He’s only been in charge for little over a year, but Marcelo Bielsa’s fingerprints are all over this Uruguay side. Are they the only realistic challengers to Argentina for the 2024 Copa America crown?

Marcelo Bielsa might be the only man who can stop Argentina from running it back.

Despite suffering a big scare against Ecuador in the quarter-finals, Lionel Messi and Co. remain the big favourites to make it three tournament triumphs in a row, after scooping up Copa America (2021) and World Cup (2022) crowns.

Argentina will meet one of Venezuela or Canada in the semi-finals, and on paper will face their first true test if (when) they reach the final.

If they got there, Uruguay would give them a hell of a test.

They have the small matter of overcoming Brazil in the quarter-finals of the 2024 Copa America first, but the Seleção are not the force of old. They have already lost to Uruguay (and Argentina and Colombia) in qualification for the 2026 World Cup, where they sit sixth in the standings. Plus, they’ll be without Vinícius Júnior for the quarter-final bout.

After 15 years under the stewardship of legendary – albeit pragmatic – coach Óscar Tabárez, Uruguay’s subsequent appointment didn’t work out quite as well. Diego Alonso lasted just 12 games as Uruguay failed to progress from their 2022 World Cup group. In fairness to Alonso, he had a pretty tough act to follow.

After Marcelo Broli took over as caretaker for two games, Bielsa was appointed in May 2023.

With Bielsa in the dugout, Uruguay have been resurgent, winning 10 of their 15 matches with him in charge. Not all wins are created equal, however, and among those 10 victories was a first win over Brazil in 22 years and the first in a decade against Argentina. Record-dismantling wins are certainly one way to get the fans on side.

With El Loco at the helm, Uruguay have progressed serenely through to the quarter-finals of the 2024 Copa America. They won all three of their group matches, scoring nine goals and conceding just one. The ‘reward’ for that dominance is a match-up against Brazil.

But what’s behind Uruguay’s revival? And just how quickly has Bielsa managed to stamp his mark on the way they play?

Let’s look at the numbers.

Hyper-Aggressive Press

One of the most obvious hallmarks of any Bielsa side is a very aggressive man-to-man press. Hardly any player is spared from this responsibility, with the outfielders – apart from an extra central defender – often expected to stick to their opposite man like glue.

Uruguay’s pressing numbers – and their change from their previous Copa America campaign in 2021 – are stark.

They’ve averaged 10 high turnovers per game in the current edition of the tournament. Not only is that a big increase from the 8.4 they averaged in 2021, but it’s a figure that is the most of any team across the last two editions.

The number of passes they allow the opposition to make before engaging – a metric known as PPDA – is staggeringly low at 7.8. Once again, that’s the lowest of any Copa America team over the last two editions, and lower than any team is currently averaging at Euro 2024.

Uruguay Copa America 2021 vs 2024

It’s an effective press, too: Uruguay have already had six shots following a high turnover in the 2024 Copa America, which is more than they mustered in five matches in 2021.

As well as being a very fruitful way of generating dangerous attacks close to the opposition’s goal, an effective high press can be a great way of preventing your opponent from progressing the ball forward. That’s because, assuming everyone is doing their job properly, all opposition attacking players have a defender pressing them in possession.

And Uruguay have been a nightmare to play through. Their suffocating press has meant their opponents have strung just 2.6 passes together on average per possession sequence (that figure was 3.6 in 2021). Furthermore, Uruguay have allowed the teams they’ve played against to progress the ball just 9.3 metres upfield on average, compared to 15m in 2021.

Granted, some of that will be driven by the relatively low calibre of opposition they’ve played so far – we went into great detail on the USA’s failings in possession here – but the point remains that Uruguay are hard to cut through. They’ve allowed the opposition to string together a 10+ passing move that’s ended inside their own box on just one occasion, tied with Argentina for the lowest in the tournament.

Verticality and Speed in Possession

In possession, a key aspect of Bielsa sides is to transition and attack quickly.

Uruguay are no different. The long, intricate spells of possession from their 2021 Copa campaign, where they averaged 3.9 passes per sequence and held the ball for 10.3 seconds on average, are less pronounced. Those numbers are now down to 3.1 and 9.2 respectively in 2024.

Even against poorer opposition when they’ve enjoyed a greater share of possession (like against Bolivia when they had almost 60% of the ball) they still look to play this way to generate chances.

Shortly before Darwin Núñez put them 2-0 up, he was played through on goal after a move that started with the ball in Bolivia’s left-back area.

Uruguay press high, win it back and within four passes, the Liverpool forward is bearing down on goal.

Uruguay transition shot example 1
Uruguay transition shot example 2
Uruguay transition shot example 3
Uruguay transition shot example 4

This style of play was also on show in their famous victory over Argentina, when all six of their attempts on goal came from either a turnover in possession or a direct pass over the top.

Uruguay High Turnovers Copa America 2024

Rotations and Chance Creation Out Wide

As mentioned, Bielsa’s ideal is direct, attacking football played at pace. He favours using width to achieve this, with players rotating constantly to create numerical overloads in wide areas.

His wide midfielders Maxi Araújo and Facundo Pellistri are happy to drift inside to find space, and when they do, Bielsa demands his full-backs get into advanced areas to deliver crosses and cut-backs into the box.

The below short sequence against the USA illustrates that point nicely. Cristian Olivera – who replaced Araújo on the left – drifts inside to occupy the right-back. That leaves acres of space for Matías Viña to gallop into and cross. Olivera even points to where he wants the wide pass to be played.

Uruguay crossing 1
Uruguay crossing 2

It’s no surprise to see that Uruguay have attempted 15 open-play crosses per game at the 2024 Copa America, which ranks third behind only Mexico and Venezuela.

Nahitan Nández has been a great outlet down the right, delivering five open-play crosses on average per game, the fifth-highest rate of any player in the competition and nine more than any teammate. On the left, Viña has a goal and an assist to his name.

A look at where on the pitch Uruguay have attacked further shows the way they use both channels to create.

Uruguay Attacking Thirds Copa America 2024

Bielsa’s full-throttle style is incredibly demanding on his players. It requires every individual to be exceptionally fit, very brave and totally committed to their one-on-one duels. Their man-marking, out-of-possession approach can leave a lot of space to attack if the press is not perfect.

His football therefore doesn’t come without risk, not least at international level where coaches do not get nearly as much training time with their squads as a coach like Bielsa might need.

So far, though, it looks as though his players are buying into his philosophy just as his revered Chile side did. They’ve certainly got the aggression down – as their pressing numbers show – and their 57% duels success rate at this year’s Copa America is better than any side in the competition. Spark, energy and bite are never far from the surface.

If they were to go all the way, it would be a tale of irony. Argentina’s downfall could be brought about by one of their own.

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