Uruguay: Ultra safe possession game with wide overloads

It is often hard to predict lineups of international teams. The gameplan is often not as detailed as with club sides. The coaches have less time to spend with their teams, and there can new faces introduced almost every game due to changes of form or injuries. With Oscar Tabarez in the role for twelve years now, this is clearly not the case with Uruguay.

Uruguay likely starting 11.pngTheir lineup is a mixture between 442/4222. Their obvious strength lies up front with Cavani and Suarez. The midfield and the wingers are creative, with the fullbacks ready to overlap. This results in a safe possession game, dominating possession, with most of the chances created from the wide areas.

Nandez and Arrascaeta find moments to rotate inside to the half spaces. This opens the space wide, and gives extra pass options for layoff passes from Cavani and Suarez.

The two matches I analysed for this preview were the recent game against Uzbekistan, and the friendly against Austria. The former was particularly interesting, as Suarez was not in the lineup.

Ball Circulation – Movement of the Wide Players

Option 1: Play starting in front of the opponent’s wide midfielder in the halfspace

Nandez overlap - 7th min v Uzbekistan.pngThe two central defenders don’t dribble into the game much, in circulation rather Vecino moves back to make the pass that breaks the line. Even against opponents playing with one striker.

Cavani and Suarez often play relatively wide, starting from between the opponent’s central defender and fullback.  The wide players double up on the winger of the opponent in a deep position.

This has multiple advantages:

  1. Moving out of the cover shadow of the central midfielder stepping out to press Vecino.
  2. Good starting position to run into the space behind the fullback if he tries to press the wide player.
  3. Close distance and easy layoff passes to the winger who rotates into he halfspace.
  4. Two forwards can occupy the whole back four.

When Vecino receives the ball Nandez is already in front of the opponent’s wide midfielder, horizontally very close to him. Pereira is higher and next to the line.

This starting position provides stability, safety while it is also a good starting position to make overlaps from.

  1. Nandez was close to the midfield in case they lost the ball, he was in a prime position to counterpress.
  2. With a central midfielder moving out to press Vecino, the left winger of them had the following choice to make:
    1) Cover the space next to the midfielder pressing. In this case the ball could go straight to Pereira. Suarez or Nandez could run behind the pressing fullback.
    2) Stay wider, in which case the pass to Suarez was on. 

The moment the pass forward is made Nandez sprints forward to attack the space behind the fullback moving out to press Perreira.

Option 2: Striker/winger reverse runs from narrow starting positions

Wide 1 v 1 - 51th minute v Uzbekistan.pngThis was another example of Uruguay’s ultra safe structure in circulation.

Vecino and Bentancur drop deep, even they are In front of the strikers of Uzbekistan.

The fullbacks are on both sides outside of the wingers of the opponent, the wingers pull inside a little bit. The moment the fullback receives the ball from the central defender the striker makes the run behind the fullback. If the pass forward is not on, Vecino rotates under the ball in the halfspace, and has two pass options: 

  1. Cavani steps back a little bit off the central defender, and the pass through the lines is on.
  2. Meanwhile Nandez runs on the inside of the fullback, diagonal ball behind the defence is on. 

Run on far side 51th minute - Uzbekistan .pngAnother frequent tactical weapon they use is the runs into the channel from either a striker or Nandez the moment Vecino is free on the ball in the deep halfspace. Cavani steps back, trying to give a pass option to Vecino stepping back a little bit. Meanwhile Nandez would make the run on the inside of the far side fullback.

Halfspace, winger dynamic when opponent presses - 56th minute v Uzbekistan.pngIf the opponent attempts to press passes back to the central defenders, the two central defenders and two holding midfielders might get under pressure. Usually the space opens up between the midfield and the defence of the opponent, due to them being uncomfortable in pushing out the defence against Cavani and Suarez. 

Due to the narrow starting positions of Nandez and Arrascaeta the opponent plays 1 v 1 across the last line. If the central midfielders want to push up and press 1 v 1 in midfield the space opens up totally in between the lines, making the defenders play in a large space against individually superior players. In this example Nandez steps back between the lines. Suarez gains space as the central defender attempts to leave him and cover behind the fullback. Meanwhile Pereira makes the run forward.

Vecino receives past the two strikers - 12th minute v AustriaHere the two 8s pull the Austrian 8s apart, Vecino receives behind the strikers. Cavani steps back a little to receive in the open passing lane, and more importantly to open the space for Arrasceta to run into.

