This article features in a four-part series that looks at the some of the teams to watch out for in the World Cup in 2018. The second edition takes a look at the team from the South American continent that has shown promise to excel in the Summer, Uruguay.
Uruguay have gone through an upsurge ever since the appointment of Óscar Tabárez as head coach in 2006. After failing to qualify for that year’s World Cup in Germany, the Uruguayans have gone on to finish fourth at the grandest stage in 2010, won the Copa América in 2011 and have become one of the finest teams in South America over the last decade. The 70-year-old has been in charge for 12 years – a mammoth 149 matches, and has been pivotal to the revival of Uruguayan football.
There has also been an improvement in the domestic league as the likes of Defensor Sporting and Montevideo Wanderers have risen to challenge the eternal dominance of Nacional and Peñarol. Now, with the positivity coming from various aspects and a squad that is improving in terms of quality, they are well-equipped to go far in the World Cup and pay a fitting tribute to coach Óscar Tabárez, who is possibly taking charge of his last international tournament as head coach of the national team.
The two-time World Cup winners needed a major revamp following a disastrous phase early in the century. They’ve improved significantly in recent years and the national team has had an influx of quality young players as well, thus bearing fruit for the national team. The domestic league has also had a continuous rise in interest, and that isn’t just from a domestic perspective. Their growth was also evident in the summer of 2017, as the U20 side finished fourth during their World Cup after an impressive showing throughout the tournament.
Uruguay qualified for the World Cup having finished behind a resurgent Brazil in second in the CONMEBOL qualifiers. Unlike other frontrunners such as Brazil and Argentina, Uruguay started strongly, fending off challenges from the troublesome Colombia and Peru at home, while also overcoming Bolivia away from home. The gruelling qualification process got to them after the 10th match, where they started struggling and even suffered emphatic defeats to Chile away from home (3-1), and to Brazil at home (4-1).
In the end, however, they took advantage of their strong start as well as the struggles of their other challengers to qualify as they lost none of their final three games, eventually confirming their tickets to Russia with a solid 4-2 win against Bolivia at home. Uruguay ended the campaign with 31 points from 18 matches, 10 behind first-placed Brazil and three ahead of third-placed Argentina, scoring 32 goals in the process – the second most in the competition, behind Brazil (41).
Óscar Tabárez is one of the most respected people in modern football. He played in Central and South America throughout his career and that pattern continued in his management career, except for a five-year spell between 1994 and 1999, where he took charge of Cagliari twice and small phases with AC Milan and Real Oviedo. In South America, he has been in Colombia and Argentina with sides like Deportivo Cali, Boca Juniors and Vélez Sarsfield. For his country however, he has been an everpresent figure. The likes of Danubio and Montevideo Wanderers had him at the helm, while he has had two spells each with the Uruguay U20s and Uruguay senior teams, who he has overseen for the last 12 years.
But the clubs he has been at or his achievements prior to taking on the national team role for a second time in 2006 is almost incomparable to the vision he has for his country – even long after he leaves his role and calls it a day. He has been planning for future generations ever since he took on the job, and after more than a decade, the results are showing. Nicknamed “El Maestro”, he has been influential in the new system in Uruguayan football, called “El Proceso”, which works with national teams starting from the U15 level right through to the U20s before their possible call-ups to the senior national team.
For a country that has a population of just under 3.5 million people as of 2016, the country’s greatest beneficiary and hope in football has been their indomitable commitment to the cause. Ever since Tabárez took charge, he has been making strides to make the process come to fruition, even going as far as frequently attending matches and training sessions of the U17 and U20 teams. What the process is teaching young players is the Uruguayan methods, the Uruguayan traditions that made the country such a dominant, recognised force in the sport, and that is done in order to avoid a problem that hinders so many countries – players leaving their home country for greener pastures, having not fully understood their country’s style.
This way, they learn the Uruguayan ways and keep it with them even if they are abroad, and this helps the national teams of all age groups. Tabárez spoke candidly about this to The Blizzard: “When we took over, several players from the Under-17 team were playing abroad or had just been sold to European clubs. We didn’t like it. Footballers cannot grow up alone and we believe it’s important not to interrupt the learning process. The U-15, U-17 and U-20 teams are vital in order to maintain the process. The key is to stimulate the feeling of being part of it and also to get them to know the history of our football, of La Celeste.”
