Russia’s splendid opening to their World Cup raised plenty of eyebrows, not least in their own country. Similarly, Uruguay’s ponderous start came as something of a surprise but after the two nations met in their Group A decider, normal service has resumed.
‘The worst national team in living memory’, as they were labelled by sections of their own press prior to the tournament, surrendered top spot and sizeable momentum gathered by two victories and eight goals by going down to La Celeste in Samara. There was no disgrace in the hosts’ defeat, merely a reversion to the mean.
And they encountered a Uruguay side who appear to have found a winning formula. Victories over Egypt and Saudi Arabia put Oscar Tabarez’s men in position to take top spot from Russia but their performances had offered little encouragement to those – like one of our own – who felt Uruguay could pull up trees in Russia.
But Tabarez’s tinkering dispelled some of the doubts that were beginning to creep in. With either Spain or Portugal waiting in the last-16, the Sophie’s choice of the next round, their assignment in Samara was not complicated by permutations of their next test. Regardless, Uruguay, individually or as a unit, were not performing well enough to consider anything beyond their own efficiency.
Their changes, subtle rather than revolutionary, worked. Uruguay came into the tournament amid much hype over their exciting, young midfield but against the Pharaohs and the Saudis, they came to rely upon their old formula: nick an advantage, with set-pieces providing the breakthrough in both games, before relying on their rock-solid rearguard to defend it.
This time, it was supposed to be different, and against Russia it was. Tabarez made his fourth midfield personnel change, with one of them enabling a more important tweak in the shape of their midfield.
On his first start of the tournament, positioned in front of the back four, Lucas Torreira showed just why Unai Emery has been so keen to bring him to Arsenal. The diminutive workhorse screened Diego Godin and Sebastian Coates with minimum fuss and maximum efficiency, in direct contrast to Granit Xhaka at club level.
#URU midfielder Lucas Torreira vs Russia:
91.2% pass accuracy
77 touches (most of any player on the pitch)
4 fouls won (joint top)
55.6% duels won pic.twitter.com/3cnJjspaqK
— Chris Wheatley (@ChrisWheatley_) June 25, 2018
With Torreira securing the back door, ably assisted by Nahitan Nandez and Matias Vecino either side but always close, Rodrigo Bentancur was free of the shackles that had previously kept him from linking up with Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Over the last two games, the majority of Bentancur’s 196 touches had been in his own half; only three took place in Uruguay territory against Russia, while he had five in the opposition box. The fact he was the first on the scene after a Suarez-Cavani combination had been broken up to win the free-kick that led to the opener highlighted the change to the Juventus starlet’s role.
This was a different, improved performance for an hour from Bentancur, celebrating his 21st birthday, though one that still promised plenty more. But Tabarez has other options up his sleeve, with Giorgian De Arrascaeta offering drive and dribbling ability if Uruguay need a different route to the front two.
This challenge was one more suited Uruguay and their young midfielder’s strengths. Against the more adventurous sides, Tabarez’s men will always fancy their chances of springing from defence, but Egypt and Saudi Arabia showed little ambition. Russia were obligated to attack, and Spain or Portugal will do the same with even greater intent and certainly better quality. But the two Iberian nations will be in no doubt who they want to avoid in the next round as they limber up to decide the Group B standings.
Whoever they get, Tabarez will be sitting far more comfortably after Uruguay’s third win than he was after their opening two. Nine points in the bag, and a midfield that is finally functioning as well as the units at either end of it. It has been a spluttering start but Uruguay have got their act together just in time.