South Korea’s third consecutive 1-0 win meant they finished top of Group A ahead of the host nation.
With qualification to the knockouts already ensured, Ange Postecoglou rotated his entire front three, with Nathan Burns and Tomi Juric starting for the first time at this Asian Cup. The other change from the 4-0 win over Oman was at left-back, where Aziz Behich returned in place of Jason Davidson.
Korea have been crippled by injuries and illness, although Uli Stielike was able to continue with his first-choice midfield pairing of Ki Seung-yung and Park Joo-ho. Star attacker Son Heung-min was still on the bench, while there was a third centre-back pairing in as many games, with Kwak Tae-Hi given the opportunity to partner Kim Young-Gwon.
Although Korea defended slightly more proactively than Oman and Kuwait, and had more sustained periods of attacking pressure on Australia’s goal, the pattern of this match was very similar to the Socceroos games against Kuwait and Oman. As is the norm under Ange Postecoglou, they dominated possession (62%), completed lots of passes (433 v Korea’s 155) and regularly got into the final third (64 v Korea’s 50).
This is how Postecoglou wants his side to play – his mantra is all about taking the game to the opposition, and dominating the game.
Problems down left
However, in the opening period, Australia had problems defensively down their left-hand side. The first major issue was that Behich simply didn’t play particularly well. Not only was his execution on the ball poor, delivering some awful crosses, he seemed off the pace defensively and at one point allowed a Korean attacker to simply dribble past him into the box.
The issue was exaggerated by the fact Korea seemed particularly keen to attack down their right. This could be explained by the fact that when Australia had possession, James Troisi played very narrow, drifting inside into very central positions. This is shown by the positions of where he received passes.
This meant when the ball was turned over, Behich had no natural left-winger ahead of him, creating vacant space that Korea were easily able to attack into. Troisi’s narrowness made it difficult for him to recover his position quickly when the ball was turned over, and Korea created some good counter-attacks down this side.
Different attacking dynamic
Around the twenty minute mark, the game settled. Australia’s possession became more obvious, and as always, they looked to attack down the flanks. While they performed their usual rotations, however, with Burns and Troisi rather than Leckie and Kruse in the wide positions, there was a different dynamic to the way Australia played.
As aforementioned, Troisi tended to come more towards the play, with Burns providing verticality by making runs in behind. Tomi Juric upfront was more varied in his movement than Cahill, working across the lines and pulling into the channels to facilitate the movement of the wide players.
Australia’s best chances, though, came on the counter-attack, when they could attack quickly and directly in behind Korea’s unorganised defence. Troisi came incredibly close with a low shot following a brilliant 50-metre run from Luongo, who drove past two defenders and cut the ball back across the face of goal. Later, Burns made a penetrating run in behind, while Juric also had a good chance early in the second half in front of goal.
All of these chances came in the moment of transition, as opposed to when Australia controlled possession for long periods. That was because Korea were able to get numbers behind the ball, defending in a 4-4-2 shape. They worked well as a unit, sliding across the pitch to stay compact, and individually, they also performed well, with some important blocks and clearances from the central defenders.
They could afford to be more reactive in this game than in their first two group games against Oman and Kuwait because of a 32nd minute goal by Lee Jeong-Hyeop. The defensive errors for this goal were very obvious, with three Australian players drawn towards Ki Seung-yong, whose subsequent pass freed up Lee Keun-Ho in behind. He had an incredible amount of time and space to square a cross for Jeong-Hyeop to tap home.
An obvious factor of the game was the heat and humidity. This caused problems for both sides, with many players fatiguing rather obviously on the pitch.
It seemed to cause particular problems for Australia’s attacking play. When compared to the high-tempo, high-speed style that dominated Oman and Kuwait, this performance felt much more laboured. They didn’t press as effectively as usual, and the forward passing wasn’t as quick.
This is corroborated by the fact that Australia’s tempo – calculated by the average of how often a pass is completed in seconds – was 3.29, compared to 3.06 and 2.88 against Kuwait and Oman respectively.
Korea’s lead meant Australia’s possession became even more pronounced in the second half. In response to this, Postecoglou initially turned to Leckie, before introducing both Cahill and Kruse on the 70 minute mark, which meant he had all three first-choice attackers on the pitch. However, he surprisingly kept Juric on the pitch, meaning this was perhaps the most attack-minded lineup we’ve seen under his regime.
Switching to a 4-2-3-1, Cahill played essentially as a second striker. He played at the tip of the midfield triangle when the ball was deep in Australia’s half to ensure they still had three players in that zone, and thus could still bring it forward through the midfield. When Australia were in the final third, he pushed forward to join Juric in the box, providing another goal threat.
While this increased Australia’s pressure on Korea’s goal, Stielike’s side inevitably had chances of their own on the counter-attack. The more the Socceroos chased a goal that would take them top of the group, the more open they were at the back. One particularly memorable counter-attack was when Trent Sainsbury was effectively defending on his own against three onrushing Korean attackers – fortunately, Mat Ryan produced a miracle save.
For Australia, Kruse came the closest to scoring from a clever Juric lay-off inside the box, but Korea’s goalkeeper Kim Jin-Hyeon saved brilliantly. Both goalkeepers provided crucial interventions in the final moments, and Korea hung on for a 1-0 win.
A disappointing if not damning result for the hosts. Like against Oman and Kuwait, Australia dominated the ball and constantly got into the final third. Against superior opponents, however, they had more difficultly creating chances, and suffered in the heat and humidity.
Both sides play in the same conditions, though, and Korea deserve credit for their disciplined, organised defending. They worked well as a unit, and without key attackers, this reactive approach probably suited them better than when they were forced to take the initiative against Oman and Kuwait.
Three 1-0 wins illustrate the fact Korea are solid rather than spectacular, and this defensive performance will give Stielike much heart ahead of what is likely to be a tight knockout stage.