When Tabárez took over in 2006, he decided that the 4-3-3 would be the ideal way to go for all national teams and he looked for speed in all aspects of the game: thought, technicality and movement were all eyed for, and that speed had to be combined with the desire for the shirt they represented. And while the latter has worked successfully, the formation changes haven’t gone to plan. The 4-3-3 was ditched after Tabárez’s first competitive international, a 3-0 defeat to Peru in the 2007 Copa America, and he has since reverted to his traditional, pragmatic approach.
Tabárez has been an infamous user of the traditional 4-4-2, and that conventionality has worked wonders for the country in recent years. Tabárez’s version of the 4-4-2 is based on the most common traits that made this formation so successful overtime, albeit with a slight tweak. The two midfielders in the middle are hard-hitting forces that make them such a difficult side to break down. Over the years, those two spots have been occupied by players like Arévalo Ríos, Walter Gargano, Diego Pérez and Álvaro González but with the former generation well past their best, the country isn’t lacking in the area currently. The likes of Federico Valverde, Nahitan Nández and the uncapped Lucas Torreira could occupy that role with ease.
The team is built and powered by their resilience. For major international tournaments, they have proven to be a tough side to break down, and that solidity starts from the back, which Óscar Tabárez relies on heavily. In 2018, Uruguay will be able to field their most solid pairing at the back in the form of José Giménez and Diego Godín, teammates at Atlético Madrid. The former is an up-and-coming star touted for great things in the future who is still at 22, while the latter is a Uruguayan legend who has been one of the best centre-halves of this decade. They are the essence of Tabárez’s no-nonsense style, and that continues in the team’s depth.
Tabárez has often shown his willingness to mix things up in crucial games as well. In the last World Cup Uruguay constantly switched between a 4-4-2, 5-3-1-1 and a 4-3-1-2, as Tabárez would aim to hit the opposition where it would hurt most. This was also evident in their World Cup qualifiers as well, although that has been exposed frequently as well – as seen in their 4-1 home thrashing by Brazil (although it must be noted that they were missing a few key players) and a few other instances where they were often nullified.
Tabárez aims to set his teams up based on the opposition’s weaknesses, and strike at the key time. He implements solidity at the back and rigidity in midfield with astute man-marking being a key visible trait of his tactics. However, with the starring line-up in attack, his most lethal weapon is the counter-attacking style that he can play, much to the pleasure of the audiences. Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez lead the line for Uruguay, and the team adheres to their quality. Tabárez likes to make use of his full-backs and attack the opposition with speed. And with the lethality they possess in attack, this style will be prominent at the World Cup next summer.
Most of the attention will be taken by the two superstars up top – Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez, and rightly so. These two have been synonymous on scoresheets in recent years and have the experience to help Uruguay go far in the tournament. The Barcelona man has represented his nation 95 times, scoring 49 and the Paris Saint-Germain player has 98 caps, scoring 40 – both exceptional records. The two also scored a combined 15 goals in the qualifying stages – Cavani with 10, the top scorer, and Suárez with five.
But what statistic is most pleasing to the Uruguayan faithful will be their record since the last World Cup. While Suárez has slowed down for Barcelona in recent months, Cavani has been in the form of his life since the departure of Zlatan Ibrahimović. Nevertheless, the two have 261 goals between them (at the time of writing) since August 2014 across all competitions and are arguably, the best forward duo going to Russia next summer.
