A swansong for some, an emergence for others. The past and the future merge to meet here in the present. Are Uruguay destined to leave a further mark on the biggest competition in all of sport? A mixed sense of expectation and entelechy unites the nation in what could be a historic world cup in more ways than one.
A Uruguayan saying, only partially frivolous, goes: “whilst other countries have their history, the nation has its football”. The most notable impacts on the collective consciousness have been a result of their footballing accomplishments. More than doubly achieved that of any other country of similar size, populated at just 3.5 million, precariously sandwiched in between the Mammoth of Argentina (41 million) and the Giant of Brazil (200 million), has always had to scrap for recognition.
Their neighbours are just too big and too close. Uruguay channelled its sense of inferiority by embodying themselves as the perennial underdog that could rise above. In the early 20th century, Uruguay transformed itself into a modern, social democracy, ahead of any of the other republics of Latin American. This gave it an exaggerated sense of self, a belief that Uruguay could pull off the win-against-all-odds moniker.
Just like they’d prove by winning the first ever world cup from being behind at half time v Argentina. Then so again versus Brazil, their 2 triumphs to date, where they encapsulated their national identity- Garra Charrúa - “Claw of the Charrúa”, which portrays tenacity and courage in the face of hardship, about being resourceful and daring, to never give up. This is not to mention their exceptional record of achieving 15 Copa Américas, a record jointly held with Argentina. Which they they have won all eight instalments of when it has been held in their own backyard. When you're at their home soil, thou shall not pass.
Long before the footballing triumphs there were the native Charrúas, indigenous folk who inhabited the land before the conquistadors came calling. With cases of poverty, trauma and childhood heartbreak littered throughout the squad, they themselves had something to fight for or through. Albeit of a different nature, hardships are not bound by time, heretofore, at least.
Take Bentanctur, his Mother passing away at age 30, when he was merely 4. Or Agustín Canobbio, suffering a double leg break at the age of 22 after missing out on multiple age groups of argentine youth teams because he was a late grower, seemingly always behind physically albeit talented with a football but now a full international. Vecino's dad passing away due to a car accident at 14. Mathías Olivera, parents 16 and 17, lost in their ignorance of how to parent or raise a child, blindly followed Olivera’s dream at the age of 4 of becoming a footballer, he found a fruitful path in withstanding the expectation and pressures that came with the situation, parental job also: Well done.
This current group entering Arab shores in search for the golden globe-held trophy seems to have a little of that Charrua in them themselves.
After 15 years at the helm, Oscar Tabarez’s boastful cycle (which has him the current record holder for most manager caps for 1 nation), went curtains last November, with 4 defeats on the spin, leaving them unexpected to qualify for Qatar. Enter El Maestro’s replacement, Diego Alonso, Beckham’s first ever manager as a chairman, the winner of 2 CONCACEF champions leagues, with 2 teams from Mexico in the space of 3 years.
An unenviable task to replace a legend stood before him. Alonso has brought new ideas and introduced 5 fresh faces that culminated in Uruguay winning their final four games to seal an unlikely qualification. including crunch victories over Peru and Chile in the last two matches – For Uruguay, change is seemingly good.
Alonso is a great motivator and knows how to convey his ideas to the players. He is not afraid to give youngsters a chance, such as Facundo Pellistri, who in the main came off the bench when at Alavés. “He once came to my house and chatted for an hour,” Valverde said recently, “and when he left I was feeling like a tiger, ready to take on anyone.”
A former player who knew all along that coaching was his calling, containing the urge for 10 years whilst kicking ball only to take a managerial role at his first playing club, 2 months after retiring as a player. He likes his team to be in charge of games, pressing opponents hard and wanting the lion’s share of possession. Even though he has his preferred systems (4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3) he channels a certain Bruce Lee in that he’s not an ideologue, thus looks to be fluid in his set ups as winning is his aim. This has seen him go with 4-4-2s with speed and energy on the flanks, 4-2-2-2s, 352s in the past for both club and country.
Seeing as this is likely to be the old guards’ last tournament in Godin, Cavani, Suarez etc, it’s beneficial he has a penchant for not being afraid to throw youngsters into the mix. He has gentrified this team. “The players and I want to become world champions,” he said in May, causing great expectation among fans. “We want to go there to win. And if you want to win, you have to prepare to win. We are a team that has a lot of hope. We believe in ourselves. I believe a lot in these footballers and I believe Uruguay is going to win the World Cup.”.
