Ecuador endured a pretty terrible 2011 Copa America, drawing their opening game with Paraguay before losing to Venezuela and Brazil to finish bottom of Group B. It was at least an improvement on their 2007 Copa, when they failed to score a single point, but it was a poor showing and there are a number of issues for Colombian coach Reynaldo Rueda to address ahead of World Cup qualifying.
Rueda implemented a 4-4-2 formation that often shifted to a 4-2-2-2 in the attacking phase in all three of Ecuador’s matches.
Ecuador lined up with a flat back four with both full-backs playing very conservatively, doing little more than edge forward when they did make any sort of venture up field.
Segundo Castillo sat slightly deeper than his central midfield partner Christian Noboa, who was asked to get on the ball and provide quality passes to the forwards. They worked very well as a defensive unit, tacking cleanly and intercepting well.
Antonio Valencia hugged the touchline on the right of midfield, but Edison Mendez tucked in a lot from the left of midfield, taking up a position akin to a third central midfielder in both attack and defence. This created two problems:
1) offensively, Mendez just added an extra body to an already congested area of the pitch and got far too close to Noboa, limiting the number of longer passes the Rubin Kazan midfielder had available to him.
2) defensively, his infield position left acres of space for the Paraguayan right-back Ivan Piris to get forward into, providing Paraguay with a good out ball from the crowded centre, which they used to good effect early on.
Rueda or one of his coaching staff obviously noted these issues and from the 20th minute or so Mendez moved out to a much wider starting position, similar to that of Valencia on the right. The change worked well, blunting Piris’ bursts forward and spreading Ecuador’s midfield out to give Noboa more forward options whenever he took on possession. Mendez was also far more influential a little further up the pitch, looking to cut inside once he received the ball.
Valencia picked up a knock in the first half and was replaced by Michael Arroyo at half-time. This change necessitated a reshuffle, with Mendez moving over to the right of midfield and Arroyo taking up Mendez’s previous berth on the left of midfield. Both players stayed wide until receiving possession, at which point they looked to come infield. Arroyo looked promising and full of ideas upon his introduction, but the Paraguay defence soon got to grips with him and negated his initial influence on the game pretty swiftly.
Christian Benitez and Felipe Caicedo dovetailed fairly effectively up front, although both are very instinctive players – Benitez especially so – and so they also surrendered possession cheaply on occasion. Both are quick, and it was a pacey burst from Benitez that created Ecuador’s best chance of the match. Picking up the ball just inside the attacking half, Benitez burst forward, nutmegged the Paraguayan defender Paulo da Silva and rounded the goalkeeper Justo Villar, only for da Silva to make a good recovery tackle just as Benitez was about to pull the trigger.
Other than that moment of individual brilliance Ecuador struggled to create any clear cut opportunities – a looping Felipe Caicedo header over the bar and a couple of weak efforts on target they best they could muster. This was mainly due to their inability to move the ball quickly enough through midfield to get at Paraguay’s backline before they could regroup. Although Noboa passed very well throughout, his central midfield partner Castillo was very ponderous in possession, as was the right-back Neicer Reasco, rendering him useless as an out ball to change the angle of the attack.
At the other end, Paraguay were very unlucky not to come away with the three points, foiled as they were by a brilliant performance from the Ecuador goalkeeper Marcelo Elizaga, who made excellent saves from both Nestor Ortigoza and Roque Santa Cruz. They also had a couple of efforts off target and another on target from Edgar Barreto that would surely have been a goal had it been as well placed as it really should have been. Their main threat came from the left-winger Marcelo Estigarribia, who gave Reasco a torrid time, combining trickery and speed with some good crosses.
All in all it was a patchy performance that could easily have ended in defeat, and therefore one assumed Rueda’s men would count their blessings and go into their second game, against Venezuela hungry for a victory that would have secured them a place in the quarter finals.
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Rueda continued with the same team that had completed the match against Paraguay and they lined up in a similar fashion, excepting that the full-backs were given more reign to get forward and the two wide midfielders both drifted infield to receive the ball when Ecuador were in possession, moving out wide to cover the opposition full-backs when not.
Venezuela also lined up in a narrow 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation, turning the game into a fascinating battle between Rueda and the Venezuela coach Cesar Farias to see which of them could get the most out of the formation. Unfortunately for Ecuador, it was Farias who won the duel.
