And so South Korea again bids farewell to a U-20 World Cup after quarter-finals, just like in 2013 and 2009, only this time with some controversial assistance from VAR … wow, alright then… The tremendous clique of Lee Kang-in, the star, and Oh Se-hun, the unsung hero, gets South Korea to the first U-20 WC semi-final since 1983! … dammit… And so South Korea painfully predictably, somewhat inevitably, falls short of yet another semi-final due to their passivity late in the extra time, ultimately screwing the penalty shootout up big ti… hang on… ah nevermind… Oh Se-hun, the unsung hero of this U-20 South Korean side, suddenly turns into a sad hero with his miserable spot ki… oh… *rips the page off, throws the notebook away*
So, basically, if you managed to miss this one, congratulations on living a whole lot longer than the rest of us who didn’t. I’m sure you’ll then live long enough to witness another emotional rollercoaster of a game like this one. Or perhaps not…
Either way, I’ve been meaning to do this for long(-ish), and this feels like the right time. We’ve got a last team standing from Asia and Africa, that team weirdly being East Asian, and so let’s pay farewell to Mali and Senegal, the two other quarter-finalists, and give a bit of a nudge to South Korea as they go on to face Ecuador on Tuesday evening (while I’ll be sitting in a theatre after some 2,5 years of hiatus, because of course I will.)
We’ll do it this way: by briefly covering The Team, The Star Man, The Unsung Hero, and finally measuring The Heartbreak Rate of their concluded or somehow still ongoing campaign.
They’ve been alright, but really mostly just that. I had fancied their wingplay initially, that was their most intriguing feature along with the individual play of Dion Lopy – but the former was masterfully handled by South Korea who often doubled down on the wings to render them a non-factor in the quarter-final, and the latter was taken out of the QF due to accumulated yellow cards.
Nominally, Senegal would line up in a classic 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2 over the course of the tournament, but prior to the Korea game, they’d relied so much on their fullbacks when building up their attacks, with four attacking players relatively close to each other in central areas, you would be forgiven for actually labelling their formation 4-2-2-2.
That was cool, I have a thing for a 4-2-2-2 and offensive-minded wingbacks, but that wasn’t on display when Senegal were on the verge of exiting the tournament. Similarly, they had been very hard to break down, conceding one goal up until the QF with a combined expected goals against sum of a frankly ridiculous 1,06 (Norway would be second with an accumulated 2,35 xGA and they played one game less; per Wyscout), and they had a plan for South Korea (with Amadou Ciss shadowing Lee Kang-in in the first half), but a simple switch from Lee Kang-in more to the left since the half-time resulted in Senegal conceding three times to an often clueless “one-man” Korea.
Besides, they largely didn’t display a lot of things Mali did; things that made Mali very easy on the eye. Their combination game left a lot to be desired and their strikers often seemed a bit awkward on the ball. Mediocre in all passing metrics and relatively avid, yet not-too-successful dribblers, Senegal were mostly just kind of there without sticking out of the crowd.
That said, they were also the third youngest side at the WC – a full one year below South Korea (18,5 / 19,5 average age) – so one should probably cut them some collective slack.
The Star Man – Dion Lopy (born in 2002 / 17 years old)
Him missing the quarter-final was a big factor for Senegal, and in a lot of ways. His slick movement, link-up play and press-resistence were missing sorely in transition to attack, since Diagné and Ciss are way more straightforward on the ball and less focused on/versed in building actual plays up the field. But maybe more importantly: Lopy’s stamina and calm(ing) defensive play were sorely missing in the phases of the game when Senegal needed to just simply not concede (for a bit over 40 minutes of their combined lead).
