Uruguay 2-1 Nigeria: Tabarez switches to a back three, then to a back four, then to a back five

June 21, 2013

The starting line-ups

Diego Forlan hit the winner on his 100th international appearance, as Uruguay unconvincingly defeated Nigeria.

After a terrible performance against Spain, Oscar Tabarez brought back Diego Forlan into his starting XI, completely changed his midfield duo, and switched to a back three.

Stephen Keshi swapped his two central attackers – Ideye Brown replaced Anthony Ujah, and John Ogu came in for Sunday Mba.

Uruguay were a little fortunate to win this one – over the course of the game they hardly outplayed Nigeria, although they unquestionably had more quality in the final third.

Uruguay system

Tabarez is a serial formation switcher, and it wasn’t entirely surprising that he switched to a back three considering how poor Uruguay were in the first leg. He’s used this formation successfully on previous occasions, and it arguably better suits the players at his disposal – Cristian Rodriguez is comfortable playing as a wing-back on the left, with Maxi Pereira capable of bombing forward from the right.

The holding midfield duo brought more stability to the centre of the pitch, but upfront there was an uneasy compromise with Forlan, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez all fielded together. Forlan drifted to the left while Suarez started on the right – but neither were interested in tracking their full-back. Cavani was the centre-forward on paper, but often drifted into deeper midfield positions looking for possession – and if that was how Tabarez wanted his forward to play, you wonder why he didn’t use Forlan in the middle and the other two wide, as has worked well previously.

Nigeria attack down the flanks

Nigeria’s most dangerous attacker was Ahmed Musa, who switched between the flanks but had most joy down the left. He seemed to find a pocket of space behind Pereira, with Diego Godin looking uncomfortable when forced out towards the flank to cover. Neither Pereira nor Godin had overall responsibility for Ahmed, and he sent in a couple of decent crosses.

With Pereira often turning and chasing Musa, space opened up for EldersonĀ Echiejile to exploit. Here, Uruguay had the same problem as against Spain – the opposition left-back constantly storming forward, and Suarez doing little to stop him. Maybe Suarez has been granted Cristiano Ronaldo-style freedom to stay higher up, in the knowledge he can do damage on the counter-attack, but Uruguay were frequently troubled by the 2 v 1 down their right side.

Despite that, Uruguay dominated the opening – Diego Lugano’s goal was scrappy, but it went with the run of play.

Uruguay switch back to a four

Midway through the first half, Uruguay reverted to a back four

At roughly the same time as Uruguay went 1-0 up, they reverted to a back four. This was probably because of the threat of Musa – and if so, the change worked in a specific sense. Pereira was now goalside of him and although unable to cope in terms of pace, he was at least providing an obstacle.

This didn’t change the freedom afforded to Echiejile, however, and although the formation change coped with Ahmed, it also meant Uruguay sat deeper as a whole and invited Nigerian pressure. There was little forward running from midfield to support the front three, and gradually Nigeria started to dominate possession and put the Uruguayan defence under pressure.

John Obi Mikel scored the equaliser. He was excellent throughout in his creative midfield role, getting the better of Alvaro Gonzalez, who tried to pressure him once Uruguay had switched shape.

Second half

The only change for the second half was Cavani and Suarez switching roles, although relatively little actually changed about Uruguay’s play. Suarez was better at linking play than Cavani from the central position, but Cavani was no better at tracking Echiejile.

The game was decided by Forlan’s 51st minute strike, and in a way this justified Tabarez’s decision to play three upfront – and whether by design or accident, it was also crucial that the two wide players weren’t tracking the opposition full-backs. A Nigerian passing move broke down in midfield with the full-backs both pushing high up the pitch, which meant Uruguay could immediately counter three-on-two. For the first time since the 2011 Copa America final, the forward trio linked up beautifully and Forlan’s finish was a fantastic way for him to celebrate his 100th cap.


Nigeria had been forced into a first half change through injury – Nnamdi Oduamadi off and Michel Babatunde on. With Victor Moses and Emmanuel Emenike, two players crucial in their Africa Cup of Nations win, not in the squad because of injury, it became obvious that Keshi had very few potential game-changing substitutes.

He brought on Mba for Ogu and Joseph Akpala for Ideye, but these were simply straight swaps and the replacements didn’t contribute anything different. Nigeria had plenty of possession and continued to attack down the wings, but didn’t have the raw quality in the final third.

Surprisingly, Tabarez didn’t withdraw any of his front three until the 83rd minute, when he replaced Suarez with Liverpool teammate Sebastian Coates and moved to more of a 5-3-2 system. Interestingly, the major impact of this switch was that Musa suddenly came into the game again, as if confirming a pacey winger in his mould is more likely to thrive against wing-backs rather than full-backs.


Another open and evenly-balanced game. Despite Uruguay’s switches in formation, the game essentially came down to a simple debate about whether wide players should track full-backs or not – generally Uruguay’s wide forwards didn’t bother, which meant Nigeria could retain possession easily and were constantly dangerous down the flanks. It was risky at transitions, however, and Forlan punished Keshi’s side.

A (probable) first round exit is a little disappointing for Nigeria, especially considering how poor Uruguay were in the opening game against Spain. However, they’ve come a long way over the last 18 months or so – going from failing to qualify for the Africa Cup of Nations in 2012, to winning the 2013 edition and putting in a decent showing at the Confederations Cup.

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