There seem to be three types of games at this World Cup. There are the games where the stronger team beats the weaker team (Spain, England, France). There are the shocks where the stronger team is crushed by a slightly better than expected opponent (Saudi Arabia, Japan) and there are the even games where not much happens (the others). With just one shot on target (plus two hits against the post) this was well into the third category.
The temptation is great to come up with a flimsy grand theory as to why this should be so. There’s hardly any data, but let’s indulge anyway. Could it be that all three game species are the result of the lack of preparation time, four weeks compressed into four days? Some teams that played in continental competitions last year and are happy with the way they played are still in the rhythm of their national seasons and so got going straight away.
Others could have used more time to fine-tune to try to create something close to the coherent styles now prevalent at club level. Aware of their shortcomings, they naturally become more risk-averse, defensive structures are far easier to build than the attack systems they can defeat, and the result is clumsiness. And that was extremely clumsy – or, as South Korean coach Paulo Bento put it, “a very competitive game at a very high level of play between two teams who respected each other”.
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One of the nicest things about World Championships is seeing old friends again. Usually it’s journalists or Belgium, but Uruguay has a pleasing array of familiar faces so it’s like starting a random snooker tournament in the middle of the afternoon and finding Jimmy White still bravely going up against John Higgins. There was Luis Suárez, meandering up front, a great disruptive factor – although perhaps not as great or as irritating as he used to be with just 14 touches. From the bench came Edinson Cavani’s flared cheekbones. And there, in the heart of the defense, gnarled, relentless, half the age of time, was Diego Godín. He even headed against the base of the post three minutes before half-time, for old time’s sake.Matías Viña’s athletic goal attempt is denied by South Korea’s Kim Seung-gyu. Photo: Alessandra Tarantino/AP
There was also Martín Cáceres, still chugging his man-bun up and down. He was the busiest of the Uruguay back four, with Na Sang-ho arguably South Korea’s biggest threat. After a low cross from the FC Seoul striker, Hwang Ui-jo shot over the goal after 34 minutes. Right-back Kim Moon-hwan dropped to his knees in despair in what seemed an overreaction given there was at least an hour left in the game – but perhaps he knew how few chances were left.
And Uruguay is playing consistently. Football can always evolve. We may now live in a world of high lines and low blocks, of half-spaces and transitions. But Uruguay, despite all the rumors of the revolution sparked by former coach Óscar Tabárez, remain steadfast and always defend – although there was a slightly worrying moment early in the second half when Rodrigo Bentancur, a product of Tabárez’s holistic approach to the game Youth development, pirouetted in a figure eight to clear the ball from danger just outside his own penalty area.
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Sometimes it’s nice, like when José María Giménez smashed Son Heung-min with a delicious tackle five minutes into the second half. But most of the time it’s just a little frustrating: why, when they have so much talent on the side, do they seem so reluctant to use it?
“We wanted to match their level of aggression,” Bento said. “We managed that in the first half.” At the 2019 Asian Cup, South Korea was criticized for dominating the ball and doing little with it. The first half seemed to follow that pattern here, but Uruguay gradually began to assert themselves as the game progressed. “We couldn’t put Korea under pressure and lost precision,” said Uruguay coach Diego Alonso. “We had to switch at half-time and were able to defend higher.”
But they didn’t assert themselves enough to win the game or become really dangerous, 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’s opener, but this was a game where both sides would have happily shaken hands had they been tied at half-time.