England’s defeat to Uruguay was as painful as any suffered in previous World Cup eliminations. Less than 24 hours after the final whistle, Costa Rica’s belief-defying victory over Italy confirmed that the game is up. For the first time, England are out after two games.
Despite the pain many feel, the Uruguay game was not a complete disaster. It was certainly not an evisceration on the level of the defeat to Germany in 2010, a display as depressingly defensive as those seen at Euro 2012 nor a farce as tactically incoherent as anything witnessed during Sven-Göran Eriksson’s reign.
It was far from a perfect display, as anyone who witnessed it can attest, but full credit for England’s stuttering display must go to Óscar Tabárez, the Uruguay manager, whose game-plan made it a very difficult match for England to win. While two moments of brilliance from his team – and from Luis Suárez in particular – grabbed the headlines, it was Tabárez’s tactical choices more than anything else that led to the downfall of Roy Hodgson’s team.
That said, it is also worth remembering that Uruguay should have been a man down for more than an hour -Diego Godín somehow avoided receiving a second yellow after 29 minutes.
Tabárez’s defensive gameplan
As ever with Tabárez, his idea in the defensive phase was extremely simple and consequently very easy to implement: flood the defensive third, be first to every ball, give England as little space and time as possible. His extremely committed and mentally strong players carried it out pretty much perfectly.
The tough-tackling defensive midfielder Arévalo Ríos man-marked Wayne Rooney, who started the match playing in the number ten position, while Edinson Cavani dropped deep to shut down England’s captain and passing metronome (insert your own snigger here), Steven Gerrard, who was often forced to play at a faster pace than he can manage. Full-backs Martín Cáceres and Álvaro Pereira were protected by midfielders Cristian Rodríguez and Álvaro González against Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck.
It was a no-nonsense approach, particularly from Arévalo Ríos who decisively tackled, fouled or simply hoofed clear as soon as the ball came into his zone of the pitch. Despite sitting deep Uruguay kept England under constant pressure on the ball and showed high levels of aggression. They conceded a number of fouls around their box and in wide areas, which shows how keen they were to disrupt England’s flow.
It is somewhat surprising, given that England have excellent set-piece takers in Steven Gerrard and Leighton Baines, that Uruguay were happy to take their chances defending dead-balls rather than allowing England to keep moving it but the statistics show that their gamble came off. Bar one free-kick that led to Rooney hitting the crossbar from almost directly underneath it, the balls into the box were dreadful from start to finish. England ended the match having attempted 27 crosses and only completed 6.
Uruguay in attack
In front of Uruguay’s back seven, the more creative Nicolás Lodeiro started with a more attacking brief, seemingly to help the full-backs advance and to build moves when in possession, but his personal instructions contrasted with those of his teammates, who regularly looked to play balls over the top towards Luis Suárez and Cavani.
These long, direct passes were always Uruguay’s Plan A, primarily because it is a simple way to play and secondly because committing any more men forward would have left them open to the counter-attacks they were trying to avoid.
This constant aerial barrage meant that Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill finished the match having 29 clearances to the 11 made by their opposite numbers Diego Godín and José María Giménez. Uruguay’s attacking strategy was high-risk but it now seems somewhat fitting that the plan to exploit the space behind Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill led to the game’s decisive goal.
With attacking moves likely to be quick and short and unlikely to provide too many scoring chances for the front two, set-pieces provided best hopes of allowing Suárez and Cavani to score. Tabárez and his staff had obviously done their research and had hatched ploys to help them in this endeavour.
Suárez, briefed on Joe Hart’s aggressive positioning as well as the fact that England do not put a man on the near post, twice came very close to scoring direct from corners. In the 28th minute, Uruguay tried a rehearsed routine in which a low corner was played into the area for Cavani to shoot from a central position. Fortunately for England, he fired narrowly over.
England: not smart enough on the ball, too slow to respond
Roy Hodgson’s overarching plan in this tournament has been to field a fluid attacking quartet that can interchange positionally to create unpredictable fast-paced attacks and still form a coherent defensive structure. Uruguay’s defensive approach was a response to this plan: by flooding their own defensive third with bodies, they denied England space in which to operate.
What followed was a disjointed display which suggested that many attackers were tuned into different wavelengths. Every time one of England’s third band dropped deep to start an attacking move, the central movement ahead of them was non-existent. They left themselves with no options but to play the ball out wide before trying to re-enter the Uruguay-dominated central area.
It kept on like this. On one occasion in the second half, Jordan Henderson came forward and took the ball in a promising position to the left of the penalty area. The front four were all stood flat-footed and unsure of which option to offer him and he shot tamely at Fernando Muslera. Shortly after, Danny Welbeck again took the ball in the hole and looked for an option but with none forthcoming, sent the ball wide. There was simply no way through.
All of the pre-match talk was about Wayne Rooney moving into the middle and influencing the game from the number ten position. On another day it could have been that he scored a hat-trick and put England’s World Cup back on course, but despite his goal it was not his day.
As well as missing two incredible opportunities which, had they been converted would have changed the game entirely, he only assisted one shot from open play, a half-chance for Sturridge shortly after Suárez had opened the scoring. For most of the first half, Rooney struggled to make a mark on the game. A smarter player would have done more to find space to turn and pose Uruguay problems.
