“Set-play practice with the national team is a serious business. You look around and say to yourself: Nobody here is bad in the air. Stay sharp or they’ll get the jump on you," Uruguay defender Alvaro Pereira told FIFA.com, with a wry chuckle, before listing just some of the accomplished headers of the ball in La Celeste squad.
“You’ve got Diego Godin, Martin Caceres, Jose Maria Gimenez, Sebastian Coates, Edinson Cavani, Luis Suarez. And until recently there was Diego Forlan, Sebastian Abreu and Diego Lugano too,” he added, smiling again as he recited a roll call that is less amusing for Uruguay’s opponents. Six of Los Charrúas’ nine goals over four matchdays of 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualifying have come from set pieces. Five of those were headers, a very healthy contribution to the nine-point tally that makes Uruguay the closest pursuers of leaders Ecuador.
Of those five headed goals, two came from Godin, one from Caceres, one by Cavani and the other from Pereira himself who, in Uruguay’s last outing versus Chile, scored his first goal in 31 World Cup qualifiers. Pereira nodded home after latching on to Cavani's flick-on from keeper Fernando Muslera’s long free kick. “The set play wasn’t planned exactly like that, though Edinson was meant to get the flick-on. Switching around to lose your marker and being alert is part of the process,” said the 30-year-old, who can play left-back or on the left side of midfield.
And the fact all three goals in the 3-0 win over the reigning Copa America champions came from set pieces rules out coincidence as a factor. “I don’t know if we’re the best in the region at that, as I don’t want to annoy our Paraguayan friends. They’re very strong at those plays too,” said Palito, with a smile. “It’s something we work on but there’s something natural about it too. We have players who are tall and good headers of the ball. Height alone isn’t always enough though, you have to know how to use aerial play.”
Currently on the books of Argentina’s Estudiantes de La Plata, Pereira was quick to mention the importance of the set-piece takers in Uruguay’s success: “Both [Nicolas] Lodeiro and [Carlos] Sanchez are very accurate. As far as I’m concerned, 70 per cent of a headed goal is down to the delivery”.
A veteran of the World Cups at South Africa 2010 and Brazil 2014, Pereira ruled out the possibility of La Celeste growing over-dependent on their dead-ball prowess. “It’s true that it gives us a bit more reassurance, knowing that sooner or later we’re going to get a free kick or corner in our favour, but it’s no more than that. Anything we can add to our armoury and which helps us win is welcome.”
Defensive solidity and welcome returns
Clearly used to deadly effect in the opposition box, Uruguay’s players have not forgotten how to use their aerial strength in their own area either. In fact, Oscar Tabarez’s charges have kept clean sheets in three of their four Russia 2018 World Cup qualifiers to date. Section leaders Ecuador are the only team to have breached Los Charrúas’ defences thus far, and neither goal in their 2-1 win in Quito came via a set piece.
“I think the key factor is that we all know each other so well,” was Pereira’s verdict on the team’s resilience in defence. “All the time we’ve spent together fosters really good communication out on the pitch. Everyone who’s selected knows exactly what to do and why, and I include the midfielders and strikers in that. On top of that you have individual talent. At the back, Godin and Muslera are playing superbly and we feed off that.”
Though the road to the next World Cup is long, the mood in the camp is buoyant, particularly given the imminent return of none other than Luis Suarez - from the suspension he received at Brazil 2014 - in time for Uruguay’s next qualifying match at home to A Seleção. “As well as one of our leaders on the pitch, we’re getting a friend back too,” underlined Pereira, once of FC Porto, Inter Milan and Brazil’s Sao Paulo. “An important member of the team is returning.”
Indeed, Pereira was quick to enthuse about the heights hit by El Pistolero since joining FC Barcelona, stating his belief that Suarez “will be right in the mix for the Ballon d’Or over the next few years,” before dismissing any concerns of Uruguay leaning too heavily on their superstar goal-getter. “I don’t think that’ll happen, particularly because that’s not what he’s like. He’s never put himself before the team and he’s not going to change now he’s in such brilliant form. We’ll know how to handle things all together.”
That togetherness has come to the fore during Suarez’s lengthy absence, which was allied to that of Cavani in the opening two matchdays of South American Zone qualifying. Players such as Diego Rolan, Abel Hernandez and Cristian Stuani all slotted in admirably when required. “The team has taken on the mind-set that ‘whoever plays will perform’,” said Pereira, as the conversation concluded. “The Uruguay team is like a philharmonic orchestra: when someone is missing, the one coming in plays just as well or better. That’s very reassuring. The squad is doing very well and we’re optimistic.”