Oscar Washington Tabarez began his second spell as coach of Uruguay at the start of 2006. That marathon reign very nearly came to an end at the weekend.
After disastrous defeats to Argentina and Brazil — 3-0 and 4-1, respectively, and both could have been worse — the Uruguayan FA debated long and hard over the weekend whether to make a change. In the end they decided against, but the vote of confidence that Tabarez received is hardly resounding.
They have a replacement already lined up: former striker Diego Aguirre, who won the Copa Libertadores with Penarol under the command of Tabarez in 1987. There are sound reasons for not bringing Aguirre in now, though: there are just three weeks to go until the next two rounds of World Cup qualifiers. And those games are extremely tough: another meeting with Argentina, plus the dreaded trip to the extreme altitude of La Paz to take on Bolivia.
Uruguay’s chances of making it to Qatar will not have vanished if they lose both games, so why burn the new guy? Better to keep him in reserve. And then, if results go badly in November, Aguirre can be brought in for the late surge, the last four rounds early next year that, on paper, at least, look to be more straightforward.
Tabarez, then, has two games to prolong what has been an extraordinary time in charge.
He first stepped down after taking Uruguay to the second round of Italia 90. Without him, Uruguay only qualified for one of the next four World Cups, and failed to get out of the group stage in 2002. It hurt badly in the land of the first champions of the global game, but it seemed that this was Uruguay’s place in the modern game. A country with a population of little more than 3 million could hardly hope to compete at the top level, and so Uruguay went about its business with an extra air of melancholy — until Tabarez came back to save them.
Uruguay have returned to the top table. In two of the past three World Cups they were — statistically, at least — the best South American side. Even the least successful one — Brazil 2014 — had its positives. They went out in the second round, but their group-stage victories over England and Italy were Uruguay’s first triumphs over European opposition since a 1-0 win over the Soviet Union in 1970.
At the heart of Uruguay’s return have been the ruminations of Tabarez on the effects of globalisation. There was no way that the country could hope to hold on to its best players, so the way to guarantee the future was to invest in youth, to identify and develop young players with the capacity — speed of thought, of movement and of technical execution — to thrive in the modern game. They would go through an intensive course in the history and value of Uruguay’s sky blue shirt and so, even when they were making their living on the other side of the Atlantic, they would feel a bond with the footballing culture of their homeland.
Uruguay’s under-20 sides have worked as a production line for the senior side, and this is the reason that Tabarez decided not to step down after Russia 2018.
He is 74, and his mobility is constrained by Guillain-Barre syndrome, although he insists that this has no effect on his ability to do his job. Many would have been thinking of retirement after the defeat to France in the quarterfinals, but for Tabarez, the lure of Qatar 2022 was impossible to resist. It is the tournament that promised, and still might if results are good next month, to be the crowning glory of his epic reign.
Next year’s World Cup is the moment when Uruguay will still be able to count on the old firm up front of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani plus promising replacements such as Darwin Nunez, Agustin Alvarez and Maxi Gomez. And the fine generation of midfielders — Federico Valverde, Rodrigo Bentancur & Co. — will be approaching their peak. If everything comes together, then Uruguay will be feared opponents in Qatar.
But so far the blend has proved elusive. Surprisingly, goals have proved a problem. Uruguay have played 12 rounds of qualifiers, plus five more matches in the Copa America, and the grand total from these 17 competitive matches is a disappointing 18 goals.
Questions have emerged. Does the 4-4-2 system, with Suarez and Cavani, bring the best out of the midfielders? There has been some evidence that the team works better with one up front. In the first of this month’s matches, with Cavani left on the bench, they played a superb first half hour against Colombia, in which they could easily have scored three or four. It was shaping up as the best performance since the win over Portugal in the last World Cup, but Colombia rallied and forced a goalless draw.
As captain Diego Godin has reached the veteran stage and slowed up, Gimenez has become the most important member of the defensive unit. Losing him for the games against Argentina and Brazil was more than the structure of the team could support. In the space of a few days, an unbeaten run of six matches dissolved into thin air in Buenos Aires and Manaus.
Sensing that he had to reinforce his defence, Tabarez went with a back three against Argentina. It was the wrong move. Argentina are a team that needs to be blocked higher up the pitch, interrupting their midfield interpassing. And in that game he lost the services of another defender, Barcelona‘s Ronald Araujo.
This meant that he was taking on Brazil with his two slowest centre-backs, Godin and Sebastian Coates. The midfield had to be re-enforced. But, perhaps in desperation, Tabarez chose to reunite the Suarez-Cavani partnership, and with two up front. Brazil found it easy to play their way through.
Now there is no room for further error. Tabarez has to get things right for two games next month played in very different conditions, and he has to do it under pressure.
There is a precedent here. In 2006, Tabarez announced that all of Uruguay’s sides would be lining up in a 4-3-3. It was a formation of historic importance, he said, which represented the tradition and identity of the Uruguayan game.
It lasted one competitive match. In the opener of the 2007 Copa America, Uruguay went down 3-0 to a Peru side that found plenty of space to play its game. “Reality was too strong for us,” confessed Tabarez later, as he instantly abandoned his plans and, on the fly, worked out something more pragmatic that took the team all the way to the semifinals, where they only lost on penalties.
Nearly a decade and a half later, can Tabarez pull off a repeat performance? Can he put together a side in a hurry that saves his job and allows Uruguay to pick up momentum on the road to Qatar?