Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, Tabárez knows what he’s doing… after all, we qualified to the World Cup because of Tabárez and only Tabárez, since 2010, this is all we’ve heard. After that the Tabárez apologists like to throw in the word “proceso” for added measure – the youth team players that NEED TO BE CALLED UP are getting called up – case closed. And it all sounds fantastic, we were all happy when Valverde got his first call-up to the senior side, and when De Arrascaeta and Bentancur earned starts against Bolivia, the road to glory surely lies ahead. But while the results achieved allude to some kind of masterwork at hand, the truth is, as in previous qualifier campaigns, what we saw wasn’t easy on the eyes. Uruguay had to sweat blood & tears just to get in.
The truth is that the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers (at least for Uruguay) were the bastard lovechild of the 2014 World Cup and the 2015 Copa America. If you recall the 2014 World Cup gave us the 9 game ban on Suárez and the 2015 Copa America gave us the 3 game ban on Tabárez and the 2 game ban on Cavani. Uruguay exited both tournaments in shame. While Uruguay emerged from the 2015 Copa America defensively stingier, their offense went completely AWOL, in the absence of a star player like Suárez and then Cavani, the set-piece became the centerpiece upon which to build around. Carlos Sánchez earned a call-up precisely to deliver corner-kicks and provide free-kicks, Godín and Giménez thus became central to any plans to get Uruguay to Russia.
In terms of team play, Uruguay didn’t really improve their game since their 2-0 loss to Colombia in 2014, but the psychological impact of losing Suárez in 2014 and then Tabárez and Cavani in 2015, forced the team to rally around the concept that FIFA and CONMEBOL were out to get them. This persecution complex led unexpectedly to some kind of team spirit.
There were other factors as well, both Ecuador and Chile’s meltdown down the stretch allowed Uruguay some much needed elbow room to move forward. Chile sputtered when their FA President Sergio Jadue resigned and fled to the U.S., leading to Sampaoli’s shock resignation, along with allegations that their Copa America had been bought. It was the kind of qualifier campaign where chaos ruled, and as Hedge Fund managers know, there’s opportunity in chaos. And so Tabárez cherry-picked which games he wanted Uruguay to show up in and which games to skip out on the check.
Uruguay’s 2018 WCQ campaign
10-08-2015 – Bolivia 0-2 Uruguay (Patricio Loustau/Argentinean Ref)
10-13-2015 – Uruguay 3-0 Colombia (Heber Lopes/Brazilian Ref)
11-12-2015 – Ecuador 2-1 Uruguay (Ricardo Marques/Brazilian Ref)
11-17-2015 – Uruguay 3-0 Chile (Wilmar Roldan/Colombian Ref)
03-25-2016 – Brazil 2-2 Uruguay (Nestor Pitana/Argentinean Ref)
03-29-2016 – Uruguay 1-0 Peru (Roddy Zambrano/Ecuadorian Ref)
09-01-2016 – Argentina 1-0 Uruguay (Julio Bascuñan/Chilean Ref)
09-06-2016 – Uruguay 4-0 Paraguay (Wilton Pereira Sampaio/Brazilian Ref)
10-06-2016 – Uruguay 3-0 Venezuela (Raul Orozco/Bolivian Ref)
10-11-2016 – Colombia 2-2 Uruguay (Nestor Pitana/Argentinean Ref)
11-10-2016 – Uruguay 2-1 Ecuador (Victor Carrillo/Peru Ref)
11-15-2016 – Chile 3-1 Uruguay (Enrique Caceres/Paraguayan Ref)
03-23-2017 – Uruguay 1-4 Brazil (Patricio Loustau/Argentinean Ref)
03-28-2017 – Peru 2-1 Uruguay (Julio Bascuñan/Chilean Ref)
08-31-2017 – Uruguay 0-0 Argentina (Victor Carillo/Peru Ref)
09-05-2017 – Paraguay 1-2 Uruguay (Sandro Ricci/Brazilian Ref)
10-06-2017 – Venezuela 0-0 Uruguay (Anderson Daronco/Brazilian Ref)
10-10-2017 – Uruguay 4-2 Bolivia (Ricardo Marques/Brazilian Ref)
Refereeing played a big part in Uruguay’s qualification campaign. With Brazilian Referees blowing the whistle, Uruguay compiled a 4-1-1 record, which included the egregious Sandro Ricci giving Uruguay their first ever win at Asuncion. With Argentinean Referees, Uruguay won 1 match, drew 2 and lost one, Patricio Loustau gave Uruguay their epic win in La Paz but also presided over Uruguay’s most horrible loss (4-1 to Brazil at home).
