It might seem peculiar to cast doubts over the potency of South Korea’s attack, especially when they have a certain Son Heung-min to call upon.
As the Taegeuk Warriors resume their Asian qualifying campaign for the 2022 FIFA World Cup with games against United Arab Emirates and Iraq over the next seven days, a closer look at the options available to coach Paulo Bento does however raise cause for concern.
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With Bordeaux man Hwang Ui-jo ruled out through injury, the two out-and-out strikers that Bento have called up are Cho Gue-sung, a twice-capped 23-year-old who has spent this season playing in South Korea’s second-tier K League 2, and Kim Gun-hee, who has only netted six league goals in 2021 and is yet to make his international debut.
It remains to be seen if either will be thrown straight into the deep end as Hwang’s replacement, and it would be unfair to expect either to seamlessly fill the void of a man who has been South Korea’s top scorer with 13 goals since Bento’s appointment in 2018.
Yet, the fact that the duo appears to be Bento’s best alternatives at a crucial stage of qualifying for a World Cup that is only a year away hints either at a severe lack of choices, or Bento’s reluctance to explore some more left-field options.
South Korea will be without the services of Hwang Ui-jo — who scored 12 times in Ligue 1 for Bordeaux last season — after he picked up an ankle injury in October. Guillaume Horcajuelo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
For instance, Jeju United’s Joo Min-kyu, who — with 21 goals already this season and on track to becoming the K League 1’s first local top scorer in five years — must be wondering what more he has to do to earn a call-up.
Granted, there is the possibility that Bento could deploy Son as the spearhead of the attack, although that is a role that has significantly reduced the Tottenham star’s influence on previous occasions.
Son’s ability to thrive in the attacking third is often boosted by working off a teammate who serves as the focal point. At Spurs, that person has been Harry Kane but on the international stage, the man who fulfils that role is the oft-underrated Hwang.
For that reason, it is also interesting that Bento has not turned to someone like Oh Se-hun, who has performed admirably since being handed the lead role at last year’s Asian club champions Ulsan Hyundai earlier in the season.
Still only 22, Oh Se-hun has impressed leading the line for Ulsan Hyundai this season but is yet to win his first senior cap for South Korea, having been part of the side that finished as runners-up in the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup. Victor Fraile / Power Sport Images for The AFC
Similar to Hwang, Oh is perhaps not the most prolific of strikers but works tirelessly to bring others into play as a target man — standing at 1.93 metres — and would have been an excellent foil for Son, with the value he brings to a team exceeding just his ability to find the back of the net.
Reshuffling the pack could work for Bento over the next week as he undoubtedly has quality at his disposal that should be good enough to overcome UAE and Iraq. Apart from Son, Wolves attacker Hwang Hee-chan is another who could be tasked the lead the line and has expressed willingness to play the role.
But with the World Cup not too far away, South Korea certainly have questions — at least in the final third — that need to be answered.