Uruguay’s new coach has a hard act to follow. The nearly 16-year reign of Oscar Washington Tabarez was epic, taking the team to a trio of World Cup appearances after missing out on three of the previous four editions, essentially dragging the two-time winners back to football’s top echelon.
The dream was to bow out on a high in Qatar next year, but a sudden collapse in qualification, with four successive defeats, has forced a change. There was briefly a hope that River Plate’s Marcelo Gallardo might be tempted to take the job. There was speculation that he might be ready to move on, and he began his coaching career in Uruguay. But he announced that he would be staying in Argentina.
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After that, former striker and Under-20 coach Diego Aguirre — a conventional counter-attacking coach — seemed a shoe in. But Uruguay have ended up going in potentially a more interesting direction.
The man who has been given the job, Diego Alonso, is less predictable, and more fascinating. A tall striker whose club career started and ended in Uruguay, Alonso played in Argentina, a number of clubs in Spain (most notably Valencia), Mexico and China. He played a few games for the national team, especially in the 1999 Copa America, and ended his playing days with a Penarol side that reached the final of the Copa Libertadores in 2011 — the closest a Uruguayan club has come to winning South America’s major club competition since the late 1980s.
Alonso owed his longevity to a smidgin of talent — and, much more so, to a splendid combination of determination and intelligence. These virtues were quickly apparent when he took up coaching. After a short spell in charge of little Bella Vista in Uruguay, Alonso first declared his coaching credentials with Guarani in neighbouring Paraguay. The way he went about his business could be delightfully unorthodox. He said, for example, that there would be no moaning about referees. Sometimes they made mistakes. Sometimes they were not very good. They might even be biased.
But this was outside the control of him and his team — so adapt and live with it. In training games he would sometimes take the whistle and on purpose give bad decisions- – preparing the players for setbacks they might have to overcome on matchday. In the world of football, where few want to take responsibility and so everyone wants to blame the referee, this was an approach that was as sensible as it was rare and refreshing.
The coaching career of Alonso was clearly one to be followed. It has taken him, with highs and lows, across the Americas. His time last year with Major League Soccer’s Inter Miami CF was not a success. But before that he won the CONCACAF Champions League with two Mexican clubs, Pachuca and Monterrey. And life has also taken him back to Spain, where he has been based since leaving Miami.
Alonso’s Spanish links helped him land the new job. Inside the Uruguayan FA it was clear that one of the things that had worked in Alonso’s favour was that he will be bringing in Oscar Ortega, Atletico Madrid’s Uruguayan physical preparation specialist. And a couple of Atletico Madrid players will now be uppermost in the mind of the new coach.
Centre-back Jose Maria Gimenez can be injury prone. Uruguay will want to wrap him up in cotton wool. The statistics speak for themselves. In the ten rounds of World Cup qualifiers where Gimenez has been present, Uruguay have let in nine goals. In the four he has missed, they conceded 12. This is a part of the team that needs a renewal. Brazil licked their lipes recently when they took on a Uruguay side with Diego Godin and Sebastian Coates. “Two slow centre-backs!” said a member of the Brazil coaching staff as the side cruised to a 4-1 win.
What can Alonso do? Hand more responsibility to Barcelona’s Ronald Araujo? Or bring in some new faces? And with goalkeeper Fernando Muslera out of action for a while, there is a need for a replacement. Sergio Rochet of Nacional? It is a big decision — as is the choice that Alonso needs to make up front, in the other dilemma involving an Atletico Madrid player. Is Luis Suarez still the main striker? Can Uruguay still play with the now veteran combination of Suarez and Edinson Cavani?
He has other options up front, headed by Benfica’s Darwin Nunez. But at least as important as the names is the shape of the side. Recent evidence would suggest that the team now play their best football with one out-and-out striker, a formation which seems likely to get the best out of a talented generation of midfielders. But Alonso will not have to face the main problem which undermined the final stages of the reign of Tabarez — that provided by the fixture list.
In September, Uruguay took seven points from their three games. No one did better. But then things got tougher. The four consecutive defeats came home and away to Argentina, away to Brazil and away to Bolivia at the extreme altitude of La Paz. It is a nightmare run.
Uruguay are seventh in CONMEBOL’s qualifying table but they are just a point behind the side in fourth, the last automatic qualifying slot, and the one in fifth, the play-off place.
On paper at least, it looks much easier for Alonso in the final four rounds. Next month his side travel to meet Paraguay, who have only beaten Venezuela in the entire campaign. Then they are at home to Venezuela, who have lost all of their away matches. Then in March they are at home to Peru — a game that Uruguay would always expect to win, before closing the campaign in a potentially crunch game away to Chile.
With a relatively friendly fixture list in front of them, it is surely not asking too much of Alonso’s Uruguay to make up a deficit of a single point. And if it proves beyond them, it would be a surprise indeed if he puts the blame on the referees.