Klinsmann’s men have completed their Asian Cup mock, with the title at stake after a 64-year absence. The nearly 1.5-strong squad confirmed its competitiveness while also identifying the tournament’s biggest challenges.

Led by Jürgen Klinsmann (60), the South Korean national soccer team defeated Iraq 1-0 in an exhibition match at New York University Stadium in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates (UAE), on June 6, thanks to a goal from Lee Jae-sung (32-Mainz).

South Korea rode a six-match winning streak and a seven-match clean sheet into the A-match. It’s a bonus that they’ve maintained their dominance against Iraq, ranked 63rd in the FIFA rankings, with 9 wins, 12 draws, and 2 losses.

The biggest gain for South Korea is the confidence that they can take down the Middle Eastern giants without their best players.

Klinsmann, who usually emphasizes continuity, made the opposite choice in this final test before the Asian Cup. In addition to ‘captain’ Son Heung-min (32, Tottenham), he benched more than half of his starting lineup, including Kim Min-jae (28, Munich), Hwang Hee-chan (28, Wolverhampton), Lee Kang-in (23, Paris Saint-Germain) and Cho Kyu-sung (26, Metzwillan). This is in case the key players in the offense and defense are unavailable due to injuries or disciplinary reasons.

When the lid was lifted, the results weren’t bad. Despite scoring just one goal, they dominated their opponents in offensive metrics such as ball possession (6-4) and shots (14-6). In the breakdown provided by sports statistics company Opta, South Korea had fewer big chances to score (one) than Iraq (two), but that’s after accounting for some questionable officiating. There was a 29th-minute goal by Oh Hyun-kyu (23-Celtic) that was called back for offside and a 21st-minute penalty that was not awarded when Son Heung-min was brought down by the goalkeeper’s hand. Lee Kang-in, a second-half substitute, was sent off for accumulating cautions, but that won’t affect the Asian Cup.

While the attack deserves a passing grade, there were a number of areas of improvement in the defense. First, Klinsmann’s emphasis on pressing forward was missing. In terms of the number of successful forward presses, South Korea had one and Iraq had three, and Iraq won 60 percent (44 out of 74) of the contested balls. Park Yong-woo (31-Al Ain), who is supposed to be the protector of the defense, won just three of his 10 contests.

The attack, centered around flanker Lee Ki-je (33-Suwon), also posed a dilemma. Crosses from the left flank have clearly become the main pattern of the national team’s attack. Lee created four attacking chances, the most of any player on either side.

However, he was a hole in the defense. The space created by his active participation in the attack became a playground for the opposition. If we look at the average position of the Korean players, there was too much space between Lee and Kim Young-kwon (34-Ulsan). This is why Iraq only created two attacking chances in the second half (13th and 24th minutes) from goal kicks. The defensive line needs to be readjusted.

The team will have a final warm-up in the UAE before traveling to Doha, Qatar, for the final match on Tuesday. In Group E, South Korea will face Bahrain at 8:30 p.m. on Aug. 15.


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