Four nations from South America are bound for the upcoming World Cup tournament in Qatar after a gruelling qualifying campaign. In this article, Simon Edwards explores where value could lie, with a look at the improving Argentina and the new-look Uruguay side who have a fresh approach under the helm of Diego Alonso.
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Analysing Argentina at the World Cup
After years of chaos, Argentina finally has a really good side again. They finished qualifying unbeaten and lifted their first silverware in over 20 years as they won the Copa America.
Lionel Messi no longer has to carry the entire creative responsibility with the emergence of a really creative and nicely balanced midfield. With Emiliano Martínez, at last they have a top goalkeeper and Cristian Romero goes a long way to solving their defensive issues.
There are still some areas of weakness but they now have a clear identity, confidence, and plenty of momentum as they approach the tournament.
How has Argentina performed at the World Cup?
Argentina have lifted the World Cup on two occasions and they have been involved in many iconic moments in the tournament. Their first title win came on home ground, with Mario Kempes and captain Daniel Passarella the stars of the 1978 side that beat the Netherlands 3-1 in the final.
The remarkable performance of the great Diego Maradona drove the side to retain the title in Mexico in 1986. El Diego almost repeated the feat in Italia 90 but a late Andreas Brehme penalty won the game for West Germany. Current icon Messi was the star in 2014 as Argentina made the final but were again denied by a late German goal in a 1-0 defeat.
In 2018, the side arrived at the tournament in disarray but much has changed since and expectations have again returned to their usual lofty heights.
How did Argentina qualify for the World Cup 2022?
Argentina somehow stumbled their way over the line to qualify for Russia 2018 on the final day but there was none of that drama this time around. This is a far more solid, unified, coherent Argentina and Messi no longer feels he has to try to do everything on his own.
The Copa America 2021 was the first title won by Argentina since 1993.
The side secured qualification months ahead of much of their competition and were unbeaten in the 17 games they played, winning 11 and drawing six. This time around a World Cup place was never really in doubt. While they didn’t have quite the same defensive resolve or attacking threat of Brazil, their performance was much improved and provided real cause for optimism.
Another huge boost in confidence came with their 2021 Copa America win. This was the first title won by Argentina since 1993 and their 1-0 final victory over Brazil was huge. The success consolidated the position of Lionel Scaloni as the national team manager and gave Messi his first senior national team trophy.
Scaloni, initially appointed as a cheap interim option, has done a remarkable job and has won the trust of his big, high-profile stars. Argentina now look like a coherent, structured, disciplined side that are providing Messi with the perfect platform to shine. They were lucky to make it to Russia 2018 but in Qatar 2022, they are real contenders.
Analysing Argentina tactical approach to soccer
The two biggest additions for Argentina in recent years have been Aston Villa’s Emiliano Martínez in goal and Tottenham’s Cristian Romero at the back. Martínez is a top goalkeeper but also a big personality who has brought confidence and swagger back to Argentina after years of uncertainty.
Despite that, a big concern for the team is their defence. Centre-back Nicolás Otamendi has played consistently for Argentina over the last year; however, he is not the most reliable defensive player. He has lost pace in recent years and his passing from deep can be fairly erratic. To me, he always looks on the verge of getting a red card, making a big defensive lapse, or making a wayward pass in a dangerous area.
The youngsters coming through in defence are either not yet ready or have seen their progress stalled. This could be a problem area for Argentina. However, they do have a number of solid attacking full-back options including Lyon's Nicolás Tagliafico on the left and probably Atletico Madrid's Nahuel Molina ahead of Sevilla’s Gonzalo Montiel on the right.
The youngsters coming through in defence are either not yet ready or have seen their progress stalled.
In front of them, however, they are now blessed with a number of very complete central midfielders who have slightly different strengths but no glaring weaknesses. Rodrigo de Paul has been a key starter in recent years with his passing ability, work rate, and awareness. He has been paired with either PSG’s deep-lying playmaker Leandro Paredes (currently on loan to Juventus), Brighton’s creative box-to-box player Alexis MacAllister or Real Betis’ ball-winner Guido Rodríguez. While each offers something slightly different, none are only defensive or only creative. This means the side can progress the ball and find Messi in advanced areas without compromising their defensive stability.
This strong midfield means Messi, Lautaro Martínez, and Ángel Di María can link up in attack, with the likes of Manchester City’s Julián Álvarez, Tottenham’s Giovani Lo Celso (on loan to Villarreal) and Inter’s Joaquín Correa all options off the bench.
After years of Messi dependence, Argentina are finally good even without their star and the legendary number 10 can see that. Messi can now focus on picking his decisive passes, firing from range, and orchestrating the attack. In previous years, Argentina’s only strategy was to give it to Messi and hope for the best.
Key players on the Argentina soccer team
All of the headlines will be on Lionel Messi as always and rightfully so. While he hasn’t duplicated his almost-impossible Barcelona scoring numbers at PSG, he has shown great quality and remarkable creative output. Messi truly shines when he trusts those around him and has runners, and after years of frustration, he now has this with Argentina.
He may be slightly short of his stunning best but Messi is highly motivated and has the support he needs now with the national team.
While sometimes in the shadow of Messi, Di María is another key star who will be important in Qatar. Hard-working, collective, quick, and decisive in big matches, the Juventus forward has also benefited from the renewed balance of this side. At times criticised for big misses, fans have really grown to appreciate what a big contribution he makes.
Di María is hard-working, collective, quick, and decisive in big matches.
Finally, Emiliano Martínez in goal has been fundamental in this Argentine revolution. His goalkeeping fundamentals are almost always faultless and his consistency has brought much-needed confidence to the previously shaky back line. In addition, his personality on the field is huge. He is always backing up his teammates and he loves to get in the head of opposition forwards.