To illustrate: in the previous two games where Senegal needed to dig in for the last 30 minutes and protect the desired result vs Nigeria / clean sheet (and by extension also the desired result) vs Poland, the 17-year-old midfielder chipped in with a fantastic 16 recovered balls (six of them in opposition’s half) and 7 interceptions. That’s on the space of a mere 60 minutes in the latter stages of two crucial games. In the other 120 minutes, if you ask, a theoretically fresher Lopy intercepted a combined 2 passes and made just 13 ball recoveries (seven of them in opposition’s half). And to be clear, this is not even a matter of him playing it safer in those latter stages, quite the opposite in fact:
As seen on the right heat map for the game vs Nigeria, Lopy was simply able to step up, to find that proverbial fire in the belly late(-ish) in Round of 16, and really left his mark all over the middle third. It’s also worth noting Nigeria rattled off a mere 4 shots carrying an underwhelming 0,19 xG value in that very interval.
No late pressure happened, basically, because Dion Lopy set off to suffocate Nigerians, to take them out of the game almost by himself, and all that while already being saddled with the damned yellow card that cost him the QF.
The Unsung Hero – Alpha Richard Dionkou (born in 2001 / 17 years old)
I was a very happy Tomas when Senegal pulled out that Wagué-Sabaly fullback tandem out of the hat for 2018 World Cup, and this U-20 side replicated that joy to at least some extent. Alpha Dionkou, right back who was still representing Spain at U-17 level (so, really, his current level – age-wise), was the more impressive of the fullbacks for me – also because he didn’t already have some U-20 World Cup experience under his belt like Souleymane Aw, his 1,5 years older colleague from the left-hand side, did from 2017.
Dionkou contributed with one assist against Nigeria, a tricky low cross for the eventual game-winner, and did a good job advancing the play for Senegal against Colombia with three progressive runs (defined by Wyscout as a run of 30m that begins in the player’s own half and ends in their opponent’s, or a run of 10m entirely inside opponent’s half). He even connected with his closest winger/attacker Ibrahima Niané in the Nigeria game to a point where they became the most successful passing combination for Senegal. That’s pretty decent. And he was fine against South Korea too, intercepting 7 passes and putting in two nice crosses met with a finish in the 2nd extra time.
The Heartbreak Rate – A ridiculous 10/10
I mean they went out having spent a humble 25 minutes on the losing side. Not just against South Korea, but over the whole freaking tournament. They also ended up losing the penalty shoot-out thanks to VAR catching their goalkeeper jumping off the goal line prematurely to save the original Oh Se-hun penalty. Talk about going out of your way to finally, once and for all, break the heart of a team who’d thrown away their regulation win in the 98th minute.
I can’t claim to have seen nearly all of the U-20 WC games to date, but apart from maybe the USA, Mali were the most fun team to watch for me. They offered everything a neutral fan could possibly wish for: tremendous movement from their attacking players, crisp passing moves, beautiful team and individual goals, and a perfect 5-for-5 penalty shootout where not a single taker looked so much as a little bit fazed by the whole thing.
They also seemed like a genuinely nice bunch throughout. A half-time collective prayer we’ve grown accustomed to, but to see a sent off player being walked out of the pitch by not one, but two teammates making (very urgently) sure their teammate is okay and knows they are going to win it for him, that was really amazing to watch. What was also amazing to watch: not one, but two Malian comebacks when down to 10 men in the same game, following that “no worry, we are going to win it for you” plea. When Koita missed the penalty in the dying minutes, a teammate was instantly by his side to give him a quick hug. Again, it may have been a little gesture following a virtually pointless penalty with the score set at 2:4, but it warmed me up from the inside nevertheless.
It all ended up leading to a disappointing last 20 minutes, but that takes nothing away from Mali as one of the mentally strongest (if not necessarily disciplined) youth teams I’ve seen in recent past. Remember they also turned a 0:2 trailing into a 4:3 win against Saudi Arabia and came back from behind twice against Argentina in Round of 16.
Yet, you still get dumb people perpetuating dumb stereotypes about African sides. *sighs*
The Star Man – Sékou Koita (born in 1999 / 19 years old)
Do I even have to elaborate? Because it sure feels like the Koita phenomenon has taken on a life of its own.
