What Went Right? A very rigidly and tactically disciplined team. This was one team nobody was going to take out of their game. Two things carried them to the top four: (1) an almost total reliance on opposition mistakes in the attacking end both mental and physical to take advantage of offensively, and (2) an almost total reliance on one star player to carry them. Long stretches of tactical tedium were rewarded with quick strikes resulting in exciting scores, so they were actually kind of fun to watch. Didn’t attack in numbers but the players they did send forward on the counter got into the attacking end very well. Did a pretty good job of holding up the ball on the attacking end even though they didn’t have numbers forward. Stayed compact in the back and in midfield, and didn’t let even the best sides stretch them. Through the group phase were one of the two or three best defenses in the tournament; they never lost their defensive shape, read the game well, interrupted a lot of attacking thrusts before they got into their penalty area, stayed in front of the ball, could be physical when they needed to, and most importantly intercepted a lot of opposition passes in midfield (which led to many quick and effective counterattacks). One of the better teams at set pieces and arguably the best at free kicks and long-range shots on goal. From a viewing standpoint, they played by far the most exciting game in the tournament in the quarterfinals. Not to cast aspersions on their performance and finish, but they took advantage of a weak group draw and surprisingly weak end of their knockout round bracket. No matter how weak their draw was Uruguay still had to perform — and did. I’m just saying…
What Went Wrong? Two things did them in once they got to the semifinals: (1) an almost total reliance on opposition mistakes in the attacking end both mental and physical to take advantage of offensively, and (2) an almost total reliance on one star player to carry them. As long as they were playing the likes of South Africa, Mexico, a French side that was imploding before our very eyes, South Korea, and Ghana, this worked. Against top-tier championship-quality teams like the Netherlands and Germany, however, it wasn’t nearly enough. Against those two world football powers — with their intricate and otherworldly direct attacking and finishing abilities, sustained passing and ball possession, and competent defenders who could take players on one-on-one without having to pack the back – Uruguay’s reliance on mistakes and counterattacks was only going to work up to a point. Uruguay needed a much more concerted, orchestrated and sustained offensive approach other than their one-dimensional, solely east-west counterattack – and they didn’t have it. And worst of all, the Netherlands’ and Germany’s attacks left Uruguay pinned in their own end and under siege. All of a sudden, that disciplined defense that gave up no goals in group play and only two goals through the quarterfinals came unglued under the incessant onslaught and gave up six goals in their last two games. It wouldn’t have mattered if the one player they were relying on the carry them was Pele’, much less Diego Forlan; they weren’t going to win a world championship under those conditions.
Who Stepped Up To The Plate? Who else? Diego Forlan. In a World Cup loaded with superstars who didn’t show up, Forlan was the surprise Golden Ball winner and best single player in the tournament. Going into the World Cup Forlan was going to be relied upon to be the focal point of their offensive approach (such as it was) and primary finisher. He was that and more. Playing in back and to the right of the target man and with the freedom to roam, Forlan was everywhere and did everything from dropping back in defense, getting the ball behind the half-touch line and bringing it forward (even on the flank), creating chances, servicing the target man, and even taking all the free kicks (which just gave away one of Uruguay’s primary weaknesses; Forlan is the kind of world-class finisher you usually want on the end of those free kicks, not the guy you want taking them). Without Forlan, target man Luis Suarez doesn’t get the service to score three crucial goals. Fernando Muslera was stellar in goal (interesting how it is the four goalkeeper that performed the best in this tournament all made it to the semifinals). Diego Lugano and Martin Caceres weren’t the biggest central defenders but they played big in front of goal, and Uruguay couldn’t have gotten to the semis without them. Decent defending on the rear flanks for Diego Godin and Jorge Fucile. Martin Periera and Diego Perez kept the defensive discipline intact just in front of the backline. Edinson Cavani was decent getting forward and making a good counterattacking triumvirate with Suarez and Forlan. Uruguay got some much-needed bench help from Sebastien Abreu, Alvaro Pereira, Walter Gargano, Alvaro Fernandez, and Nicolas Lodiero.
Who Didn’t Show Up? Can’t really say anybody didn’t do what they were expected to do. Uruguay got a total team effort from everyone they put on the pitch. That they didn’t have the wherewithal to do better was a function of tactics, system and approach, not individual performances.
How Was The Coaching? Pretty damn steady. Not unlike Vicente del Bosque with Spain, Oscar Tabarez went with a system he thought would get them through the grind of the long South American World Cup qualification campaign as well as the four-week tournament itself, got the players he needed to buy in and execute it, and stuck with it through thick and thin. As long as the players maintained his tactical rigidity he was convinced it would work. And it pretty much did until they ran into a teams with championship pedigrees. It got Uruguay their best finish since 1970, so I guess he did a pretty good job and there really isn’t much to complain about.
Did They Finish Where They Were Expected? Clearly not. The surprise team in the tournament with the easy knockout round draw, Uruguay finished in fourth place. Nobody saw that coming. Ya gotta tip your hat off to these guys. Well done!
What Now? As pleased as the team and country should be about their finish – and they really should celebrate it – there really isn’t a lot to get excited about the two-time winners of the World Cup going forward. Forlan is 31 so this is probably his last World Cup. Outside of Suarez there really isn’t a whole lot of star-quality talent on the ground in Uruguay, and a lot of their current players will be past their prime to be of any use in four years. They really shouldn’t kid themselves: With the teams they got to face before the semis they caught lightning in a bottle. Uruguay has relied on a tactically stifling defense and not much else for more than 12 years now and just happened to get lucky this time out. I just hope that they don’t confuse what happened in South Africa with progress and continue to maintain their tactical and technical system beyond this World Cup under the mistaken belief that with it they will now become international contenders, but given their recent history I suspect that is exactly what they’ll do.