Uruguay beat Brazil as Bielsa’s high-stakes bet pays off in Vegas

LAS VEGAS — Amid the glitz and glamour of a Saturday night in Vegas, one of the hottest acts in town was that of a pugnacious but brave Uruguay, which beat Brazil to book their place in the Copa América semifinals.

A scrappy 10-man quarterfinal victory at Allegiant Stadium — which marked stunning back-to-back undefeated results against the CONMEBOL giants since last year — was ultimately secured by winning a penalty shootout 4-2 after the match ended goalless. Uruguay coach Marcelo Bielsa and his players are now one result away from a much-coveted spot in the championship game.

Against Brazil, they achieved this with Bielsa’s high stakes strategy that’s akin to those sitting in the casinos and at the card tables within a stone’s throw of the NFL venue.

“If you’re asking me whether there are risks [with my playing style], yes there are risks,” the Argentine coach said ahead of the game. “[But] if you’re asking me how to attack best, taking risks or not taking risks, it’s better to attack taking risks.

“You can’t say to a player, you have to go out and play, but it’s impossible for you to make a mistake.”

Even in a game when a major mistake did in fact emerge through a red card shown to Nahitan Nández in the second half, Bielsa found a way to make his wager pay off. It’s results such as this from his teams that make him a cult-like hero in the soccer world, who has gained notoriety for his eccentric nature but also stubborn determination to stick with his style of play.

Bielsa kicked things off with his usual aggressive and high-pressing approach against the Brazilians. Unafraid to throw numbers forward, but to also get stuck into crunching tackles, his method was fearless as his team pinned the opposition back and eagerly made the meeting more of a Vegas boxing scuffle. The momentum slightly changed after central defender Ronald Araújo suffered an injury that forced a substitution in the 33rd minute, but by the start to the second half Uruguay were once again grinding down their opponents with their eventual total of 26 fouls.

“It was a close match, a tight match, there were very few offensive opportunities and we had to run throughout the pitch to create those opportunities,” Bielsa said postmatch. “The players are inherently good at defending. We have to say that they are very good at keeping a clean sheet.”

Constantly attempting to win the ball back and proactively moving the ball forward, there was an admirable spirit of the players from the nation of just 3.4 million people that is well-known for punching above its weight; Uruguay have won two World Cups and 15 Copa América titles in their history, and last reached a World Cup quarterfinal as recently as 2018.

Bielsa’s lively tactics have suited the do-or-die team, but the coach’s blueprint can also lead to precarious moments. Anxious to win back possession, Nández mistimed a diving tackle against Brazil’s Rodrygo, justifiably earning a red in the 74th minute. And yet, Uruguay held on as they had to sit deeper.

“When we were one man down, we decided to dedicate ourselves to defend in our half,” said Bielsa.

Regardless, hints of Bielsa’s mentality and spirit still shone through. Sure, Uruguay were parking the bus in the final stages, but they also tested the limits of their 5-3-1 formation by progressively moving up the pitch in a handful of moments. Interestingly enough, in spite of their disadvantage against Brazil and the overall lack of shots on target, Uruguay finished regulation time with a higher xG tally (0.89 to 0.58).

Bielsa’s men had won the game of grit and it came as no surprise that they would go on to succeed in the penalty shootout. Following a save from Sergio Rochet in the first round of penalties, Uruguay had the momentum that would lead to Manuel Ugarte scoring the decisive spot kick. In front of more than 50,000 spectators that battled the 114-degree desert heat earlier in the day to get into the indoor venue, the Uruguay supporters in the stands (and some in the press box) erupted into frenzied and euphoric cheers.

There was a chaotic feel to the game, but it became quite obvious that Bielsa, drifting between his usual seat on a cooler and slowly meandering on the sideline, can thrive in this situation. While other coaches would have been more cautious, Bielsa doubled down on his Sin City bet and maintained his risk-taking strategy against the five-time World Cup champions. Though, the coach himself noted that he can sometimes fall prey to the excitement of the match.

“Today there was a great level of suspense and you know how suspense works in human beings,” he said. “When it is impossible to foresee how you can solve situations it leads you to explosive emotions and I’m also vulnerable to it.”

Nonetheless, the Argentine and his roster collected the full payout by the end of the shootout, with an upcoming semifinal against Colombia on Wednesday their reward. Time will tell how the game plays out, but there’s one thing that’s for sure; Bielsa won’t mind giving his risk-taking approach another roll of the dice.

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