But just in case you haven’t heard of him – this guy had already become the second youngest scorer (by a single day!) of the 2015 U-17 World Cup, and so here, Mali didn’t even bother to start him vs Panama in the opener to let him storm out of the gate later via 1 goal and 2 assists in the turnaroud win against Saudi Arabia. Then he scored against France, made the entire late equalizer against Argentina happen, and led the amazing resurgence of a 10-man Mali with a goal and countless poking runs in the quarter-final.
He also did this filthy thing in the said quarter-final:
Sékou Koita is incredibly strong, but not because he’s big or especially bulked up, but for how he positions himself and understands how gravity and angles work. He’s also a stunning dribbler, but doesn’t showcase it by blowing past defenders with sheer pace and strength just for the sake of it, rather he kind of does it only out of necessity, so he can move on to passing the ball further. Take this gentle lob over a Saudi player pulled off in order to draw a pitch perfect pass across the face of the goal. One such case of many.
This is, for one, highlighted by the fact Koita isn’t anywhere near the top end of the table of the most active progressive runners at the tournament (he’s got 9 such 30m or 10m runs, depending on whether he starts in his own half or not; barely an average of 2 and not enough to crack the top30), but it’s also implied in the following stat: Koita would set up an average of 3,57 shooting positions per 90 mins for his teammates – to go along with three of his brilliant strikes. That’s a tremendous rate, and a testament to how much of a balanced attacking player you are getting in him. Especially if you consider him a centre forward which he nominally has been for Mali throughout the whole WC.
Koita takes on players and advances the game purely for the benefit of his team, he’s not out there to enjoy himself. And that’s what makes him special, and bloody lethal, too.
The Unsung Hero – Ibrahima Koné (born in 1999 / 19 years old)
Okay, so I go a little wild with this one. Right back Babou Fofana would arguably deserve a shout here, and so would last U-20 WC’s veteran Mohamed Camara, hero of the Saudi Arabia turnaround. I am aware of that. But I want to talk about Ibrahima Koné, and I’m going to allow myself be a bit stubborn on my personal blog, if you don’t mind. So here goes my assessment of the *checks his notes* own goal scorer from the quarter-final:
Ibrahima Koné is listed as a 187cm tall striker by Wyscout, but it really feels like he’s much taller due to how awkwardly he tends to corral the ball. At the same time, though, he’s oddly effective at holding the ball up even against two opponents and has struck a good rapport with Sékou Koita, which goes a long way in acknowledging Koné as a decent player since Koita at first and any sight operates on another level pace-wise.
But while not necessarily moving as such, Ibrahima Koné clearly thinks the game fast, or definitely fast enough to be able to combine with Koita (so, err, yeah… fast), more so to even manage to backheel the ball in his path so he could score the important first marker vs Italy. Granted, Koné missed a glorious chance after another glorious link up play with Koita seconds after, and he missed a whole lot of chances in other games, too, but for a vastly limited striker, he did enough to at least fully qualify for the unsung part.
All in all, he assisted on five Malian shots at this tournament. Twice it was a backheel for Koita. Twice it was a pass off the rush to a good position that should’ve generated a better follow-up shot. And once it was completely accidental, more the case of him tripping over a hopping ball than anything.
That’s basically Ibrahima Koné’s tournament in a nutshell. And I kind of love it.
The Heartbreak Rate – A respectably painful 7/10
They were a better team than Senegal, but also clearly not better than their actual QF opponent, so… yeah. Their opening sequences against Italy looked promising, but then the confusing Koné own goal happened, coupled with the Diakité blackout well worth the red card, and to get one over Italy while down to 10 men for over 2/3 of the game was always a tough, if not impossible task. They did themselves a justice, but then again, the penalty foul from the goalkeeper Koita for 2:3 was avoidable through and through, while the first Pinamonti goal for 2:1 was a soft one on the keeper as well, scored from a super tight angle with virtually no other option than a shot. So ultimately, this was an entirely self-inflicted loss, hence they can’t feel too hard done by, hence only a 7/10.
