The worldly teachings of Uruguay's El Maestro Óscar Tabárez have looked a little puzzling recently. The 66-year-old former school teacher -- who first started coaching his national side in 1988 before returning for his second and current spell 18 years later -- has struggled to resolve La Celeste's recent woes.
Having overseen the best period in recent Uruguayan footballing history with a semi-final finish at the 2010 World Cup before a win in the 2011 Copa América, things now look markedly less impressive for Tabárez, with his team struggling to simply qualify for the next World Cup, as it stands. Ahead of Paraguay's trip to the Estadio Centenario in Montevideo on Friday night, Uruguay are occupying fifth place in the South American qualification table, below Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela. Fifth place is only good enough to qualify for a nervy deciding playoff.
Uruguay have only won twice since the start of 2012, and have seen victory in only three of their nine World Cup qualifying matches. Despite the abundance of talent at his disposal, Tabárez has struggled to find the right formula, tinkering with tactics and formations to little avail. Uruguay's Olympic campaign last summer -- in which Tabárez attempted to utilise the defensive trio which was so effective in 2011 -- promised much but delivered very little, despite the disproportionately large amount of excellent young players the tiny nation continues to produce.
Aside from Edinson Cavani and Luis Suárez, Botafogo's playmaker Nicolás Lodeiro is an exciting attacker, capable of changing a game with his turn of speed and midfield creativity. Southampton's playmaker Gastón Ramírez -- coveted by some of Europe's biggest clubs before this season -- hasn't been able to break into the full international team regularly. And yet, they still haven't impressed.
Possibly resulting from a workmanlike central-midfield, usually including at least one of Inter Milan's box-to-box midfielder Walter Gargano or Palermo's resident tough tackler Egidio Arévalo, they have struggled to maintain possession, while trying unsuccessfully to cram all off their attacking talent into the squad. Cavani has been too often positioned too deep to be effective, even occasionally marginalised out on the flank. It may just be that the coach is spoiled for choice offensively; not knowing his own best team, especially with the evident decline of Diego Forlán, who was such a key part of his noted 3-4-2-1.
Since the Olympic disaster Tabárez has continued his formation shuffling, and there has been some sign that things are beginning to improve, with a couple of encouraging performances against Poland and Spain. Uruguay won the first 3-1 and lost the latter by the same scoreline -- albeit after they'd given Vicente del Bosque's side a scare with some fine high-tempo counter-attacking play.
Dropping both Gargano and Arévalo against Spain in a 4-4-2 meant that Uruguay were much more effective at retaining the ball. Their mobile midfield denied Spain little room offensively, while they had enough creativity to support the mobile attack duo of Cavani and Suárez. It wasn't a stereotypically rigid display of 'two banks of four,' but one which was fluid, with the wide midfielders able to make central runs and vice-versa, while the attackers drifted wide to link play. With a high-tempo performance of energy and discipline, things finally seemed like they were clicking into place.
The immediate question to be addressed on Friday evening is whether they will be able to translate this recent success into a victory against a side which offers a vastly different threat. Uruguay take on the team bottom of the South American qualifying group in underperforming Paraguay, at home in Montevideo. With La Albirroja having not won in Uruguay for almost 12 years to the day, there's no excuse for another failure to deliver.