Before he bit an opposing player in Uruguay’s final group match with Italy, Luis Suarez seemed to staking a claim to be one of the world’s two or three greatest players. Without Suarez in the lineup, Uruguay had been soundly beaten by Costa Rica. He returned and scored two goals to beat England, 2-1. Then in the match against Italy, Suarez had been the danger man again, creating attacks and working hard enough that the other ten Uruguay players could focus on stifling Italy’s attack.
So I took a look in my database to see how well Uruguay has performed without Suarez. I did not find a large sample of matches, given how integral Suarez is to this side, but I found four reasonably competitive matches: two friendlies against good European competition in France and Ireland, one South American qualifier against Venezuela, and the Costa Rica match from this World Cup.
In these matches, Uruguay created only three truly good chances, along with a smattering of reasonable attempts from the danger zone. Its attack was simply ineffective.
An expected goals ratio of under 0.400 is bad no matter what it is compared to. But what I find interesting, when I compare these matches to Uruguay’s performance with Suarez in the lineup, is that the decline is entirely on the attacking side. In their 15 other South American qualifying matches, Uruguay conceded roughly the same number of good chances per match as they did in these four matches without Suarez. However, the attack was much better.
Given sampling issues, this study can be no more than suggestive. I have had to lump together some unlike things, in particular two friendly matches, to get a reasonable comparison set. But the numbers agree with my observation from Uruguay’s group matches. Suarez is necessary to Uruguay’s attack.
Now, after the loss to Costa Rica, Uruguay manager Oscar Tabarez shifted his tactics drastically. He instituted traditionally English tactics focused on playing long balls and man-marking the best opposition passers. Edinson Cavani, Uruguay’s other star, has been the key to this man-marking defensive strategy. He has tracked the best deep-lying passers on the other team, first Steven Gerrard and then Andrea Pirlo. As noted by Natalia Arroyo during the Italy match, Cavani was covering the full width of the pitch defensively.
— Natalia Arroyo (@natarroyo) June 24, 2014
With Suarez out, Cavani will likely be employed as a lone striker, as he was against Costa Rica. It is likely that Diego Forlan, who has not seen a minute of play since the Costa Rica match, will not be his support. Forlan appeared old and slow, every bit the worst player in the match as projected by Goal Impact. He was doing none of the excellent defensive work that Cavani did from his position.
Now, the fortunate thing for Uruguay is that their opponent, Colombia, does not feature a deep-lying playmaker in the style of Pirlo. Colombia’s creativity is provided more by its advanced midfielders, in particular James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado. James has been the best attacking midfielder of the tournament with three goals and the second highest expected scoring contribution of any non-striker.
If Tabarez stays with his man-marking defensive scheme, it seems likely he will try to pack another deep-lying midfielder into the squad. I would not be surprised to see a 3-5-1-1 with Nicolas Lodeiro behind Cavani in attack and regularly dropping into a defensive role for a 5-4-1 when out of possession. That would give Tabarez the bodies he needs to mark Cuadrado and James in attacking midfield positions, but it would leave Cavani very much isolated.
Edinson Cavani is an excellent player, but he has not shown the ability to create goals on his own as Suarez does. Unless he can have the game of his life against Colombia, Uruguay is likely to struggle badly to reach the quarterfinals.
All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.
Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A. My full World Cup projections and methodology can be found at SB Nation.