What is Klinsmann’s solution to the must-win game against China?
The Korea National Football Team (Kinsman Ho) got their FIFA World Cup journey off to a flying start with a 5-0 victory over Singapore in Group C of the second Asian qualifying round for the 2026 FIFA World Cup in North and Central America (Canada, USA, Mexico) at Sangam World Cup Stadium in Seoul on Saturday. The win sets up a second Group C match against China on Nov. 21 at the Shenzhen University Sports Park in Guangdong province. The match is essentially a battle for top spot in the group with China, who came from behind to beat Thailand 2-1 away in their Group C opener on Sept. 16.
Things are looking good for Klinsmann’s men, who are currently riding a four-game unbeaten streak into the Singapore match, which includes trials against Saudi Arabia (1-0), Tunisia (4-0) and Vietnam (6-0). With Europeans Son Heung-min (Tottenham Hotspur, 31), Hwang Eui-jo (Norwich City, 31), Lee Jae-sung (Mainz, 31), Kim Min-jae (Bayern Munich, 27), Hwang Hee-chan (Wolverhampton, 27), Hwang In-beom (Tsubena Zvezda, 27), Cho Kyu-sung (Mitwylan, 25), and Lee Kang-in (Paris Saint-Germain, 25), Klinsmann’s individual skills and team strength are two to three times higher than China. If so, it’s not hard to see Klinsmann’s team winning by more than two goals.
However, there is a variable here. It’s an away game. Of course, the first and foremost condition for winning and losing in soccer is team strength, which is based on the individual skills of the players. But we can’t ignore head-to-head and FIFA rankings. South Korea has a head-to-head record of 22 wins, 12 draws, and 2 losses against China, and a much higher FIFA ranking of 24th compared to China’s 79th. Even if these objective facts are not true, South Korea is relatively stronger than China, and it puts China under mental and psychological pressure, or “gonghan”. This is considered to be a high barrier for China to overcome, and it is expected to affect the outcome of the second match of Group C.
However, there is something that Klinsmann must be wary of. China’s soccer is uniquely gritty at home, and they play with a lot of physicality and tackling. This style of play paid off for China against Thailand, with Wu Lei (32 Shanghai Shanghainese), Tan Long (35 Changchun Yatai), Wei Shihao (28 Guangzhou Hengda), Wu Xi (34 Shanghai Shenhua), Zhang Linping (34 Guangzhou Hengda), Zhang Xianrong (Shanghai Shenhua) and Zhu Tianze (23 Shanghai Shenhua) leading the charge to hold off the home side. This means that Klinsmann will need to strengthen his team’s mental game more than ever.
China’s head coach Aleksandar Jankovic (51, Serbia) is known for playing defensive football in a 3-4-3 (3-4-2-1) formation with a lot of numbers in the midfield and defense, anchored by three backs Zhang Linping, Zhang Xianrong, and Zhang Yuanze. Therefore, against Klinsmann’s Lake, as against Thailand, we can expect to see a 4-4-2 formation with four backs rather than a five-back in defense, and an attacking tactic. In particular, China will focus on utilizing the speed of individual players rather than playing a planned pattern on the counterattack, and will try to find space behind the defense for striker Wu Lei to score. This will require Klinsmann’s quick offensive transitions as well as the defense’s high concentration and organization in cover play.
The problem is attack. If Klinsmann’s team is to score an early goal against China, which has a large number of players in the defense, it will have to play a tactic that focuses on attacking the vulnerable flanks, with Chinese wingbacks Zhang Linping and Zhu Tianze, rather than a central attack with relatively limited space, and the overall attacking play will have to be detailed and organized. If Klinsmann’s team has Europeans, including Son Heung-min (31, Tottenham Hotspur), who leads the attack, China has a European in Wu Lei. And if Klinsmann has Kim Min-jae (27, Bayern Munich) at center back, China has Zhang Xianlong. Depending on the performance of these players, the flow and mood of the game could change.
Therefore, Klinsmann’s task against China is to score an early goal, which is not an option but a necessity. Clearly, China is an underdog with a different player quality and team strength than South Korea. Add to that the fact that they have no experience playing against a powerhouse like South Korea. In 2023, China’s opponents include underdogs Palestine (2-0 win) and Myanmar (4-0 win) in June, Malaysia (1-1) and Syria (0-1 loss) in September, and finally Uzbekistan (1-2) in October. China’s inexperience against such strong opponents means that even with the win over Thailand, the importance of an early goal for Klinsmann’s men cannot be overemphasized, as conceding an early goal could lead to poor crisis management and a devastating defeat.
Klinsmann has his work cut out for him against China. That’s the lineup and game management. Obviously, Klinsmann’s team will have a tough time finding an early goal against China due to the long physicality of the defense and the difficulty of playing in space. The tactical and strategic aspects of the game will be crucial. In particular, the tactics and strategy of the striker position could be the key to victory. Therefore, it is necessary for Klinsmann to ‘think hard’ about whether to choose an experienced striker or a youngster.
Needless to say, for Klinsmann, a draw against China would be considered a defeat. Therefore, Klinsmann’s tactical scrap must also include a response to the corner set-piece, which is one of China’s strengths, and how to deal with it. Even if we don’t discuss objective player quality and team strength, China is a sewer. Therefore, Klinsmann must play a strong pressing tactic from the front line and break the momentum of China’s tactics, strategy, and mental and psychological aspects. Even China, which has the support of 40,000 home fans and a sense of challenge after the victory over Thailand, will surely fall victim to Klinsmann. Add to that Jürgen Klinsmann’s (59, Germany) philosophy of colorful attacking football, tactics and strategy, and you’ve got the perfect recipe.