AMMAN, JORDAN—Oscar Washington Tabarez is beginning to look his age now. Four years ago, at the World Cup, with his neat navy blazers and striped ties, the carefully parted steel-grey hair and the benignly intelligent eyes, he looked like the precinct chief in a host of 70s and 80s cop shows.
Now, with his limp ever more pronounced, and the skin of his face a little softer than it was, he has become the retired veteran the mavericks on the street go to when they need some friendly but unsparing advice. He remains one of the most thoughtful and astute coaches in the world game.
The fashion now is for philosophers: for the likes of Marcelo Bielsa, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who espouse a doctrine that informs their tactical decisions. Tabarez leans politically of the left and even named his daughter Tania after Che Guevara’s last girlfriend. But from a footballing point of view he is essentially a pragmatist.
Uruguayan teams of the 80s had a terrible reputation for violence and cynicism, something that was unconvincingly justified by reference to "garra", a term that supposedly sums up the Uruguayan national character. Literally it means "claw", but it has come to encompass toughness, grit, determination, streetwiseness and cunning.
In his first spell in charge of the national team, Tabarez managed to wrest the interpretation of garra away from thuggishness towards resilience, and he is reaping the benefit now, his second term having brought a World Cup semi-final, a Copa America title and, surely, another World Cup qualification.
There was perhaps no national team in the world less likely to quail amid the passion of the Amman National Stadium than Uruguay and, sure enough, they won the first leg of their play-off against Jordan on Wednesday 5-0. What was perhaps most notable about them was their restraint: they held Jordan at arm’s length and calmly picked them off when they needed to. A five-minute spell shortly after half-time aside, Uruguay barely conceded a chance.
Tabarez had to replace the goalkeeper Fernando Muslera with Martin Silva. But the only outfield change Tabarez made to the side that had beaten Argentina last month was to bring in Nicolas Lodeiro for Walter Gargano in central midfield, giving the team a more creative aspect.
Sure enough Lodeiro made the second and scored the third.
The shift was typical of Tabarez’s tactical method. He is quite happy to adapt to the opposition and freely shifts from 3-4-1-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-3-3, with numerous variants in between. Against Argentina, it was a 4-4-2, with the two central midfielders sitting deep, occupying the space in front of the back four.
Against Jordan, Egidio Arevalo Rios took on that role alone, allowing Lodeiro to play further up the pitch and enhancing Uruguay’s attacking angles.
With Diego Forlan now 34 and seemingly more of an impact sub, Tabarez seems to have turned against 4-3-3, preferring to use Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani as a fluid front pair, but such is their flexibility that he can play either wide if required. Against Venezuela in June last year, for instance, he played Cavani on the right of a 4-2-3-1, with Forlan behind Suarez and Alvaro Pereira on the left.
Similarly, Tabarez used a back three less and less as qualifying went on, but in the two Pereiras, Maxi and Alvaro, he has a pair of hard-working wide players who can operate at full-back, in midfield or as wing-backs. That, really is what makes Uruguay so dangerous. Predicting how they will play is almost impossible.
Tabarez has drilled them to be versatile and simply selects the shape that best counters the opposition. The only fixed point is Arevalo Rios, an aggressive and energetic presence at the back of midfield who is, for obvious reasons, nicknamed 'the Catcher'.
So Suarez and Cavani may be major stars, but, without a doubt, the most important figure in the Uruguay set-up is Tabarez.