There seem to be three types of matches in this World Cup. These are the matches where the stronger team beats the weaker team (Spain, England, France). There are the shocks, where the stronger team is upset by an opponent that is a little better than it expected (Saudi Arabia, Japan), and there are the even games where not much happens (the others). With just 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 flimsy grand theory as to why this should be. There is hardly any data, but let’s treat ourselves anyway. Could it be that all three types of games are the result of a lack of preparation time, four weeks compressed into four days? Some teams, having played in continental competitions last year and comfortable with how they intend to play, are still in the rhythm of their domestic seasons and therefore hit straight away.
Others could have done with more time to fine-tune, to try and generate something close to the cohesive styles that now dominate at club level. Aware of their shortcomings, they naturally become more risk-averse, defensive structures are far easier to put together than the offensive systems that can overcome them, and the result is despair. And this was extremely difficult – or, as the South Korea coach, Paulo Bento, put it, “a very competitive game with a very high level of play between two teams that respected each other”.
One of the nicest things about the WC is meeting old friends. Usually that means journalists, or Belgium, but Uruguay have an appealing array of familiar faces, so watching them is like turning up to a random mid-afternoon snooker tournament and finding that Jimmy White is still playing John Higgins. There was Luis Suárez, scrambling around up front, a wonderful irritant – although he managed just 14 touches, perhaps neither as magnificent nor as annoying as he used to be. There came the outstretched cheekbones of Edinson Cavani from the bench. And there, at the heart of the defense, gnarled, implacable, half as old as time, was Diego Godín. He even headed against the bottom of the post three minutes before the break for old fashioned sake.
It was also Martín Cáceres who was still chugging up and down with his man bun. Of Uruguay’s back four, he had the most work to do, with Na Sang-ho probably South Korea’s biggest threat. It was from the FC Seoul striker’s low cross that Hwang Ui-jo fired over after 34 minutes. Right-back Kim Moon-hwan sank to his knees in despair, which, given there was at least an hour left to play, seemed like an overreaction – but perhaps he knew how few chances there would be.
And Uruguay plays in a delightfully unchanging way. Football is perhaps always evolving. We can 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 carried out by former coach Óscar Tabárez, remains steadfast, always defending – although there was a slightly disturbing moment early in the second half when Rodrigo Bentancur, a product of Tabárez’s holistic approach to youth development, performed a figure-eight pirouette to clear the ball from trouble just outside his own half.
Sometimes it’s beautiful, like when José María Giménez took away Son Heung-min with a delicious sliding tackle five minutes into the second half. But mostly it’s just a little frustrating: why, when 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 managed it in the first half. At the Asian Cup in 2019, the criticism against South Korea was that they dominated the ball and did little with it. The first half here seemed to follow that pattern, but Uruguay gradually began to assert themselves as the game wore on. “We couldn’t put pressure on Korea and lost precision,” Uruguay coach Diego Alonso said. “We had to change at halftime 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 where it felt like both sides would have liked to shake hands for a draw at half-time.