by Justin Sousa
Two Cinderella stories formed this year’s Under-20 World Cup final. Neither of the participating teams, Ukraine and South Korea, had ever reached this point in the competition, let alone won it. 2019’s rendition of this prestigious youth international tournament provided both nations with a rare opportunity to write their names into history.
Both sides rolled out in similar formations, each operating with a target man in their front lines and five-man back line. While Ukraine opted to fill four positions across their midfielder, South Korea implemented a midfield triad of centre midfielders, with Lee Kang-in being given the license to drop in-and-out of their fold as he pleased. The final was not only set for the unveiling of some of the world’s brightest talents from two understated footballing nations, but it was also poised to be one of the best tactical battles presented across the 52 matches hosted in Poland.
The 16,000 strong crowd was electrifying with their undying chants and thunderous banging of drums, and South Korea seemed to feed off the energy in the opening minutes of the match. From a throw-in, Kim Se-yun broke free of Viktor Korniienko to play a return ball to the feet of Hwang Tae-hyeon. Se-yun then took off down the right flank to latch onto a through ball from Kang-in before squaring up to Danylo Beskorovainyi at the edge of the area. After whiffing his initial challenge, the Ukrainian defender stuck a foot out to poke the ball from Se-yun’s feet, but instead caught the midfielder’s ankle. The foul went uncalled initially, but a video review eventually brought Kang-in to the penalty spot, where he coolly sent Andriy Lunin the wrong way to give South Korea the lead within five minutes.
Ukraine’s struggles to breakdown an electric and well-marshaled South Korean side continued over the following ten minutes. Patiently sitting in their 5-3-2 defensive block, the Taegeuk Warriors waited until the ball was played into the wide spaces of the field before beginning their counter press.
The press would be initiated by the nearest forward, forcing the Ukrainian on the ball away from coming inside. A centre midfielder would then shift in to close off his forward path as the side’s corresponding wide centre-back filled the gap in midfield. Should a ball slip through the two-man press, the wing-back presented another obstacle down the flank, while the centre-back who stepped into midfield provided coverage centrally.
This exhaustive press worked for the first quarter of an hour, but South Korea’s fatigue soon manifested itself in their efforts. Their press began to fade, and Kang-in grew visibly frustrated by the lack of support he received whenever the ball found its way into the wide positions. Ultimately, this is what allowed Ukraine to get a foothold in the match and, subsequently, dominate the remainder of the half.
Oleksandr Petrakov’s side alternated between two formations when transitioning into the offensive phase: if their attack resulted from a transition, Heorhii Tsitaishvili and Serhii Buletsa joined Vladyslav Supriaha in the front line, and Korniienko and Yukhym Konoplia ultimately became wide midfielders to form a 3-4-3 in South Korea’s half.
In this shape, Tsitaishvili and Buletsa occupied the spaces between the Korean wing-backs and wide centre-backs in order to free space for either Konoplia or Korniienko to push forward. Should either Tae-hyeon or Choi Jun attempt to close the space, a simple pass around them would often find its way to the feet of a forward running down the side.
Alternatively, Ukraine used a 3-2-4-1 to stretch their opposing centre midfielders and open space for either midfield block to find the ball. Like their positioning in the 3-4-3, Tsitaishvili and Buletsa would become the central figures of the four, with Oleksiy Khakhlov and Kyrylo Dryshlyuk dropped deep to form a double pivot. Korniienko and Konoplia would provide the width once again on either flank. Supriaha, in either formation, had the sole responsibility of pushing the centre-backs as far back as possible in order to open useable space between defensive and midfield lines.
In the build-up to their equaliser, Ukraine overloaded the right flank in their 4-2-3-1 shape and allowed Buletsa to receive the ball with space to attack in the middle. Recognizing the danger, Kim Hyun-woo stepped out of his backline and delivered a ruthless challenge on the Ukrainian winger. South Korea failed to deal with the ensuing free kick, and a fortunate deflection back into the box allowed to opportunistically pounce on the ball and tuck away the equaliser.
Chung Jung-yong — South Korea’s coach — recognized the drop-in tempo from his team and opted to sacrifice Se-yun for the speed and direct play of Um Won-sang. At this point, South Korea morphed from their ironclad 5-3-2 into a more expansive 4-2-3-1. Hyun-woo stepped into midfield to form the double pivot with Kim Jung-min, while Kang-in slid forward into the ten role, flanked by Won-sang and Cho Young-wook on either side.
Again, the opening minutes of the half belonged to South Korea; substitute Won-sang provided a direct threat down the right and Ukraine struggled to adjust defensively to their opponent’s adjustments. Oh Se-hun went toe-to-toe physically with Valerii Bondar — Ukraine’s mobile, abrasive captain — and Beskorovainyi as he looked to hold up the ball and bring his supporting midfielders into the build-up and attacking phases.
However, South Korea’s defensive discipline seemed to have dissipated following the change in shape at half-time; they were often caught with as many as seven bodies in and around the final third. As the ball found its way to Konoplia from a clearance, Hyun-woo, Young-wook, and Jun backed off the Shakhtar Donetsk wing-back as he glided through their half, instigating a situation in which another inadvertent South Korean touch slipped into the path of Supriaha, who duly converted the chance to score the go-ahead goal.
In need of a goal, South Korea shifted to a makeshift 4-3-3 with Won-sang and Young-wook pushing further forward and Kang-in positioned ahead of the midfield pivot. Though Kang-in attempted to create opportunities through impressive ball circulation and individual moments of brilliance, the rest of his side, hoping for the best, seemed more inclined to slam a long ball into Oh Se-hun.
Ukraine took advantage of South Korea’s reliance on Kang-in for creativity. They swarmed the 18-year-old in groups of three or four at a time. The sight of Kang-in having his pocket picked with his back to goal became all too familiar for South Korea as their opportunity to become the first Asian nation to win the U-20 World Cup began to slip out of their grasp. His frustrations with the consistent lack of support — firstly when pressing, now when attacking — were visible, flinging his arms helplessly thrown into the air hoping for something to go his way.
Ukraine’s centre-back trio and centre midfielders were also efficient in squeezing South Korea’s front three into positions where crosses could not find them. Tae-hyeon and Jun were consistently providing decent service into the penalty area from wide, but Ukraine possessed a clear size advantage over the South Koreans — that made any aerial duel an unlikely victory. Lee Jae-ik came close to equalizing when he connected with a Kang-in corner, but Lunin — the Golden Glove winner — produced a confidence-draining, one-handed save to preserve his side’s lead.
Tsitaishvili sealed the match and the title for Ukraine when Maksym Chekh pressed an exhausted Hyun-woo into a giveaway on the halfway line. With taking the ball straight to goal the only thought in his head, Tsitaishvili burned his defender after running the length of a half, feinting inside before chopping outside, then expertly whipping his shot across the goal into the corner of the net. The South Koreans, both in pure exhaustion and utter disbelief, all wore expressions of dejection on their faces as their opponents celebrated winning the U-20 World Cup.
The goal initially came from Ukraine overloading the left flank, forcing Lee Kyu-hyuk to play a negative ball back to Jae-ik and then to Hyun-woo in midfield where the catastrophic counterattack commenced.
Coach Jung-yong and his team tried every solution to get themselves back into the match, but the fatigue of a grueling tournament and debilitating mental strain took its toll on South Korea. An early goal and thunderous support from the native South Korean fans seemed to have provided the extra charge they needed, but Ukraine’s adaptability, resoluteness and clinical finishing saw their Cinderella story end with a trophy — and their opponents with the thought of what could have been.
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