarting any real threat to pose difficulty in front of the Iraq goal.

Bento has been widely criticized for his lack of tactical depth, but, to his credit or not, he has taken responsibility for the shortcomings of the team in the past as he did following Thursday night's match.  On one hand, it presents him as an accountable manager who is willing to accept that his effort in preparation wasn't quite enough to get a desired result.  On the other hand, it suggests that he still hasn't quite figured out how best to utilize his squad and let the players play to their strengths.  Whatever the case may be, the window is closing quickly ahead of the next major tournament.

Lee Dong-gyeong was Korea's best player at the Olympics in Tokyo and should be given more consideration for the senior national team.  A dynamic player who has established himself as one who is capable of displaying his offensive talents at key points in matches could be the game-changer Bento needs to ensure their qualification for the World Cup next year.  He was a key player at the U-23 level and, through his league performances this year in domestic competition, has shown he can do much of the same if given the chance for his country on a more regular basis.

Bento has options but he needs to choose wisely if Korea are to turn their fortunes around and extend their successful string of qualifications for football's grandest showcase into double digits.  

A Lack of Striking Options

Another consideration must be taken into account - a lack of depth at the striker position.  Many have criticized Hwang Ui-jo's performances for the national team and, in particular, in critical matches.  But, once he decides to retire from international football, who will be there to replace him?  Cho Gue-sung was called up for the September qualifiers but did not feature against Iraq and will have to wait a bit longer for his first senior cap.

Hwang Ui-jo was kept at bay mainly because of poor service from South Korea's midfield.  Photo courtesy of AFC.
Upon closer inspection, of the five other strikers called up in the past twelve months for the national team, three of them have one appearance between them.  Jung Sang-bin featured against Lebanon in June, while Cho Young-wook was called up for the friendly against Japan in March but did not play, and Kim Ji-hyun last made the squad list for the national team at the U-23 level in October 2020.  The remaining two, Kim Shin-wook, who is now 33 years of age and may still have something left in the tank, and Lee Jeong-hyeop, aged 30, are slowly seeing their opportunities for the national team dwindling with each passing international break.

Oh Se-hun could be a short way away for a senior call-up and maybe it will come before the end of this calendar year.  He featured for the U-23 side in their title-winning run at the AFC Championship in Thailand last year and a step up to the A side would be a natural step in his progression.  Having said that, he is still a work in progress in terms of the national picture, but there is some degree of hope and anticipation that he will see his chance come soon.

A Daunting Schedule

On paper, South Korea are among the favorites to qualify from the group.  Defeating Iran twice is a tall order for a team that has had a lack of goal production in recent times, so how those matches play out will be critical to where Bento's men finish up in their section.  Away trips to Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and the United Arab Emirates will do little to improve the mood in the squad if results are not what they are expected to be.

They still have one more home match in September against Lebanon on the 7th to make amends for their poor showing in their opening match of the current round.  Should they once again fail to take all three points, the alarm bells will begin to sound.

An away date with Iran is not too far off in the future as that match is penciled in for October 12th and they will also have to travel to Iraq in November for the reverse fixture against Dick Advocaat's side who stymied them the first time around.  If results do not turn favorably, South Korea's fate may already be sealed by that point.

The time to look for answers is slowly ticking away.  One more slip could prove costly and not only will it cost Bento his job, it could also likely cost the Taeguk Warriors an appearance on the international stage. 


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