By Yoo Jee-ho
SEOUL, June 28 (Yonhap) -- South Korea enjoyed a memorable end to their short World Cup run in Russia, shocking defending champions Germany 2-0 in Kazan on Wednesday.
But the feel-good finish doesn't change the fact that South Korea were badly coached at the start of the tournament, when they first fell to Sweden and then to Mexico.
In football, as in other sports, the role of a coach is often up for debate. How much is a coach responsible for a team's performance? Can someone with x's and o's chops really make a difference? Is the term "a players' coach" merely a myth?
At least this much is certain. A key part of any coach's job is to put athletes in a situation where they can succeed. And for his first two matches, South Korean coach Shin Tae-yong failed miserably on that front.
Even before South Korea's arrival in Russia, Shin's approach to the World Cup had come into question.
He was panned for tinkering too much with formations in the run-up, and he seemed unable to decide whether South Korea would be better suited to play a back four or a back three system.
In this file photo from June 23, 2018, South Korean head coach Shin Tae-yong directs his players during their 2-1 loss to Mexico in Group F action at the 2018 FIFA World Cup at Rostov Arena in Rostov-on-Don, Russia. (Yonhap)
Skeptics also pointed out Shin was trying too hard to keep things close to the vest. He was particularly paranoid about set pieces. Whenever the media asked him about how the set pieces were shaping up, Shin apologized and said he couldn't really get into specifics.
Shin's obsession with secrecy was such that even in a tuneup match behind the closed doors against Senegal, South Korea didn't put whatever set pieces they'd been working on to use. Shin was wary that Germany, Sweden and Mexico would try anything to find out what South Korea were up to.
Some scoffed at the notion that those three countries would even care enough about South Korea as to dispatch scouts -- spies? -- to practices or pre-World Cup matches. But another underlying problem was that South Korea entered the World Cup without having executed their set piece plays in live match situations. Practicing them in intrasquad games against teammates is one thing; trying to pull it off against opponents who'd do anything within the boundary of rules -- sometimes outside -- to stop you is quite another.
And it showed, as South Korea's set pieces were largely forgettable in Russia.
Shin also made some head-scratcher decisions against his first two opponents, trying in vain to beat them at their own game and playing right into the opposition's hands instead, when he should have attempted to exploit their weaknesses.
Against the bigger and stronger Sweden, Shin inserted Kim Shin-wook, the tallest South Korean player at 197 centimeters, into the starting lineup as a striker. Shin's logic was that Kim would be able to win enough aerial battles against brawny defenders and create chances for himself and his wingers.
But the lead-footed forward did virtually nothing, with Andreas Granqvist (192 cm) and Pontus Jansson (194 cm) manning the box as center backs. Kim was lifted in the 66th minute, soon after Granqvist converted a penalty en route to Sweden's 1-0 win.
Meanwhile, South Korea's most dangerous offensive weapon, Son Heung-min, started on the left wing, and was reduced to spending most of his time far outside the final third. His heat map -- which tracks players' movements and illustrates them in dots -- showed Son played almost like a left wing back. And when he managed to penetrate deep into the offensive zone, Son often didn't have much support, with the likes of Kim and the other wing forward Hwang Hee-chan caught well behind the play.
Using the speed of Son and Hwang to get behind the Swedish defense would have been a wiser course of action for South Korea.
South Korean head coach Shin Tae-yong returns to the lockers after a scoreless half with Germany in Group F action during the 2018 FIFA World Cup at Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia, on June 27, 2018. South Korea won the match 2-0. (Yonhap)
And against Mexico, a smaller but speedier side than Sweden, South Korea tried to play a counterattack game. But that was another counterintuitive decision on Shin's part, because Mexico were fresh off a 1-0 win over Germany in which they mounted several fast break opportunities that should have led to more goals.
South Korea should have sought to slow the game down against Mexico, and Kim Shin-wook, the towering striker, would have been a better fit in this match than against Sweden.
And when South Korea engaged Mexico in the back-and-forth match, Mexico were more than happy to oblige, as their superior skills and speed allowed them to control the pace. Why try to do the same thing as your opponents when you don't have the matching level of skills? And why try to match the opposing team's strength when the same area isn't even your forte?
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez scored Mexico's second goal on a fast break, with Hirving Lozano providing the feed and returning the favor after Hernandez had set him up for a goal against Germany in almost a carbon copy of the play.
Son returned to his usual position as a frontline forward, and he did score a cracking goal in second half stoppage time in the 2-1 loss. But once again, his teammates weren't much of help.
South Korean players and coaches celebrate Kim Young-gwon's goal against Germany in Group F action during the 2018 FIFA World Cup at Kazan Arena in Kazan, Russia, on June 27, 2018. South Korea won the match 2-0. (Yonhap)
Things didn't look much better against Germany for more than 90 minutes, with the score at 0-0. Defender Kim Young-gwon put South Korea on the board three minutes into stoppage time, after taking advantage of a botched German clearing attempt following a corner kick. Then Son slotted one into the empty net after Germany, desperately needing two goals for a spot in the knockout stage, pulled goalkeeper Manuel Neuer and put him on the attack.
In other words, the final score wasn't really indicative of South Korea's offensive prowess. As improbable as this sounds, Germany might have been the weakest team South Korea faced at this World Cup -- their offense slow, out of sync and lacking any sharpness.
Still, a win is a win. After that match, Shin said he was encouraged by the way his players responded to the challenge and saw promise for a better future.
"It's disappointing that we couldn't make it to the round of 16, but I think I saw a ray of hope from this win," Shin said. "I think we'll be able to use this experience as a foundation for improvements in the future."
Shin's own future, meanwhile, is up in the air. His national team contract runs through the end of July.
They say coaches are only as good as their last game. Shin will forever be part of the South Korean football lore, as the coach in one of the country's most stunning victories. But no South Korean World Cup coach has been retained after missing out on the knockout action.