So great. We went further than Argentina, could laugh at Chile for not even being in Russia and broke some records along the way. To classify that as success would mean acknowledging ourselves as a second-grade national team, something Uruguayans would be offended by if foreigners said so about La Celeste. The irony, however, is that those same people are now celebrating the “fifth place”, as if there is such thing at a World Cup, and tweeting with proudness that we were the best South American country in Russia.
Don’t get me wrong, I do feel extremely proud about the effort of the players, who once again fought like warriors. The group stage was solid, although not impressive. There were signs of improvement in the performance when Lucas Torreira and Diego Laxalt – two of the revelations for Uruguay – came into the starting line-up for the last group game vs. Russia.
Uruguay finally switched to the 4-3-1-2 with Rodrigo Bentancur at the tip of the diamond and Lucas Torreira as the starting point in midfield. As a result, Uruguay started to show some better football, certainly compared to the first two games wherein Óscar Tabárez opted for his mother system, the 4-4-2. In those encounters, Uruguay narrowly secured two 1-0 wins vs. a Salah-less Egypt and Saudi Arabia thanks to goals from Josema Giménez and Luis Suárez.
Against Russia, Uruguay got two goals inside half an hour and from that point put their foot off the gas and eventually booked a 3-0 win over the hosts. Understandably, expectations were growing and up next were European champions, Portugal in the first knockout round of the World Cup.
In terms of intensity, team unity and attacking efficiency, Uruguay delivered a masterclass against Portugal. Did we dominate the game? No, but after grabbing the lead through a brilliant combination play between Suárez and Cavani in the 7th minute, Uruguay sat back, soaked up the pressure and defended on a world-class level with the whole team coming together as one. The only weak moment from Uruguay came just after halftime when the team switched off a bit at a corner kick. Pepe equalized for Portugal and a response was now expected from our boys.
It came from Edinson Cavani, who soon after the Portugal goal put Uruguay in the lead again with a wonderfully placed finish. Cavani finally grabbed the spotlights at a World Cup, but then something happened that proves life can be so cruel. El Matador, after 75 minutes of unbelievable work ethic, picked up an injury. Uruguay consolidated the lead and advanced to the quarterfinals wherein France would be the opponents.
Cavani could not make it and therefore Tabárez opted for Christian Stuani to pair up with Luis Suárez. Uruguay chose for a familiar game plan; plenty of men behind the ball to neutralize France’s attacking threats and gamble on a mistake from Les Bleus to capitalize on. The simple truth was that Uruguay could barely worry France’s backline. Suárez of two years ago could’ve taken on France’s defence on his own, but physically he has deteriorated. He needs a good partner who can create space, certainly against a team as strong as France.
Stuani, as good as he was for Girona in La Liga last campaign, was clearly overcome by the occasion. He was caught between doing his defensive duties and trying to contribute in attack. In the end, he was ineffective in both areas. France, although not playing great, won 2-0 through a header from a set piece and a howler from Muslera. Uruguay didn’t give away too much, but when the game plan is as negative as it was, the chances are that you lose eventually.
It’s absolutely fine to adopt a defensive style against a heavyweight like France, but to show close to no attacking intention is not good enough. And when you are 1-0 down with 30 minutes to go, bring on someone like Giorgian De Arrascaeta who can create some attacking danger, not Cebolla Rodríguez…
Losing to France is obviously not something to be ashamed of, however, as I said, the game plan was self-destructive. Tabárez had his best squad during his tenure but didn’t utilize it to its maximum potential.
Midfielders like Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Rodrigo Bentancur and Lucas Torreira can really play and give Uruguay quality in possession. After years of putting long balls to Suárez and Cavani, La Celeste now possess players in the middle who are capable of properly assisting the front two. The problem is, most of them were only introduced to the national team a few matches before the World Cup as Tabárez insisted with Arévalo Rios and Cebolla until deep into the World Cup qualifiers.
For the large part of the tournament, Tabárez kept the system which was suited to the last generation of midfielders who were more limited on the ball. This current one did a great job in this defensive shape, but will only really flourish in a more balanced one. The reality is that all of our midfielders play at clubs were more often than not they have possession and are on the attack. All of them have good to outstanding defensive qualities, but their abilities in possession are what our national team need to take a step forward.
All managers have their own ideology and that’s fine. It always is said that no player is bigger than a club when, for example, someone tries to force a move away. In some capacity, this applies to managers as well. When you are in charge of a national team you can’t buy players who fit your system so you have to play the system that best fits the players. Óscar Tabárez didn’t succeed in that department this World Cup and has therefore missed an opportunity for glory.
Uruguay had the best centre-back and centre-forward pairing in the competition, combined with extremely talented upcoming players. Players like Godín, Cavani and Suárez don’t come along frequently and especially not in the same generation. An injury to Cavani didn’t help, but matters like that shouldn’t always be an excuse as to why Uruguay didn’t challenge for the title.
Looking forward, the big question is if El Maestro stays. The facts about his tenure are that the first five years were successful with the 2010 World Cup and 2011 Copa América win as the highlights. Afterwards, Uruguay highest achievement at a major international tournament was reaching the quarterfinals, which happened once. That’s simply not good enough.
If it was any other manager in charge, it would be highly likely that he would be fired by now. This is Tabárez, though, the man who has done wonders for Uruguay and raised the country’s national pride out of the shit and I will always love him for it.
Everything has an end, however, and at 71-years-of-age, Tabárez should ask himself the question if he can move this team forward. It’s really hard for managers who have committed themselves to a team for so long to objectively judge for themselves if they are still the man for the job. We saw it with Arsene Wenger at Arsenal. The board and (ex-)players remained firmly behind him as he is a semi-god in their eyes.
The fans, however, slowly started to turn on Wenger as their club started to drift away from where they feel Arsenal belongs. A minority became larger and larger and nasty scenes started to emerge. In Uruguay, these minorities are also among us and they possibly will become bigger and generate more fuss when results don’t come, leaving a stain on Tabárez’ legacy – something nobody wants.
That’s why I think change is needed, but not at the cost of El Maestro. Uruguay clearly showed some improvement in the possession-based style but far from what is desired. This is not down to the players at Tabárez’ disposal, but merely because of his tendency to adopt a defensive shape. This won’t ever be corrected by the rest of Uruguay’s technical staff as their loyalty to Tabárez is perhaps too big for them to fault his tactical decisions.
Therefore I opt for some fresh blood to be integrated into the technical staff. The first name I would introduce is Diego Forlán. Besides his legendary status, Forlán has the ambition to go into management and has shown his tremendous knowledge of the game this World Cup with his unique analysis for Telemundo. Next to Diego, the AUF should take a look at Guillermo Almada. He is a great, relatively young manager with a good attacking philosophy. His results with Barcelona in Ecuador have been phenomenal, reaching the Copa Libertadores semi-finals last season.
Both have clear ideas that can only improve Uruguay at this moment and time. Tabárez, although still in charge, can also take on a more supervising role, which is very appropriate for a person his age. This alternative plan should be the best way forward in my opinion.