2015 Asian Cup Final: Tactical Preview

Australia and South Korea meet for the second time in the 2015 Asian Cup, this time with the trophy at stake.

Team news – Australia

Ange Postecoglou has rotated throughout the tournament, but his first choice side has become clear. Tim Cahill, Robbie Kruse and Matthew Leckie were all rested for the game against Korea in the group, but will start here.

There are two big question marks. First is at right-back, where Ivan Franjic may feel the effects of a groin injury obtained late against UAE. Postecoglou seems confident Franjic will be fit to play. This is an area of concern because Australia have no backup for Franjic in the squad after Chris Herd suffered a long-term injury.

There are two alternatives: first, Trent Sainsbury, who has played there very intermittently for the Central Coast Mariners and current club side PEC Zwolle, or Mark Milligan, who seems the more likely option. Milligan has rarely played at right-back but this seems preferable to disrupting the good partnership between Sainsbury and Matthew Spiranovic.

The other question mark is in the final midfield position, where Postecoglou has used four different players. There’s a valid argument for all of them. James Troisi (started v Kuwait) is the most attacking option, and is the player most willing to get forward and overlap past the front three.. Mark Milligan (v UAE), as aforementioned, might be required at right-back, but is versatile enough to play as one of the advanced midfielders. His energy and experience as a defender makes him the most solid defensive option in that position.

Matt McKay (v Korea and Oman) is something of a mixture between Troisi and Milligan as a dependable, all-round midfielder. His passing is neat and tidy, linking the midfield to attack. He played for two years under Postecoglou, and as one of the coach’s favourites, seems the most likely to be selected.

Finally, there is Bresciano (v China). An experienced, intelligent midfielder, he has appeared somewhat off the pace at this tournament, and seems more likely to be used off the bench in a cameo before international retirement.

Team news – South Korea

Like Australia, South Korea haven’t relied on a core starting team, and instead Uli Stielike has been happy to chop and change throughout the tournament. However, it’s probable that his team selection will be very similar to that of the semi-final, with no new injury concerns.

At right-back, Cha Du-Ri’s strong performance against Iraq has seen him fight off the challenge of Kim Chang-soo, and this will be his final game before retirement. Stielike has settled on the partnership of Kim Young-gwon and Kwak Tae-hwi, who played together for the first time against Australia in the group stage and have since started every knockout match.

The main uncertainty is on the right-wing. While Han Kyo-won started against Iraq, he was ineffective and replaced by Lee Keun-ho at half-time. Keun-ho started in the group game against Australia and works very hard to track back and protect his defender, before charging forward towards the penalty box.

Korea’s contrasting approaches

If you ignore the group game against Australia, Korea’s tactical approach in this tournament has been very consistent. They build up play slowly from the back, working it forward patiently through the two deep-lying midfielders. The wide players drift inside into narrow positions, creating space for the full-backs to attack into. In all their games, they’ve had the majority of possession, creating chances through their slow, almost meticulous build up – this caused problems against defensive teams like Oman and Kuwait, who packed numbers behind the ball.

The one exception was the Australia game, when Korea became the reactive team – they had just 33% possession, and instead focused on defending in a compact 4-4-2 block. The front two got behind the ball quickly, the wide players tracked back to form a second bank of four ahead of the defence, and they successfully frustrated Australia by working well as a unit.

Ange Postecoglou’s mantra since taking over the Socceroos in October 2013 has been all about reshaping the mentality of the team to be dominant and aggressive. “Australians want their sporting teams to be aggressive and pro-active,” he says, “to take the game to their opponents”.

That’s been the theme of their run to the final, where all their games have essentially become attack v defence exercises. Their biggest challenge has been in breaking down an organised defence, and given the previous fixture between these two sides, that will again be the main theme of this match.

Fortunately for Stielike, Korea’s defence has been excellent in this tournament, and they haven’t conceded at all in their five games so far. It’s a remarkable, unprecedented statistic, and it doesn’t necessarily indicate that they are ultra-defensive – they’ve simply been quite strong in this department.

Three consecutive 1-0 wins in the group stage illustrates their effective, rather than entertaining, nature.

Speed of the game

By contrast, Australia are the tournament’s top goalscorers and most attack-minded side, scoring four goals against both Oman and Kuwai in the opening two games. As they’ve faced stronger, higher quality teams, however, the rate of scoring has unsurprisingly decreased.

