With no wins, some incredibly underwhelming team performances, and certain players surely ruling themselves out of national team contention for the foreseeable future, the East Asian Cup was hugely disappointing for Japan and Vahid Halilhodzic.
The Samurai Blue coach did his best to put on a brave face after the team’s final match against China – pointing out that he’d achieved one of the aims of the tournament by discovering some new players (Wataru Endo certainly showed he has the ability to step up to the full national team, while Yuki Muto also did his chances no harm) – but it was clear that the Bosnian was bitterly disappointed with what he’d seen overall.
Uli Stielike, on the other hand, could barely contain his delight at how well the competition had gone for South Korea.
“I am very satisfied with the whole tournament, and most of all with the manner in which we played football,” he said after their 0-0 draw with North Korea. “We want to dominate, we play high in the field, we have, I think, for the third time now had more ball possession than the opponent.”
Stielike didn’t yet know if that point would be enough to seal the championship (it ultimately was after Japan held China to their 1-1 draw), and insisted that whoever took the title the Taeguk Warriors had demonstrated that they were the best team in Wuhan.
“Even if China wins the game against Japan and the tournament, I don’t want to change my boys with any other boys,” the German said. “We are the only team who go from the tournament without any losses, and we are the only team who came here to win the games with offensive football. So thank you very much to my boys.
“We are also the only team who didn’t change their manner of playing,” the 60-year-old continued. “Japan changed against us and North Korea changed against us. So we are the only team who brought the same mentality on the pitch in all three games.”
Whereas Japan lacked speed, energy, and urgency in their trio of matches, the South Koreans had it in spades. When they didn’t have the ball they hustled constantly to close their opponents down, and when they did have possession they shifted it forwards dynamically.
“We don’t defend the goal, we want to recover the ball,” Stielike explained. “That’s why we are playing very high in the field and that’s why we have a lot of ball possession. That’s also because our defensive work is extraordinary all over the field. When we are speaking about defence we speak about recovering the ball.”
The success in Wuhan follows on from a runners-up finish at January’s Asian Cup, and the signs are that South Korea is on the rise again in Asia.
Their coach is not getting too carried away, though, and suggested that for this generation of players to achieve their full potential they may have to head overseas for their club football.
“This is a very difficult question, because to go forward we need better quality in our K-League,” he said. “We need more competition – our players are not used to playing high in the field, our players are not used to playing against teams who make strong pressing. If we can play a lot of games at this level that would bring them forward, but I am not sure that our players at home in the K-League will have this push to come forward.”
That is something to be addressed in the longer-term, however. For now the team is on fire, and while Halilhodzic may have come back from the East Asian Cup with more questions than answers, Stielike – who also took a mostly second-string squad to China – received confirmation that he and his players are heading in the right direction.
“I won, personally, the conviction that the way we are working with the team, with the group, is the right way,” he concluded after the stalemate with North Korea.
“Not only to give orders to the players – to explain why we do something, what we need from them, looking at the right position for them in the field – and to give them also a lot of liberty in our system, in our needs for the team, but to let them bring in their own ideas. I think the way is correct. We didn’t score today, yes, it’s right, but we also have players in reserve like Son Heung-min, like Koo Ja-cheol, who maybe can help us in the future.”
How Halilhodzic must wish he had the same strength in depth.