Cho Young-cheol’s simple tap-in proved enough to edge South Korea past Oman.
Uli Stielike had three major selection dilemmas. First, at right-back, he had a choice between Kim Chang-Soo or Cha Du-Ri, with the former starting, but after succumbing to injury twenty minutes in, was replaced by the latter. Stielike also had to pick a #10 and a #9 – Koo Ja-Cheol and Cho Young-Cheol got the nod.
Paul Le Guen has been faithful to a 4-4-2 formation for the majority of his three years in charge of Oman, but sprung a surprise with his starting XI by using just one striker, Al Muqbali, and switching to a 5-4-1.
That was the most interesting tactical feature of this game. In a preview of the general themes of this tournament, I suggested every side was using either 4-2-3-1, or 4-3-3, and that Oman would be the only exception, with a 4-4-2. As it turned out, they will still probably be the only exception, but with an unorthodox 5-4-1 formation.
The formation battle was 5-4-1 v 4-2-3-1, but with some important caveats. Firstly, South Korea wanted to retain possession for long periods, and so the two #6s – Ki Sung-Yeng and Park Joo-Ho – took turns to drop into very deep positions, often alongside the centre-backs, to pick up the ball and work it forward slowly. Secondly, South Korea’s two wingers, Son Heung-Min and Lee Chung-Yong played very narrow, drifting inside into positions between the lines.
However, Oman defended quite well for the majority of the first half, sitting in three distinct lines. The central midfield duo should have theoretically been outnumbered on paper because South Korea had a 3v2 advantage in this zone, however, they slid laterally across the pitch to block passes into the three attacking midfielders. Combined with Ki and Park dropping very deep, there was often quite a disconnect between the back six and front four.
Still, when South Korea could play passes between the lines to either Son or Lee, they looked dangerous. Lee, in particular, collected a few nice balls infield and was able to turn and face forward. In these situations, though, Oman’s centre-backs were basically defending 3v1 against Cho Young-Cheol, and the striker was barely involved, making it difficult for the attackers to dribble towards goal, or play a through-ball,.
It felt like there was a deliberate focus from Korea to attack Oman’s right-hand side, where they were missing regular, experienced right-back Saeed Suhail. Aside from one moment where Son got in behind and hit the bar, however, the emphasis towards that flank didn’t look particularly promising.
Also, South Korea pushed their full-backs very high up the pitch – again, though, the delivery from out wide was always quite poor (and seemed impractical given Oman had three strong centre-backs ready to defend crosses into the box).
Instead, this felt like an area of strength for Oman, because they could counter-attack quickly into the space vacated whenever a Korean full-back got forward. This was especially prominent down their left – Korea’s right – as Kim Chang-Soo got very high up in the opening period, and left lots of space behind him for Qasim Saeed to attack. Three times inside the opening twenty minutes Oman stormed forward down this flank, with Saeed looking to link with Al Muqbali, and Al Siyabi also contributing from the opposite side.
Importantly, because Oman were playing a back five but still had natural width (as opposed to using a 5-3-2, which has two strikers), it meant the wide players didn’t have to track the Korean full-backs all the way, and could instead ‘pass them off’ to the wing-backs whenever they moved into the final third. That allowed Saeed and Al Siyabi to stay higher up and be a threat on the break, thus creating Oman’s counter-attacking opportunities.
South Korea’s slow passing
After a bright start, Korea’s tempo dropped significantly. This played into Oman’s hands – they were happy defending in numbers, then breaking forward. South Korea finished with 67% possession, illustrating their desire to keep the ball. For large parts of the first half, however, this was counter-intuitive, as it allowed Oman to get numbers behind the ball, and set up their defensive shape.
The major problem was how deep Ki and Park were dropping to receive the ball. Both finished as the top two for the game’s highest passers (87 and 75 respectively) but the vast majority of this was in very deep, non-dangerous areas, where they worked the ball forward very slowly.
When they attacked at speed, or mixed up the possession with a long ball in behind, they looked much more promising. The goal came from an errant Omani pass that allowed Korea to counter-attack 3v3 for the first time in the match (with Young-Cheol tapping home from an initial parried shot). It was indicative of the type of chance Korea should have been trying to create more of.
The overall pattern of the game continued after the break, although it felt like Korea became more confident and purposeful going forward. One move early in the second half was especially promising – they played short down the right-hand side, worked the ball forward and then quickly switched out to the left, with Kim Jin-Su flying forward into space, and shooting high over the bar. Soon after, a similar move saw Park Joo-Ho cross for Koo Ja-Cheol, whose header was well saved by Al Habsi.
The more Oman had to chase the game, the more open it became, especially when they pushed their wing-backs high up, creating opportunities for Korea’s front three to break against Oman’s three centre-backs. Raed Ibrahim was the more promising, twice cutting inside from the top of the box and dinking crosses over the top. He also came close with a piledriver late on.
Oman’s late rally, lead by Al Hosni and Mohsin Johar off the bench (though they kept with the 5-4-1) nearly paid off with a header from a corner saved onto the bar, but Korea hung on for a crucial win.
For a tournament set to be dominated by 4-2-3-1, this was a fascinating formation battle. Oman’s 5-4-1 was unexpected and caused problems on the counter, but they failed to turn these into clear scoring chances – a good penalty shout was the closest they came.
Tactically, though, this was a predictable contest in terms of the two approaches. Like Australia v Kuwait the night before, it was possession v counter-attack. Stielike’s side weren’t overly impressive, though, with the wide players struggling to get on the ball facing forward when moving infield, and the two deep-lying playmakers picking up possession probably too deep to be genuinely incisive with the ball. South Korea play smart, passing football, but questions remains about their effectiveness in the final third.