Alan O’Brien Follow @alanob2112
Having allegedly swapped “la garra charrua” for “o jogo bonita“, Oscar Tabarez reverted to type here. Uruguay’s ultra-defensive outlook made for a depressingly dire spectacle from which France, still less than the sum of their star-studded parts, were still fortunate to emerge.
Tabarez’s transformative work with the Uruguayan underage set-up was supposed to bear fruit in Russia. No longer visible were the Egidio Arevalos of the past, digging like demented moles in the midst of a packed defence. In their steads were proper footballers; cultured types like Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus and Inter’s Matias Vecino.
Even Lucas Torreira, a rough physical approximation of the similarly diminutive Arevalo, is Arsenal-bound for a reason. But neither Torreira, nor Nahitan Nandez, nor the highly-touted Vecino managed to complete more than 70% of their passes during a flat first-half.
Sitting at the base of a flattened diamond, with number-10 Bentancur just ahead, that trio almost exclusively focused on keeping France out. Uruguay’s unit defended so deeply and so narrowly that counterattacks were a mere afterthought.
Paired with the ineffectual Cristhian Stuani, Luis Suarez therefore was reduced to the status of mere spectator. This was the first World Cup game in which Suarez failed to touch the ball in the opposition box; and the Barcelona striker attempted no shots on goal either.
The injured Edinson Cavani, with whom Suarez enjoys a telepathic understanding, was notable by his absence. But let’s get real: the paucity of Uruguay’s attacking ambition likely would have rendered his presence moot anyway.
Huffing and puffing
Uruguay mostly focused their attacking efforts down France’s left, where Corentin Tolisso’s narrow positioning made Lucas Hernandez vulnerable on paper. But centre-back Martin Caceres is not possessing of the technical attributes required to take advantage. Nor, in fact, is holder-by-trade Nandez, whose familiar bursts to the right touchline were also largely for naught.
Much like France’s final-third huffing and puffing. Gifted a precious lead by Raphael Varane’s set-piece header, Didier Deschamps’ side never really looked like scoring from open play. With Blaise Matuidi’s deputy Tolisso unsure of his positioning, left-sided moves quickly broke down. There was no repeat, therefore, of Hernandez’s overlapping heroics from the win over Argentina.
Instead, France were forced to look right, where Kylian Mbappé threatened to run at the massed Uruguayan ranks at every opportunity. But, although the lightning-fast winger completed six of his 11 dribbles, Uruguay never offered the space-in-behind that Jorge Sampaoli’s system so idiotically afforded.
Still, France’s best moments did emanate from that side, where Benjamin Pavard was freed by Tabarez’s narrow diamond. The right-back twice drew Diego Laxalt out during the first-half, allowing Mbappé to pop up free in the penalty area. But the teenager twice fluffed his lines, nodding a free header wide, and botching a difficult near-post effort.
Vecino’s positional awareness was at fault here; the Inter man failing to drop into the space vacated by his left-back. Dropping in, however, was something his Serie A colleague Bentancur did frequently in the defensive phase. But that, too, led to a clanger; the Juventus midfielder fouling Tolisso to concede Antoine Griezmann’s ultimately decisive free-kick.
Decisive, because this Uruguay side never looked capable of chasing a lead. Even an hour-mark switch to 4-4-2, and the staggered introductions of genuine wingers Cristian Rodriguez and Jonathan Urretaviscaya, did little to improve the South Americans’ attacking prospects.
In fact, that Tabarez switch — from four central midfielders to two — simply left his side at the mercy of French counterattacks. Yes, Fernando Muslera’s error handed Griezmann his insurance goal. But the space into which Paul Pogba could break, after robbing Vecino, was down to Tabarez’s tactical tweak.
Caceres, maddeningly, continued to see most of the ball, touching it more times than any other Uruguayan. Music to the ears of France’s centre-backs no doubt; neither Varane, nor partner Samuel Umtiti, needed to attempt a single tackle.
But, let’s not carried away by this seemingly facile French victory. The fact remains that Deschamps’ side failed to fashion a single big chance here against pretty poor opposition. And if Brazil overcome Belgium, as expected, Les Bleus will need to up their collective efforts significantly to secure a mouth-watering decider against one of Russia, Croatia, England or Sweden. Tite’s side now, more than ever, look like clear favourites.
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