Spain 2-1 Uruguay: Del Bosque changes his midfield structure, Uruguay are disorganised

June 18, 2013

The line-ups for much of the first half - although Uruguay's system was often indecipherable

Spain’s level of dominance should have resulted in a much more emphatic victory.

Xabi Alonso is unavailable for the Confederations Cup because of injury, and in his absence Vicente del Bosque changed the structure of his side, using Sergio Busquets as the sole holder, moving Xavi Hernandez into the role he plays at Barcelona, and introducing Cesc Fabregas as a number ten who could drive forward at the opposition defence. Roberto Soldado played upfront.

Oscar Tabarez left Diego Forlan on the bench, with Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez upfront. Gaston Ramirez and Cristian Rodriguez were the attacking midfielders, with Walter Gargano in the middle.

Spain’s possession dominance was astonishing in the first period, as Uruguay struggled to get out of their own half.

Spain shape

The most interesting factor in this contest was Del Bosque’s attack-minded team selection – not only did he use a proper number nine, in Roberto Soldado, he also decided to replace Xabi Alonso with an additional attacking midfielder, rather than using Javi Martinez and retaining the double pivot in midfield.

This isn’t a new system for Spain – they’ve often played this way during qualification matches. But having stuck with a double pivot throughout his 13 tournament matches, it was a surprise to see Del Bosque venture away from that system. Interestingly, the new shape made Spain more purposeful and direct in possession, and they should have been out of sight by half-time.

The midfield five are all Barcelona players, of course, and there was a sense of familiarity about the way they retained possession and worked the ball forward. Alonso is a calm presence and distributes the ball laterally to retain possession and ensure control, but Spain didn’t suffer in his absence. Sergio Busquets played extremely deep, often appearing more like a third centre-back, and Xavi found a pocket of space to control the game from – out of the reach of Uruguay’s two holding midfielders, who conceded space behind when they moved up to press.

Arguably the main difference in Spain’s play was Fabregas. He played in the role usually occupied by Xavi, and while the veteran drops deep from the number ten position to help retain the ball, Fabregas was more direct and enabled Spain to work the ball forward quickly. His combinations with Soldado were very promising, and when fielded as a number ten with license to charge into attack, rather than starting on the left of the midfield three, there were no problems with congestion between he and Andres Iniesta, as we often saw at Barcelona in Champions League matches.

Uruguay shape

However, it’s impossible to ignore Uruguay’s shambolic shape throughout the first half, which was extremely difficult to decipher and resulted in a lopsided and unbalanced side.

From the outset it appeared Suarez was starting on the right flank, with Ramirez as a number ten and Cavani upfront. Maybe Tabarez wanted to use Saurez to pin back Jordi Alba, who is arguably Spain’s key attacking weapon because of the pace, width and directness he brings to a side that is otherwise conservative in possession.

If that was the ploy, Spain got around it easily. Sergio Ramos picked up Suarez, Busquets dropped in to ensure Spain had numbers at the back, and Alba was given license to fly forward. With Maxi Pereira attracted to Andres Iniesta’s darts inside, Alba was often completely unoccupied on the left, and Spain’s play generally flowed through him.

Gradually Suarez looked more like a second striker as Uruguay shifted to a system more like 4-4-1-1, seemingly now with Cavani playing deeper than Suarez. Now, both Ramirez and then Rodriguez had turns on the right flank – there didn’t seem to be any cohesion about Uruguay’s shape with the players confused about their roles.

Confusion amongst the front four was vaguely understandable, but it was particularly surprising to see Uruguay’s two holding midfielders look so positionally uncertain. Tabarez has almost always fielded two defensive midfieldertogether regardless of his team shape, and they’ve sat solidly ahead of the back four, denying the opposition space between the lines. Tabarez has experimented with a single holding midfielder recently, and maybe that has disrupted the relationship deep in midfield, because Diego Perez and Gargano often found themselves both significantly too far from the defence, allowing Fabregas space to create.

Spain ease up too quickly

Spain’s patience in recent years has been both highly effective and slightly frustrating, and this was a prime example of when they should have turned possession dominance into far more goals.

This was slightly surprising given the more direct nature of their line-up, and the presence of a proper number nine. Soldado’s play was good throughout – he dropped away from the defence to provide another passing option and encourage Fabregas to move beyond him, and found the net with a fine finish.

He wasn’t the problem, and Spain weren’t wasteful in terms of spurning a succession of chances – they simply settled for two goals and started to play too conservatively, in a situation when Uruguay were so disorganised that Spain surely could have scored five without overexerting themselves, or conceded possession too readily. “”We should have scored more,” admitted Del Bosque.

Tabarez introduces structure, then creativity.

Uruguay improved after half-time, when Tabarez introduced Alvaro Gonzalez to play on the right. The Lazio player is a more functional player than he man he replaced, Ramirez. Uruguay now had more structure and the defence was better protected, while Alba no longer had oceans of space ahead of him.

As it became clear Spain were settling for two goals, Tabarez became increasingly adventurous, withdrawing both holding midfielders – an amazingly brave move, although neither had performed well – and introducing creative midfielder Nicolas Lodeiro and veteran forward Forlan. Uruguay now appeared more like 4-3-3 / 4-3-1-2 with Forlan dropping deep beyond Suarez and Cavani, who were on either flank – a system Tabarez once used in a World Cup game against Mexico. Suarez got a goal back from a free-kick and Spain had a couple of nervous moments – which was amazing given how dominant they’d been.


“We did almost everything well – we defended well, we recovered the ball well and we didn’t leave them many options to create,” said Del Bosque. His change in system was crucial in one of Spain’s best tournament performance since Del Bosque took charge, with Fabregas and Soldado providing immediacy in the final third – it was just a shame the midfield concentrated too much on retention towards the end of the first period, when Uruguay had glaring holes in their shape.

“They were well worth their victory,” Tabarez said. “They imposed themselves on us, especially during the first half and we didn’t have the order to regain possession when necessary. “We rescued our dignity and in the second half it was a more logical game, even though Spain continued to be superior.” In World Cup 2010 and the 2011 Copa America, Uruguay’s main strength was their tactical discipline, but this was an alarmingly disorganised performance – Tabarez’s tactics against Nigeria will be fascinating.

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