Fighting words, from a fighting man from a fighting Nation.
Even though the 9 games in charge has seen Alonso use 6 formations, only on one of those occasions was it not a back 4, which came v USA in a makeshift 352 (which we are highly unlikely to see in the finals). Uruguay were wedded to a 4-4-2 system under his predecessor Tabárez but have dabbled under Alonso with adding an extra mid. Two solid banks of four both gives Uruguay the tactical solidity they are known for, while at the same time being able to accommodate two strikers. Uruguay are an unknown quantity but Diego Alonso has a good mix of youth and experience in the squad.
There are big question marks regarding the defence with the fitness of Araujo, Giménez and Godin unclear. The Uruguayans play very narrowly and entice their opponents to play the ball out wide. Albeit a stellar record of 2 goals conceded in 9 games since the new man at the helm took to his duties, they’ve had 6 different partnerships at CB. As we’ll see throughout the preview, change has been a common theme, whether by design or forced upon ala the defence. On this part of the pitch, however, stability is something all teams look for; with Araujo out until possibly the knockout stages, Uruguay will have to rely on the stalwarts to come up trumps in the backline in what could be tightest contested group in the tournament.
Exposed against Pace?...
Although, there is a lack of pace amongst the CBs, it’s not necessarily down to the age of the players concerned; Godin and co were never known for their turn of foot. Uruguay’s directness in possession means they do not keep the ball well and have to defend a lot, with issues particularly when defending counter-attacks. The World Cup’s chief gatekeepers could be about to encounter significant barriers of their own in the form of Kudus and Iñaki Williams for Ghana, Son Heung-min for South Korea, and Rafael Leão + João Félix for Portugal, all having pace to burn. As stated before, I would not be surprised to see them improve against counters-by preventing them in the first place via keeping possession better.
Masters Of The Dark Arts...
Scotland striker Graeme sharp once recalled “they were spitting on the back of your head, pulling hair, putting their fingers where they shouldn’t”. With VAR having come into play, will Uruguay be a tad cuter with their subterfuge than the days of Hector Castro clobbering opponents with his amputated arm stump whilst the ref was not looking? One that Argentina's goalkeeper Juan Botasso will know oh so well about from the final, getting clobbered in the thigh during a tussle, injuring his leg in the process. No stumps on sight but almost 2 dozen stamping limbs will be available at La Celeste's disposal.
The Forgotten Man...
Sebastián Cáceres can consider himself unfortunate to have not made the cut but Coates has had a solid champions league campaign with Sporting and seemed to find his authentic self compared to the apparent execrable bungler that heretically donned the all red kit at Anfield.
Uruguay rank highly for interceptions but this is mainly in the press. Aggressively, with 2 cutting off passing lanes and a forward pressing man on ball. If this is unsuccessful, they drop off into a 532 with one of the wide men dropping into the widest position of the last line and the other wide man coming more central to create a midfield 3. Regardless of who is picked at the back, it is unlikely that they’ll leave much space in behind, which is a miserly thought for the opposition.
Expect to see... Godin to be partnered with Gimenez and either at any point falling victim to their injury history, with further veterans Coates and underrated Martín Cáceres waiting in the wings if they are called upon. Olivera to start at left back, Varela to deputise at right back until Araujo is deemed fit enough to return. Rochet to be an ever present heir to the eccentric veteran Muslera.
The CM duo of Egidio Arevalo and Diego Perez that started the victorious 2011 Copa America final versus Paraguay personified grit and determination. At their behest was not Flair or adventure. It’s no surprise that from almost 180 caps combined, only 2 goals were scored between them (both Perez’s).. The pairs’ raison d’être was simple: win the ball and pass it to the more talented team mates in front of them. The new boys can output those tasks, and so much more.
The Action Man...
A polyvalent midfielder in the mould of Steven Gerrard, who Real Madrid once courted but never attained, have received delayed gratification in the form of a somewhat modified doppleganger, in name of Federico Valverde. Arguably the stand out midfielder in world football this current season, his constant undulated bravura borders on claircognizance. From dragging his team through the mud to higher ground, to adding the cherry on top of complete team performance and everything in between, it seems like there’s nothing beyond his grasp.
