Costa Rica defeated South American champions Uruguay 3-1 in Fortaleza in one of the big upsets at the 2014 World Cup. The North Americans’ counter-attacks at pace and Uruguay’s ineffective supply line made for an engrossing match, as the game was marked by quite a few mistakes.
Oscar Tabarez had to make do without the injured Luis Suarez as Uruguay lined up in their familiar 4-3-3. Edinson Cavani and Diego Forlan formed a fearsome attack on paper, one that expected to be supplied well by the two Christians, Stuani and Rodriguez, from the flanks. The experienced center-back pairing of captain Diego Lugano and Diego Godin formed the backbone of a four-man defense with the full-backs, Maxi Pereira and Martin Caceres, expected to overlap and contribute more on the offensive.
Colombian coach Jorge Luis Pinto had a clear idea with his Costa Rican XI; he went for a heavily manned 5-4-1 with Joel Campbell providing a mobile outlet on the counter. The experienced duo of Christian Bolanos and Bryan Ruiz was expected to provide the spark in an otherwise very basic Costa Rica side.
Costa Rica’s initial waiting game and reactive strategy
Costa Rica setup in a reactive 5-4-1 formation, and were true to the books initially. They played a waiting game, and stuck close to the Uruguayan forwards without ever letting them an opening. Most of Uruguay’s forays came from the left, where Cavani drifted and looked to combine with full-back Caceres and left-sided midfielder Christian Rodriguez. Rodriguez was moving infield all the time, but Costa Rica’s discipline made sure that Uruguay did not play past them.
This accounted for a lot of unsuccessful passes in the final third from Uruguay, a feature of the play throughout the match. Uruguay were on paper the better team, and received due respect from Costa Rica who were content to sit back and look for openings on the break. A comparison of defensive clearances shows which of the two teams had more attacking intent, and which team was happy to repel away attacks. In an alternative view, Uruguay had a whopping 113 attacking third passes compared to Costa Rica’s 63, which somewhat underlined the minnows’ intent.
The lackluster Uruguay midfield
Uruguay’s lack of a proper ball-playing midfielder was evident as none of their four midfielders (two wide midfielders included) failed to penetrate the massed Costa Rican ranks. Egidio Arevalo Rios and Walter Gargano had to mostly cover space behind as the full-backs overlapped, while the right-sided Christian Stuani offered little going forward. Stuani’s heat map for a wide midfielder shows his ineffectiveness, and his passing efficiency of only 65% was one of the main reasons for Uruguay’s lack of creativity going forward.
The forwards Cavani and Forlan had to conjure things up on their own, without much success either. On the other flank, Christian Rodriguez tried too hard to link up with Caceres and Cavani; his passing combinations with Caceres were the game’s highest in the final third. Rodriguez’s passing was abysmal, and his attempts at dribbling past his direct opponents were highly unsuccessful.
The outstanding player of the match was Joel Campbell. The quick-footed Campbell played all around Costa Rica’s attacking third in a free role-dropping deep when Costa Rica were absorbing the initial Uruguay pressure and moving directly with the ball towards the goal whenever he received the ball in transitions. 3 of his 4 attempts at goal had the air of unpredictability and caught the Uruguay center-backs off-guard. His other attempt resulted in a well-taken goal, and he also assisted the late clincher as Uruguay were caught when attacking in numbers.
An interesting comparison could be done with Uruguay’s Forlan who played a similar role but had support around him. Forlan covered less ground (expected because of Cavani’s presence and Costa Rica’s defensive tactics) and made little decisive contribution to Uruguay’s attack. While Campbell was at the heart of Costa Rica’s every foray forward, and was very mobile in the opposition half. A comparison of both players’ passing shows how Campbell was more penetrative and decisive with his passing, as Forlan had the added responsibility of engineering chances with the poor Uruguay midfield.
The goals and Martin Caceres’ positioning
Two of Costa Rica’s goals beautifully illustrated how a weaker team could overcome a stronger team with effective counter-attacking. Joel Campbell’s coming off age wasn’t only responsible for Costa Rica’s stunning comeback. Martin Caceres was usually Uruguay’s most advanced defender; he played almost as a winger as he tried to combine with Cavani and Rodriguez in Uruguay’s more effective left flank. He was caught up field in the first goal, as right-back Christian Gamboa made good use of the space on the right wing to cross for Campbell. Caceres is a center-back by trade, and is right-footed, and Costa Rica took good advantage of the weak link.
The second Costa Rica goal came from a set-piece routine; a deep far post delivery from Christian Bolanos, with center-back Oscar Duarte converting from close range. It was an intelligent tactic by the North Americans as they took full advantage of the lack of height in the Uruguay ranks. Three tallest players in Cavani, Lugano and Godin marked the near post and the central zones, leaving an obvious threat in Duarte with the physically-slight Stuani at the far post.
Caceres reverted to his deep starting position after Uruguay fell behind, as Uruguay looked to throw everything forward in search of an equalizer. Caceres was again culpable as he allowed Campbell time to find the fresh Marco Urena behind the defense for the third goal.
Costa Rica eventually executed their plan to perfection, which was to soak the Uruguayan pressure and hit them on the break. Initial naivety saw them concede a silly penalty which was expertly converted by Cavani, but the North Americans surprisingly had more to offer as they produced a stunning second half performance led by the impressive Joel Campbell. Uruguay had no creativity across the pitch, and the absence of Luis Suarez was keenly felt.
* Starting XIs made using Tactical Pad