At this summer’s Copa América, the usual dark horses Uruguay will be looking to amend their performance at the last tournament by going all the way. This is likely to be Uruguay’s last chance at a trophy at a major tournament for some time, with their golden generation ageing and starting to leave their prime years. Suárez, Cavani, and Godín are all in their 30’s, and so despite enjoying international success including their Copa América win in 2011, they will be looking to end on a high. Uruguay have a very clear style of play, which has been implemented and changed rarely over veteran coach’s Óscar Tabárez’s reign in charge. In this tactical preview, I’ll look at this style of play using tactical analysis and explain how if Uruguay can play to their maximum and live up to their standards, they have a good chance of going far in the tournament.
Goalkeepers: Martin Campana (Independiente), Fernando Muslera (Galatasaray), Martin Silva (Libertad)
Defenders: Martin Caceres (Juventus), Sebastian Coates (Sporting CP), Jose Gimenez (Atletico Madrid), Diego Godin (Atletico Madrid), Marcelo Saracchi (RB Leipzig), Giovanni Gonzalez (Penarol)
Midfielders: Giorgian de Arrascaeta (Flamengo), Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus), Diego Laxalt (AC Milan), Nicolas Lodeiro (Seattle Sounders), Nahitan Nandez (Boca Juniors), Gaston Pereiro (PSV), Lucas Torreira (Arsenal), Federico Valverde (Real Madrid), Matias Vecino (Inter)
Forwards: Edinson Cavani (Paris Saint-Germain), Maxi Gomez (Celta Vigo), Jonathan Rodriguez (Cruz Azul), Cristhian Stuani (Girona), Luis Suarez (Barcelona)
There is never really any surprises in Uruguay’s squad selection, and their team selection differs very little from game to game. The only selection dilemmas which Tabárez may face would be who to start in midfield. They possess central midfielders with very similar traits (Torreira, Bentancur, Vecino and Nández), in that they are all defensively solid, able to tackle and have good defensive positioning, but lack much craft or creativity. This of course affects their style of play as Uruguay, therefore, don’t rely on their midfield to create chances, as I will come onto.
Defensive style of play
Uruguay‘s main strength is their defensive organisation. They are compact and narrow, focusing more on how they can stop the opposition scoring rather than how they themselves can score. We can see a typical example of Uruguay’s shape below in a friendly against Brazil, where they defended in a 4-1-4-1 with Lucas Torreira in a deeper defensive midfield role. They are very compact, with small spaces between players, and protect the middle of the pitch well as they are happy for crosses to be played in thanks to the defensive quality of their centre back pairing.
We can see how narrow they are again below, with Bernardo Silva being crowded by three Uruguay players in the middle and the very narrow compact back four behind.
They also defend aggressively in their own half thanks to the sheer number of bodies they get behind the ball. When set in their 4-1-4-1, teams have some space to receive passes in front of Uruguay, which can lead to penetrative passes being played. Of course, you can’t defend in football by remaining as a static group of players, and so Uruguay have found an easy way to incorporate an aggressive style of defending into their deep block. 4-1-4-1 is a perfectly solid shape to be in when the opposition is attacking, but in order to prevent the opposition being given too much time to penetrate the deep block, individual players from Uruguay’s midfield block will press the opposition. The defensive midfielder, most often Torreira, steps up to become part of a flat midfield, which leaves Uruguay in a 4-4-1-1 shape, which is still very compact.
We can see an example of this below, again in their game against Brazil. Torreira has stepped up to from a flat four in midfield, while another central midfielder presses the ball aggressively, preventing Brazil being given much time on the ball.
The role of Cavani
Edinson Cavani has an interesting role in Uruguay’s setup. Much of what they do offensively and defensively relies on Cavani’s movement and work rate, and so when he isn’t available, such as in their World Cup quarter final against France, they struggle.
As you may have noticed from the images above, Cavani takes up the role of a winger in defensive situations. This involves Cavani tirelessly working from a forward position, back to the wing in order to get back into a position to defend the opposition’s full back, or in the case below, winger. Without this work from Cavani, Uruguay end up in a 4-4-2, which doesn’t allow them to get out and press any opposition players, meaning holes in the block can start to be picked.
So as hard as the work going backwards is, Cavani must also move from his wing position into a central striker position quickly, in order to support the isolated Luis Suárez. Suárez can hold up the play well for Cavani, but their success comes from Cavani’s ability to combine with Suarez by running from his defensive position to his offensive one.
We can see a perfect example of this below, where Cavani bombs forward from his defensive wing position to help Suarez, who holds the ball up to delay and allow Cavani to make the run forward quickly enough.
Using analysis, we can see below again, a situation which led to a goal, where a deeper positioned Cavani combines with Suárez through a long pass and then makes a direct run into the box, which is met by an excellent cross from Suárez and results in a goal. Uruguay seem to find ways in games to create moments with these two players while remaining solid at the back and committing very few players forward.
Of course then, their offensive style of play is limited, as they rely solely on these combinations to create chances. Against lesser quality sides, Uruguay should be able to get away with playing a flat 4-4-2, which would allow Cavani and Suárez to better link up and would also limit the stress on Cavani’s legs.
So, how can you beat them?
If a team is so defensively organised, and can create situations in transition, how can they be stopped? Playing Uruguay at their own game in a deep block has been a strategy of sides in the past, most notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia at the World Cup, but Uruguay’s set piece ability and quality of their forwards saw them through in those games.
As I mentioned earlier, Uruguay without Cavani are a much weaker side defensively. Therefore, teams have to find a way to remove him from their defensive structure. The way to do this is in transitions- attacks against Uruguay in transition have to be quick and purposeful, otherwise the deep block becomes structured again.
For the example below, Brazil were too slow in finding the full back, who is in space while Cavani is not yet fully set. Full backs against Uruguay have to be quick in transition, and it is vital that their run forward is faster than the run made back by Cavani so that a 2v1 can be made against Uruguay’s full back.
Uruguay are quite aware of this threat to them, and so use their aggressive players to counter press at times and foul if necessary to stop the counter attack.
As a result of their style of play, any game involving Uruguay is unlikely to involve lots of goals. They are a difficult side to beat, and a nightmare to play against with great organisation and aggressive players. Uruguay always seem to perform better against offensive teams where they can sit back and counter, as opposed to games where Uruguay have to be the offensive side. They won’t mind this however if they are played at their own game as they will likely remain solid, and look to find one goal, which is often enough for them. They are a mentality driven side who any side will want to avoid in the competition, and they can still certainly be considered the dark horse in this year’s Copa América.