The Uruguay manager’s paranoia of attacking play may hinder the team’s success
The largest avenue in Uruguay is named after General Fructuoso Rivera, the country’s first president, and the man who slaughtered the Charrúa, the indigenous people that inhabited the land thousands of years before conquistadors stepped onto its shores. A paradox, given that football, the life-blood of the country, is so often associated with Garra Charrúa, the display of exceptional bravery and resilience in the face of certain defeat. For a country with a population two times smaller than New York, confronting overwhelming odds has become a habit.
Uruguay made a name for itself by dazzling crowds on their tours of Europe in the 1920s, when they would scrub the floor with the European elite. Factory workers and laborers overwhelmed the opposition with a skill and flair they had never before seen. Now, Uruguay operate in the space between a yellow and red card, taking the attitude of garra to its limits in footballing terms. Manager Oscar Tabárez has admitted as much, saying his goal is to make Uruguay as difficult to play against as possible. A strategy that has had undoubted rewards, with a World Cup semi-final and 2011 Copa América title to his name, since he returned as the national team manager in 2006. But there have been some complaints: Battling hard is all well and good, but this has been a team with no shortage of talent, especially for this upcoming Copa, where they will have some of the most promising young players on the continent.
José Giménez, the 20-year-old center-back who became a staple at Atlético Madrid this season, will form the best defensive partnership in the tournament with Diego Godín. Tabárez trusts the young Giménez so much that he didn’t hesitate to throw him into the fury of the World Cup, knowing he possessed the ability and maturity to handle the situation.
Meanwhile, his compatriots Diego Rolan, Giorgian De Arrascaeta, and Jonathan Rodríguez provide a solid spine for the future of Uruguay’s attack. Rolan is the ideal Tabárez forward—able in both a wide-forward or second-striker role, willing to run tirelessly, and flexible enough to allow Uruguay to change formation mid-game. He was developed at tiny Montevideo club Defensor Sporting, along with playmaking midfield starlet De Arrascaeta. The Cruzeiro midfielder’s ability to drop a shoulder and ghost past defenders and find passing lanes, as if he’s watching high above the stadium, has earned the hyperbolic likening to an Uruguayan Iniesta. For a team that has lacked a link between the defensive midfield and world-class attack, De Arrascaeta is a revelation. If Tabárez sees an extensive role for him to play this summer, however, only time will tell.
But if these youngsters are given extended minutes, how does Tabárez manage them? His Uruguay has found success in the defensive solidity of the many and individual brilliance of a few. The forwards and wingers receive cheers for making tackles around their penalty area as if they had just scored a goal. Some would call that showing guts, determination, and heart, while others would call it overly-defensive, negative, and ignoring the amount of ability within the squad. Having a bit of garra is good for any team, but when it becomes the main philosophy of a group, it can be as self-destructive and detrimental to a team, as if they were naively attack-minded.
No one can deny that Tabárez possesses exceptional ability as a manager and tactician. Like Marcello Lippi, Tabárez’s teams are able to change formation mid-game to adjust to the situation and what is needed at that moment. It is something not many teams are able to do, unless with a series of substitutions, and it is one of the characteristics of the Uruguayan team that has made them so incredibly difficult to eliminate from competitive tournaments. But for all the changes in formation, the idea stays relatively the same: Play deep, be compact, get the ball forward quickly, and let the forwards do the rest. With talents such as De Arrascaeta, Rolan, Rodríguez, Cavani, and of course the suspended Suárez up front, combined with Giménez and Godín at the back, and it is not hard to see why some become frustrated with Tabárez’s paranoia of not wanting to unleash his players’ abilities on the opposition. Despite the success of the current, Uruguay often still lives in a nostalgic past when they ruled the world with audacious flair and disrespectful talent. That era is unlikely to return, but the country’s inability to stop turning out world class players shows that its whole identity does not have to be reliant upon the Garra Charrúa ideal.
Tabárez and Uruguay are entering a twilight stage. This summer’s Copa can be seen as a stepping stone between one generation of Uruguayan players to the next. The question for Tabárez is if he should simply use the tournament to whet his crop of exceptionally talented youngsters and perhaps give them more freedom to explore their abilities, or stick with his old guard and defend their Copa title in what could be the last international tournament for some. For a man who always seems to see the bigger picture, and a team looking for a revamped image after a PR disaster of a World Cup, this Copa could be looked at is if there isn’t much to lose. Whether it be one or the other, you know, no matter what, Uruguay will fight to the death.