Uruguay are an extremely exciting prospect for Russia 2018, their disappointing results at the 2014 World Cup were largely put down to Tabarez clinging onto the old guard but that’s been amended this time round. In 2014 their squad consisted of just 1 player who was 23 or younger, Jose Giminez, a stark contrast to this campaign which sees no fewer than 5 in this category. There has been a clear attempt from Tabarez to rejuvenate the national squad and prepare the next generation of La Celeste. Tabarez has transformed this once faltering Uruguayan side into a team to be reckoned with, if you want to find out more about how he managed to do so then you can read about their revitalisation here.
Uruguay have been handed one of the friendlier groups facing Russia, Saudi Arabia and Egypt – none of whom should provide a real threat to the South Americans, so finishing top of the group should be a genuine and reasonable aim for them this year. I’m looking a bit too far in the future here, but a top place finish should see them take on Portugal in the round-of-16, who are certainly a beatable team, then (in theory should the favourites all perform as expected – unlikely I know) France in the quarters who haven’t always turned up for the big occasion so who knows how far Uruguay can go. Their gritty determination combined with the garra charrua spirit makes them a side that no one will want to face.
Uruguay generally set up in a fairly rigid 4-4-2 with the two central midfielders operating more as CDM’s with their focus generally being much more on their solidarity defensively than their attacking flair. The image above is a possible starting XI for Uruguay and in terms of the midfield duo, adds an element that had been missing from previous Uruguay teams and that is creativity. Uruguay have been known for their high work rate and gritty determination in midfield but it has usually lacked in the aforementioned area, this is where the current crop excel. The youthful nature of this double pivot of Bentancur and Torreira maintains their defensive excellence but whilst adding other dimensions which will be sure to aid them going forwards. If these two can create a strong relationship then they could remain the midfield for Uruguay for the next 10 years and will only improve the squad year after year.
This is obviously not a depiction of every attack that Uruguay attempt, but more so in sustained possession. The two strikers remain central and the wingers narrow to attempt to occupy the opposition defence in the half-space in order to allow the full-backs greater space to advance down the wings. It often falls to the two central midfielders to find the pass which is why starting both Torreira and Bentancur would be the strongest option as they both retain strong technical abilities. In addition to dropping the ball in behind the defence, the midfielders will look to passes into the feet of, usually, either Cavani or Suarez, who in turn attempt to flick the ball on for the other to, once again, get in behind the opposition defence. Whilst the full-backs do have permission to get forwards, they do so with minimal risk so they don’t get caught on the counter, but this will be delved into deeper later on. From watching their matches, the plays they attempt can be categorised as low percentage, but if successful, they create chances whereby there is a high percentage of scoring.
Cavani’s goal v. Wales best demonstrates the first method, all four Welsh defenders are being occupied fairly high in their own half. The four attacking Uruguayans positions force the Welsh defence to push up creating the space in behind that La Celeste feed off of, this time it was Godin playing the long ball but occupying the central midfield role as Bentancur dropped deep to cover Godin. Suarez then has all the time in the world to square it to a free Cavani, thus creating the high percentage scoring opportunity.
Alternatively, somewhat, the flick-on approach was seen against Bolivia and also demonstrates the strength of having an advanced central playmaker which Uruguay are often missing. But once again the defenders are occupied in order to prevent covering runs, this goal more so demonstrated Uruguay’s strength on the counter as the transition from defence to attack was so swift as to not allow Bolivia to return to their positions.
Uruguay are also extremely effective from set pieces, creating roughly 18% of their chances from them, the second highest in the tournament, so if I were a betting man, I would certainly be putting some money of this market, or at least on a header to be scored (although I take no responsibility if you are foolish enough to listen to me).
As probably expected with their reputation, Uruguay defend with a low block and seek to congest the central areas in order to force the ball out wide knowing that they have the strength and height to deal with crosses into the box.
