Four years after a disappointing showing in Brazil, South Korea had the great misfortune of being drawn into a very tough group in Russia. The Taegeuk Warriors have enviable top-end talent in Son Heung-min and Ki Sung-yueng, and if they had been drawn into the groups that their fellow Asian qualifiers like Australia, Japan, or Saudi Arabia wound up in, maybe they could have imagined a route to the Round of 16. As it stands, however, they merely have a decent shot to beat Sweden and then possibly scare Mexico or Germany. There’s simply too much firepower between them and the knockout rounds to feel hopeful about their chances.
South Korea’s qualification campaign started off flawlessly, as they won their first-round group with a perfect 27-0 goal record. Things got bumpier in the second round, and they dropped games to China, Qatar, and Iran before finishing second in their group and narrowly avoiding a play-in game against Australia. Former head coach Uli Stielike was fired after the team started losing in qualification, and new man Shin Tae-yong led his team to the two scoreless draws that just barely held off Syria.
Of the 23 players Shin is bringing to Russia, only five play in Europe. So while they might surprise their Group F foes, it seems that Son is the only game-breaking threat they have to worry about. Korean fans might have to be satisfied with whatever cool highlights their superstar can create. Otherwise, there’s not much stopping them from pelting their team with candy at the airport again.
Goalkeepers: Kim Seung-gyu (Vissel Kobe), Kim Jin-hyeon (Cerezo Osaka), Cho Hyun-woo (Daegu FC).
Defenders: Kim young-gwon (Guangzhou Evergrande), Jang Hyun-soo (FC Tokyo), Jung Seung-hyun (Sagan Tosu), Yun Yong-sun (Seongnam FC), Oh Ban-suk (Jeju United), Kim Min-woo (Sangju Sangmu), Park Joo-ho (Ulsan Hyundai), Hong Chul (Sangju Sangmu), Go Yo-han (FC Seoul), Lee Yong (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors)
Midfielders: Ki Sung-yueng (Swansea City), Jung Woo-young (Vissel Kobe), Ju Se-jong (Asan Mugunghwa FC), Koo Ja-cheol (FC Augsburg), Lee Jae-sung (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Lee Seung-woo (Hellas Verona), Moon Seon-min (Incheon United)
Forwards: Kim Shin-wook (Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors), Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur), Hwang Hee-chan (FC Red Bull Salzburg)
At least Korea have a great player. Son has been at Tottenham for three seasons, and after a rough first year, he’s established himself as one of the most dangerous goalscoring threats on one of the very best teams in the Premier League. Son plays on the wing or occasionally through the middle as a second striker. He doesn’t lead the line for his club team, because they have Harry Kane and also because he’s best used as a runner who can latch onto Kane’s backwards passes or a wide man who can feed Kane the ball in dangerous positions. Son is a right-footed player, though he can score and pass with both feet. He’s a talented dribbler with great close control, which only makes his tendency to try wild long-range shots even deadlier.
Spurs like to counterattack, which South Korea will have to do in Russia too, and that fits Son perfectly. He is zippy as hell, though that’s not all of what makes him special. Son has a knack for finding open space and manipulating a retreating defense into giving up even more space. He won’t get to play with anyone of Kane’s talent on his national team, and injuries have unfortunately ravaged the Korean attack, so he will likely play as either a line-leading forward or as a slightly withdrawn second striker. South Korea will need Son’s strong finishing ability, since they’re short on other goalscorers. Even if they don’t make the knockout rounds, there’s a decent chance Son scores the goal of the tournament.
Shin was fond of a 3-5-2 formation leading up to the World Cup, but he’s since admitted that a back four is probably a better idea against the sort of teams Korea will have to play at the World Cup. His biggest decision will be how advanced to play star midfielder Ki Sung-yeung. The Premier League-seasoned Ki is the best passer on this team, and he will likely play as a deep-lying playmaker or a box-to-box midfielder, both of which would allow him to move the ball all around the field while keeping someone behind him to cover up for his occasional defensive lapses. If Korea spring any upsets, it will be because of Ki and Son.
Things will be trickier for South Korea than they were in qualification, as they’ll be without winger Lee Chung-yong and defensive midfielder Kwon Kyung-won. This is not a terribly deep team, but there are intriguing players like former Barcelona youth player Lee Seung-woo and striker Hwang Hee-chan. If Lee and Hwang, who are 20 and 22 years old respectively, show out, then that only makes Son’s job easier.
June 18, 8 a.m.: South Korea vs. Sweden at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium
June 23, 11 a.m.: South Korea vs. Mexico at Rostov Arena
June 27, 10 a.m.: South Korea vs. Germany at Kazan Arena