Anyone who has been watching Uruguay in the last 10 years is familiar with Óscar Tabárez’s style of play: his teams are built from the back to make it as difficult as possible for opponents to score. Then it is all about giving the ball to the team’s world class forwards, Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani.
His Uruguay sides have always been strong in central defence and with full-backs who only attack when absolutely necessary. Then there is a midfield that is much more combative than creative with an emphasis of moving the ball forward as quickly as possible. It is vertical football with one aim – to hit opponents on the break.
Until now, Uruguay have not needed to be much more than firm in defence and dangerous in attack – but then something happened. The team, that had been together for so long, needed renewing, especially in midfield. And this changing of the guard has happened much quicker than anyone thought possible.
And with the new players, a new style arrived too. The emergence of players such as Federico Valverde (Deportivo La Coruna, on loan from Real Madrid) Rodrigo Bentancur (Juventus) Nahitan Nández (Boca Juniors) and Matías Vecino (Internazionale) forced Tabárez to change his approach. In the end, with these dynamic and talented players, the transformation of Uruguay’s game plan was almost inevitable.
For a long time Tabárez had been saying that Uruguay did not have the players to adapt a “European” style, ie members of the team that could be physical as well as creative. Now he has them and, in the last World Cup qualifiers and the friendlies after that, he has used a different approach.
The defence remains the same, with Diego Godín and José María Giménez being that rare combination at a World Cup that plays together week in and week out for their club side (Atlético Madrid). To the left, the hope is that Martín Cáceres (Verona) will arrive in good shape for the tournament after two injury-hit seasons while on the right there will be a battle between the experienced Maximiliano Pereira (Porto) and the young Guillermo Varela (Peñarol) to be in the starting XI.
But it is in the midfield where the real change has happened: Matías Vecino is a guaranteed starter after a superb season with Inter but then there is a question of whether Betancur or Valverde will accompany him – both prefer to go forward and create than carrying out their defensive duties but both have developed from playing in Italy and Spain respectively.
To the right, Nández is expected to start while on the left Cristian Rodríguez is the preferred candidate, although he lacks the endurance of his earlier years. In attack, well, there is not much to add to the names of Cavani and Suárez.
Remember though that structural changes takes time to become a habit. The basic concept of 4-4-2 with pressure all over the pitch has not changed, but the central midfielders now treat the ball better and the service to Suárez and Cavani is much better.
We also know that the World Cup is not a place to experiment. Therefore, it is entirely possible that, in case of a poor result in the opener against Egypt, Tabárez will return to his more defensive approach. It would not be the first time: in the first international tournament of his second spell as Uruguay coach (the 2007 Copa América in Peru) he had no problem in suddenly abandoning his initial approach of using three forwards.
Probable starting XI (4-4-2):
Varela, Godín, Giménez, Cáceres;
Nández Cristian Rodríguez;
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the World Cup?
Nahitan Nández. The pressure of playing in the World Cup will not be a problem. In fact, it will probably make him play even better. A leader who was made captain of Peñarol at the age of 21 and he is already a star at Boca Juniors.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
It could be Cristian Rodriguez. He has been a vital part of the team for a long time now but these days lacks the intensity and speed that is so key to any wide player’s game.
What is the realistic aim for Uruguay at the World Cup and why?
The quarter-finals. Getting out of Group A should not be a problem but in the last 16 they could face Spain or Portugal. Get through that and France or Croatia may lie in wait. And that is probably the limit for this team.