Less than a year ago, Uruguay were in disarray.
They took the lead in three consecutive World Cup qualifiers — and lost them all (3-1 to Chile, 4-1 at home to Brazil and 2-1 to Peru). Matters were not improved in the friendlies they played last June — defeats by margins of 3-0 and 3-1 to Italy and Ireland, respectively.
The problem was not so much in defence. It was in midfield, where the quartet chosen by veteran coach Oscar Washington Tabarez were having no influence on the game; they were not supplying the strikers, enjoying controlled possession or protecting the defence.
A few months later, the scenario looks very different. In the last few rounds of World Cup qualification, Uruguay, clinched their place — by their standards in comfort — by refreshing their midfield. Two graduates of last year’s Under-20 side, Federico Valverde of Deportivo La Coruna (on loan from Real Madrid) and Rodrigo Bentancur of Juventus were introduced, giving the team a surge in quality in this vital area of the pitch. And now the transformation seems complete.
Uruguay go off to China later this month for the coming FIFA dates. Tabarez has reserved a total of 27 foreign-based players for these matches — and among them is Lucas Torreira, a 22-year-old little midfield dynamo from Sampdoria in Italy. Brought in for the first time, Torreira is another indication that in Russia, Uruguay may possess a young midfield capable of playing dynamic and attractive football, linking up with both Diego Godin’s combative defensive unit and the lethal frontline of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. And having been handed a favourable draw, Uruguay can prepare for the World Cup in a spirit of some optimism.
Argentina, meanwhile, would seem to have more work to do. At the end of last week, coach Jorge Sampaoli announced his foreign-based players to play friendlies later this month against Spain and Italy. He added, as an aside, that he would rather not play these fixtures, nor the game away to Israel on June 9. Sampaoli would no doubt rather spend his time on the training ground, which is entirely understandable.
It is still not clear whether he has the resources available to play the type of game he favours — with a high press, squeezing the opposition in their half of the field. The problem of such an approach, of course, is the risk of leaving the defensive unit exposed.
Sampaoli said that he has sorted out in his own mind 80 percent of his World Cup squad. But who will do the defending? In his first World Cup qualifiers, he used Federico Fazio in the middle of a back three. But Fazio, who remains in the squad, is painfully slow for such a task. In the crunch last round, against Ecuador, Javier Mascherano anchored the back three, but his lack of height was exposed in the very first minute. And in the friendlies played last November, German Pezzella of Fiorentina (on loan from Real Betis) was brought into the centre of defence. After a 1-0 win against Russia, Argentina collapsed against Nigeria, wasting a two-goal lead to lose 4-2. The team was a defensive shambles, and Pezzella has paid the price. He has been left out of the current squad.
There is a recall for Ramiro Funes Mori, still not back in action for Everton almost a year after injuring his knee on international duty. Funes Mori is erratic, but providing he can make a full recovery, his pace could be useful. And he is well-suited to the left-sided berth in a back three. This would almost certainly mean that Nicolas Otamendi will be switched to the centre. And this June, much may depend on whether he can reproduce his Manchester City form for his country.
Tim Vickery covers South American football for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Tim_Vickery.