Uruguay 3-0 Paraguay: Tabarez gets things right

July 24, 2011

The starting line-ups

Uruguay won their record 15th Copa America with an excellent, controlled performance.

Oscar Tabarez likes to spring a surprise with players and formations, but it was his expected XI for this match, in the 4-4-1-1 system that can reasonably be described as his first choice shape throughout this tournament.

Gerardo Martino’s side was less predictable – he made four changes from the semi-final win over Venezuela, but kept roughly the same system – a narrow 4-4-2 / 4-5-1 with Pablo Zeballos making forward runs from a wide-left position, although Nelson Valdez sometimes switched positions with him.

Uruguay were better all over the pitch – they were more secure at the back, more potent upfront, and most crucially, they won the midfield battle.

Uruguay early pressure

Many expected a slow, patient final in Buenos Aries, so it must have come as something of a shock to Paraguay that they were pinned into their own penalty area for the opening period of this game. Uruguay piled the pressure on immediately, forcing five corners in the opening seven minutes, and producing a couple of very good chances in this spell – that set the tone for the game, and put Tabarez’s side in charge straight away.

Like many interesting tactical games, the battle here was about tempo. Paraguay wanted to play at a slow pace – calming the game, gently moving forward and looking to score almost as an afterthought, having progressed to this stage with five draws so far. Uruguay were quicker, more eager to get the ball forward, and keener to close down.Ortigoza

The central midfield zone was the place where this battle took place – and more specifically, it involved Nestor Ortigoza, Ortigoza is a superb deep-lying playmaker with an excellent passing range, and crucially, is Paraguay’s chief tempo setter. He slows the game by playing intelligent passes, but he’s not particularly mobile. He doesn’t want a fast game. Martino knows this and doesn’t use Ortigoza when he wants energy – for the quarter-final game against Brazil when he needed his side to press heavily, Ortigoza did not play.

The fact that he did start here told you everything about Martino’s approach. He wanted a slow game, and Tabarez knew that. As a result, Tabarez gave Diego Perez and Egidio Arevalo license to play higher up the pitch than usual – possibly as Paraguay had no forward runs from midfield – shutting down the opposition midfielders extremely quickly. Arevalo, arguably Uruguay’s best player in this competition, played to the left of the two, and therefore had the responsibility of closing down Ortigoza.

The incident for the second goal – when Arevalo charged down Ortigoza, won the ball, then slipped in Diego Forlan to finish – summed up the tactical battle brilliantly. It was, although a different method of winning the ball, very similar to how Yaya Toure exposed Michael Carrick in the FA Cup semi-final. The clever deep-lying playmaker needed time on the ball, whilst the powerful, determined physical player wasn’t allowing him to. The struggle for tempo is often decided that way in midfield – it’s just rare that such incidents result in a goal so obviously.

Lack of width

Martino had made an error in his team selection, which contributed to Ortigoza’s downfall. With Zeballos coming inside quickly – and frankly, barely involved – Paraguay were using four central midfielders with absolutely no width at all. It was a complete waste to play Ortigoza, a man adept at spraying the ball into wide positions, and then having no-one in those zones for him to pick out.

Ortigoza's two problems: (1) Arevalo closing him down. (2) No forward options in wide areas.

Again, that was the specific result of a wider issue – which was that Paraguay wanted to pass slowly, but by restricting their midfield to a lateral area of, say, 20 yards rather than 50 yards, it made it much easier for Uruguay to close down, and much harder to keep the ball. There is a reason why Barcelona play with so much width, increasing the active playing area. Midfield battles can be won by dominating the centre of midfield with numbers, but you always need an out-ball. With no-one stretching the game laterally and forward runs very rare, it was difficult to understand how Paraguay were going to try and get up the pitch.

But maybe that was the problem – they weren’t going to try too hard, they were happy with 0-0. That makes conceding the first goal something of a disaster.

Second half

Amazingly, Martino decided not to change anything at half-time. But equally amazingly, Paraguay came into the game. The key factor was Uruguay standing off . Tabarez probably knew that his players wouldn’t be able to press intensely for the whole game, and with Diego Perez, Martin Caceres and Maxi Pereira all on bookings, it wasn’t worth continuing the high pressure. A needless second yellow card, a theme in this tournament, would have been a lifeline for Paraguay. Besides, in terms of fitness levels, Perez looked absolutely exhausted when he was withdrawn midway through the second half. In a rare game (in this tournament) played in the middle of the day, the slightly warmer temperature may have been an issue.

Of course, then Ortigoza had more time on the ball, and therefore came into the game. With no-one on the flanks to chip the ball to, he instead had to hit the front players. He did that with a brilliant ball to Valdez, who volleyed a great shot onto the woodwork from just inside the box. Then, Ortigoza finally got some movement down the flanks from Ivan Piris’ run forward from right-back – the ball was again exceptional, and Piris’ low cross should have been turned in by Cristian Riveros. That was Paraguay’s best chance.

Martino went for permanent width on 65 minutes with Marcelo Estigarribia down the left, and Hernan Perez down the right. Caceres and Vera departed. Paraguay looked slightly better, but their third substitute was a disaster. Lucas Barrios was clearly nowhere near fit – he felt his hamstring running onto the pitch – and broke down after five minutes. Like the introduction of Roque Santa Cruz in the semi final, which ended in similar disaster, this ended Paraguay’s attacking hopes. It also opened them up for Uruguay’s counter-attacks, and a brilliant move involving Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez and Forlan produced the tournament’s best goal in its final attack.


There were, of course, various other factors in this game. Suarez was barely mentioned above, yet ran Paraguay’s defenders ragged – working the channels, winning free-kicks, holding the ball up. His man-of-the-match award was no surprise, but in tactical terms, that was simply a player doing a ‘classic’ job very well.

The ‘real’ tactical battle here was about tempo in the midfield, and it centred around Ortigoza. When he was allowed to play (in the second half) he was the game’s key player. When he wasn’t (in the first) he was a liability.

Tabarez deserves huge credit for his decisions in this tournament. There have been so many different players used (all 20 outfield players got playing time), as well as various formations and strategies without the ball. Almost every approach has worked, however – and although Uruguay started slowly, their performances in the semi-final and the final were two of the most convincing of the tournament.

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