Ugh. This is going to get ugly. This U-20 side is your typical youth South Korean side of the past few years, it feels, that just simply tries to grind it out, while getting oh-too-deep and oh-too-passive at a lot of points of their games, when they mostly just resort to desperate prayers for the best.
That’s not A) nice on the eye, B) good for the offensive potential in the team (not that there’s too much of it in the first place, aside from a couple of players I’ll mention below), and it ultimately prevents many players from showcasing their true potential at a world podium specifically designed for young players to showcase their potential.
As a by-product, we see the so-called “next Ki Sung-yueng”, Kim Jung-min of Liefering/Red Bull Salzburg, failing to complete more than a combined two forward passes inside the opposition half that don’t go to the side (or happen on the side) over two important games vs Argentina and Japan. At the same time, we also see as many as three centre backs typically not being able to support the build-up at all; either passing it sideways cluelessly, or passing it forward inaccurately, or hoofing it to the striker senselessly.
Spare for Lee Kang-in, and his rapport with Oh Se-hun (which I’ll get to later), South Korea are just baaaaad at creating plays. Simpler plays such as deep completions included. Their transition game is just otherwordly poor, firmly connected to the deep starting positions of their midfielders. For their credit at least, South Korean defensive shape of 5-4-1 (in possession morphing more to 5-3-2 with Lee Kang-in further up) is decent, flexible, uncharacteristically proactive in squeezing the life out of opposition’s flanks, and ultimately capable of performing suffocation of their own.
Individually, too: particularly two centre backs, Kim Hyun-woo of Dinamo Zagreb and Lee Ji-sol of Daejeon Citizen, have held their own rather admirably at this level and should at least get some serious consideration for any post-tournament Best XI, something that’ll surely turn into a stonewall case provided South Korea make it all the way to their very first U-20 WC final. Coupled with 22-year-old Kim Min-jae, who’s already consistently impressing for the senior national team, South Korea finally have a conceivably rosy future at the key centre back position. That’s great and important.
But then again, as a whole, South Korea are capable of doing this right before the goals:
Just utterly ridiculous tendency to get caught sitting too deep in a seven-man line.
Ugh. Look, I did warn you this is going to get ugly, didn’t I?
The Star Man – Lee Kang-in (born in 2001 / 18 years old)
Similar case to Sékou Koita when it comes to recognition received throughout the tournament, but also a fairly different case when it comes to their roles within their respective teams.
South Korea have often been described as a one-man team, and that’s not entirely fair for one big reason I’ll get to later, but they are undisputedly a one-man midfield. Save for a couple of good runs from wingers Cho Young-woon and Um Won-sang, South Korea are simply bad at penetrating defences, and that they’ve gotten this far by going scoreless in just one game is mainly thanks to Lee Kang-in’s unrivalled ability to limit the effect of such consistent creative deficiencies to a realistic minimum.
That one game, the opener vs Portugal, was also the last (relatively) poor showing from Lee Kang-in, who clearly felt the pressure on him and lost too many balls to pointless duels in the middle of the park instead of passing his way out of the troubles (and often before the troubles arrived). He still does that; he still often ignores a teammate in a good position and instead goes for a 1-on-1 battle, but 1) he doesn’t lose them nearly as much now, 2) he does so many good things otherwise, it’s rather easily tolerable now.
It’s funny, though. Prior to the quarter-final, Lee Kang-in had contributed with a sole assist and no goal. Then the Senegal game arrived, he got man marked out of the first half, and yet managed to finish the match with one penalty goal and two brilliant assists. It might’ve been the most low key, efficient 1+2 performance I’ve seen in a while.