Whether intentionally or unintentionally but always purposefully, his actions lead to wins (take the cross/shot(?) v Liverpool in the champions league final). Valverde has yet to lead an outright underdog as a star man to heightened glory, if he achieves this then world class status is a foregone conclusion and generational and upwards of that title will need to be landscapes he’s spoken about. Valverde’s six La Liga goals have come off an xG of just 1.3, it seems unrealistic to maintain but how he’d like to for just another month.
Despite not registering a single competitive goal domestically and in Europe last season, his manager at Real Madrid, Carlo Ancelotti, admitted to telling Valverde that he will tear up his coaching license if the Uruguayan didn’t score ten goals in the current season. Lo and behold and Valverde already has 8 goals to his name in the 22-23 campaign.
Bentancur Has Been A Rare Standout For Spurs...
While this will be Valverde’s first World Cup, the 21-year-old Bentancur started all the Uruguay’s matches in 2018. Since then, Bentancur’s position and style of play have adapted/evolved from a raw box-to-box and AM to a more conservative albeit creative role in the centre of the park. In 31 Prem games for Tottenham, he’s supplied 6 assists despite the deep role he is deployed at alongside midfield partner Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. This current season his play would be that of a hard-working midfielder who wins possession and finds his team-mates with short, accurate passes.
Bentancur was the second-most booked South American player in World Cup qualifying, attaining 6 yellow cards in 16 appearances. His 30 fouls were the fourth-most on the continent, but matched his number of interceptions. He doesn’t give the vibe of getting sent off and can still be useful defensively, albeit slightly restricted mentally. There is a debate whether they’ll play as a duo or a trio as there has been evidence of both being plausible options. If so it is most likely to be between 3- Torreira, Vecino and Ugarte. Most likely 1 of the former 2.
Best Of The Rest...
For cliff notes- Ugarte is the most mobile, best dribbler, and highest output, whilst having the highest ceiling. His defensive stats are in the top 1% of midfielders amongst the top 5 European leagues to further add to Uruguay's already impressive list of ball pressing individuals. His disciplinary record, age, lack of experience at international level, along with a lack of goal threat that Vecino brings (0.23 goals from an expected 0.24 per game) means he’s unlikely to feature from the get-go.
Vecino brings a goal threat and also aerially by far the most potent. But with Uruguay already being quite a tall team this shouldn’t be a deal breaker. Whilst seemingly not being able to complete 2 full games a week and being on the wrong side of 30, he does bring experience that is lacking elsewhere in the centre of the park. What is worrying is that not much defensive work is done in his own third compared compared to the other 2, possibly putting too many eggs in one basket; if they were to be played through, the inexistence of a screener ahead of the ageing backline could prove fatal.
Torreira is the best passer and brings the most balance. Perfusing any creaky crevice with a touch of safety shielding. Uruguay have more depth in central areas than they do out wide, thus maybe saving penetrative wide men for later in games in the heat to ensure midfield solidity might be a safer bet to not leave the backline in potential destitute.
Style Of Play...
Pivots for goal kicks are also used. Normally one of bentancur or valverde would drop in to make a 3 or a diamond if on is slightly ahead of the ephemeral 3. This was done v Canada to overload their pressing front 2. Also, dropping temporarily into a three gives one of the wide CBs peace of mind to foray some distance forward/progress play via a carry which commits a opposition mid usually, all mean whilst the nearside full back goes wide and somewhat between the dropping deep ST and the CB to create another triangle and eventually third man run.
Upon retrieving the ball, they often play a few short passes until the attacker has readjusted his position from the positive turnover to become a viable threat in behind, this suggests that they could very easily play more passes if need be. Backed further by Valverde’s link up play volume and ball retention numbers being in the top 8% and 7% in Europe, respectively + the plentiful emergence of technical company such as Ugarte and having Torreira seemingly now more settled at club level and Bentancur blossoming at Spurs.
