Uruguay hadn’t been at their best at this World Cup but on Monday, La Celeste showed signs of getting back to their vintage with a thumping 3-0 win over ten-man Russia in Group A’s big showdown.
At kickoff, Oscar Tabarez’ team had been the only South American side to confirm their qualification to the knockouts, yet doubts remained over the general state of the team, who had scraped past both Egypt and Saudi Arabia with edgy 1-0 wins in their previous matches.
There were question marks over team selection and tactics; Tabarez’s men had looked visibly laboured and out of sorts. Two set-piece goals had seen them progress out of a relatively easy group but the synergy that has defined El Maestro’s 12-year tenure was missing. There was tenacity and leadership, but little oomph. However, it all changed against Russia where, with certain tweaks, goals flowed and perceptions changed.
Diamond midfield breaks shackles
On what was a sunny evening in Samara, Tabarez deployed Rodrigo Bentancur — one of Uruguay’s brightest prospects — in a new role. The 21-year-old, who primarily plays as a defensive midfielder, was stationed at the tip of a midfield diamond as Uruguay changed tack and were more scattered in their shape.
More importantly, it was the presence of Lucas Torreira at the base of the 4-4-2 diamond and the runners alongside him that freed Bentancur, whose movements between the lines centrally allowed the dangerous Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to attack the channels and combine with the Juventus midfielder.
Torreira and the two side midfielders— Matias Vecino and Nahitan Nandez — would often drop to form a line of three behind Bentancur when the full-backs made forward runs or during defensive phases. This added stability to the team and also kept Bentancur in close proximity to the two strikers, which wasn’t possible with a flat 4-4-2 as seen in the earlier matches.
Uruguay are the only team to keep three consecutive clean sheets at this World Cup, a testament to their defensive structure as well as the quality of their defenders. At the Samara Arena, La Celeste made two changes to their backline and still managed to keep Russia at an arm’s length and expertly dealt with their aerial threat.
The Diego Godin-led defence restricted the hosts — joint top-scorers of this World Cup so far — to just one shot on target, albeit with a man advantage for 55 minutes. Such defensive resilience has been key to Uruguay’s passage into the Round of 16 and that is what strengthens their case for a deep run into the knockouts.
Uruguay have now gone 582 minutes of international football without conceding, an underrated but significant statistic that bills their Round-of-16 clash against Portugal as an even battle, despite a ten-place gap in FIFA rankings between them.
Strikers rediscovering touch
As if keeping clean sheets wasn’t enough, Uruguay also have their two talismans upfront scoring goals. Suarez netted his second goal of the 2018 World Cup with a precise free-kick to open the scoring, while Cavani finally got on the scoresheet after 13 attempts — the most at this World Cup so far — to seal the win.
While other teams such as England, Belgium and Portugal are heavily reliant on a single prolific scorer, Uruguay have two high-quality, elite strikers in Suarez and Cavani. Both have been around since 2010 hence their experience of the grand stage will stand them in good stead for the rest of this tournament, now that they are among the goals.
From what looked like a disaster of a World Cup waiting to happen just a few days ago after the lethargic win over Saudi Arabia, it has been quite a turnaround for La Celeste. Tabarez has finally found an identity for his team, which so often over-relies on star names like Godin, Suarez and Cavani.
Having already witnessed the darker, grittier side of Uruguay at this World Cup, there is every reason to believe El Maestro will help his team confound expectations now that the tactical designs are in place. Uruguay have always been a difficult opponent to play against. Having only started to hit their peak, they now have the look of title contenders, unlikely though it may sound.
Updated Date: Jun 26, 2018 10:23:51 IST