There seem to be three types of games at this World Cup. There are the games in which the stronger team beats the weaker team (Spain, England, France). There are the shocks, where the stronger team is undone by an opponent that is slightly better than it expected (Saudi Arabia, Japan), and there are the even games in which nothing much happens (the others). With only one shot on target (plus two that hit the post), this was very much in the third category.
The temptation is to come up with a tenuous grand theory about why this should be. There is hardly any data, but let’s still forgive ourselves. Could it be that all three types of games are the result of the lack of preparation time, four weeks compressed into four days? Some teams, who played in continental competition last year and are comfortable with how they intend to play, are still in the rhythm of their domestic seasons and therefore hit their stride immediately.
Others could do with more time to fine-tune, to try to generate something approaching the coherent styles that now prevail at club level. Aware of their shortcomings, they naturally become more risk-averse, defensive structures are much easier to assemble than the offensive systems they can overcome, and the result is stodginess. And this was extremely stodgy – or, as the South Korea coach, Paulo Bento, said, “a very competitive game with a very high level of play between two teams that respected each other”.
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One of the best things about World Cups is meeting old friends. Usually that means journalists, or Belgium, but Uruguay has a nice array of familiar faces, so it looks like turning on a random snooker tournament in the middle of the afternoon and finding Jimmy White still taking on John Higgins. There was Luis Suárez, running up front, a huge irritant – although, given that he only managed 14 touches, perhaps neither as magnificent nor as irritating as he was. Edinson Cavani’s blown cheekbones came from the bench. And there, in the heart of the defense, gnarled, relentless, half as old as time, was Diego Godín. He even headed against the base of the post three minutes before half-time for old times’ sake.
Matías Viña’s athletic attempt to score fails against South Korea’s Kim Seung-gyu. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/AP
There was also Martín Cáceres who was still looking up and down with his man-bun. Of Uruguay’s back four, it was he who had the most work to do, with Na Sang-ho probably South Korea’s biggest threat. It was from FC Seoul’s low cross that Hwang Ui-jo shot after 34 minutes. Right-back Kim Moon-hwan dropped to his knees in despair, which, given there was still at least an hour to play, seemed like an overreaction – but perhaps he knew just how many chances there would be.
And Uruguay plays in a pleasantly unchanging manner. Football can always develop. We may now live in a world of high lines and low blocks, of half spaces and transitions. But Uruguay, for all the talk of the revolution created by former coach Óscar Tabárez, remains steadfast, always defending – even if there was a little distressing moment early in the second half when Rodrigo Bentancur, a product of Tabárez’s holistic approach for youth development, performed a pirouette of eight to get the ball out of trouble just outside his own box.
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Sometimes it’s beautiful, like when José María Giménez intercepted Son Heung-min with a delightful slide tackle five minutes into the second half. But mostly it’s just a little frustrating: why, if they have such talent in the side, are they seemingly so reluctant to use it?
“We wanted to match their level of aggression,” Bento said. “We knew that in the first half.” At the Asian Cup in 2019, the criticism of South Korea was that they dominated the ball and didn’t do much with it. The first half seemed to follow that pattern here, but Uruguay slowly began to assert themselves after the game. “We couldn’t put pressure on Korea and lost accuracy,” said the Uruguay coach, Diego Alonso. “We had to change at half-time and were able to defend higher.”
But they didn’t assert themselves enough to win the game, or really pose much of a threat, at least until Federico Valverde pinged a 25-yarder against the post in the 89th minute. Avoiding defeat is perhaps the most important thing in the group opener, but this was a game in which it felt both sides would happily shake hands on a draw at half-time.