The deciding factor was the way in which each coach set up their team to counter the wide midfielders and full-backs of their opponents. Rueda set up Ecuador as indicated in the diagram above, with Mendez and Arroyo told to move out wide to cover off the Venezuela full-backs Roberto Rosales and Gabriel Cichero, and Ecuador’s full-backs tasked with picking up the nominal wide midfielders, Juan Arango and Cesar Gonzalez. The problem with this approach was that Arango and Gonzalez generally moved into infield areas between the Ecuador defence and midfield, making it difficult for the full-backs to effectively cover them off without straying wildly from their positions. This allowed the two of them to pick up the ball in dangerous areas from where long-range efforts on goal were possible. Gonzalez had already had two efforts on goal from this sort of area – one off target and one comfortably saved – and thus it came as no surprise when he stepped forward onto a loose ball and fired a superb swerving shot into the bottom corner to give Venezuela the lead 61 minutes in. What was a surprise was Rueda’s inability to spot this weakness and do something about it.
Venezuela, on the other hand, took a different approach to dealing with Ecuador’s drifting wide midfielders. Farias instructed his own wide midfielders to pick up Mendez and Arroyo, which worked well as the two sets of players were generally occupying similar areas of the pitch. This then left their full-backs to deal with their opposing numbers Reasco and Walter Ayovi. Venezuela’s full-backs generally kept in line with their centre-backs, only engaging Reasco and Ayovi once they got into advanced areas. This did leave Ecuador’s full-backs with plenty of time to line up crosses from slightly deeper positions, but a lack of quality in their deliveries combined with the commanding presence of Oswaldo Vizacarrondo in the centre of Venezuela’s defence made it a calculated risk worth taking for Farias. Essentially he got his two most creative players on the ball in space in exchange for ceding space to Ecuador’s full-backs, neither of whom are particularly great on the ball.
This tactical superiority was played out most starkly in the second half, which Venezuela completely controlled. Benitez dropped back deeper and deeper in search of the ball as the game wore on, clearly frustrated by the lack of service, but he did at least manage a couple of shots on target that were the best Rueda’s team could come up with.
A solitary point from their opening two games left Ecuador requiring victory over Brazil in their final group game to progress to the quarter finals. Brazil only needed a point to advance.
Rueda again kept faith with the 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation, with the only change seeing Oswaldo Minda replace Segundo Castillo in central midfield.
Ecuador played their best half of football in the tournament in the first half, seeing a lot of the ball and managing a number of decent efforts on goal, most notably those from Arroyo, who was a constant thorn in the side of the Brazilian defence. He and Mendez were both able to find a decent amount of space when they drifted infield off the flanks and both linked well with Noboa. Minda was fairly clumsy in possession but at least attempted to move the ball on a bit quicker than Castillo had in the previous two matches, facilitating a smoother transition through midfield. In addition, Caicedo excelled in his hold up play, giving Lucio at very hard time of it and providing a platform around which Ecuador were able to build some decent attacks.
But at the same time, Ecuador were very lapse in closing Brazil down, especially in wide areas, and it was from a uncontested Andre Santos cross that Alexandre Pato headed Brazil ahead on the half hour. Ecuador responded well though and equalised in the 38th minute when Caicedo, having made a nuisance of himself from a long punt forward by Elizaga, received a pass from Benitez and saw his powerfully struck low shot squirm under the body of Brazilian goalkeeper Julio Cesar into the back of the net.
However, Brazil were unlikely to be contained for the full ninety minutes with so little pressure on the ball, especially with Maicon enjoying such a pace advantage over Ayovi every time he ventured forward from right-back. And so it proved in the second half, as despite a second very well taken goal from Caicedo, a double strike from Neymar and another one for Pato sealed Ecuador’s fate, consigning them to group stage elimination.
It is difficult to pinpoint any collective positives due to the poor performance of the team, but individually a few players managed to stand out.
The goalkeeper Elizaga was, bar a couple of little mistakes, superb throughout the tournament, making a number of crucial saves – most notably in the 0-0 draw with Paraguay – and inspiring confidence in his defenders. He has, unsurprisingly, been crowned the best goalkeeper in the Ecuadorian League for the last five seasons and even at the ripe old age of 39 looks likely to continue for a few years yet. If Rueda looks to bring fresh blood into the back four for the World Cup qualifiers then Elizaga could have a crucial role to play as an experienced cool head behind them, helping to mould a defensive unit that can serve Ecuador well for years to come.
Christian Noboa passed well from the centre of midfield, displaying a good range and always trying to be progressive with the ball at his feet. He was also very sound defensively, something that has been added to his game during his time in Russia with Rubin Kazan, where he often plays very deep in midfield. His ability to play good quality passes from deep positions could be put to greater use if Ecuador were able to use width high up the field on a more regular basis.
The two centre forwards, Christian Benitez and Felipe Caicedo looked like a potentially dangerous partnership, each pacey, powerful and direct in possession, and with a bit of a tactical reshuffle one feels they could be better utilised to make the best out of their, sometimes frustrating, talents.
A lack of width was one of the key problems with the way Ecuador played during the Copa America. The midfield was bereft of any natural width from the moment Valencia pulled up injured in their opening fixture and the full-backs were often slow to lumber forward, and ineffective when they did get into advanced areas. That Venezuela were able to give Reasco and Ayovi acres of time on the ball without suffering any disadvantage for doing so shows a desperate need for regeneration in the full-back positions in time for the World Cup qualifiers.
