Aotearoa at the U20 World Cup: Curious Priorities vs Uruguay

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And with that we have our first proper setback of this journey. The lads went down to a 2-0 defeat against Uruguay, which doesn’t do too much damage to things on the surface but it was a disappointing result and a game which wasn’t really worth getting up for especially when you’d already stayed up later than you meant to watching cricket and with so much grand kiwi sport going on in the middle of the night across the next month the currency of sleep is at an all-time ruthless exchange rate so… yeah.

Des Buckingham had hinted he was up for changes and he delivered on those suggestions with nine, count ‘em nine, alterations from what had been an unchanged line-up for the first two games. Only the two centre-backs, Stanger and Pijnaker, retained their places (and both were subbed off along the way) which means that only third-string keeper Zac Jones hasn’t started a game this tournament. Cam Brown wore the gloves. Dane Schnell and Dalton Wilkins at fullback. Trevor Zwetsloot and Dom Woolridge in midfield. Attacking three of Willem Ebbinge, Leon van den Hoven, and Matt Conroy. Max Mata played up top.

Now, Uruguay made quite a few changes for this game themselves with both teams already booked through to the next round and it showed in the pace of the game. But I still wasn’t all aboard the wholesale adjustments. This is a strong squad full of unparalleled depth for a kiwi footy team but there’s still only one Joe Bell. One Callum McCowatt. One Sarpreet Singh. One Elijah Just. There’s obviously a big benefit to getting all those dudes some rest but you also risk popping the balloon, it’s like this team had been floating on air with their recent results and now they’ve suddenly stopped to look down. Again, it’s risk versus reward. But drastic changes were always gonna be likely to end in defeat.

It wasn’t like the Young All Whites reverted to the old days though. It was impressive how they continued to try and build into possession with the confidence and belief to compete with a very good team out of South America. The type of opposition that’s usually an automatic defeat for NZ. However they lacked the polish up top and for the first half an hour it was all Uruguay, we’re talking like 75% possession in those early stages. Thanks to some desperate defence from Stanger and Pijnaker, again the only two to have started all three games, it didn’t cost the lads a goal but it was pretty steady pressure for most of that time – and the kiwis weren’t helped by the early injury suffered by Trevor Zwetsloot which must have disrupted the plans. On came Joe Bell in his place, arguably the team’s best player, but still you never wanna see a teammate in pain. Looked like a knee thing for Trev and no doubt we’ll find out more once the doctors have had a chance to have a peek. Fingers crossed it wasn’t as bad as it initially looked.

After that half hour the NZers were able to settle into the game with a bit more of the ball. They slowed it down by knocking the thing around at the back, Joe Bell often slipping all the way into the defensive line to make sure there was always an option. It looked like Coach Buck might have had a word with him and suggested that, which was a clever adjustment. Although… it meant one less dude pushing forwards on the regular and even with more possession there was nothing notable to talk about going forwards. Max Mata was getting chopped by some very physical Uruguayan defenders and with how proactive those dudes were, true to reputation they were always looking to get a foot in, passes were being picked off with regularity in that final third.

Darwin Nunez had been a handful even before he scored. In fact he’d been a lot like Erling Haland before him, a clear threat but a little too wasteful in the box. But he finally made one stick after New Zealand’s best spell of possession, creeping between the CBs to score from a low cross after an overlap down our left side of defence. Dalton Wilkins and Will Ebbinge got caught and that’s what can happen. George and Nando probably coulda done better too. Can’t say Uruguay didn’t deserve it (whatever that’s supposed to count for).

By the way, speaking of Erling Haland… he score nine times as Norway beat Honduras 12-0 this morning. Yes, you read that completely right. Puts this U20 World Cup in perspective, obviously Honduras showed a propensity for bottling it when they fell behind against us but yikes. Shows how crazy these youth tournaments can be – Honduras only lost 2-0 to the group winners but lost 9-0 to the third placers who probably won’t even make the next round. Even Tahiti’s worst loss here was only 6-0… against Colombia who we play in the next round. But it puts our win over Norway in more of a glowing aura, which is nice.

The performance in the second half was better. A lot sturdier and a lot more even. Gianni Stensness had come on at the back for George Stanger at half-time, probably a pre-planned move, and he slipped comfortably into the backline. Told you he’s a good defender. But yeah, a lame first half was followed by a more competitive one except we were still seeing too much ball lost in the opposition half and now, because of the more stretched field, Uruguay were also threatening on the counter attack. Mata had a couple half moments yet you sorta saw the difference here between instead of having two guys who both play and train with the Wellington Phoenix first team mixed with two guys who have come up through all their youth team footy together… we had one guy playing in Switzerland, one guy from the Nix youth team, one from Waitakere/Western Springs, and one who plays in the Netherlands. All were a part of the squad that qualified for this tournament so hardly strangers in a strange land but there weren’t the same subconscious connections going on. The links and the interplay weren’t there.

At least not until Joe Bell and Max Mata brought the funk in the last ten minutes. Thing was, even without really looking like scoring all game we were still only one goal from a draw that would book top spot in the group and why would you not target that? Well, one reason was the benefit of rest after three games in a week and another was that if we finish second we don’t have to travel for the R16 clash… but history was still there to be made. Problem was we only had one sub left. Sarpreet Singh came on for Nando Pijnaker (Woolridge to defence, LVDH to midfield) with a little less than quarter of an hour to go and if we coulda snuck McCowatt or Just on as well then who knows? As it was, Bell and Mata still nearly supplied the goal we were looking for, combining beautifully only for Bell’s shot to go agonisingly wide. Then he had another chance even later but it was blocked. Then Brian Rodriguez scored with the last kick of the game to make it 2-0.

So what that means is we finish second in the group and will face Colombia on Monday morning at 6.30am on Monday. Which is a lovely time for watching football compared to 3.30am the following morning which is what it would have been, up against the third-placed team of either group A (Poland), B (Ecuador), or F (Probably South Korea but could still be Portugal or South Africa). Whether there’s a tangible difference between those teams and Colombia is debatable. Once you start to compromise results though, prioritising rest over success, it’s a slippery slope you’re trying to avoid tumbling on down.

There are no wrong decisions but with the hype that was building up after two straight wins this does feel like a missed opportunity not to just keep things going the way they were. Make a few changes, sure, but keep the top attacking weapons out there – which might have been the plan had Zwetsloot not been injured, dunno. Fair play to Buck for trusting the depth in his squad and fair play to that squad for continuing to play the way that this team has been doing… but without that cutting edge in the attacking areas it wasn’t the same.

The bonus is that now they’ll be in Łódź again, where they’ve played their last two games (and their quarter will also be in Łódź should the gods allow), which avoids the ten-hours of travel they had between their first and second games. And Colombia should be a similar team in style to Uruguay, which helps. They finished below them in qualifying in fact… not that we got a perfect look at peak Uruguay in this game.

However you wanna look at it, it’s knockout footy now. We might only get another ninety minutes at this tournament and we’re up against a team that qualified at the expense of Brazil. We’ve just seen this team suffer defeat for the first time. The next time will be the last time. Monday morning at 6.30… she’s all on.

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