It seems that there are three types of games in this World Cup. There are the games where the stronger team beats the weaker team (Spain, England, France). There are shocks, where the strongest team is beaten by an opponent slightly better than expected (Saudi Arabia, Japan), and there are even games where not much happens (everyone else). With just one shot on goal (plus two that hit the post), this was very much in the third category.
The temptation is to come up with some grand thin theory about why it should be this way. There is hardly any data, but even so, let’s treat ourselves. Could it be that all three game types are the result of a lack of preparation time, four weeks compressed into four days? Some teams, who played in continental competition last year and are comfortable with the way they intend to play, still have the pace of their domestic seasons and therefore pick up the pace right away.
Others could have done with more time to hone, to try to generate something close to the cohesive styles that are now prevalent at the club level. Aware of their flaws, they naturally become more risk averse, defensive structures being much easier to set up than attack systems that can overcome them, and the result is clunkiness. And this was extremely heavy – or, like the South Korea The coach, Paulo Bento, expressed it, “a very competitive game with a very high level of play between two teams that respected each other”.
One of the best things about the World Cups is meeting up with old friends. Usually that means journalists, or Belgium, but Uruguay having a nice array of familiar faces to watch is like turning on a random pool tournament in the middle of the afternoon and finding out Jimmy White is still up against John Higgins. There was Luis Suárez, scrambling up front, a magnificent nuisance, although, given that he managed just 14 touches, perhaps not as magnificent and irritating as he used to be. There, coming off the bench, were the high cheekbones of Edinson Cavani. And there, in the heart of the defense, knotty, implacable, half as old as time, was Diego Godín. He even headed into the base of the post three minutes before halftime for old time’s sake.
There was also Martín Cáceres still snorting with his bow. 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 a low cross from the FC Seoul striker that Hwang Ui-jo fired in just over 34 minutes. Right-back Kim Moon-hwan took a knee in despair, which, with at least an hour left to play, seemed like an overreaction, but perhaps he knew how slim a chance there would be.
And Uruguay plays in a pleasantly unchanging way. Soccer can always be in development. Now we can live in a world of high lines and low blocks, of half spaces and transitions. But Uruguay, despite all the talk about the revolution forged by former coach Óscar Tabárez, remains firm, always defending, even if there was a slightly nerve-wracking moment early in the second half when Rodrigo Bentancur, product of the approach Tabárez’s holistic approach to youth development, he performed a figure eight pirouette to get the ball out of trouble right out of his own box.
Sometimes it’s pretty, like when José María Giménez dispatched Son Heung-min with a delicious sliding tackle five minutes into the second half. But mostly it’s a bit frustrating: why, when they have so much talent, do they seem so reluctant to use it?
“We wanted to match his level of aggression,” Bento said. “We managed to do it during the first half.” In the 2019 Asian Cup, criticism of 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 progressed. “We couldn’t put pressure on Korea and we lost precision,” Uruguay coach Diego Alonso said. “We had to change at half time and we were able to defend higher.”
But they didn’t assert themselves enough to win the game, or really cause much of a threat, at least until Federico Valverde sent a 25-yard shot off the post in the 89th minute. Avoiding defeat, perhaps, is most important. in the opening group game, but this was a game where it was felt both teams would have happily shaken hands in a half-time draw.