In the final days of FIFA before the World Cup teams were announced, most coaches were merely flipping through, enjoying the opportunity to group together and consider side options, with the basic plan for Qatar was well set up.
This is especially true of South Americans. Since mid-2019, they have played two editions of Copa America plus eighteen innings of World Cup qualifying – more than enough competitive games to propel their team into shape. That is certainly true of Brazil, Argentina and Ecuador.
But it does not apply to Uruguay. Diego Alonso was only appointed coach at the end of last year. He still has a lot of work to do and has to make many important decisions, making Uruguay’s friendly against Iran and Canada among the most interesting encounters in the next few days.
Alonso was brought in at the end of Oscar Washington Tabarez’s epic 15-year reign, and under the calm guidance of the Uruguayan, Uruguay returned to the top of football’s table. In hindsight, it might have been better if Tabaez had resigned after Russia 2018. But it’s easy to understand why he was lured in.
The path to Qatar will coincide with the maturity in football of the new bright midfielders – Federico Valverde and Rodrigo Bentancur – and it will also be the last hurdle for the veteran pillars of his faction – people like Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani and Diego Godinmore Fernando Muslera and Martin Caceres. On paper, it looks great. There are problems on the field.
The key question – the question that has perplexed Tabarez and now confronts Alonso – is how to get the balance right. How many of these veterans can be taken together?
Tabarez never found the answer, and was further undone by a combination of trauma and a ruthless run. Uruguay looks good against Qatar until they have to play Argentina at home and away, and Brazil away, plus the dreaded trip to the extreme heights of La Paz to face Bolivia. Four defeats, three of them heavy, forced a change.
Alonso is well aware that the team he chooses to participate in the World Cup will be different from the team he sent in the tournament. The next few days will make those differences clearer in his mind.
Uruguay’s captain, leader and centre-back, Godin, is clearly on the decline, and suffers from fitness problems that have kept him out of action this month. Earlier this year, Alonso made sure Godin was well protected on the pitch. But does he need to be chosen?
Barcelona‘S Ronald Araujo could be switched from right-back to his more natural centre-back position. Araujo’s collaboration with Jose Maria Gimenez looks very interesting. Gimenez has been ruled out through injury, giving Alonso the opportunity to hand more of the defensive responsibilities to Araujo at a senior center-back in these two games. If fit, Godin will definitely go to the World Cup. But perhaps for an alternative rather than the first choice.
And who will play in goal? Muslera was injured at the beginning of the year, and the home ground Sergio Rochet He is a capable goalkeeper. But there is a rigidity about him that means he will never be world class. Will Muslera be called back, or will Alonso keep his faith with Rochet?
At the other end of the field, Cavani has been left out of this squad. He is being given time to regain his match fitness at Valencia, and certainly to the World Cup. But in what capacity? There is growing recognition that Uruguay can no longer use Cavani and Suarez together – one of them needs to be on the bench.
But what about Darwin Nunez? Will he be able to play with one of the veterans? Or would Uruguay better give up 4-4-2? There is a feeling that Uruguay’s midfielders – perhaps the best part of the team at the moment – work better with a different system, one that allows them to have three in the center of the field, plus a bridge. winger to stretch the opponent’s defense.
With two months to go before the big game, Uruguay has some serious decisions to make – not just about the personnel but also about the squad and the overall idea of the team. The warm-ups against Iran and Canada are rarely so important.