Uruguay’s very deep and defensive setup cut the central supply line to Daniel Sturridge entirely and meant that the Liverpool striker had to come wide or deep to receive the ball. His performance showed that many of the flaws that hampered him in his Chelsea days remain. When used as a pure goalscorer this season he has been brilliant, but as part of a fluid quartet he struggles to play as part of a team. He clearly did not enjoy vacating the number nine’s zone, nor did he quite understand how to use the ball once it was played into his feet in central or wide areas.
Two moments summed his night up: first, in the 36th minute he came deep, took the ball and powered over a ludicrous shot from 30 yards; second, with the score at 1-0, he took up a similarly promising position and received a pass from Glen Johnson. He had four really good passing options (A, B, C and D below) which could have led to a dangerous England attack, but instead chose to dribble straight into the out of position Álvaro Pereira and the titanic Arévalo Ríos (E).
With the front four crowded out and unsure of how to interact, England’s full-backs saw a lot of the ball but for the first forty-five seemed pretty hesitant to come forward, only venturing high up the pitch at 1-0 down. Glen Johnson got a splendid assist for Rooney’s goal and Leighton Baines fired in a cross from the left for another chance that Rooney should have scored, but otherwise their delivery and decision-making left a lot to be desired.
A minor problem was that Johnson’s throw-ins were uniformly terrible. He repeatedly took too long to release the ball, allowing Uruguay to set themselves and mark potential receivers. He never threw the ball backwards to a free man, at least enabling some ball circulation and the start of fresh attacks.
o Raheem Sterling off, Ross Barkley on – Sterling had struggled to influence the contest and Barkley offered a bit more in central areas and also looked to combine with Rooney by pulling wide, but ultimately failed to trouble the opposition.
o Nicolás Lodeiro off, Christian Stuani on – a slight change of tact from Tabárez, Stuani was introduced in a wide-right position, presumably as an attempt to pin Leighton Baines back. It didn’t really work.
o Danny Welbeck off, Adam Lallana on – another option to help speed up England’s possession play and to provide the central positional smarts so obviously lacking before this point. Like Barkley, he helped England gain territory but couldn’t provide the cutting edge. Soon, the area outside the box was crowded as everyone showed for the ball in front of the Uruguayan back four, but no-one was making runs in behind.
o Álvaro González off, Jorge Fucile on – something of a straight swap – simply another body in the middle for Uruguay.
o Jordan Henderson off, Rickie Lambert on – an obvious response to the change in game-state but an easily predictable one. England’s uncomplicated hoisting of the ball into the box was very unlikely to succeed.
o Luis Suárez off, Sebastián Coates on – an inevitable response to England’s final substitution, a man-marker to nullify Lambert and see the game out.
Luis Suárez’s first goal came from a series of England mistakes but from an attacking point of view was one of the goals of the World Cup so far. Jordan Henderson made an understandable but risky attempt to play a quick combination with Wayne Rooney and power through the lines, but his poor pass left Rooney with no choice but to flick the ball on. Neither Welbeck nor Sterling read the situation and made a run to get on the end of it.
The turnover left Henderson high up the pitch and the counter very much on, but England really had the numbers back to deal with it. Splendid passes from González and Suárez, plus a weak tackle from Steven Gerrard, allowed Uruguay to get at the back four, who then made their own series of blunders: first, Johnson stood off of Cavani, fearful of being turned or simply beaten and allowing Cavani to shoot, while Phil Jagielka and Gary Cahill stood ball-watching. When Cavani eventually chipped the ball over them, Joe Hart was left with no chance by Suárez’s splendid header.
England’s equaliser, scored by Wayne Rooney in his 759th minute of World Cup football, was a rare example of the theoretical fluid interchange working in practice. The move started deep in England’s half with Gerrard taking the ball from a Rooney nutmeg after Jagielka had cut out a Uruguayan throw-in.
Gerrard spread the ball to Johnson, who played it forward to Henderson who was pulling wide. From this point it was just a simple but very smart exercise in overlapping, as Sturridge and Johnson combined and moved quickly to enable England to pass through the Uruguayan lines and create a simple tap-in for Rooney, whose predatory instinct, for the third time in this game, had allowed him to read the situation before his marker.
By every measure it’s a magnificent goal – better even than Sturridge’s goal against Italy, another excellent swift counter. Incidentally, Rooney was only able to score the goal due to the introduction of Adam Lallana, who was at the time alternating with fellow substitute Ross Barkley as the ten, meaning Rooney had moved wide left again.
While many in the press will say that Rooney scored having started as the ten and should continue to play there, his creative performance in the hole was poor – he only passed forward to Sturridge once and was only found by Gerrard, England’s tempo setter, once.
Suárez’s winner is a tough one to analyse. While Gerrard has been criticised for a mistake, he really had little choice but to try and win the header. Though he only succeeded in doing Cavani’s job in flicking the ball on for Suárez, it obviously wasn’t his intention.
It’s more accurate to say that when Phil Jagielka steps out – intending to go for the header but realising late that Muslera’s punt is dropping short and that Gerrard will go up with Cavani – Gary Cahill should have been more aware of the danger in behind and made sure he followed Suárez’s run. Finally, Joe Hart shouldn’t have committed himself so easily – Suárez’s finish didn’t have to be perfect to beat him.
At the same time, it’s worth remembering that Suárez is stood in an offside position and if Cavani beats Gerrard to the ball and wins the flick-on then the flag goes up. It all looks very stupid when you watch it back knowing that Suárez eventually scores but while there were undoubtedly lapses of concentration and positional errors it was, as much as anything, bad luck.