We have to dedicate a few worlds to Vecino. The International midfielder has an excellent ability to beat the midfielders who are late in pressing him. Vecino can use his press resistance and dribbling to beat players who are not supported by the rest of their team in their pressing endeavours. He is also the main creative force in the team’s possession. He has the responsibility to make the pass breaking the lines in most situations.

Option 3: Individual dismarking of the winger

Individual dismarking - 2nd minute v Austria.pngWhen the ball is in front of the opponent’s midfield line they always have a player in their first line of the buildup in the wide or half space. This is normally the fullback, but due to rotations the winger or a central midfielder can fill this position temporarily,

If the fullback gets pressured next to the line the winger gives him a pass option. With individual dismarking the winger can step back into the space between the lines or run behind the defence depending on the situation.

4132 structure - 7th minute v Austria This individual dismarking of the winger works also when Vecino steps back for the ball. The far side winger – Urretaviscaya – pushes up, Cavani comes under the long ball between the lines.

The constant dummy runs of Urretaviscaya into the space behind pushes back the defence. This creates more space for Cavani to move between the lines.

Option 4: Counter-clockwise rotation to break the midfield line

Fullback dynamic.pngFullback dynamic 2The fullback asks for the ball in a shallow position. The winger moves back, while the midfielder starts from closer to his own goal. When the winger drops to receive from the fullback the 8 runs into the space opened wide. After the initial pass the fullback can move diagonally inside and receive back. The whole movement looks like a counter-clockwise rotation.

When the fullback receives inside, he has three pass options:

  1. Striker in the same side halfspace.
  2. Midfielder on the other side.
  3. Player on the shoulder of the far side fullback. The farside fullback is already looking to make the overlap if this option happens.

What is the upside of players moving back and creating overloads/rotations in shallower positions? The big positive of the wingers constantly moving back so close to the first line of the buildup and then making forward runs from there is:

  • They can arrive full speed into overload situations higher up the pitch.
  • If the opponent uses zonal defence: If they start a forward run in front of the opponent’s midfield, they immediately create a crisis situation for them. Should a player from the midfield track their run? Should a defender signal to take them over?
  • They spend most of the time behind the ball line, this makes it an ultra safe approach.
  • They reduce the access of their marker to the ball. This is particularly important against man marking.
  • If the fullback doesn’t follow them, they can double up on the winger of the opponent, and keep the ball, circulate it as a defensive approach.
  • Running forward and receiving a diagonal pass: If the forward run before the diagonal is made at the right moment, then the receiver is likely to be without pressure (during the run) and receive the ball in a place where the fullback has no access to him yet – lofted diagonals work best.

Defensive issues

Cavani disjointed from rest of team shape, open halfspace.pngCavani is too far from the rest of the team shape in defence. This leaves the six space open. The deep midfielder and the far side central defender can double up on the Uruguayan 8 stepping out to press.

When the six has the ball the winger on the other side stands man oriented.  In fact they defend man to man on the side of the ball too.

Due to the man orientation of the wingers, quick changes of sides in front of the midfield, and then passing through the half space work wonders against them.

Austria wide dismarking.pngIn this moment the positioning of the midfield is off. Bentancour and Vecino are on the same line. Urretaviscaya is not in a good position either. Neither close enough to take out the fullback from the game, nor covering the passing lane to the winger. Perreira too far to put pressure on the vertical pass. If Vecino were closer to the defence, and diagonal to the winger, he would be able to help Perreira, cover the space behind him a little bit, and create a 3 v 2 situation behind the ball, and maintain better diagonal compactness. 

Central defender dribbles in - 8th minute.png As in the picture, the central midfielder and the central defender are 2 v 1 against the Uruguayan 8. Through this extra player quick changes of sides or passes through the lines are possible.

In this same situation above the Austrian winger moves back very close to the midfield. In these situations Urretaviscaya tucks inside, and Perreira moves out to press once the Austrian fullback receives the ball. Meanwhile a striker can attack the space behind Perreira, pulling the Uruguayan central defender into a wide position.

Uruguay don’t try to press long sideways passes in front of their midfield. They are rather passive in their defensive approach. They maintain compactness, but they don’t really try to execute organised movements to win he ball.


Uruguay have most things you need to go far in a tournament. Organised team, solid tactics, cohesion between coach and team, individual quality.

I would not be surprised if they would finish on top of group A. After that a game against Portugal might follow. Looking at both teams, I am not sure I would fancy the current European champions in that encounter.

Uruguay are certainly good enough to make a match against most teams in the tournament a close encounter. That gives the team a chance to go far and pull off another surprise finish. Just like eight years ago.


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