A major theme of those opening two wins was the speed and high tempo at which Australia played. Traditionally, Asian teams like to play games at a slow pace (linked to the time wasting many Middle East teams are infamous for). By looking to pass the ball quickly, and even racing to restart play when the ball went out for a set-piece or throw-in, Australia countered this problem. Against a Korea team that will want to delay as much as possible so they can get behind the ball quickly, it will again be important.

It’s worth noting that in the first Korea game, Australia’s tempo – measured by the average number of seconds between passes – was 3.29, their lowest of the entire tournament. The match analysis suggested the humidity and condition of the pitch in Brisbane was an explanation for this.

Key battle zone #1 – Korea’s full-backs

Although the fact these two sides played each other just thirteen days ago might suggest we should already be familiar with the key battlezones, the scale of rotation from either coach means it’s difficult to examine specific individual clashes.

For example, Korea focused their attacking down Australia’s left hand side in that game, where James Troisi’s extremely narrow positioning as a left-winger meant left-back Aziz Behich was exposed on the counter-attack. In the final, neither of those players will play in those positions, though, making the point somewhat redundant.

An area of great interest, however, are Korea’s full-backs. Both Ki and Park, the deep-lying midfielders, drop into deep positions to recycle the ball forward and importantly, create cover that allows both Cha Du-Ri and Kim Jin-Su to push forward. Park, for example, moves out into the left channel to cover in behind Kim Jin-Su, ensuring that flank isn’t exposed when the ball is turned over.

Diagram

On the opposite side, however, Ki Sung-Yeung isn’t as positionally alert. This means when Cha Du-Ri gets forward he can have only right-sided centre-back Kwak Tae-hwi behind him. It might be more effective for Australia to focus their counter-attacks down this side.

It’s worth noting, though, that both full-backs are capable of good deliveries from out wide. Cha Du-Ri has already provided two match-winning assists in this tournament, while Kim Jin-Su is more direct, and can cut inside to shoot.

Key battle-zone #2 – Son Heung-min

Korea’s counter-attacking threat will come predominantly through Bayer Leverkusen winger, Son Heung-min. Perhaps the most high-profile player at this tournament, Son is a quick, mobile attacker brilliant at dribbling at speed. He collects passes on the run and drives forward towards goal. He’s come alive in the knockout stage, scoring twice in extra-time against Uzbekistan, and impressing against Iraq in the semi-final, where he constantly drifted into little pockets of space down the left channel and then darted inside on the ball, coming close with two shots from range.

Son Heung-min

As Korea will likely be on the back foot in terms of possession, Son’s ability to turn defence into attack quickly will be very important. He didn’t start in the group game, but came off the bench and nearly scored late on. His pace on the break will be Korea’s main outlet.

Key battlezone #3 – the aerial battle

Korea might not have conceded a goal in this tournament, but as Johnny Duerden points out, they had “a defence that was possibly the worst at the World Cup, one that conceded a higher percentage of goals from set pieces on the road to Brazil than any of the 31 other teams there”.

Cahill remains Australia’s key player in attack, as he can attack the crosses in from wide areas with that supernatural heading ability. In open play, he positions himself towards the back post and attacks crosses floated in towards that area.

At set-pieces, Korea use a mixture of zonal and man marking. The zonal markers tend to set up from the edge of the six yard box, meaning they are positioned very deep, and can find it difficult to clear balls away without the benefit of a running jump. Therefore, Korea often concede multiple chances from the one set-piece.

Fatigue

It is physiologically very difficult for players to recover from so many matches in such a short period of time (it’s probably quite telling that Australia’s one injury concern, Franjic, is the only player to play every single minute of the tournament) so this could prove to be an important feature if it goes to extra-time. It’s worth remembering Korea also played that extra half-hour in the quarter-final against Uzbekistan.

Also significant in this regard is that Tim Cahill has been rested and constantly substituted throughout this tournament, which means the 35 year old will be very fit for the final. For comparison, where Cahill has played 282 minutes, the likes of Ki Sung-Yeung and Omar Abdulrahman have played 480.

Conclusion

“[Mile] Jedinak was injured, [Mathew] Leckie was on the bench, [Tim] Cahill was on the bench, [Robbie] Kruse was on the bench,” said Stielike earlier this week. “We won’t play the same Australia … but we have to be the same Korea.”

It’s an apt summary – these two sides have already played each other in this tournament, so we can assume the general tactical pattern will be similar. The personnel has changed, however, which will give this game a slightly different dynamic.

Efficiency v entertainment – a crude, but accurate question to settle the winner of the Asian Cup.

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