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South Korea World Cup 2022 squad guide: Solid defence can show it’s not all about Son – The Athletic


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South Korea head to a 10th successive World Cup sweating on the fitness of their greatest-ever forward. Son Heung-min of Tottenham Hotspur won the Premier League’s Golden Boot last season and scored twice in the 2018 World Cup, but faces a race to be fully fit following a facial injury picked up while playing for Spurs at Marseille in the Champions League earlier this month.

Paulo Bento’s team will need not just Son, but also his central defenders to be at their best if they are to escape a group featuring Uruguay and Portugal

The manager

The longest-serving manager in the history of the South Korean team, Paulo Bento hasn’t always been popular during his four years in charge.

Since taking over following the 2018 World Cup, Bento has not strayed from a patient style that sees his team playing out from the back. What he has changed is his formation — in those early months he favoured a 4-3-3, but more recently he has switched to a 4-4-2 or 4-1-3-2 when opposition or match state has warranted it.

His methods certainly seemed to work during the Asian World Cup qualifiers, with South Korea securing a World Cup spot as comfortably as they have done for any tournament since hosting the 2002 edition. That form helped win over many of Bento’s doubters, with some local media even going as far as to publicly apologise for ever questioning his masterplan.

However, a 5-1 friendly defeat to Brazil in June soon raised questions over how well that tried and trusted system would hold up when faced with stronger sides from Europe or South America. We may be about to find out…

The household name you haven’t heard of yet

With Son Heung-min possibly not 100 per cent fit for the start of the tournament, South Korea will look to other players to step up.

One such player is Jeong Woo-yeong, or ‘Little Jeong Woo-yeong’ as Korean fans have taken to calling him. That nickname is down to the fact there is another player in the squad with a similar name — Jung Woo-young, or ‘Big Jung Woo-young’, given he’s the older of the two. The spellings may be different, but the pronunciations are the same.

‘Little’ Jeong Woo-yeong is one of the hottest prospects in South Korean football, having followed in Son’s footsteps by moving to Germany as a teenager. He played twice for Bayern Munich’s first team (in making his debut against Benfica in November 2018 he became the youngest Korean ever to play in the Champions League), but has since moved on to Freiberg.

Playing in a similar position to Son and Hwang Hee-chan (South Korea’s two best attacking players) has limited his chances with the national team, but Korean media and fans consider him a potentially great plan B should Son’s injury prevent to Spurs star from starting the first game.

Jeong Woo-yeong playing in the Bundesliga for Freiberg (Photo: Getty)

Another possible breakthrough player could be Lee Kang-in, who was considered South Korea’s next big thing when in the academy of Valencia. He has since moved on to Mallorca, and halfway through his second season there has two goals and three assists in 14 La Liga matches.

It is not clear whether Bento is ready to throw the 21 year old into the team just yet, but it is clear the youngster is hugely talented.


Apart from their stand-out superstar Son, South Korea’s biggest strength is the centre-back partnership between Kim Min-jae and Kim Young-gwon.

Kim Min-jae, who has been linked with several Premier League clubs in recent seasons, is in the form of his career in his first season with Napoli, winning Serie A’s player of the month award for September 2022. Fast, strong and good on the ball, he has shown he can cut it not only in Serie A, but also in the Champions League against top-tier sides Ajax and Liverpool. Given his team will face Uruguay and Portugal in the group stage, Kim Min-jae’s defensive capabilities will be vital for chances.

The man alongside him for the national team, Kim Young-gwon, has previous at the World Cup having played in 2014 and 2018, and scored the decisive goal against Germany at the latter, knocking the holders out at the group stage. He has also thrived at club level this season, helping Ulsan win their first league trophy in 17 years.

The pair helped South Korea to the best defensive record in the Asian qualifying section, conceding three goals in 10 matches.


Bento seems to still be undecided on who will be his first-choice right-back just days before the tournament begins. Korean media deemed their last friendly match against Iceland to be the final test for the position.

There are two strong candidates for the spot; the first is Kim Tae-hwan who played 30 games for this season’s K-League winners Ulsan, providing three assists along the way. The second is Kim Mun-hwan, who helped his club Jeonbuk’s win the Korean cup.

Both are talented, but the uncertainty has meant the defence isn’t quite fully settled.

Local knowledge

Commentators be warned, South Korea’s defence could cause you a major headache. All four are likely to be called Kim.

While it is true that Kim is a particularly common name in South Korea (according to a report from Statistics Korea in 2016, 21.5 per cent of Korean people had Kim as their family name), it is still an incredible coincidence for four defenders out of four to have the name.

But there is every chance South Korea will line up with Kim Jin-su, Kim Min-jae, Kim Young-gwon and one of Kim Mun-hwan or Kim Tae-hwan across the defence. Expect to hear a lot of full names.

Son Heung-min was the Premier League’s top scorer in 2021-22 (Photo: Getty)

Expectations back home

Cautiously aiming for the last 16.

When South Korea so convincingly confirmed their qualification for a tenth World Cup in a row, the mood among fans was buoyant. Yet that concern about how they will fare against stronger teams still lingers, and there is no denying they face a real challenge, particularly against Portugal and Uruguay.

Son’s fitness will naturally be crucial to their chances, and although there is now a slight sense of dread, South Korea have of miracles on the world stage…

Read more: See the rest of The Athletic’s World Cup 2022 squad guides

(Main graphic — photo: Getty Images/design: Sam Richardson)

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