Japan's surprise draw shows Uruguay have some things to fix
Brazil drawing with Venezuela in Group A, Argentina's problems in Group B -- but Uruguay being held 2-2 by Japan in Group C is the biggest surprise so far in the 2019 Copa America.
The other guest side, Qatar, are at full strength, with the team that won the Asian title earlier this year. They are battle hardened, and clearly in a more advanced stage of preparation than many of their South American opponents. None of this applied to Japan versus Uruguay.
Firstly, because the Uruguayans are by no means a team in transition. On paper they are at least as good as last year, when they reached the quarterfinals of the World Cup -- an impression they confirmed when they blew away Ecuador 4-0 in their opening game.
And Japan are nowhere near full strength. Most of their best players were not freed to play in this tournament, and so with an eye on next year's Olympics they have brought a young, experimental squad. And yet they twice took the lead, and appeared unfortunate to concede a penalty given by the referee after consulting video evidence. Though they were hanging on grimly at the end, Japan were well worth their surprise point.
So how can the inexplicable be explained? The first point is that Japan played extremely well. Their opening 4-0 defeat to Chile was something of a false scoreline, two late goals making it look like a rout. In fact, Japan gave as good as they got for most of the game, and missed five clear chances. Four of them fell to a rookie centre forward. Had Leicester City's Shinji Okazaki started, it could have been a different story. Okazaki was one of six changes made for the Uruguay game. Japan had more experience on the field, and it showed. Even so, the expectation was that Uruguay would have too much for them.
Japan, though, moved the ball extremely well -- and this poses some interesting questions for their opponents. Uruguay coach Oscar Washington Tabarez detests conceding goals. He will have identified individual components to both of Japan's goals; for the first one left back Diego Laxalt had picked up an injury -- he was replaced straight afterwards -- and was unable to close down the scorer, Koji Miyoshi. And the second came from one of those blunders which from time to time afflict keeper Fernando Muslera, flapping at a cross and dropping the ball at the feet of Miyoshi.
Even so, Tabarez will be concerned at the way that his side were stretched -- and he will surely spend some time dwelling on the way that he sets up his side. The 4-4-2 system is almost forced on Uruguay. The presence of two world class strikers, Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani, leaves little alternative. Tabarez did play with a back three for a while, and it might be something to think about now. But he has not played that way for six years, and there is little time to make such a drastic change to the architecture of a team in the course of the competition.
So how can he balance out his four-man midfield? He has settled on two wide midfielders -- Nahitan Nandez on the right and Nico Lodeiro on the left. This gives him width, and allows Cavani and Suarez to operate close to goal. But it puts pressure on the two in the centre, who can find themselves outnumbered. One of them, Matias Vecino, picked up a muscular injury in the opening game and will play no further part in the tournament.
Initially, this did not look like a huge problem. Lucas Torreira is an accomplished replacement. But the problem here is that captain and centre-back Diego Godin is reaching the age when he needs more protection. He can occasionally look vulnerable, and the space in front of him needs to be defended. Vecino was the best at this task. Torreira was unable to impose himself on the Japanese midfield. For the last 20 minutes Tabarez sent on Federico Valverde of Real Madrid to address this very problem -- to give Uruguay three men in the middle, win the battle in that sector and push Japan back towards their own goal.
The probability is, then, that in the later stages against the better teams, Uruguay will hope to achieve more solidity by packing the midfield. This obliges Suarez and Cavani to cover more ground -- when Uruguay play this way they usually take it in turns to move out towards one of the flanks. It puts more strain on the veteran pair -- but it would seem to be Uruguay's best bet of achieving the balance between attack and defence capable of taking them to the title.