By the time Diego Alonso’s Uruguay squad arrived in Glendale, Arizona, he had come to some important conclusions about the balance of his side. After beating Mexico 3-0 at State Farm Stadium on Thursday, La Celeste can now move forward with confidence to Sunday’s meeting with the United States in Kansas City, Kansas.
In two of the past three World Cups — statistically, at least — Uruguay have been South America’s best team, remarkable given it’s a nation with a population of just 3.5 million. Being so small inevitably limits their options; if they are to get the best out of their resources, they must achieve the right collective balance. And over time, a hardened group of wonderful veterans have helped haul Uruguay back to football’s top table after a spell between 1994 and 2006 in which they failed to qualify for three out of four World Cups and were eliminated in the group phase the one time they did qualify.
– MLS, LaLiga, Bundesliga on ESPN+: LIVE games, replays
– Soccer on ESPN+: FC Daily | Futbol Americas
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
In 2010, they finished fifth in South America’s qualifiers and had to go through the playoff to make it to South Africa — where they announced their return to the big time by finishing fourth. Many of the players responsible for that remarkable run are still involved, but how should they be handled? Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani have formed a magnificent front pair, but can they both still operate together? And is 4-4-2 still the team’s best formation?
Toward the end of his marathon reign, manager Oscar Washington Tabarez appeared to have decided that it was time to move on. In his last nine World Cup qualifiers, only once did the team play in a 4-4-2 formation. Suarez and Cavani took the field together away to Brazil, where Uruguay were lucky to come away with a 4-1 defeat. In came Alonso — fresh off a futile tenure as Inter Miami‘s first-ever coach — and turned the clock back. Uruguay had to win and their remaining fixtures were relatively straightforward, so he went back to a 4-4-2 set-up, pairing Suarez either with Cavani or with the emerging star, Benfica’s Darwin Nunez.
Three consecutive wins took the team over the line and, interestingly, with a place in Qatar secure, Alonso tried something different in the final round, away to Chile. He started with Cavani on his own up front, ahead of a five-man midfield. It looked closer to the team that he’d use in the World Cup — an impression confirmed by his selection against El Tri. Suarez is unavailable this time. but Alonso can call upon Nunez, plus the strength of Maxi Gomez.
There are, though, clear advantages of playing a single central striker. It allows the team to field three in the centre of midfield, which these days is playing to a new strength. Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde has emerged as probably the most important member of the side, and he works well with Tottenham Hotspur’s Rodrigo Bentancur. Even in the absence of Bentancur due to injury, Uruguay can play Lucas Torreira holding in front of the defence and Matias Vecino alongside Valverde in a mixed attacking/defensive role. It is a formation that makes the current Uruguay side more fluent in possession, and harder to play through.
Having one striker also frees the flanks. In Thursday’s match, Uruguay effectively won the game over Mexico in the first few minutes of the second half, when a 1-0 lead was quickly turned into a 3-0 rout by two Cavani goals. The quick strikes both came from breaks down the right, where Facundo Pellistri is a gamble that has come off for Alonso. The Manchester United attacking midfielder is on loan at Alaves, where he’s not seen a great deal of action. Alonso took a chance on him early this year and has been rewarded — especially against Mexico, where his running with the ball caused untold problems. He set up the second goal, while the final strike was made by a forward burst from substitute right-back Damian Suarez.
It’s true that all of Uruguay’s opponents will not be as obliging as Mexico, whose formation seemed ill-equipped for the occasion. With a back three against one striker, they left themselves light in central midfield. The USMNT on Sunday can be expected to provide a stiffer test, which is exactly what Uruguay need. They have one final game in these June FIFA dates, a chance for their fans to see them in Montevideo on June 11, but opponents Jamaica have pulled out, leaving Uruguay scrambling for a replacement.
There is a chance, then, that the rescheduled opponent could produce a festive occasion more than a serious international, which adds to the importance of the match against the USMNT.
Centre-back Diego Godin will presumably play in Kansas City. The team captain was on the bench against Mexico, coming on for the last few minutes. It will be a surprise if he’s left out against the USMNT, but some will be surprised if he keeps his place in Qatar. Godin is at the veteran stage of his career, and a move back to South America has not gone especially well. He has struggled to get a regular game with Brazilian champions Atletico Mineiro and could soon be on his way to Velez Sarsfield in Argentina.
Will Alonso phase him out? At the World Cup, he could certainly pair Atletico Madrid‘s Jose Maria Gimenez with Ronald Araujo of Barcelona. Araujo has been used at right back, but this seems like a waste. He went off injured in the first half against Mexico — and the advantages of a genuine right back were made clear when Suarez made the forward run that set up the third goal.
Sunday’s game, then, may well be an important one in the long career of Godin. He has been a rock all the way through Uruguay’s reemergence. He needs a sound display against the USMNT to show that he can end his international career on a high in Qatar.