Óscar Tabarez’s teams have a very distinctive style – they defend deep; they defend well and when the opportunity presents itself, they counter-attack with speed and precision. It helps that they have Luis Suárez and Edinson Cavani up front and they tend to make the most of their chances too. It is also a style that explains why Uruguay’s last six World Cup victories have come by a single-goal margin.

Still, the talk before the tournament was that this Uruguay side was different. The unique spirit of “La Garra Charrua” – which literally means Charruan Claws – is still intact but a far more creative midfield than we have seen in the past Uruguayan sides means they should be taking the fight to the opposition.

Players such as Rodrigo Bentancur (who plays for Juventus) and Matias Vecino (Inter) were supposed to bring about real change; the change that could transform them into a team that doesn’t just win ugly.

But if one was watching the game against Saudi Arabia, it would seem like the promised revolution is nothing more than a sham. Yes, Uruguay won. Yes, Luis Suarez scored. Yes, they sealed a spot in the last 16. Yes, they deserved to win too but the playing style was a poor representation of their potential.

There is no doubting the effectiveness of their approach but against Saudi Arabia, could they have played with more freedom... should they have played with more freedom?

Uruguay heat map. Courtesy: Fifa

Saudi Arabia played well, they went forward, they attacked and they showed that they had recovered well after the 5-0 drubbing in their first game against Russia but Uruguay relied on their great defensive strength to take the the sting out of the match.

Bentancur was busy in the middle and so were the defenders but the rest were largely doing the least possible amount of work.

In Godin and Gimenez, Uruguay have a rare duo that plays together at club level (Atletico Madrid) too. Their co-ordination as always was top notch and both made several important plays through the course of the game but that new generation of dynamic, talented midfielders just went missing.

They had more shots on goal despite having less of the ball – Tabarez’s ideal game. The tactic has brought the La Celeste great success in the past. A fourth place finish at the 2010 World Cup and a Copa America trophy in 2011 but invariably, it feels like those tactics are now holding this side back.

The players have immense respect for Tabarez, who is also a trained history teacher, and that is understandable. He has literally helped rebuild Uruguay football from scratch. Almost every player in the 2018 World Cup squad was given a debut by El Maestro. He is involved at every level – from youth football to the senior level.

But against Saudi Arabia, maybe Tabarez could have allowed his side to play; really play. They didn’t need to play like they had their backs to the wall. They could have gone out and played the way they did in the Qualifiers. Tactical changes can be hard to implement because sometimes, the players just revert to what they are most comfortable doing.

Feel the game

After Uruguay won the 1950 World Cup (they had competed in two World Cup and won both), Jules Rimet – one of the founders of the World Cup – said this: “In football, playing well is not sufficient. You also need to feel it profoundly as does Uruguay.”

Since that day, Uruguay forged a reputation for being tough and temperamental and rough. Tabarez has fought hard to change that in recent years. But that feeling for soccer, now seems to be fading.

In common speak, there are many definitions of garra and not all of them mean having to play a dour brand of football. To some, garra is grit and determination. To others, it is fighting spirit. To still more, it is tenacity and courage in the face of adversity.

Diego Forlan, one of Uruguay football’s greatest stars, was once asked about garra in the magazine FIFA World.

“I’m not a believer in garra,” he had then said. “Garra is misinterpreted. You always have to give it your all on the pitch, but a lot of countries play very well, even though they don’t have Uruguay’s garra and determination. And they win more important titles than us…. Football changed, but we didn’t. And if we don’t start to change, things are going to keep getting worse, and all that garra in the world won’t help us.”

And now once again, Uruguay are on the cusp of a moment where they need to change. They aren’t the underdogs anymore and they shouldn’t think of themselves as that either. The old, defensive counter-attacking tactic served them well but perhaps it is once again time to rouse a different interpretation of Garra – one that suits the times and this team more.