Apart from Benitez’s forays into the channels Ecuador had very little width high up the field and one feels that a change of formation may be required in order to prevent the congested play in the middle of the park that characterised the majority of their Copa campaign. A switch to 4-3-3, with Benitez and Caicedo receiving the ball wide and cutting in onto their respective favoured feet and a calmer, less instinctive striker providing a central presence, could do wonders for this side. In midfield, Rueda could dispose of a ponderous in possession defensive midfielder, with Noboa the deepest of three central midfielders, alongside say Valencia slightly to the right and Mendez or Arroyo slightly to the left. This would also allow Noboa to put his excellent range of passing to better use.
The slowness with which the ball transitioned between defence, midfield and attack prevented Ecuador getting the best out of their quick, instinctive forwards on the counter attack. This was mainly due to the aforementioned Castillo and Reasco, neither of whom were comfortable receiving the ball and moving it on quickly and effectively. Again, a 4-3-3 with more mobile full-backs and a central midfield packed with quality players would negate this problem.
Replacing the stalwarts of the sides that qualified for the 2002 and 2006 World Cups has proved problematic for successive Ecuador coaches, but in the team that finished fourth at the 2011 South American U-20 Championships at the turn of the year there were a couple of players, at least, who looked capable of making the step up to the full national squad in the next couple of years.
Dennys Quiñonez (19) captained the side during that tournament and enhanced his burgeoning reputation with some superb performances in the centre of defence. A classy operator who reads the game wonderfully, intercepts well and tackles cleanly, he was the perfect foil to his more rugged defensive partner John Narvaez. A semi-regular at Guayaquil’s Barcelona, he will be looking to fully establish himself in the starting eleven in the remainder of 2011.
Christian Noboa often seems frustrated by slowness on the ball of his usual midfield partner Segundo Castillo and in looking for potential long-term partners for the Rubin Kazan man, Rueda might look to Fernando Gaibor (19). Having worked his way up through the ranks at Emelec, Gaibor is beginning to establish himself in the starting eleven, appearing in 18 of their 22 games in a successful First Stage of the 2011 season. In the South American U-20 Championship he was highly impressive in the centre of midfield, working hard to win the ball back and, having done so, displaying an excellent range of passing to get his side moving forwards.
Jefferson Montero (21) had already graduated from the youth setup long before this year’s U-20 championship, but is yet to make the impression in the senior game that his ability would suggest he is capable of. A pacey and powerful, yet at the same time tricky, wide man, he has struggled for regular first team action since his promotion to Spanish club Villarreal’s A team at the start of the season just ended. Montero had thrived for Villarreal’s B team in the Segunda Division, but was unable to transfer the form to La Liga proper, making sporadic substitute appearances for Villarreal and sporadic starts for Levante, whom he was loaned to for the second half of the campaign. He will be loaned out again, to newly promoted Real Betis, for the 2011/12 season and will hope for the regular first team action required to iron out the flaws in his game, namely a lack of vision and poor decision making when he gets into advanced areas, often leading to a wayward shot on goal rather than a pass to a better positioned team-mate.
Hopes for World Cup Qualification
Before the tournament Rueda made it very clear that his priority was World Cup qualification and that results in the Copa America were not important to him. It was strange then to see that Ecuador had the joint third highest average age squad in the competition – 27.09 – behind Bolivia and Paraguay and level with Uruguay. If Rueda’s focus was the qualifiers then surely it would have made sense to blood some new talent during the Copa, giving them experience in a competitive environment to harden them for the battles ahead.
Rueda has faced some criticism in the Ecuadorian press from those wondering why he didn’t at least call on some of the early/mid-twenty somethings that had received callups to earlier friendlies – Joffre Guerron, Juan Carlos Paredes, Pedro Quiñonez, Eduardo Morante and Joao Rojas chief among them. Instead the likes of Castillo, Reasco, Ayovi and Mendez formed the basis of the team despite their increasing years. Having some experience in the squad during the World Cup qualifiers will be important, but it is the younger players who must form the basis of the starting eleven going forward.
If Rueda can successfully integrate those players mentioned above and some of the graduates from the U-20 side that qualified for the U-20 World Cup to bring a more youthful energy to the team then there are certainly enough quality players at his disposal to suggest that Ecuador can compete credibly for a place in Brazil 2014. They won’t be among the favourites – indeed Peru and Venezuela will now probably consider themselves more likely qualifiers given their performances at the Copa – and Rueda will have to be more astute tactically to get the best out of them, but they are certainly in with a shout and even if they fail to make it, should be in a strong position to qualify for 2018 if the younger players coming through make the impact they appear capable of.