After struggling throughout qualifying, Uruguay only scraped into the World Cup via a play-off against Jordan but on their day the 2010 semi-finalists will be a match for almost anyone. Retaining the core of players than impressed in South Africa and went on to win the 2011 Copa America, can Tabarez’s charges spoil the party in Brazil once again?
Uruguay tend to opt for a 4-4-2 with two central midfielders sitting deep to protect the back four and which can quickly morph into a 4-2-2-2 when springing forward on the counter attack. Nicknamed El Maestro, legendary coach Oscar Washington Tabarez has variations of personnel that can subtly alter the balance of his preferred set up. Depending on the opposition, he can either go with two destroyers in the centre, such as Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo Rios, or instead use Nicolas Lodeiro when looking for a more expansive game. Cristian Rodriguez and Christian Stuani often take on the role of the wide men to support Suarez and Cavani.
That is not to say that Tabarez rigidly sticks to this formation. In qualification he also deployed both a 4-3-1-2 and a diamond with either one of Lodeiro, Rodriguez, Forlan or Ramirez in the hole behind the strikers and has also experimented with a 4-3-3, again keeping the centre of the park solid and organised, handing the creative responsibility to the intelligent posse of forwards at his disposal.
A main strength which characterises Uruguay’s style is their resilience and fighting spirit. Midfield warriors Diego Perez, Egidio Arevalo Rios and Walter Gargano typify this garra charrúa and will fight tooth and nail to protect the defence and make Uruguay extremely difficult to break down. Indeed, all over the pitch the players will be expected to work hard and make life uncomfortable for the opposition. Although, they may not be as underestimated as they were in 2010, they will still relish being the underdogs and call upon the spirit of the 1950 Maracanzo.
This use of midfield enforcers to sit deep and break up play is, in part, also a reaction to one of Uruguay’s main weaknesses, that is to say their creaking, lumbering defence. Though Diego Godin has been in fine form helping Atletico Madrid to the La Liga title, centre back partner Diego Lugano is long past his prime and his lack of pace could be exploited by nippy opposition. This need to drop deep and not allow space in behind engenders a counter-attacking style, a style that is a direct product of both their greatest strengths and their greatest deficiency.
What also allows this style to pay off is the world class strikers they possess. Suarez and Cavani are two of the most feared strikers around and are coming off the back of impressive seasons for their clubs. Furthermore, they have the creativity and experience of Forlan, the industry and aerial ability of Stuani and the pace of Abel Hernandez to call upon. In their current form, Suarez and Cavani are capable of conjuring match-winning moments out of nothing and will always pose a massive threat.
Another factor to consider is how the group draw could work as an advantage for them. Uruguay will be favourites to win their opening game against Costa Rica and, with 3 points in the bag, this should therefore allow them in theory to sit back in their games against England and Italy (who may be under more pressure to look for the win depending on how their previous games have panned out) and play their favoured counter-attacking style. Throw in the geographical advantage of playing in the familiar surroundings of South America and you can quickly see why the Tabarez’s men back themselves to progress from the group.
While having a settled squad that knows each other inside out will certainly be a positive influence, their pre-tournament form in qualification has led to the belief that perhaps this could be the end of the cycle for an ageing group of players. It could be a sensational send off for a highly successful group or it could be one battle too many. Only time will tell which Uruguay we see.
Finally, despite having the likes of Suarez, Cavani and Godin in the form of their lives, there are a number of players in the squad struggling for playing time. Jorge Fucile has not featured for Porto at all this season, while Sebastian Coates has regressed since his move to Liverpool and has struggled with injury since his loan move back to Nacional. What’s more, Gaston Ramirez has also not been able to hold down a first team spot at Southampton and captain Lugano didn’t cover himself in glory in the 9 appearances he made for West Brom. Tabarez obviously knows his players well and will be expecting them to set up to recreate past international form.
Luis Suarez | As mentioned above, Uruguay’s key players will come in the guise of strike duo Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. PFA Player of the Year and Premier League top scorer Suarez has been in phenomenal form this season, almost single-handedly dragging Liverpool to the title, and will look to continue that in Brazil. His intelligence, technique and never-say-die attitude means he can operate anywhere across the front line, equally adept at dropping deep or playing off the last defender’s shoulder. In short, a defender’s nightmare. However, Suarez now faces a race against time to get fully fit following a knee operation on his meniscus and Uruguayan fans will be praying for a swift recovery for their star striker.
Edinson Cavani | It could be an important tournament for Cavani too. Playing second fiddle to Ibrahimovic at PSG and often played out wide four years ago due to his incredible work rate and willingness to sacrifice himself for the team, it will be his time to spearhead the attack as a focal point alongside Suarez. It might be the perfect opportunity to showcase on the world stage what the man, described by Tabarez as the “perfect son-in-law”, can do, especially if Suarez struggles to fully shake off his injury.
Diego Godin & Fernando Muslera | At the other end of the pitch, Diego Godin and Fernando Muslera will be absolutely vital in holding together the defence and providing a solid platform for the more creative members of the squad. Godin in particular has had a stellar season with Atletico Madrid and, though not the quickest or most physically imposing, has fantastic position sense and bags of intelligence while also being an aerial threat from set pieces, as displayed by his goals against Barcelona and Real Madrid this season.
TALENT RADAR KEY YOUNG PLAYER
The youngest member of the squad, centre back Jose Maria Gimenez, may not feature but could find himself thrust into the limelight. A rock in the heart of defence for the U20 side that reached the final of the U20 World Cup last summer and on the books of Atletico Madrid, he will most likely be in Brazil primarily to gain experience (should he make the final cut) but, nevertheless, he is certainly one for the future.