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Uruguay send message to Copa America rivals

To watch 2019 Copa America, sign up for ESPN+.
To watch the 2019 Copa America, sign up for ESPN+.
Gab Marcotti points to the performances of Angel Di Maria, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi while examining where Argentina fell short against Colombia.
To watch 2019 Copa America, sign up for ESPN+.
The FC crew discuss whether Brazil or Argentina will win it all at Copa America, or if the champion will come from the rest of the field.

Copa America title aspirants Argentina, as Saturday night in Salvador made very clear, are a work in progress. With some decisions and adjustments to be taken with their attack, so are Brazil.

Uruguay are not. Under the calm and wise stewardship of Oscar Washington Tabarez, they make serene progress, always thinking about the long term as they go about short term results.

Statistically they were the best South American side at last year's World Cup. Twelve months on, it is fair to assume that they have got better. The old guard the likes of Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, and Diego Godin are still going strong. And the highly promising generation of young midfielders are a year older and more experienced. Uruguay are not scratching around for a model of play. They know precisely what they are doing.

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That does not mean, though, there is no dynamic of change. A football team is in a permanent state of construction. There are always options to be explored in search of the perfect blend. And what worked last time may not necessarily be as successful the next.

Sunday's 4-0 win over Ecuador shows the way that the mind of Tabarez has been ticking over. There are so many good central midfielders that it is hard to fit all of them into the starting line up. Uruguay ended the World Cup with Matias Vecino, Rodrigo Bentancur and Lucas Torreira all operating together. Now, despite an impressive season with Arsenal, Torreira has been left out. Vecino and Betancur are on their own in the middle, with Nahitan Nandez wide on the right, and Nicolas Lodeiro recalled to work the other flank.

This was a change first made in March, when Uruguay cruised past Uzbekistan and Thailand to win the China Cup. Both Suarez and Cavani missed the competition through injury, but the change was almost certainly made with the veteran strike pair in mind. Two wide midfielders enables Uruguay to stretch the opposition defence and enables Suarez and Cavani to stay closer together, close to the opposing goal.

Luis Suarez
Luis Suarez leads the line in a Uruguay team that is not just making up numbers at the Copa -- they're there to win.

The entrance of Lodeiro took just five minutes to pay dividends -- he latched on to a cross at the far side, juggled his way through the defence and opened the scoring with a cute cross volley. Lodeiro, ably supported by left-back Diego Laxalt, tormented the defence on one flank, while Nandez, backed up by the evergreen Martin Caceres, set up a succession of chances from the right. Everything went Uruguay's way.

Ecuador, though, gave them a helping hand. First, coach Hernan Dario Gomez surprised with his selection. He has usually been fielding his team with Carlos Gruezo shielding the back four, in a 4-1-4-1 formation. But Gruezo was dropped in favour of attacking midfielder Angel Mena. It was hard to see the justification for such a bold move, and Mena ended up being sacrificed before the half hour, a victim of the need to replace right-back Jose Quinteros, who received a red card for throwing an elbow.

Uruguay, then, were never threatened and never truly tested. This raises the question of whether they will always be best served by the midfield line up they used in Belo Horizonte. The previous time they played something similar was against Saudi Arabia in the second game of Russia 2018, when they laboured to an unimpressive win with Carlos Sanchez and Cristian Rodriguez on the flanks.

Their problem that day was the traditional one of 4-4-2 with wide midfielders -- one that England used to run into time and time again -- the two in the middle can be outnumbered, making it very hard for the team to play its way down the field.

Against stronger sides than Ecuador, Tabarez may have to rethink. Torreira came on for Lodeiro fo the last 15 minutes, and the excellent Federico Valverde also had a run at the end in place of Vecino. With three in central midfield, Cavani pulled away towards the left side, which requires him to cover more ground.

As always, the spirit of sacrifice displayed by Cavani and Suarez was impressive. They are still hungry for silverware. And the young midfield lions are keen to prove themselves. The message sent out from the opening days of the 2019 Copa America is that Uruguay are in it to win it, and it will be fascinating to see how Tabarez shuffles his pack when the games get tougher than Sunday's opener.

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