As several big teams have struggled to impose themselves on this World Cup so far, Uruguay have quietly progressed to the knockout stage in Russia having conceded no goals and scored five. They have also demonstrated the classic grit and resolve so often associated with their country, as well as a new-found adaptability thanks to the vision of their long-serving manager.
Óscar Tabárez holds the record for most games managed for an international side and is a hugely respected figure.The frailty conveyed by the crutches he uses on the touchline is directly opposed to the strength of will and conviction that his well-drilled side have taken onto the pitch. Despite a couple of underwhelming performances against Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Uruguay were still able to create the necessary opportunities needed to win both games and their most prominent players have directly contributed to these victories.
In a tournament where teamwork, tactics and identity have been outlined as determining factors, Uruguay have managed to combine these elements alongside the productivity of their most talented players. In their third group game, against Russia, Tabárez ditched the 4-4-2 formation that prioritised defensive solidity and reliance on Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, to implement a 3-5-2 formation, through which Rodrigo Bentacur was able to demonstrate his craft and composure, ably supported by Lucas Torreira in central midfield.
That tactical switch is testament to the trust that Tabárez has in his players, and is also representative of his commitment to his long-term plan, after placing a greater emphasis on the promotion and development of Uruguay’s promising young talent. As a former primary school teacher, ‘El Maestro’ has been careful in exposing this new crop of more technical players to the pressures of representing such a proud and football-obsessed nation. Such a comprehensive defeat of Russia, Group A’s most challenging opponents, suggests that his cautious integration will be a successful one.
Next up is a challenging round-of-16 knockout fixture against Portugal. In many ways, they have followed a similar tactical trajectory to Uruguay, with an emphasis on defensive solidity combined with the relentless brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo. Managed by the wily Fernando Santos, they are the European version of Uruguay, at once relying on physicality and defensive nous but now entrusting more responsibility to the technical talent and youth of players such as André Silva, Gonçalo Guedes and Bernardo Silva.
Like Uruguay, Portugal have produced both underwhelming and encouraging performances, albeit in the reverse order, impressively choosing to adopt a more attacking approach against Spain, while merely keeping both Morocco and Iran at arm’s length to ensure qualification.
The fact that Uruguay’s progression into a 3-5-2 has been saved until their last group fixture should worry Portugal, and with Diego Godín, the tournament’s outstanding defender so far, alongside José Maria Giménez, they can go into tomorrow evening’s game in Sochi with a greater sense of security than most when faced with the prospect of shackling a fired-up Ronaldo.