The Socceroos made history by lifting the Asian Cup trophy on home soil after beating South Korea 2-1 in the final. They didn’t have it all their way, however, with South Korea pressing Australia in midfield to equalise in injury time to force the match to extra time.
South Korean boss Uli Stielike opted to make a surprise change in the middle of the park. Park Joo-ho and Ki Sung-yueng had been the only ever-present partnership in South Korea’s 4-2-3-1 throughout the tournament but Jang Hyun-soo’s inclusion allowed Joo-ho to move out to the left wing.
Despite an injury scare to right fullback Ivan Franjic, Ange Postecoglou opted for an unchanged starting XI to the side that defeated United Arab Emirates in the semi-final in Newcastle.
Australia tries to play forward from the back
Within the first 35 seconds, the intentions of both sides in the match were clear. Matthew Spiranovic passed forward into midfield to the feet of Mark Milligan who was immediately closed down. A quick turn and pass under pressure to left fullback Jason Davidson allowed Australia to maintain possession, but one of the main characteristics of the match was South Korea’s intent to press whenever Australia played a forward pass into the middle third.
South Korea had made things difficult for the Socceroos in their group stage match by ensuring their defensive unit was compact. While Australia felt they were the better side, they were unable to break down their deep opponents. Later, against China, Australia struggled in the opening half to play forward when China pressed in midfield. In the final, South Korea’s approach was to similarly make it difficult for Australia in the middle of the park.
As soon as a forward pass was played into midfield, South Korea pounced, playing on the front foot and looking to make interceptions, nick the ball away or force Australia backwards. Ki Sung-yueng and Jang Hyun-soo made life particularly difficult for the Socceroos and even when Australian players rotated positions, as they so frequently do, the defensive roles of the South Korean players were clear.
Take for example Australia’s rotation where a central midfielder pulls into a deep, wide area. This allows the respective fullback to advance up the pitch and the winger in turn moves inside, in between the lines.
When this occurred, Korea, like they were in the group stage meeting, were organised and disciplined. As per the graphic above, defending zonally, Son Heung-min would apply pressure on Milligan, Cha Du-ri would pick up the advancing Davidson and Hyun-soo and Sun-yueng would work across to prevent a forward pass in between the lines.
Because of this organisation, as well as the intensity of the pressure they applied, South Korea was able to force a number of turnovers in midfield.
Here, as Australia played the ball across the back, central defender Trent Sainsbury had space in front of him to advance up the pitch and pass forward.
But South Korea pounced in midfield and applied pressure on the receiver, Robbie Kruse, in turn fouling the winger.
Just a matter of minutes later, Sainsbury again attempted to pass into the feet of Kruse. However Sung-yueng anticipated the pass and won back possession. Kruse was also being pressured from Kim Jin-su behind him.
This time Matthew Spiranovic had advanced forward and was attempting to pass into the feet of left winger Mathew Leckie, however his pass was intercepted by Heung-min.
Despite losing possession on a number of occasions by attempting forward passes into midfield, Australia continued with their vertical style of playing out from the back and received the ultimate reward. Just before half-time, Sainsbury stepped forward with the ball and found Massimo Luongo who was able to turn. Sung-yueng had just allowed him a fraction too much space and Luongo used his strength, balance and technique to punish the South Korean defence.
South Korea attack down their left
Luongo’s goal was a crucial moment in the context of the match however the Aussie midfielder also had an important defensive role on the right side of the pitch. With winger Kruse taking up a very narrow defensive position, whenever South Korea advanced down their left, through Jin-su and Joo-ho, it was Luongo would was tasked with moving out towards the flanks to support right fullback Ivan Franjic.
This meant Luongo was forced to cover large amounts of ground in order to close down Jin-su and South Korea took advantage of this, advancing up the left on a number of occasions with dangerous outcomes.
After just six minutes the first clear example of this pattern occurred.
Robbie Kruse (circled) had taken up a central position without the ball and when Kim Young-gwon passed to Jin-su it was Luongo who moved across from central midfield to close down the Korean left back.
As Jin-su advanced, Luongo used his strength (with a hint of a foul) to regain possession and set Australia away on a counter attack.
Later in the half when an almost identical incident occurred, Luongo was not as quick to get across and committed a foul on Jin-su.
Again, with Kruse (circled) positioned centrally, Luongo closed down Jin-su as he pushed forward from left back.
But Jin-su was too quick and when Luongo slid in to try and regain possession he committed a foul. South Korea should have taken the lead from the resulting free kick but Australia breathed a sigh of relief when Kwak Tae-hwi headed over when he was left free at the near post.
This battle between Jin-su and Luongo continued throughout the first half and South Korea’s best chance of the half came again down the left. With Robbie Kruse opting not to track Jin-su, Luongo was a split second slow to react to his underlapping burst into the box. Jin-su’s cross found Heung-min who volleyed over the crossbar in the 37th minute.
South Korea go long
With Australia holding onto their 1-0 lead for almost the entirety of the second half, South Korea and Stielike became increasingly desperate in search of an equaliser. With just minutes to go, Stielike rolled the dice and opted to bring on centre back Kim Ju-young in place of striker Lee Jeong-hyeup. This meant Tae-hwi became a makeshift striker and South Korea bombarded the Australian backline with long balls.
This paid off in the dying minutes of stoppage time as a long ball forward caused havoc and Heung-min wriggled through to receive the ball in the box to send the game into extra time.
By that stage, both sides had made all three of their substitutions and this played an interesting role, with Tae-hwi having to drop into midfield to accommodate the cramping Hyun-soo up front.
Australia looked the physically fitter side and continued to apply pressure on South Korea as the minutes ticked on. It was this pressure which allowed them to regain possession high up the pitch and find substitute striker Tomi Juric whose mixture of erratic decision making and dogged strength allowed James Troisi to bury home the eventual winner.
The win was a fitting reward for the Australian method of play and their belief in the system. Despite coming up against a side which looked to make life difficult in midfield, the Socceroos continued to attempt forward passes into midfield and Luongo’s spectacular opener was just reward.
While South Korea couldn’t find the equaliser, they did threaten down their left but resorted to long balls in search of a way back into the match. Stielike’s role of the dice then came back to haunt them in extra time as cramping players meant they chopped and changed shape during extra time.