Welcome back to On The Break! Click HERE to catch up with the series so far. Today’s post brings the first season of the save to an end, as we cover the Torneo Intermedio and Clausura stage, and how the overall table looks when all is said and done.
The biggest immediate challenge to getting to grips with a save in Uruguay was dealing with a league structure that was completely alien to me. I understood Apertura and Clausura stages, but the Torneo Intermedio was an added extra that I knew nothing about prior to a bit of reading. It’s a mid-season tournament where the teams are split into 2 groups based on league position in the Apertura. Even numbered finishers go into group A, and odd numbered finishers go into group B. Considering that the Intermedio counts towards the Overall table at the end of the season and that we face some teams three times and others only twice, luck of the draw is pretty handy to have. Who did we get? Both Nacional and Peñarol, courtesy of the latter’s disappointing start to the year. Brilliant.
We can be really, really proud of that. We shook off our malaise from the end of the Apertura to go undefeated and run Nacional close. Consecutive wins, 3-0 away at River Plate, and 4-1 at home to Peñarol being the highlights.
We could actually have won the group in the final round of games and progressed to the Intermedio Final, but we fell just short. It would have been a tough ask, but a win at home to Nacional would have seen us leapfrog them.
We played well but couldn’t get the all important goal, meaning we had to settle for second place and miss out on a chance to potentially sneak into the Copa Sudamericana.
We also took the opportunity to field some new blood in the Intermedio. As discussed in the last post, we promoted Benjamín Rodríguez and Matías Ocampo from the reserves to add depth out wide, but we also supplemented the squad with Lucas Rodríguez, Federico Larraura and new signing Robinson Aponzá, with mixed results. Rodríguez was solid, starting 6 games as our left sided centre back, Larraura made one sub appearance but offered an option when injuries and suspensions hit, and Aponzá was a complete flop. He offers nothing that I don’t get from Benjamin Rodríguez and I’m paying him 4x as much!
River Plate and Wanderers also continued their strong positions with decent points hauls, but the biggest shock came in Group B, where Montevideo City Torque, joint top after the Apertura, completely capitulated and only earned 2 points from 7 games leaving them rooted to the bottom of their group table.
Our strong form saw us rise to third in the overall table, overtaking both River Plate and Torque. It also saw me receive this message from the board.
Seems strange to get this so early in the season, there are still 15 games left to go and as we’ve already seen, anybody can beat anybody and teams can completely crumble. Still, a happy board can only be a good thing, right?
With that news, though, our expectation also changed from a top half finish to a top three finish, so more pressure in that respect. I wanted to secure continental football in any form to help the finances, now a place in the Copa Libertadores is a requirement.
Could we carry our good form from the Intermedio into the final stage of the season? Well, kind of. An opening defeat at home to River Plate was followed by 3 consecutive wins, including away at rivals Danubio. All was looking good, but then….
Another game without defeat against Nacional, but 1 point from 4 games is nowhere near good enough at any point. This run of games left us 10th in the Clausura table with Peñarol next. Injuries had hit the squad hard and I was nervous, despite beating them 4-1 in the Intermedio.
A calamitous own goal and a last minute counter attack secured us a vital victory, but I give all the credit to one man.
Matías Dufour – Reserves back-up to first choice keeper in under a season.
Matías was on fire against Peñarol, making 7 saves that were vital in making sure we weren’t on the end of a hiding. He only came into the first-team picture because of a long-term injury to first choice Reyes and then got his start because regular back up Castro was in horrendous form and making mistakes like they were going out of fashion. It was a big call, Matías has a lot of potential, but is a very raw talent with a lot of weak attributes. My decision was vindicated though, and he went on an astonishing run of 6 consecutive clean sheets to drag us back into form and up the table.
I could honestly do a post just dedicated to Matías, he’s probably jumped right up the list into my top 3 favourite players in this squad, he’s been that good. I don’t remember the last time I had a keeper that made me forget he didn’t have the best attributes, and just went out and delivered. Goalkeeper is still a position I’ll look to strengthen next year, but Matías will be in the squad, that’s for sure, possibly even as my first choice.
