FIFA World Cup 2018: Uruguay's ageing golden generation summon old-fashioned grit to get better of Saudi Arabia

One reason why you shouldn’t trust a group table during World Cups is because it often paints a wrong picture. Uruguay are through to the knockout rounds of the 2018 FIFA World Cup inside a week of the tournament’s commencement; by the looks of it, things should be going swimmingly for the Rio de la Plata giants. They are anything but.

La Celeste have won both their Group A games, haven’t conceded yet and have their main striker among the goals. But the two 1–0 wins over Egypt and Saudi Arabia have only papered over the team’s cracks. Uruguay are slow, laboured, wasteful and lack spark, all of which were glaring in the heat of Rostov-on-Don on Wednesday.

Amid all that, however, another side of Oscar Tabarez’s squad has emerged: their famous garra, which means forcefulness or fighting spirit.

Lacklustre Uruguay find fighting spirit
Uruguay have shown their other, more innate face at this World Cup. At a time when Tabarez is slowly phasing out the team’s old guard  —  those last remnants of the 2010 World Cup semi-finalists and the 2011 Copa America champions who have a combined 753 caps and average age of 31 —  and blooding in new talents, a lack of chemistry is clearly evident but the overarching grit has seen them easily navigate a tricky group.

Uruguay's Luis Suarez celebrates his goal against Saudi Arabia. AFP

Uruguay's Luis Suarez celebrates his goal against Saudi Arabia. AFP

The match-winner against Saudi Arabia, Luis Suarez, is the epitome of Uruguay’s fighting spirit. The 31-year-old has seemingly been on the wane for club side Barcelona over the past year but against the Saudis, Suarez was desperate to get things going for his team right from the off, volleying the game’s first effort as early as the second minute.

Suarez had more shots (6) than any other player in the game. His goal was the kind of opportunistic effort that every elite centre-forward converts but the kind he thrice missed in the previous game against Egypt. This World Cup has summed up Suarez  — a striker who scores enough goals to hide his shortcomings in finishing.

Passing patterns without much purpose from the Saudis
Saudi Arabia, fresh from a 5–0 defeat to Russia in the tournament opener, were expected to once again roll over in front of their opponents  —  two-time world champions no less  —  on Wednesday but they didn’t. The fact that the Green Falcons made a right fist of the tie also indicated where Uruguay stand at this moment.

Saudi Arabia’s possession-oriented style looks good on the eye but the lack of support structures for optimal ball circulation that helps create chances once again proved to be their weakness. Juan Antonio Pizzi’s side were neat on the ball but were too locally oriented to stretch Uruguay and create meaningful openings.

Only 2 of their 8 shots came at the end of long, carefully-constructed possession sequences, as most of their efforts were low-quality ones from long range. Pizzi has certainly improved Saudi Arabia’s passing game but it all leads to nothing if there is little structure or off-the-ball movement for penetration.

Tabarez needs to find the right balance
A lot of work remains to be done for Tabarez and his staff to ensure La Celeste return to their fluid best. Against the Saudis, El Maestro dropped Giorgian De Arrascaeta, 24, and Nahitan Nandez, 22, from the previous game to accommodate the experienced duo of Cristian Rodriguez and Carlos Sanchez  —  32 and 33 respectively  —  in the wide areas. That change of personnel proved to be of little benefit as it was still the fullbacks who helped in ball progression during buildup play most of the time. Tabarez has now tried out two different pairs of wide midfielders in the two games and still has a question to answer.

Perhaps the last group stage game against Russia on Monday will provide him the solution. If not, there will always be the fighting spirit that has so epitomised the 71-year-old’s 12-year reign in charge of La Celeste, as was the case against Saudi Arabia.

On this occasion, the Saudi ‘keeper Mohammed Al-Owais misjudged the flight of the ball on a corner kick to flap in thin air and hand Suarez an empty net to bundle the ball into  —  the kind of luck often brought about by garra, which Tabarez’s men have in abundance.

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Updated Date: Jun 21, 2018 12:21 PM

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