Uruguay failed to win a single match when the Chilean, Julio Bascuñan, was blowing the whistle, and actually fared better with other CONMEBOL designated referees (Bolivia, Paraguay, Peru and Colombia) were blowing the whistle, with these referees, Uruguay notched 4 wins.
Uruguay’s home loss to Brazil was the most lopsided loss during this campaign. Add Uruguay’s loss to Argentina – Uruguay, despite having a numerical advantage lost this match– can also be seen as a negative, the most anemic performance involved their 3-1 loss to Chile in Santiago where Uruguay’s defense like their offense during the 2015 Copa America went mysteriously AWOL.
But outside of those losses to Brazil, Argentina and Chile, the biggest negative was the slow rise to action. Tabárez had been flirting with making renovations since 2015, kept looking towards his veterans for a way out. De Arrascaeta is a prime example, a player he had taken to the 2015 Copa America but continued to exclude in favor of Nicolás Lodeiro or Gastón Ramírez. Other players have been excluded altogether like Diego Polenta or now Lucas Torreira.
There is no rhyme or reason for Tabárez’ call-up policy. What was supposed to be a fluid youth-team to senior side transition became stagnant. Tabárez instead opted for more “Europeanized” players like Stuani and waiting on Lodeiro or Ramírez to recover their forms.
Suárez Returns and so does El Equipo De Memoria
When Suárez returned for the pivotal match against Brazil in 2016, Uruguay had managed 3 wins without him, team spirit had re-emerged, with all the pieces in place they managed to annoy Brazil with a 2-2 draw. Tabárez then masterminded a 1-0 win over Peru, Uruguay were undefeated at home. And then came the disaster of the Copa Centenario, despite a joke group, Uruguay with an injured Suárez (who didn’t play a single game in the Copa Centenario) were once again revealed to be a slow plodding side, unable to move forward unless Suárez was in the lineup. Mexico and then Venezuela got easy wins over Uruguay while Uruguay’s frustration was highlighted by Suárez hitting a pane of plastic in disgust, the 3-0 win over Jamaica came too little too late.
Once the Qualifiers got going again, Uruguay were still the same dreadful side that couldn’t string 3 passes in the Copa Centenario, Argentina with a man down was able to get a hard fought 1-0 win over Uruguay, but then an embarrassing loss to Chile in Santiago confirmed that the skeletal remains of that horrible Copa Centenario side remained, in fact, a new Equipo De Memoria had been formed, extremely dependent on Suárez.
By and large though, Uruguay’s 2018 WCQ can be seen as mostly positive, 9 wins in qualification is nothing to sneeze at, that’s the most wins from a Uruguayan side since CONMEBOL went away from the group qualification format and introduced everyone playing a home and away series. Less draws – unlike previous campaigns, Uruguay only had 4 draws, with 3 being away draws. At the end of the day Uruguay compiled 9 wins, 4 draws and 5 losses, 31 points in total.
Problems going forward
Qualification revealed that Brazil is once again a contender to win it all with CONMEBOL’s favoritism of Argentina being comically transparent, in this climate, Uruguay will go to Russia as an afterthought. Immediately after the win over Bolivia, Tabárez announced he wasn’t going anywhere and why should he, based on results his record looks impressive but… Tabárez waited far too long to incorporate new players like Valverde, Bentancur, Nández and even De Arrascaeta.
All throughout the qualifiers, the one formation Tabárez preferred was his trusty 4-4-2, which doesn’t compliment these newer players. Is there a plan to shy away from Uruguay’s default formation? Suárez’ injury woes given his age are a concern, Tabárez’ own health problems can’t be ignored, is there a plan in place to replace Tabárez should his health take a turn for the worse?
Is Aguirre a realistic candidate or should Fabián Coito take over the reigns? Coito’s mishandling of Amaral in the Under-20 World Cup led to Uruguay under-performing in that tournament, its easy to forget that Uruguay were heavy favorites to win it all, after all Uruguay had won the South American Youth Championship for the first time since 1981, but they didn’t, should we consider other candidates even foreign ones like Rafael Dudamel? Its unlikely there is a plan to replace Tabárez even if his health goes south. Tabárez has become an institution and its uncool to even question his tenure and why should we? As long as Tabárez is still operating above room temperature, Uruguay is in the World Cup and isn’t that the only thing that matters?