Generally Uruguay will keep being direct but are ready to abort and switch to more possession as soon/if it doesn't work. With a possession average of 49% in 2022, this may be a metric they’ll want to see progress in the World Cup, knowing that the opposition will be more threatening than the majority of teams faced in the qualifier
Expect… Bentancur and Valverde to start and do not be surprised if in one of Torreira or Vecino are sandwiched between the young pair to make it a 3, pushing Valverde into a wider box to box role. Ugarte to potentially breakthrough as a name coming from this tournament if Alonso is bold enough to include him.
Lack of Natural Width...
The most up for grabs spots on paper are the flanks. They too aren’t anything to shout home about but Uruguay tend to play more false wingers in a 4-2-2-2 and rely on decoy overlaps from the energetic full backs for width, who don’t go unattended seeing as all 4 full back options (2 from each side, stays as 2 if you include Araujo as the third RB-no bueno) are all adept to crossing well.
As the great saying goes ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’, the ‘false wide men’ for Uruguay still occupy chalk on boots positions, and with Nunez having played LW for Liverpool of late, both flanks are trodden on aplenty and are solid if not unspectacular. That, together with Alonso’s no way/formless/flowing water approach, I don’t foresee this as too much of an issue. He’s managed to overload the flanks with the aid of his fullbacks at his previous clubs, and at his nation they do have natural fullbacks.
Can The Full Backs Provide The Solution...
Napoli manager Spalletti recently was quoted saying: “Systems no longer exist in football, it’s all about the spaces left by the opposition. You must be quick to spot them and know the right moment to strike, have the courage to start the move even when pressed.". Something the effervescent Khvicha Kvaratskhelia and his Uruguayan club team mate at Napoli, Matias Olivera know all too well.
One of the best performing left backs in European football, Olivera is a complete full back: being top 1% in top 5 leagues amongst full backs for: aerials won, top 2% for blocks, 13% for tackles, 14% for shot creating actions, 3% for tackles in midfield, can play with freedom knowing that the Roma Matias Vina is in reserve to do an ably job if called upon. The white lines will be trampled aplenty if the game state calls for it. Which may be needed seeing as Olivera tends to play every other game at Napoli, rotation with Rui being constant.
It is also worth noting that with Araujo injured, Varela will most likely start at right back. He is a much more attacking player than the Barcelona man and will mirror Olivera in that he will hug the touchline and look to get forward, thus providing Uruguay with an asset that will stretch the game for them. Tactically he is arguably a better fit for this Uruguay side in possession but this is offset by his defensive frailties.
Facundo Torres, a Pulisic/Lingard hybrid that arsenal have been interested in as back up to their dynamic wing duo offers decent but not express pace, dribbling, not much in the way of physicality but solid range of shooting techniques from close range and distance and is the only left footer out of the none defenders. .
Expect... Pellistri to get game time off the bench and eventually have a larger part to play. As for the rest it's anyone's guess. Using the law of reduction it'd seem Canobbio is least likely to start- a young player with a good engine and respectable speed, dribbling and passing. A faster but less slightly less industrious RW Dirk Kuyt. De La Cruz and De Arrascaeta to battle it out on the left. Whilst Valverde will probably have a role on the right flank but with plenty of freedom to roam.
There’re an inscrutable duo who are most likely going to battle it out for the inverted wide spot on the left side. Giorgian de Arrascaeta, winner of 3 of the last 4 Bola de Pratas (award for best player in the Brazilian top league), is arguably at the peak of his powers. Once stated in high accord by Filipe Luis - that the playmaker would not look out of place in any of the big three in Spain. Imagine a hybrid of Bruno Guimaraes and a roided Benrahma. The 28-year-old is an inventive dribbler and playmaker with vision and pace. He can play centrally as a No 10 or in off the left.
Unlike the contestant, Nicolás de la Cruz, who in 2019 Pep Guardiola wanted at Manchester City and there was interest from Manchester United last year but a move did not materialise. Compared to GDA he is better in space, in the press and shooting from range with either foot. He prefers to play deeper, and is marginally weaker on GDA’s strong points. So there’s not much to divide them as the splendiferousness exudes from the veins of both.
In addition to these inverted wingers, Valverde can often create when operating from a central role and with the introduction of Nunez, it is often Suarez who drops off into the number 10 spot and looks to be the main link man or central creator to feed in Nunez.
Expect… Arrascaeta to be the main source of creativity coming off the flank but if he is on the bench, Suarez will be the main central creative threat ably assisted by likes of De La Cruz and Valverde..
