When your best players are not your best players

“Korea, only nation in Asia, to become the sixth nation to advance to the World Cup for the 8th consecutive time”

The media is all about this record when no one, but few, dares to know. There’s really nothing valuable about this record when the team’s performance is hardly convincing.

NISI20160814_0012047959_web.jpgMore and more players picked for the national team are not playing for their respective club teams. Being called up for the national team means the squad has to prepare for the game in a short period of time. However when you have players who are short of game experience from lack of regular football, preparation is slowed down. Anyone who’s been a player will know how much not being able to play slows you down not only physically, but also mentally. The sad reality is that it’s also impossible to obtain this physical and mental aspect of the game through just hard training. A player NEEDS to get in the actual game. Coaches, speaking to the media, will confirm they will only pick players who are first-team members of their respective clubs, but they’re still partial to players who play in Europe – even if they’re struggling to break into the first team at their club. It tells you something about Korean football. The national team, for some reason, is forced to rely on these foreign-based players and has a small pool of players to pick from the domestic K-League. There’s a real dearth of quality players from Korean domestic football, which is the result of a poor coaching system and an ineffective league system, leading to less opportunity for all age groups and genders.

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Joo-ho Park struggling at Dortmund

An answer to the question of why a player isn’t getting playing time is rather simple. He’s not good enough. What’s really hard to answer, though, is why Korean players, as a bigger mass, struggle with this issue. Coach Shin Tae Yong, who led the Olympic team to Rio, is very much concerned with this issue. He describes current Korean players as all around too robotic and that they are missing something special in their style of play. Because of this undistinguished style, coaches are rather forced to prefer the veterans. It’s time to correct this stereotyped idea that age is stopping young players from playing. They are only going to get their experience over the veterans when they are set apart from the norm. Marcus Rashford of Manchester United didn’t make his surprise Premier League debut against Arsenal last season because he was young. He was given the chance because he had the abilities which in turn made his potential that much great. That’s the world we live in, asking for striking expertise and competence.

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Coach Shin Tae Yong at Rio Olympics

So the root of this problem is planted in Korea’s youth coaching system. How can coaches assist in developing a set of definite qualities into young players? Here, coach Shin stresses the importance of how coaches must learn how to help young players mature and sharpen their innate talents. There’s obviously a ton that goes into youth coaching, but coach Shin says, the primary focus should be on maturing their raw talents. Korean coaches are too focused, or rather, only focused on settling the fundamentals and executing tactics. That’s why Korean coaches prefer the veteran over the rookie. There’s not that much to compare besides the former having more experience. We need to criticize this ‘coach-centered’ coaching. And it just makes coaching that much harder. While perfecting the fundamentals and teaching them how to execute the team’s tactics, coaches are challenged to discover and implement creativeness to players’ natural talents. This is the direction of coaching Korea needs to take, differentiating players with their own unique abilities.

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U-19 coach Ahn Ik-Soo

The U-19 coach, Ahn Ik-Soo, approaches the problem of players in late teens and early twenties not getting regular football at a different perspective. He points to the entire league system. No matter how talented you are at age 19 or 20, it’s true that you are more likely to spend more time watching the game than actually playing. But, let’s go back to Marcus Rashford’s example. Before Rashford broke into the first team, he didn’t just train with the first team. He had plenty of opportunities to keep playing for the reserves in the U-21 league, which we know already, is separate from the Championship, the second division. With this subdivided league system in Europe, young players are able to maintain and raise their real game experience and even work on closing down the gap between the regular starters. That’s exactly what Korean football is missing – a subdivided league system. The league system is shallow and does not account for the young players and even the women’s teams. Many players in early twenties are just entering the professional K-League, playing for their universities, or playing in the lower divisions of K-League. In each respective situation, young players simply don’t play because they are rookies. They don’t have an alternate solution for gaining game experience. Like European football, the KFA must develop better young players by reshaping the leagues under K-League and creating more opportunities for each age group and women’s teams to participate in.

Amazingly enough, the KFA has been working on a lofty goal of expanding Korean football league. The table below shows the current league system:

Division Level
K-League (Classic) Pro
K-League (Challenge) Pro
N-League (National) Semi-Pro
K3-League Amateur

KFA, partnered with Korean Olympic Committee, is mapping out a plan to subdivide the entire league system into seven different leagues.

Division Level
K1-League (Classic) Pro
K2-League (Challenge) Pro
K3-League (Advanced) Semi-Pro
K4-League (Basic) Semi-Pro
K5-League (National Best) Amateur
K6-League (18 District Leagues) Amateur
K7-League (142 Regional Leagues) Amateur

emblem_of_korea_football_association-svgStarting next year, K7-League’s 142 regional leagues consisting of 852 teams will begin their establishment. The government is supporting about $2.6 million, so each league will be allocated with about $18,000 to furnish necessary facilities and organize management for the league opening. Going with the new system, the KFA announced earlier this month that all divisions will now be introduced to the promotion and relegation battle just like the European league system. Now, any team from any league can move up and down in the system. Currently this system is only applied to two pro leagues – Classic and Challenge.