The full-backs sit narrower and the CMs drop deep defending the edge of the box, what is interesting in their defensive shape is they more so fit an asymmetrical 4-3-3. One of the wide players drops back centrally in order to further congest the centre of the pitch and make it harder for the opposition to penetrate this area. Against Wales we saw Rodriguez, the selected LM/LW player, dropping as deep as a LWB position in order to nullify the threat possessed by Bale, so this could be something that La Celeste look to reproduce against teams with strong wingers.
In general, Uruguay do not press aggressively as they attempt to maintain their defensive shape, they do have clear pressing triggers, however. These are generally when an opposition player receives the ball facing their own goal, especially when it is a player dropping deep. This is presumably as it is much harder for that individual to break the press with either a dribble or pass when they are not facing the defenders and gives the Uruguayan midfield the cue to aggressively press in an attempt to win the ball back.
A potentially minor point, but one that I enjoyed discovering, was the shape when the full-backs do attack. They look to maintain their defensive surety before marauding forwards, when they do find themselves in the final third, one of the CMs will generally look to fill the void left and thus still maintain the defensive line. However, this then only leaves one CM to break down opposition attacks, so, I imagine a few might be shouting “unsurprisingly”, they deploy a regime of tactical fouling to stop the counter. This isn’t anything revolutionary, just something that I found interesting and would expect to see a fair bit of during this year’s World Cup.
If there were to be one major criticism of the system deployed by Tabarez then it would be their lack of a natural number 10. The wingers generally remain wide to stretch the opposition defence or when narrow, they operate to occupy a man thus leaving the wings free for either full-back to maraud forward. Likewise, the two central midfielders don’t have much authority to make headway into the opposition half so on many occasions it leads to low percentage pass attempts in order to create a chance. This is why I would like to maybe see Arracaeta starting in one of the wide positions, especially against the teams where Uruguay are likely to maintain the higher possession. Being a natural attacking midfielder, although deployed on the wing, Arracaeta has a tendency to roam central and almost create a sort of “false 10” as seen against Peru in qualifying.
As can be seen, Arracaeta’s central drifting gave Uruguay a creative outlet centrally that would otherwise not have been available. His influence could be even more significant against teams that deploy low blocks as Uruguay’s setup is generally focused on counter attacking with long balls and flick-ons so the need for a number 10 is not all that high. However, when facing low block teams, Uruguay can sometimes appear to be out of ideas and revert to a Moyesesque United and just cross the ball in hoping for success. Don’t get me wrong, I am majorly exaggerating and there is a clear plan when facing deep defences, but it just feels as if Uruguay could better utilise their assets, they would still have the wide support with the full-backs to stretch the defence but having a central advanced playmaker, especially against the likes of Saudi Arabia and Egypt, would, in theory, result in higher quality chances.
I say all this as more a personal preference rather than a necessity, even against teams that Uruguay enjoy the majority of possession, they still only average around 55%, so there are clearly still opportunities for their counter-attacking system to work. A central advanced option would more so allow La Celeste to hold onto and recycle the ball higher up the pitch and look for a better opening rather than attempt a low percentage play.
Teams with good dribblers could cause Uruguay problems as they can become forced to lose shape in order to press the man on the ball, which in turn can open up gaps in their defence and also lead to potential overloads as seen against Brazil in the qualifying rounds.
Overall, fans of La Celeste have a lot to be excited about in Russia as they appear to have learnt from their mistakes in Brazil and added the missing elements. This World Cup could be seen as a potential end of an era, with their stars Cavani, Suarez and Godin likely making their final World Cup outing, and it could even be the final for manager Tabarez, hopefully they can provide for the most fitting of send offs.
Other articles that you may enjoy:
- Oscar Tabarez – The Maestro Behind Uruguay’s Success
- Who Gareth Southgate Should Have Taken To Russia – England Squads 2018
- World Cup 2018: Rough Guide to Croatia National Team
- Auditing the Beautiful Game
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