Other than that, the team consists of a lot of players that have gone through “El Proceso” since 2006. This is likely to be the youngest team taken to a major international tournament in this decade by Uruguay, and if the team does well, there will be no shortage of interest in their players. Since 2010, the average age of the side taken to each major international tournament (2010, 2014 World Cups and 2011, 2015, 2016 Copa América) has fluctuated – rising between 2010 and 2014, before decreasing again following a revamp of the squad after their underwhelming World Cup campaign in Brazil.
|2010 FIFA World Cup (third-place)||26.7|
|2011 Copa América (winners)||27.04|
|2014 FIFA World Cup (round of 16)||28.08|
|2015 Copa América (quarter-finals)||27.13|
|2016 Copa América Centenario (group stages)||26.82|
In 2018, however, there could be an abundance of players under the age of 25. The midfield, Tabárez’s most prized area on the field has seen a rise in exciting talent. In Serie A, there is the availability of the brilliant Lucas Torreira of Sampdoria. The 21-year-old’s rise has been immaculate over the last year, and it is surprising that he hasn’t been capped by the senior national team yet. A player that can play in central and/or defensive midfield and is equally as good on the ball as he is off it, Torreira has been one of Europe’s best midfielders this season, and his presence at the World Cup should be enlightening.
Lucas Torreira’s first half of the Serie A season by numbers:
Pass success (%): 85
Dribble success (%): 85
Was fouled: 53
Successful tackles: 44
The complete central midfielder, at just 21.
— Warriors of Uruguay (@UruguayanHeroes) December 29, 2017
Tabárez’s other options in midfield are Boca Juniors’ Nahitan Nández, Juventus’ Rodrigo Bentancur and Inter’s Matias Vecino. The three possess different skillsets, but will be equally as vital to Uruguay’s hopes. Nández brings the power in midfield, the raw, brute force that has been synonymous with Uruguayan midfielders over the last decade, and he has become a favourite of Tabárez’s in recent months.
Rodrigo Bentancur, 20, predominantly plays a little higher up the pitch and is almost like a midfield target man, using his height and strength well. But not only does he bring physicality, he’s also great on the ball and is an equally competent dribbler, which also makes him an asset in the wider roles. Matias Vecino has been a mainstay in the Inter first team this season and it’s easy to see why. The controller in midfield and an excellent passer, he can open play up and will be of great help coordinate this brilliant Uruguay side. Only two of these four can start in their primary roles, and they have stiff competition.
The success of Uruguay’s U20 side has opened spots to several players to make it to the first team, and one of those is the exciting Federico Valverde. The 19-year-old won the Silver Ball in the U20 World Cup and his talents are well evident. A player with similar traits to Toni Kroos, he is an excellent passer with a fine range who is able to open up play with ease and control matches with his nimble feet. Currently at Deportivo, on loan from Real Madrid, he is certain to have a huge future, having already been with the Uruguayan senior team, and the World Cup will only boost his fine profile.
There’s also a whole host of other graduates from the U20 team that could be on the World Cup roster. In goal there is Santiago Mele who was one of the best goalkeepers at the World Cup in South Korea. He is yet to earn a senior Uruguayan cap, and it seems unlikely that he will displace the first-choice Fernando Muslera, but there is no doubt about his quality and potential for the future. In front of him stood the immovable Agustín Rogel, another centre-half with similar characteristics to his seniors – strong, committed and a fine tackler. Rogel too has never played for the senior side, but he has a better chance of making it to the team and will be an able deputy if called upon.
Apart from the U20 graduates, Uruguay have a strong supporting cast, and their qualities have been shown in the World Cup qualifiers as well as for their domestic club sides. The likes of Mauricio Lemos, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Jonathan Urretaviscaya and Maxi Gómez form an exciting, complete side and they could be one of the most interesting teams to watch at the World Cup. This squad is more than capable of going far in the tournament and springing a few surprises on the way, and this could be the first success for the graduates of El Proceso.
Uruguay have been given a favourable group stage draw and should make it through to the second round comfortably. Paired in Group A alongside hosts Russia, Africa’s Egypt and Asia’s Saudi Arabia, they are favourites to top the group and win all three of their matches. The first complex hurdle will come in the Round of 16 if they make it there, where they will face the winner or runner-up of Group B, which raises the possibility of coming up against either Spain or Portugal, who are favourites to qualify from their group.
Even then, they have enough in them to overcome that stern challenge. The last eight wouldn’t be a surprise and Óscar Tabárez’s compelling style of management can pull them through. They have done some emphatic planning, and the results have shown at the U20 World Cup, however, a fine display at the senior World Cup would enhance Tabárez’s legacy as one of the game’s greats and this Uruguay team could be well-equipped to succeed in the foreseeable future.