In all respects, this is exciting news to hear. The KFA is surely making a great first step in raising competition and widening the pool of players to pick for the national team by merging all the leagues and implementing the promotion/ relegation battle for both professionals and amateurs. This is also a great way to invite more amateurs to play, especially to those who couldn’t play up to the standard of pro or given up because of conditions of football environment in Korea. They can start enjoying football again and who knows, we might just see a Korean Jamie Vardy some day. It’s an open game to all.

It’s time for all of us to accept the current situation with Korean football and embrace the fact that Korean football has been poor in producing quality players which in return, worsened the competition in the national team. Coach Shin associates this poor line of production players with weak coaching system and asked for a shift from ‘coach-centered’ coaching to ‘player-centered’ coaching. On top of this problem, this overall problem of players lacking regular football is situated far more deeply than just the national team. Coaches of men’s U-23, men’s U-19, National Women’s team, women’s U-20 are all facing dilemmas with players lacking real game experience. The best players of Korea are coming to play for their country, but they are struggling to play regularly for their club teams. There’s more than just substandard coaching, Korea doesn’t acquire a robust environment for both genders of young players to simply play at their level. However, we’ve seen reports made by the KFA that changes ARE happening. Leagues are merging. Even though there’s still long ways to go to provide more opportunities for young players and even the women’s teams, these long-term changes on youth coaching and overall football environment should have gradual effects on Korean football in all levels and one day bring better performance from the national team.

Korea vs. Australia

Uli Stielike’s tactics in the final game was near perfection. He placed versatile Joo Ho Park, a natural defender, on the left wing to shut down Australia’s attacking route on the right. On the other side, he had an attacking duo of Son and Cha. Australia’s left back hardly joined in his attack because he was too busy worrying about the duo. Korea pressed hard throughout the game. In the first half, Australia only had three crosses and those crosses didn’t even hit the main man, Tim Cahil. Korea did have several risky moments from Cahil’s clever off-the-ball movements. Other than that, Korea’s game plan was ‘to-the-point’.

Attacking options for Korea needs more improvement.

Throughout the game, Ki was able to move side to side to start the play and most of the balls were directed to the wingers (Park and Son). There was plenty of overlaps from Jin Su Kim and Cha. Korea’s attack pattern went like this:

[Possess the ball – Full back overlap – Cross – Hopefully get a shot out of it].

It worked in the beginning with Son’s two close chances, but as the game progressed on, it was too predictable. Not many options were created even though we had the possession. Korea’s biggest problem that night was lack of creativity in attack. Korea was too focused on getting the ball wide for a cross. I thought Korea needed to penetrate more in between the Australia center backs. (Korea’s goal came from the center!!!)

It was an unfortunate night. Korea played well, but Luongo’s shot ruined all their game plan. The first goal was a huge mental boost for Australia throughout the game. With the same stamina spent, Australia only needed fewer players to attack while Korea had to put more numbers going from defense to attack. That’s why more Korean players looked fatigued. Despite the near ‘perfect’ game plan executed from the Korean side, Luongo’s goal was just super unfortunate.

So that’s why many many many Korean fans were PROUD of their team. Korea played six games in three weeks. Their determination and zest shown on the pitch for a victory in Asian Cup was animatedly carried into fans’ hearts. Getting a late equalizer at that point in time shows incredible winning mentality. Many fans were supportive after this match even after a loss because the fans saw how much Korea prepared for this tournament during each of the six games. Isn’t it crazy how just months ago, fans were mentioning how Korean football was ‘dead’?

As one of million fans, I also would like to thank and congratulate the Korean players and the coaching staff! 다시뛰자 한국축구!

2015 Asian Cup in Australia – Republic of Korea

It took me 5 hours to make this video. I was too tired to write about my thoughts on 2015 Asian Cup. Here it is. Most of football experts in Korea did not expect to Korea to win the cup before the tournament began.

Four Asian teams were in the 2014 World Cup: Korea, Japan, Australia, and Iran. All four teams ended fourth in their respective groups and could not manage to win a single game. There was a question to Asian football. In the Asian Cup, these four teams are the favorites. This makes this tournament fun to watch.

Now, Korea.

‘First place in Group A with three wins and three clean sheets’ They didn’t play exceptionally well but they got the job done. Up to the finals, they conceded no goals. Uli Stielike’s tactics to this tournament was well planned out. You have to credit to the players for executing the plans on the pitch.

Everywhere Anywhere at Anytime for Everyone

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