NOTE: This is translated from an original piece for ESPN Argentina.
MONTEVIDEO, Uruguay -- In 100 days' time the 2018 World Cup will kick off in Russia and the Uruguay team is undergoing the important process of trying to change their mindset. The team, led by Oscar Tabarez, is facing the challenge of converting their midfield power into a fluid attack.
Throughout the years, Uruguay's success has been based upon their defensive strength. They wouldn't always need the ball to harm their opponents; if they were patient, they were able to defend, take their chances at the right time and eventually succeed. But the team is built differently now thanks to a new generation of talent, forcing Tabarez to make some changes.
During the last rounds of qualifying, Tabarez withdrew some hard-working players who weren't creating much and decided to give in-form young players a chance. This trend will likely continue in Russia. "We didn't have players capable of keeping up with the demands of the modern," said Tabarez to ESPN. "[We didn't have] players with such physical efficiency. Today's game involves a lot of running, is very intense and [the younger players] play well."
Against Bolivia, the match in which Uruguay booked their ticket to Russia, the midfield had the presence of Matias Vecino (26 years old) as a central midfielder, Federico Valverde (19) on the right and Rodrigo Bentancur (20) on the left. Further ahead, Giorgan De Arrascaeta (23) served as the primary playmakers. Tabarez deployed the same players in a different system against Austria in the first friendly after qualifying: Vecino in central midfield, Valverde and Bentancur further ahead and De Arrascaeta on the left. In the friendly against Poland, Valverde didn't play but Nahitan Nandez and Gaston Pereiro, another pair of 22-year-olds on the rise, were in.
Beyond the names, the change is clear although Tabarez knows he must keep looking for players with different attributes while also settling on a formation. "My aim is to have a list of 23 men with totally different assets, even if they play the same positions. Because we are working with the World Cup in mind, we cannot afford to say 'we have a good team no matter our rivals.' We wouldn't be honouring Uruguayan football and its history. Either way, we will have a wider spectrum of players to choose from," said the manager.
It might explain why Tabarez called up Lucas Torreira, central midfielder at Sampdoria, for the China Cup (two FIFA games at the end of March) for his national team debut. The way he runs the field, his intensity and the way he defends provide the coach with another option in midfield. By bringing Torreira in, the coach allowed himself one of the few exceptions in recent years. Tabarez is fully committed to this process. Of the last 24 players he added after the World Cup in Rio, only three hadn't played in junior competitions.
The day everything changed
It was 2006 in New York. Tabarez had just started working for the team and some of the players didn't even answer his call. The manager faced the team and demanded they show serious commitment in order to achieve success. He added he would let them play badly in a competition but would not accept a lack of bonding. Twelve years later, reality has shown them how valuable that message has been.
Since his arrival, Uruguay has turned into an elite team that is always among the strongest candidates in every competition and never misses the most important of them all, the World Cup. After 40 years, La Celeste will play their third consecutive in Russia 2018. South Africa 2010, Brazil 2014, Russia 2018, Youth Championships, players coming from Under-17 or Under-20 and will make their debut in the major tournament after years of waiting.
Uruguay's evolution was born inside the mind of Oscar Tabarez, a masterful man. Sensible and wise, he's displaying the best squad selection process of, at least the past five decades. With a breed of players who have already performed in 2010 and 2014 and who will also play in 2018, like as Fernando Muslera, Diego Godin, Maximiliano Pereira, Martin Caceres, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, he'll be adding a generation that leads the way with a modern style of play, commanded by Vecino, Bentancur, Valverde, Nandez, De Arrascaeta and Maximiliano Gomez.
A new era for Uruguay
In football, there are matches you have to win in order to be recognized and there are others you have to win in order to show how valuable those earlier victories have been. The team led by Tabarez has a lot of epic moments, amazing victories and unforgettable stretches. But they have never experienced a night such as the last qualifying match against Bolivia.
It's impossible to analyse what happened in Bolivia without getting back a few years. The competition started without the team's stars, Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. But their absences didn't alter Tabarez' approach and with intensity as their symbol, they proved to be a strong squad.
Without his talismans, Tabarez was forced to make a decision. He modified the squad with the addition of Bentancur, Valverde, Nandez, Gaston Pereiro, Mauricio Lemos and Gomez. In the doubleheader against Argentina and Paraguay, they were strong all over the pitch and with four points out of six, they secured their place at Russia 2018. Godin was superb, Jose Maria Gonzalez was brilliant and the team prevented their opponents to score.
Against Bolivia, they played a midfield in which the youngest player was 19 years old and the oldest was 24. Up front, Suarez and Cavani form an elite duo capable of breaking down the most complex defences. There isn't a pair who will keep up the competitive tension as they do. Powerful, aggressive and relentless, they're the worst nightmare for any opponent. Godin's own goal was a mere anecdote for the eventual 4-2 win.
While there were five teams with their future at stake entering the final round of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying, Uruguay entered the field and calmly waved their fans to victory. The story of this immortal team will go on.