Tabarez's approach has Uruguay on verge of Copa America history
On Tuesday night, Oscar Washington Tabarez limped across the pitch in La Plata and paused, his knee injury apparently making him wary of progressing too far on the sodden, uneven surface. He looked at his celebrating players as though determined to soak in the spectacle and as they slowly broke off to trot in to the dressing-room, each made a point of going over to him. Tabarez's second coming as national coach has already been glorious, but on Sunday it might get even better.
Victory in El Monumental would be Uruguay's 15th in the Copa America and, on Argentine soil, it would take them past Argentina as the most successful side in the tournament's history. For a country of just 3.5 million population, that would be an astonishing achievement.
Tabarez is 64, a former teacher, a thoughtful and eloquent speaker and arguably the best tactician in the world. With limited resources he has created a highly-competitive side, one that seems equally comfortable in a 4-4-2, a 4-3-3 or with three at the back. "It's obvious that when you're picking a national team you have to pick the best players, but you must also choose a team," said Uruguay forward Diego Forlan. "You have to have a proper system of play. If you're always changing personnel it can be very difficult to develop something. That's how it was before when the national team had good players but didn't get results."
It was after failing to qualify for the 2006 World Cup that Uruguay turned to Tabarez. He set out with a four-year plan, culling several senior squad players and building toward the 2010 World Cup. The improvement was immediate, and Brazil needed penalties to beat his side in the semifinals of the Copa America in 2007. Although Uruguay stuttered a little in qualifying for the World Cup and needed a playoff against Costa Rica to make it to South Africa, Tabarez insisted he always had the sense they were maturing even as his detractors accused him of being over-defensive.
"You mustn't demonize the word defense," he said. "When you plan a match, you must limit the potential of the opponent. The tougher the opponent the more you have to work on that. When a coach wants to be popular, he says he is an attacking coach. When a coach says he is defensive, it is assumed something is lacking. But we have good attackers and we insist on the intelligence of players knowing when to attack and when to defend. This is a virtue. It is not a crime to be strong in defense."
In Uruguay's first game of the tournament, against Peru, it was caught out by a simple ball over the top, as Diego Lugano and Mauricio Victorino, the two center backs, were caught too high up the pitch.
There were similar problems with the depth of the defensive line against Chile, when the problem was the reverse, the back four sitting too deep, leaving a gap to the midfield. But since then the problem has been resolved, and Tabarez proved his mastery by out-coaching Sergio Batista against Argentina and then getting the better of the man who once coached him at Bella Vista, Sergio Markarian, as Uruguay beat Peru in the semi.
Reacting to the dismissal of Diego Perez by abandoning the left flank, reasoning Lionel Messi would cut inside anyway, was a bold and brilliant gambit, while the switch to a back three against Peru meant that Diego Lugano could pick up Paolo Guerrero as he drifted left without leaving space through the middle. Tabarez's influence, though, isn't just tactical: he has also inspired a fierce unity among his side -- something reflected in the players' willingness to follow his tactical advice. "The word 'friend' is a serious word, but we've been friends for many years," said Forlan. "We're close on and off the pitch. I never thought this could happen in a squad, but I'm living through it."
Having twice faced Markarian's Peru in the tournament, Uruguay must now take on another side he had a major part in shaping. Markarian, a Uruguayan, took Paraguay to the 1992 Olympics, and many players from that side -- the likes of Carlos Gamarra, Celso Ayala, Jose Luis Chilavert, Francisco Arce and Jose Cardozo -- provided the nucleus of the team that began a period of unprecedented achievement, qualifying for each of the last four World Cups.
Like Tabarez's side, this Paraguay is based on defensive solidity, but it has nothing like the firepower of Uruguay. Nelson Haedo Valdez is admirably industrious but too often lacks an end product. Lucas Barrios never seems quite as dangerous for country as he is for club.
And Roque Santa Cruz, excellent against Brazil in the group stage, is injured. It threatened to open up in the group stage, but after letting in five, Gerardo Martino has allowed himself a maximum of one creative player in midfield since: Nestor Ortigoza was left out against Brazil, and Marcelo Estigarribia against Venezuela. The outcome of that was successive 0-0 draws, followed by victories in penalty shootouts, and Paraguay reaching the final despite not yet having won a game. It's not even that it successfully closed down those two matches, stifling the game: both the quarterfinal and semifinal victories were highly fortunate: Brazil missed a host of chances, while Venezuela hit the woodwork three times.
"It feels like a miracle," said the goalkeeper Justo Villar, who has had an excellent tournament. He acknowledged, though, that given the strain on the squad, Paraguay are significant underdogs. "After two lots of extra-time we arrive at the final with almost no oxygen, with five or six injured and one suspended. Uruguay is in a different state. Their key players are rested, but we will fight to the utmost."
Injuries in part explain the defensive approach. With both left backs injured and Ivan Piris, a right back, at left back against Venezuela, it made sense to protect him by bringing Jonathan Santana into the middle. Equally blocking up the middle to squeeze Ganso made sense against Brazil. Martino's approach may not be thrilling, but it is pragmatic, and it has got Paraguay to a first final in 32 years. There it will meet a side shaped by much the same principles but with better creators.
Markarian may be leading Peru into the playoff for third, but this is a final in his image.