South Korea Portugal 2-1 2022 World Cup Qatar tactics

South Korea – Portugal: Super Son Saves South Korea (2-1)

Though had little direct impact on the match for the first ninety minutes, Son Heung-min was the savior for South Korea as his incredible run led to the assist (and goal) that secured South Korea’s advancement to the knockout stage of the World Cup. It was a largely passive performance from Portugal, as they had little to play for given that they entered the matchday with first place in Group H all but wrapped up.

Tactical analysis and match report by Charlie Tuley

Fernando Santos’ Portugal came into matchday three with very little to play for as they had already secured qualification to the round of sixteen after their win over Uruguay, and they had first place in their group all but wrapped up as long as they took points off of South Korea. Aside from their pride, Portugal’s other incentive to beat South Korea came in preserving their momentum, as they have been in fine form throughout the group stage.

It was a heavily rotated side from Santos to finish off the group stage, with six changes from the team that beat Uruguay. Diogo Costa made his third straight start in goal, with Diogo Dalot and António Silva joining Pepe and João Cancelo in the back line. Vitinha and Matheus Nunes goth their first starts in midfield alongside Rúben Neves, with Ricardo Horta, Cristiano Ronaldo, and João Mário making up the front line.

Up against his home nation, Paulo Bento needed three points for his South Korean side. If his team could steal three points off of Portugal, as well as Ghana failing to beat Uruguay (and Uruguay do not improve their goal differential by more than South Korea), then they could advance to the knockout stages placing second in their group. After their lackluster first two matches, it would take a lot from this side to turn things around against one of the best performers so far in Qatar.

Bento made three changes from the team that lost 2-3 to Uruguay, trusting that most of his key players could get the job done when it mattered. Kim Seung-gyu started in goal, with Kim Moon-hwan, Kwon Kyung-won, Kim Young-gwon, and Kim Jin-su making up the defensive line. Jung Woo-young and Hwang In-beom made up the double pivot in midfield, with Lee Kang-in, Lee Jae-sung, and Son Heung-min acting as the three ahead of them. Hot after bagging two goals in their match against Ghana, Cho Gue-sung was handed another start leading the line for South Korea.

South Korea’s tight setup cannot keep Portugal out

Bento’s South Korea started in a narrow mid block defense, trying to restrict Portugal’s advanced central players from receiving the ball between the defensive and midfield lines. This aspect of their defensive structure worked just as Bento would have hoped- Cristiano Ronaldo saw very little of the ball throughout the first half (and the entire Portugal forward line had just over fifty combined touches through the first forty-five minutes). However, their lack of defensive width allowed for Portugal to throw their fullbacks forward and take advantage of the acres of space they were afforded on the wings.

Portugal started the match off brilliantly, finding a goal just five minutes into the match. Pepe picked up the ball just outside of the midfield third, and he was given all of the time he wanted by the South Korean forwards. He picked out a long pass over the South Korean back line to a streaking Diogo Dalot, who was able to pick up the ball near the endline and provide a cutback for Ricardo Horta to slam home. 

5th minute. South Korea give Pepe all of the time in the world, unaware that he would pick out a perfectly-placed ball to Dalot, setting up Portugal’s only goal of the match.

Immediately after the goal South Korea kickstarted their press, giving the Portuguese players less time on the ball than they had in the opening five minutes of the match. This mattered little, as they were still affording their opponents incredibly obvious outlets in the wide areas, which allowed Portugal to progress the ball as they pleased. The Portuguese center-backs and midfielders found it easy to catch South Korea out with long switches from one side of the field to the other, which led to them dominating early on.

19th minute. South Korea’s narrow high press. Though they gave the Portuguese players less time on the ball, they still found it quite easy to play around their aggressive, ball-chasing press.

After the opening fifteen minutes of the match, South Korea began to assert themselves upon the game. They began to take their time on the ball (as opposed to their rushed approach in the opening minutes), and they were able to have sustained possession in Portuguese territory. They found it tough to get into Portugal’s penalty area without the aid of set pieces, and they would spend minutes at a time moving the ball in U-shaped possession. Every time a South Korean player got onto the ball their head would immediately turn to see if Son was free in space, and if he was the ball would be sent to him as if he was the only South Korean player who had the ability to unlock the Portuguese defense. He was the only player in the South Korean team who would actively try to take on defenders, with his teammates usually resorting to recycling possession or aimlessly dumping in crosses after taking their initial touches on the ball. Other than Son, no South Korean wanted to take hold of the game and do the dirty work themselves. 