Another highlight from our strong run of form was the emergence of Pablo López as a reliable goal scorer. He broke into Defensor’s first team in 2017 and scored just 4 goals in 53 games over three seasons before being shipped on loan to Toluca in Mexico where he started the save. He got 6 goals in 13(16) games there, and since coming back has banged in 8 in 6(3) games in the Clausura, earning himself a new deal for next season in the process. I was willing to let him leave on a free since his £800p/w wages were one of the highest at the club and I hadn’t seen anything to make a judgement on, but a combination of his form and a willingness to take a pay cut to £550p/w mean he’ll be here and be our first choice striker next year.
With all that being said, did we achieve what we set out to do? Did we secure continental football and get the top 3 finish the board wanted?
You bet your ass we did.
Copa Libertadores, here we come! I don’t expect to go far, the board only expect us to reach the Third Qualifying Round, but we’ll enjoy the experience and most importantly rake in a bit of much needed cash! I’m very pleased with what we’ve achieved this season, considering the financial trouble, the amount of squad upheaval and very limited additions, to finish third is excellent. We didn’t always look convincing, but we were hard to beat and that’s ultimately helped us to exceed our original targets by a mile.
Our attacking and defensive efficiency reports for the year were both good if not spectacular, there’s work we can do at both ends of the pitch for sure. I was very happy with our xG report however, despite finishing a place lower than our expected points metric would place us. We scored 9 more goals than expected, conceded 3 less and earned 8 more points than we should have based on the stats.
I feel sorry for Deportivo Maldonado, getting relegated based on average points after what was a pretty good campaign for them. They did however have to face off against CA Cerro in a 14th place playoff as they had the same average points over the last 2 seasons, so I guess it’s the lesser of 2 evils as Cerro were 800-1 outsiders at the start of the season, and to be relegated after finishing 7th would have been unbelievably cruel.
Looking ahead to next season, the squad is going to need a bit of work. The first 11 I’m fairly happy with, there are already replacements in the squad for some players that will be leaving, top scorer Cristian Chávez being the main departure. Depth will need to be looked at though, as our reserve and youth squads have been picked apart, with many high potential developing players all leaving for our rivals.
Losing all of these players on a free is a really significant blow to the club, but without the wage budget to offer any deals, it was really out of my hands. There are 8 players in that list that have 4* potential or above, so of course I’m gutted to not get to nurture them, but I have faith that my youth intakes will give me some stars of my own to develop.
Probably not this year though. Sigh.
Having secured Copa Libertadores football next year, the financial aspect of a really good youth intake takes the back burner some what, but it’s still disappointing to see such a poor preview from a club that has developed more current Primera División players than any other. Hopefully the promising centre back coming through turns out to be a world beater!
I’m not sure how much influence my HOYD has had on this crop, as I only hired him a couple of months before the end of the season, but my word he’s perfect.
Almost. I need him to be 20 years younger, then he’s perfect.
Mario is retiring at the end of next season, so we’ve essentially got a one year Hail Mary to get a really good intake out of him. Finding a replacement will be really tough, but that’s next year’s problem!
One last piece of news, and it’s a sad bit!
My favourite player from this year, Ignacio Laquintana, wants to leave. I had a conversation with him and there’s nothing I could promise him that was enough to satisfy him. He wants to play in a bigger league and that’s something I can’t affect. He’s one of the best players in this division so it’s no surprise really.
I agreed to let him go for £825k if a bid comes in, but I’m under no pressure to offer him out which I’m happy about. As far as I’ve noticed there’s not been any interest in him, although I expect that to change at some point. As and when I have to accept that offer, I’ll be very sad, he’s my marauding wing-back and I really enjoy watching him play, but the money is a lot for this level and could definitely be re-invested in the squad, so it’s not the end of the world.
So that’s it for 2021, a very successful first year of the save I’d say! There’s still a lot of work to do, more off the pitch than on it in reality, but we’ve got some solid building blocks in place.
Thanks for reading.