No Sonny, a lot of problems for S. Korea in friendly loss to Peru

June 16, 2023

With South Korea missing a few key players for a men’s football friendly against Peru on Friday night, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann insisted in the leadup to the contest that this would present an opportunity for new players to step up.

Son Heung-min of South Korea (R) consoles teammate Lee Kang-in following the team's 1-0 loss to Peru in their friendly football match at Busan Asiad Main Stadium in Busan, 320 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on June 16, 2023. (Yonhap)
Son Heung-min of South Korea (R) consoles teammate Lee Kang-in following the team’s 1-0 loss to Peru in their friendly football match at Busan Asiad Main Stadium in Busan, 320 kilometers southeast of Seoul, on June 16, 2023. (Yonhap)

Klinsmann, in particular, wanted less experienced players to make a statement and push for their inclusion for the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Asian Cup in January next year. Those players, though, let their coach down.

Bryan Reyna scored in the 11th minute for Peru, and the visitors held on for their 1-0 win at Busan Asiad Main Stadium in this southeastern city of Busan.

Peru were in control for most of the first half, with South Korea barely threatening their opponents. South Korean talisman and captain Son Heung-min sat out the match while recovering from a recent sports hernia surgery. And without the Tottenham Hotspur star, South Korea’s offense exhibited very little flow.

The defense corps also played without some important names, with Napoli defender Kim Min-jae out while completing his mandatory military training and Ulsan Hyundai FC veteran Kim Young-gwon nursing a thigh injury.

South Korea’s new-look defense looked flustered early against Peru’s high pressing. Right fullback Ahn Hyun-beom played in his first international match and looked the part of the rookie at times.

Ahn’s turnover deep in his own zone resulted in Peru’s goal. Ahn appeared to have lost confidence from that point on, unable to make seemingly simple outlet passes from his own zone.

In the first half, South Korean attackers were often frustrated by physical and speedy defenders, who gave the hosts precious little room to operate.

Klinsmann was diplomatic when evaluating his new players, saying it gave him and his staff a chance to see different players in a match setting.

“When I don’t win, I’m angry. It’s normal. But the more important thing is that we see who’s growing,” the coach said. “I am thankful that I get this opportunity to bring new players in and give them a chance. Obviously, I’d like to have Min-jae and Sonny. But overall, this is a great group of players to work with. I’m impressed with their discipline, with their work ethic and with their focus.”

Midfielder Lee Kang-in was the lone bright spot for South Korea, firing shots and generating chances for his teammates. The RCD Mallorca youngster flashed the kind of skills and creativity that make him such a popular player at home and a coveted talent during the summer transfer window.

Lee registered South Korea’s first shot on target in the 33rd minute, when his left-footed effort from the right corner of the box tested Pedro Gallese.

In the second half, Lee grabbed South Korea by the collar and singlehandedly led the offensive surge. He made a deft pass to set up forward Oh Hyeon-gyu on a one-on-one opportunity against Gallese in the 62nd minute, but Oh failed to get his low shot past the Peruvian goalkeeper.

Lee got off a rare header in the 73rd minute, as it bounced in front of the goal and went off Gallese’s hands.

Lee found the head of Cho Gue-sung’s head twice in the late stretches, conjuring the successful partnership that produced two goals at last year’s FIFA World Cup.

The duo wasn’t so dynamic this time, as Cho missed the target with both attempts.

Klinsmann reserved high praise for Lee afterward, calling him a “very, very special player.”

Klinsmann noticed how Peru often surrounded Lee with multiple players when he had the ball because “they have a lot of respect for him.”

“His way of playing is exciting. He’s always creative. He’s always there trying hard, but obviously he cannot win it by himself,” the coach added. “For Kang-in, this is a really important learning curve, learning when to dribble and when to just make one-touch passes to free himself up.”

Lee was much harder on himself and said he was disappointed he couldn’t help the team win.

“I didn’t do anything well. I am just devastated that we didn’t win,” Lee said. “The most important thing is to win. We play football to win, and we will try to take the next match. I believe we will get better and better.”

Park Ji-su, one of two new starting center backs, was guilty of some ball-watching moments in the first half but exhibited some offensive skills in the latter half. His aggressive forward passes caught Peruvian defenders off guard and created some opportunities for the hosts.

None of these chances, though, resulted in a goal. Klinsmann is still looking for his first win as South Korea’s bench boss. The team had a 2-2 draw against Colombia and suffered a 2-1 loss to Uruguay in March.