His trash-talking and confidence could prove decisive in the pressure of a penalty shootout.
Outright odds for Argentina to win the World Cup
Many mistakenly had Argentina amongst the favourites in 2018 but in reality, their second-round elimination far exceeded South American expectations. Things couldn’t be more different as we approach the 2022 World Cup.
Argentina are enjoying the momentum of an excellent qualification run, the confidence boost of a first Copa America win in over 20 years, and then a 3-0 demolition of European champions Italy in the Finalissima 2022. The team may still be a little vulnerable defensively and the inclusion of Otamendi will terrify Argentine fans but the squad is looking strong.
Analysing Uruguay at the World Cup
During this year’s World Cup qualifying, Uruguay have had to work through an important evolution but they have come out of it looking stronger. The great Óscar Tabárez has now stepped aside with Diego Alonso developing a system that places more emphasis on midfield quality.
Uruguay previously relied on a pair of world-class central defenders and a pair of world-class strikers. The four are still important members of the squad but dynamic midfield interchanges have taken the place of a more back-to-front approach.
This side has a high performance ceiling and their recent competitive form has been much improved. There is still work to be done ahead of the tournament but if they can get out of their tricky group, momentum could drive them on to really compete in the final stages.
How has Uruguay performed at the World Cup?
Uruguay were the first World Cup champions and the tournament represents a huge part of the small South American country’s history. Many Uruguayans claim, and with good reason, that they have been world champions on four occasions.
In the 1920s, the Olympic Games featured the most prestigious international football tournament in the world and Uruguay won gold in 1924 and 1928. Given their dominant performances in the Olympics, the country was chosen to host the first World Cup and they won the title in Montevideo in 1930.
The next World Cup they entered was in 1950 in Brazil. Uruguay faced the hosts in the final game with La Celeste needing a win to secure the title. With almost 200,000 Brazilians confident of victory, Uruguay won 2-1 in a game that became known as Maracanazo.
While they are yet to win the title again, the country has consistently punched above its weight in the competition. They finished fourth three times and progressed from their group on 10 of their 13 appearances.
How did Uruguay qualify for the World Cup 2022?
This World Cup qualifying campaign was one filled with huge change for Uruguay but things have really begun to fall into place.
In 2021, Óscar Tabárez stepped down as national team manager after 228 games, four World Cup appearances and seven Copa Americas. This was a huge moment and the decision was made while plenty of work was still to be done to secure qualification.
Tabárez departed following four consecutive defeats while new boss Diego Alonso kicked off his reign with four consecutive wins to secure qualification. Uruguay had put less focus on the tactical role of their midfield.
Uruguay ultimately qualified for the World Cup in third with eight wins, four draws, and six defeats. They just edged ahead of Ecuador but finished well adrift of Argentina and Brazil.
Analysing Uruguay's tactical approach to soccer
For years, Uruguay were a side that had a pair of world-class forwards (Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez) and a pair of world-class central defenders (Diego Godín and José María Giménez). This was their key to success and to some extent the midfield played supporting roles, adding protection to the back line and quickly getting the ball to their dangerous forwards.
Midfield control is now at the heart of Uruguay’s tactical approach.
As Suárez, Cavani, and Godin have begun to lose their physical edge and new creative midfielders have emerged, there has been an awkward tension. The Tabárez approach had brought incredible success at the highest level but the emerging talent was pulling Uruguay in a new direction.
New boss Alonso has embraced this and now midfield control is at the heart of Uruguay’s tactical approach. Tottenham’s Rodrigo Bentancur and Real Madrid’s Federico Valverde are two of the first names on the team sheet with the pair able to win the ball and control possession in the middle of the field. They can be joined by box-to-box midfielder Matías Vecino or ball-winner Lucas Torreira in a three when needed.
Liverpool’s huge signing Darwin Núñez brings energy, physicality, and a focal point in attack and has often been paired with the clinical Suárez. Creative inverted wingers Giorgian De Arrascaeta, Nicolás de la Cruz and Facundo Pellistri can then link attacks by drifting inside from wide areas.
It will be interesting to see if Suárez, who is now back playing in Uruguay, retains his starting place as Núñez alone should be capable of occupying defenders and allowing a plethora of creative attacking midfield options to interchange. He may, at times, find himself introduced off the bench and this could be decisive in the last 20 minutes of a match.
Key players on the Uruguay soccer team
Federico Valverde is an absolute joy to watch in the midfield for Uruguay and he will be key in controlling the game. Hard-working, composed, creative, and technical, Valverde has been key in this evolution of Uruguay.
Uruguay’s success has been built on organisation and discipline combined with the attacking quality of Diego Forlán, Suárez, and Cavani in recent World Cups. Núñez is not quite seen on that level by the Uruguayan fans but his quality is clear and in this tournament he could establish his position amongst those attacking greats.
This will be a huge tournament for Núñez in attack.
Finally, a strong foundation will be key and José María Giménez will need to step up as the leader, as his long-term defensive partner Diego Godin begins to lose a step. Giménez has been excellent for years at the back for Uruguay and he will now need to really embody the famous Garra Charrua spirit.
Outright odds for Uruguay to win the World Cup
Uruguay will back themselves to emerge from an evenly matched but challenging group. For historical reasons, the game against Ghana will be particularly interesting while Portugal will provide a real challenge. An opening-day win against South Korea is key if they are to progress.
Uruguay (priced at 51.480 (+5048)*) have an incredible history at the World Cup and while they are still somewhat of a work in progress, they will fancy their chances of competing with the very best. The group stage will provide a real challenge but if they progress, it will give them a lot of confidence in the knockout round.