Uruguay's new batch of youngsters could spring World Cup surprise
Just a few months ago, it looked as if the walls were about to cave in. Now, brick, by brick, Uruguay are constructing a team that might be capable of standing tall in Russia.
After making a fast start to the 2018 qualifiers, Uruguay collapsed. In three consecutive rounds, they took the lead only to lose: 3-1 in Chile, 4-1 at home to Brazil, 2-1 in Peru.
These were serious blows for a team which prides itself on defensive solidity; a team, indeed, whose very survival was dependent on defensive solidity given the nature of its composition. In charge since 2006, coach Oscar Washington Tabarez seemed comfortable fighting from a bunker.
He was always pleased to recite a statistic from the 2010 World Cup, when Uruguay sprung a surprise by reaching the semifinals; in almost all of the matches, the opponents had more possession, but Uruguay had more shots.
It was a conservative model of play: cover up, harry, make no concessions to style and trust that strikers Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani are good enough to live off scraps.
But no model lasts forever. And as vital components of the team, particularly in midfield, grew old together, the formula no longer proved effective; things got worse before they got better. After those three consecutive defeats in World Cup qualification, Uruguay travelled to Europe for friendlies last June anxious to improve their defence.
They played Ireland and Italy -- two teams that did not even manage to qualify for Russia -- and lost 3-1 and 3-0, respectively. The time had come to take some drastic measures.
The great strength of the 12 years in which Tabarez has been in charge -- even more than the 2010 World Cup and the following year's triumph in the Copa America -- has been the attention paid to the youth teams. Uruguay have put in a process, most easily seen in their under-20 teams, where a production line of talented players are identified, groomed and made ready for senior action.
For the closing rounds of World Cup qualification, Tabarez decided that the time had come to throw in some of his recent under-20 graduates -- and in so doing he has changed the entire characteristic of the side.
First in was Federico Valverde, of Real Madrid but on loan at La Coruna. Then came another central midfielder, Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus. With the slightly more experienced Matias Vecino to anchor the midfield, the dynamic young Nahitan Nandez down the right and the subtle qualities of Giorgian de Arrascaeta on playmaking duties, suddenly Uruguay were playing a different game. They now had a midfield capable of protecting the defence, exerting controlled possession and supplying the strikers. They qualified in comfort, and have kept on adding to the mix.
In the Far East for the China Cup, Uruguay on Friday introduced young Lucas Torreira of Sampdoria for his first cap in the 2-0 victory over the Czech Republic. With a blend of skill and lung power, Torreira is another one who could be an important presence in the Uruguayan midfield this June and July.
In such an interconnected game as football, altering one part of the team inevitably has an effect on others. Uruguay are no longer looking to defend so deep. Now they are able to come higher up the field, which carries with it a risk: When the move breaks down, there is more space behind the defensive line for the opposition to exploit.
This has brought about the need for a renewal in the full-back positions. Guillermo Varela, whose move to Manchester United was surely premature, has recaptured his form since moving back to Uruguay. He is now filling the right-back role, while on Friday, Tabarez conducted an experiment at left-back, going with Diego Laxalt of Genoa.
Normally a left-sided midfielder, Laxalt is full of hard-running lung power, capable of working up and down the line at pace. On first evidence, the move was a success, and seems worth an extended experiment.
There is another chance Monday, when Uruguay meet Wales in the final of the China Cup. It will be interesting to see how many risks the Uruguayans are willing to take when up against the pace and thrust of Gareth Bale, who ran riot against host China on Friday.
And given that Uruguay begin their World Cup campaign against Egypt and Mo Salah, it should be a very interesting test for Tabarez and his promising youngsters.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.