There seem to be three types of matches in the current World Cup. There are matches in which the stronger team attacks the weaker team (Spain, England and France). There are the shocks, where the stronger team is held back by an opponent that’s a bit better than expected (Saudi Arabia and Japan), and there are evenly matched matches where not much happens (the others). With just one shot on target (plus two that hit the post), that was plenty in the third category.
The temptation is to come up with a grand and flimsy theory of why this should happen. There’s hardly any data, but let’s indulge ourselves. Could all three types of game be the result of less preparation time, four weeks compressed into four days? Some teams, having played in the continental competition last year feeling comfortable with the way they intend to play, are still on the same beat from their domestic seasons and so have made progress right away.
Others could have done with more fine-tuning time, to try to create something close to the coherent patterns now prevalent at club level. Aware of their shortcomings, they naturally become more risk averse, and defensive structures are much easier to assemble than offensive systems that can overcome them, and the result is backwardness. And this was a very difficult one – or, as the South Korean coach, Paulo Bento put it, “a very competitive game with a very high level of play between two teams that respect each other.”
One of the best things about the World Cup is meeting old friends. Normally that would mean journalists, or Belgium, but Uruguay has a delightful group of familiar faces, so watching them is like running a random snooker tournament in the middle of the afternoon and discovering that Jimmy White is still gritty against John Higgins. There was Luis Suarez, scribbling up front, a fantastic annoyance – although he only managed 14 touches, perhaps not quite as impressive or as annoying as he once was. There, jumping off the bench were the glowing cheekbones of Edinson Cavani. And there, in the center of defence, Diego Godin was tenacious, tenacious, half his age as time. He even headed against the base of the post three minutes before half-time for old time.
There was also Martín Caceres still screaming up and down his man bun. Of the four Uruguay defenders, he was the one with the most work to do, with Na Sang possibly South Korea’s biggest threat. It was from the Seoul striker’s low cross that Hwang Ui-jo fired over after 34 minutes. Right back Kim Moon Hwan sank to his knees in desperation which seemed to be an overreaction, given that there had been at least an hour to play, but he probably knew how few chances there were.
Uruguay plays in a fun and unchanging way. Football may always evolve. 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 revolution made by former coach Oscar Tabarez, remain resilient and ever-motivating – even if there was a slightly wistful moment early in the second half as Rodrigo Bentancur, a product of Tabarez’s holistic approach to youth development, did the job. An eight-turn spin to get the ball out of trouble just outside the penalty area.
Sometimes it’s sweet, as when Jose Maria Gimenez sent Son Heung-min off with a delicious sliding tackle five minutes into the second half. But mostly it’s a little frustrating: why, when they have such talents on the side, do they seem so reluctant to use them?
“We wanted to match their level of aggression,” Pinto said. “We managed to do that in the first half.” In the 2019 Asian Cup, the criticism of South Korea was that they controlled the ball and did little with it. The first half here seemed to follow this pattern, but Uruguay gradually began to assert themselves as the game went on. “We couldn’t put pressure on Correa and we lost accuracy,” said Uruguay’s coach, Diego Alonso. “We had to change at half-time and we were able to defend higher.”
But they didn’t assert themselves enough to win the match, or to cause much of a threat, at least until Federico Valverde’s 25-yard strike against the post in the 89th minute. Avoiding defeat is perhaps the most important thing in the group opener, but this was a match in which both felt The two sides happily tied the first half.