Of course, what traditional statistics fail to show here are the kind of little, but essential things he does. How he stretch defences with accurate long passes, be it a sweeping ground pass or the more traditional high diagonal. How he gets many attacks going by a nifty little move deep down in the field. How generally consistent he is with corner/free kick deliveries. And finally, whether you loved the penalty call or not, you cannot underestimate how a suddenly activated Lee Kang-in had contributed to South Korea being able to pressure Senegal for the first time in the game just prior to the penalty.
The following sequence from my own recording of the game, stretching across only two minutes, ends literally seconds before the controversial push (Lee Kang-in is the one passing the ball to the edge of the penalty box):
This is what a freed Lee Kang-in can do and regularly does. Problem is, we haven’t seen much of the freed version here in Poland. Lee Kang-in is essentially the first prototypical, quality no. 10 South Korea have produced in a long long while, who’s also almost never allowed to function like one – either starting as a second striker (or a false right wing of sorts) in a system designed to primarily defend, or operating as a deep-lying playmaker in a system that simultaneously badly needs him further up front.
That Lee Kang-in has won himself multiple fans over the tournament despite these predicaments and his obvious fitness limits (he was visibly gassed quite soon vs Japan and hobbled off late in the extra time vs Senegal, too) is nothing short of remarkable.
To that end, one premature note: an East Asian player has never received so much as a Bronze Ball for the third best player at a U-20 World Cup. I’m pretty sure that is bound to change this year, and possibly in Silver or even Golden colour, depending on the result of a team that would’ve been finished way earlier had it not been for Lee Kang-in.
The Unsung Hero – Oh Se-hun (born in 1999 / 20 years old)
He really shouldn’t be unsung, but yet here we are, with even the perennial sub Um Won-sang somehow getting more mentions on my timeline than the starting striker who’s been putting in about as effective, consistent performances up top as imaginable.
Let’s first remind ourselves we are dealing with a footballing country whose senior NT coaches have been (frustratingly) obsessed with a tall target man of a striker to a point Hong Myung-bo, one of the more astute managers, started an immobile Kim Shin-wook to lead counter-attacks, his primary attacking option, against Belgium at 2014 World Cup. “Wookie” is not the only one, but he’s the symbol: a tall guy, who’s rather weak in the air and barely does anything useful other than sometimes sweep up the ball inside the penalty box. You can add Lee Jung-hyup, Stielike’s cinderella story-turned-weird fetish, to that list as well. They both alone make for some seriously low standards.
Enter Oh Se-hun, a target man who does pretty much everything right, yet doesn’t get nearly enough credit for it, because he’s tall and… well… he’s tall. That’s about it.
Because this is a guy who actually knows what the concept of “chesting the ball softly down for the arriving midfielder” means in the first place. This is a guy who’s only lost seven aerial duels in the opposition’s half up until the QF, in 301 minutes of action, with all the constant hoofing of the ball from the back (he was a lot less effective vs Senegal, but then he was also asked to do the same 24 times, which is just plain ridiculous and well above his tournament average). This is also a guy who routinely holds up the ball against two defenders, limiting his actions to only as many touches as he needs to escape the immediate danger of turning the ball over. And finally, this is a guy who routinely executes on top of everything, misplacing a grand total of eleven passes out of 72 attempted in all four of his full starts combined up until the QF.
Again, remember this all has been happening in virtual isolation – in an environtment, where an attacking midfielder in the hole, or a second striker closeby, rather often doesn’t exist at all. This, to give you a better idea, is how Lee Kang-in’s heat maps looked like (in this order from the left) vs Portugal, Argentina and Japan. Really not much to work with there. Against Argentina, Oh Se-hun technically received only 3 passes, yet by himself attempted eight passes and completed 7 of them.
Oh Se-hun is simply a formidable warrior who targets free space extremely well, something that manifested in his two all-important goals against Argentina (a go-ahead 1:0 header from a brillaint Lee Kang-in cross) and Japan (a game-winning header), too.
Make no mistake: he’s done a tremendous job under the rather difficult circumstances.
The Heartbreak Rate – Not quite there yet, but cracks everywhere you look!