South Korea levels the game, giving them a glimmer of hope

After twenty-seven minutes had passed, Paulo Bento’s side found the equalizing goal. As has been a common occurrence during Bento’s tenure, the goal came from a set piece. The ball was delivered into the penalty area, and after it took a fortunate bounce off of Cristiano Ronaldo’s back it fell to Kim Young-gwon for an easy tap in. At this point, South Korea knew a win would most likely allow them to move on to the next round given that Uruguay was holding a 2-0 lead over Ghana. 

Interestingly enough, South Korea did not try to maintain their momentum, and they let Portugal ease back control of the match. The team with nothing to play for slowed the game down, but not as if they were trying to see the game out. This was a bit of patient play in the buildup phase, but Santos’ side were still actively trying to score and win the match. This led to some disjointed play from Portugal, with some players trying to slow the match down to a crawl and others immediately going to goal whenever they got on the ball. 

With South Korea still defending in an extremely narrow manner, Portugal were free to cross as much as they liked (in fact, it appeared as if South Korea were almost baiting Portugal into doing it). Portugal would hold the ball in South Korea’s half for extended periods, still lacking offensive urgency, which South Korea seemed fine with. 

Whenever South Korea won the ball back they would throw numbers forward, trying to find a direct route to Portugal’s goal. This strategy did not bear much fruit, with most of South Korea’s attacks being stifled by Portugal in the midfield third, as many of their direct passes were easily intercepted by the Portuguese midfielders. If they were able to get on the ball, the South Koreans tended to only receive with their backs to goal and were subsequently forced to return the ball back to a deeper teammate. 

At no point did the South Koreans look like scoring, but they stuck to their system and continued to counterattack. Even during the final minutes of regulation (when most teams would throw all of their players forwards in a desperate attempt to grab another goal), they sat deep and tried to loose their few advanced players on the counter.  

Finally, in the first minute of stoppage time, it all paid off for South Korea. Portugal had a corner kick, which was cleared to Son near the midfield. Completely alone, he carried the ball all the way to the Portuguese penalty area, where he was finally met with some defensive opposition. He had to hold the ball for a moment as he waited for support before he played a clever pass beyond the Portugues back line to substitute Hwang Hee-chan. Hwang’s one-touch finish just found its way past the oncoming Diogo Costa, sending the South Korean bench and the entire stadium into a state of absolute ecstasy. As Ghana kept Uruguay’s win to just a margin of two goals, it was enough for South Korea to move on to the round of sixteen in spectacular fashion. 



This match meant very little for Portugal, but there were still organizational issues that were glaringly obvious against South Korea. The most prominent was that of the team’s lack of game management, something that they have struggled with in each of their matches at the World Cup. This match was a great opportunity for Santos to see how his team would fare in a high stakes situation where they had to keep their opposition from scoring late on in a match, and his team failed miserably. Though South Korea did not play a traditional style of desperation-ball, their style should have made it easier for Portugal to see the game out, and yet Portugal reverted to their usual, selfish tendencies to try and score as many goals as they possibly can. Against a better team, in a more important game, Portugal will need to be smarter or they will probably face an unceremonious exit from the World Cup.

This South Korea performance was mystifying. Even when it was do-or-die time they did not panic, and they showed no signs of desperation or changing up Bento’s tactics from the beginning of the match. Credit to both Bento and the team, they knew that they would create at least one quality chance with their counter attacking play, and they focused on defensive structure to make sure that that chance would be enough to win them the game. South Korea has to be proud of their World Cup so far, as the round of sixteen will most likely be where their tournament ends. They most likely have a date with Brazil in the next round, and the South Americans will be heavily favored to send Bento’s men home. However, South Korea has already had one miracle at the World Cup; who is to say they cannot do it again?

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Charlie Tuley is a junior studying sport management at the University of Michigan. He currently works as a data analyst for the San Jose Earthquakes, and does freelance football analytics on Twitter under the name @analyticslaliga. [ View all posts ]


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