Tabarez was 2011’s real master

ACCORDING to FIFA and the Ballon d’Or voters, the coach of last year was Pep Guardiola.

He was the obvious choice, and it’s one that’s hard to argue against.

He’s not only produced one of the greatest sides there has ever been; he’s also kept fiddling with it, tweaking here and there to try to make it even greater. The lifespan of most top sides who rely on pressing is around three years: Barca may go on even longer. Still, for all his achievements, he’s not my coach of the year.

There’s a very good case to be made also of Jorge Sampaoli. Like Guardiola, he is a disciple of Marcelo Bielsa, and like Guardiola, he has been tactically flexible in a trophy-laden year, his Universidad de Chile side completing the treble last week by lifting the Chilean clausura title, to go with the apertura and the Copa Sudamericana they had already won. But he would only be third on my list.

This is a subjective perhaps even a sentimental choice and one that, to an extent, honours not only what happened last year but also what he has done over the previous four years, but for me, the coach of 2011 was Oscar Washington Tabarez.

When he took charge of Uruguay for the first time, for the 1990 World Cup, his job was to restore the reputation of Celeste football after the thuggery of 1986. He did that to an extent, but after a second-round exit, he left the job thinking he had unfinished business.

In July this year, as Uruguay beat Paraguay in the Copa America final in el Monumental, he finished it.

The Copa America has been rejuvenated over the past decade or so, but there was a danger that it would become the preserve of Brazil and Argentina.

They had contested the last two finals, and the draw this year was contrived to try to ensure a repeat. Uruguay (and Paraguay) messed that up; if all Tabarez had done was to inconvenience governing bodies who place television markets above the integrity of the competition he would have been a hero.

But what he did was far more than that. The 64-year-old is a tinkerer, somebody happy to switch from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2 to three at the back according to circumstance. That sort of planning is important, but the true mark of a tactical genius is his capacity to make switches during matches that shape the outcome. Because Uruguay and Argentina had both started the tournament slowly, they ended up meeting in the quarter-final in Santa Fe.

With the score at 1-1, Argentina seemed in control even before Uruguay’s Diego Perez was sent off seven minutes before half-time.

Tabarez responded by moving Alvaro Pereira infield from the left to replace Perez in the centre. That left the flank free, but with Lionel Messi persisting in cutting in, it didn’t matter. Martin Caceres, the left-back, had only to deal with Argentina’s right-back, Pablo Zabaleta, which he did comfortably. Messi ran into traffic and, although Fernando Muslera made a number of fine saves, Argentina’s threat was as muted as was possible in the circumstances.

Psychologically the balance tipped, and by the time Carlos Tevez missed in the shoot-out, there was an inevitability about Uruguay’s win.

Tabarez is an outstanding tactician, but he also manages people and of course the one feeds off the other, for players are far more likely to make sacrifices and follow instructions if they have faith in their manager and are committed to the collective. Diego Godin missed most of the tournament; Tabarez brought him on with five minutes of the final remaining to ensure every outfield member of the squad had played some part in the victory.

After a rotten season at Atletico Madrid, Diego Forlan said joining up with the Uruguay squad was like arriving among friends.

On one occasion, when Tabarez gave his players time off, they gathered in their hotel’s television room to watch the U17 team playing in their World Cup.

On the wall of his Montevideo home Tabarez has inscribed a motto from Che Guevara: “You must toughen yourself without losing tenderness.”

It is a motto that has served him perfectly since he took charge of Uruguay after the debacle of the 2006 World Cup. He demanded complete control over both the senior and youth teams; he was given, and has justified the faith invested in him magnificently.

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