The Main Men...
The 1950 winning captain, Obdulio Varela saw a copy of Brazilian newspaper O Mundo who titled ahead of their World Cup final “here are the world champions”, claiming Brazil would have no difficulties in winning the 1950 world cup. Then, in the team’s hotel lobby, he brought up every displayed copy and laid them out on the bathroom floor before inviting his teammates to empty their bladders all over the papers. The victimisation, stoked the Uruguayan fires. Be not surprised to see that same pugnaciousness when Luis Suarez meets his antagonists in his adversary’s penalty box, although with this being his likely denouement of his La Celeste story. Expect the bark to be accompanied with the ever present bite.
When one speaks of variety being the spice of life, that very much rings true when it comes Uruguay’s plethora of methods in the opposition’s penalty area – from cunning, penalty baiting dribbles of Suarez, to Nunez’s chimerical frame being a macabre sight for defenders, a phantasmagorical nightmare. A miasma of fear is induced when a ball is hurled in to the presence of Cavani slinging himself to it as if he were Tarzan, even at this stage of his career. To know whether these options provide a cathartic release or a major headache for Alonso, only he knows but one thing is for sure – with the creativity of the wide men, the on and off ball surges of the CMs, defenders will be left scratching their heads as to how to fully nullify them.
Honing in on Nunez, for all the talk of his rawness, it sometimes helps him. Take the Tottenham game recently, he miscontrolled the ball during a dribble, it went behind him - yet due to the opponents not knowing what he’ll do, he gained an extra half yard of space in which he ate up the ground on a cut in and got a shot off. Furthemore Nunez ranks in the top 1% for shot volume and with regards to xg from ball progression, top 2% for both xg from shot creation and top 4% for touches in box. With high ball retention and recoveries and interceptions to boot, he can both hold it off and play others in or be the main man himself
An unspoken alternative to the famed trio is Maxi Gomez, a hot headed striker in the mould of Mitrovic. The following stats should build a picture of a player who can do the dirty donkey work which Suarez and Cavani once upon a time could’ve done, but no more: Double the amount of offensive duels to Cavani at a similar success rate. Being in the top 15% when being compared to the forwards in the top 5 leagues for aerials won and clearances, top 1% for fouls that lead to shots (0.68 per 90), of which are high quality (top 3% for goals that lead from fouls-0.12 per 90). Passes blocked: top 5%, dribbled past: top 10% -Tackling 40% of the players who’ve attempted to dribble him, also top 8% for amount of times dispossessed (under 1 a game) and fouls drawn:top 10%- 2.28 per 90) . He could be the foil to bring the best out of Darwin Nunez.
Can They Play On A Rainy Night At The Brittana...
On a final note, given their abundance of 18 yard box attackers who can finish first time from deliveries -Suarez, Cavani, Nunez - it can’t make more sense than for Uruguay to utilise any opportunity to create angles to cross. Against Chile and Venezuela in the qualifiers and versus Canada, they scored from throw-ins. Typically this involved the thrower aiming to hurl it for a No 9, who would look to return the pass out wide, spin and attack the box. Their build up is rather direct and thus don’t keep the ball well.
Expect to see Suarez and Nunez to start up front, whether as a duo or as part of a trio in a 4-3-3. Having 2 young and 2 old players to choose from sounds like a balanced juggling act. Don’t expect both of the same ilk to start, expect 1 of each
No style all substance is what you would associate with a nation like Uruguay but truth be told, with a new generation of footballers breaking through in Aruajo, Valverde and Nunez - Uruguay prove again that they can produce warriors with an underrated amount of skill and audaciousness.
This team has a healthy blend of old heads and young legs. Tactically they are very versatile and it has been a nightmare trying to predict their first XI. That will make them difficult to prepare for and quite frankly on their day this rather underrated squad could give anyone a game despite their underwhelming results over the past few years (which were down to Uruguay undergoing a transitional period of trying to eradicate the reliance on the elderly).
Could they go all the way? In truth, it is not beyond them - this is a collective of players that could match the achievements of 2010 but it does seem unlikely - many of the youngsters are untested in World Cups, even someone like Valverde. A good run though is definitely within their grasp.
Verdict: Round of 16 (If they face a Brazil) but if win group could make a surprise run to Semis.