World Cup 2014: Uruguay 2-1 England

June 20, 2014
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Both teams came away from their opening games with losses, yet the atmosphere surrounding those results differed hugely. Uruguay hadn’t simply been caught out by Costa Rica, they had been outplayed by the group’s supposed whipping boys, while England had been beaten reasonably comfortably by an average Italian side, yet they had been more positive than ever seen before under Roy Hodgson’s tenure as England manager.

To reflect the mood, Oscar Tabarez made five changes from the opening game, while Hodgson continued with the same eleven. Changing to a 4-4-2 diamond, Diego Lugano, Maxi Pereira, Walter Gargano, Christian Stuani and Diego Forlan made way for Jose Giminez, Alvaro Pereira, Alvaro Gonzalez, Nicolas Lodeiro and, most importantly of all, Luis Suarez in the Uruguay line-up.

There was also an important alteration in the England team though, with Wayne Rooney moving back into his favoured role as the number ten and Raheem Sterling moving wide. Sterling had been the catalyst for the majority of England’s positive attacking play against Italy, his fearless dribbling proving difficult for the Italians. A post-match comment revealed that Sterling’s move to the centre was actually intended as a defensive move to stop Andrea Pirlo, which didn’t work because was playing in a different position to his usual role at the base of the midfield, yet ended up giving England a direct threat to the Italian defence.

Without a defensive job to do, Rooney was moved back into the centre, yet Sterling probably still would have been the wiser choice in the middle. Against Costa Rica, Diego Lugano and Diego Godin had struggled to deal with the pace of Joel Campbell running at them as neither are the most mobile of defenders anymore. Lugano was injured for the England game, yet it was only Jose Gimenez’s 25th career appearance and having Sterling driving at the heart of the defence could have caused massive problems for Uruguay.

It was clear from the off that Uruguay had improved greatly. Against Uruguay, they had sleepwalked to a lead through a penalty and then punished for their laziness, devoid of any imagination when they needed it. Here, they were were twice as fast, harassing England players whenever they had the ball and generally playing in a stereotypically Uruguayan way, pushing the rules of the game to their boundaries. Once they had the ball, they moved it quickly, feeding it toward their returning star striker.

While the Uruguayans impressed collectively, it was obvious two had special jobs. Egidio Arevalo Rios stuck close to Rooney wherever he went, biting at him as he received the ball and frequently nicking in ahead to steal the ball. The other was Edinson Cavani, whose career has perhaps been damaged by his willingness to sacrifice himself for the team, not unlike Andres Iniesta early on at Barcelona. Cavani’s best position is as a lone striker like the role he played at Napoli, but for Uruguay he plays behind Suarez, with his job here being to stop Steven Gerrard. Tabarez said after the game: “Cavani played a very important role neutralising [Gerrard]. Gerrard couldn’t create the opportunities he normally does because Cavani was facing him most of the time and stopping him. They had more difficulties today than they normally do reaching the goal. That was the key.”

Arevalo Rios marking Rooney (red) and Cavani marking Gerrard (yellow)

This meant England’s two main creative outlets were kept quiet, and they found it impossible to get the ball forward, resorting to long balls that gave possession straight back to Uruguay. None of Daniel Sturridge, Sterling or Danny Welbeck are suited to receiving long balls and Jordan Henderson was quiet. While Gerrard’s inability to play in a midfield two is well documented, Henderson is also much better-suited to playing in a three. He’s a shuttler who looks to pass and move rather than drive forward and was even shunted out wide at Sunderland when played in a 4-4-2. With the other two in the midfield triangle man-marked, there was little chance Henderson was going to create much.

The side-effect to Cavani staying so close to Gerrard was that when Uruguay got the ball, Cavani was immediately able to get into space behind him to receive the ball. Gerrard is notoriously terrible at positioning himself defensively and would often try to burst forward and win a tackle in the congested midfield rather than stand his ground. Uruguay’s opener came from Lodeiro evading his tackle, laying it off for Cavani who was given the time to curl in an inch-perfect cross for Suarez to finish despite England having plenty of defensive cover.

Uruguay continued to dominate in the early stages of the second half, but England gained their footing in the game by pushing Leighton Baines and Glen Johnson forward. By this point in the game Rooney had realised Arevalo Rios wasn’t going to give him any space, so he was venturing out wide and pushing on as a number nine rather than get marked out of the game in the centre. Sturridge was moving wide and deeper to make up for this and at one point pulled off a great turn to take two Uruguayans out the game, slid the ball into Johnson, who rolled it across the goal for Rooney to tap in at the far post having made a run from the left.

Tabarez brought off Lodeiro for Stuani, switching to a 4-4-1-1 to give Uruguay more of a presence out wide, but Hodgson persisted with this method bringing off Welbeck and Sterling, both of whom had been wasted out wide, for Ross Barkley and Adam Lallana to drift into the middle, narrowing Uruguay’s midfield.

It didn’t work obviously and Uruguay regained their lead with a long ball from Fernando Muslera. Cavani darted off the frontline, dragging the clueless Phil Jagielka up with him, to contest the ball with Gerrard. The ball deflected off England’s captain into the path of Suarez, already running off the last defender’s shoulder onto it to smash past the hapless Joe Hart. It was eerily similar to Miroslav Klose’s opening goal in that 4-1 thrashing four years ago at the hands of Germany, only this time England hadn’t even made it out the group.

This was the England we know and resent. Like a dog, trying hard but not having the metal capacity to understand why the mean man in sky blue keeps hitting them, organised by a master that doesn’t know how to properly train them. Home even earlier than usual, but somehow it’s not as bad as when those foreigners were in charge. In 2016, they are going to play attacking football, don’t you know? Even though the manager’s never played attacking football in 40 years. Or done anything of note.

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