How Copa America turned the tactical foul into an art form


Taking one for the team.

Or maybe that should be 41 in the case of Uruguay against Brazil.

That free-kick count gave us the dirtiest game at Copa America 2024, knocking Chile versus Peru (37 fouls) off top spot, and providing a reference point for a conversation around a necessary evil in football: the tactical foul.

Purists look away now.

Uruguay committed 25 fouls alone in that quarter-final in Las Vegas on Saturday night. To put that figure into context, the average number of fouls per game in the Copa America is 26.5, four more than the European Championships.

Those dirty South Americans.

That’s an easy and lazy conclusion to draw. With both continental tournaments taking place at the same time, comparisons are inevitable. But they’re also futile – because it didn’t take long at the Copa America to realise that we’re watching a different game and one that is refereed differently, too.

Football’s rules are the same the world over apart from the ones that are unwritten and shaped by culture as much as anything. Haranguing officials en masse is the norm at the Copa America. Waving imaginary cards is tolerated too, and players regularly get up close and personal with referees – even making physical contact.

As for red cards, there’s a long conversation to be had before exiting the field (more than a minute in the case of Uruguay’s Nahitan Nandez, below). “Off you pop” – the three words that the former Premier League referee Mike Dean said to Lewis Dunk after sending him off  – wouldn’t cut it here.

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The temptation to take the moral high ground came and went in the space of 48 hours. This, after all, is a South American tournament and who are we – a European, in this case – to sit in judgement.

What is really intriguing to analyse and explore, though, is the different ways in which South America’s ‘bigger’ teams have used fouls to help their cause tactically.

Reflecting on a data table at the end of the group stage that showed how the five CONCACAF teams had committed the fewest fouls per yellow card at Copa America, the Fox Sports analyst Stu Holden made an interesting observation. “USMNT needs to foul more and play more physical. Can’t be so naive to this type of game in KO (knockout) tournaments,” Holden tweeted.

Uruguay, notably, are at the bottom of that table, averaging one yellow card per 36 fouls in the group stage, which fits the popular characterisation of La Celeste as being one of the most streetwise teams in the world. Or, to put it another way, Uruguay know how to foul and get away with it.

That feels true to a point but it’s not quite as simple as that, and for a couple of reasons. The first thing to say is that Marcelo Bielsa’s team press high and aggressively, and that leads to a high proportion of fouls being committed in the attacking third (5.8 per game, which is more than any other team at the Copa America).

They are the kind of fouls that rarely lead to a yellow card because of the area in the pitch where they occur and, generally, the challenges aren’t aggressive. Crucially, though, those fouls prevent the opposition from playing through Uruguay’s press and counter-attacking.

There are numerous examples of Darwin Nunez, Nicolas de la Cruz, Facundo Pellistri and Maximiliano Araujo – generally Uruguay’s four most advanced players – committing that type of foul in the Copa America. Indeed, that attacking quartet is responsible for 26 fouls between them in four matches, which is more than the entire USMNT made across their three group games.

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If we’re generous and give those attacking players the benefit of the doubt, they are often running at maximum speed and it’s hard to apply the brakes. An alternative view would be that anyone leading Uruguay’s press is not going to allow the opposition to play out, or break the lines, come what may.

Are they under explicit instructions to foul in that scenario? Nobody in the Uruguay camp would ever publicly admit that, but it wouldn’t be surprising and that goes for the tactics of plenty of other countries too, mindful of what we see on a regular basis at club level.

In Amazon’s All or Nothing documentary series covering Manchester City’s 2017-28 season, Mikel Arteta, then assistant to Pep Guardiola, tells the team’s attacking players to make fouls if there is a transition. The logic is simple; the out of possession team can regain its shape without being exposed on a counter-attack and there’s a lower probability of a yellow card being shown compared to when a defender commits a foul closer to their own goal.

The graphic below shows where exactly Uruguay’s fouls in the attacking third have occurred and also highlights the success that Bielsa’s team have had with regaining the ball in the same area through their relentless running and pressing (5.8 recoveries per game, which, again, is more any other team in the tournament). It’s probably also worth mentioning that the smaller pitches at this Copa America tournament play into the hands of a team that presses as aggressively as Uruguay.

uruguay fouls

Watching every Uruguay foul at the Copa America confirmed something else – the standard of refereeing in the tournament has been at best inconsistent and at worst desperately poor.

It was a minor miracle, for example, that Nandez managed to avoid a booking in the group stage prior to his red card against Brazil in the quarter-final. The Uruguay right-back made two fouls within 32 seconds against the U.S, and both could easily have been deemed yellow card offences (the second is shown below; Antonee Robinson is under there somewhere).

FoulNandez1

De la Cruz could also count himself highly fortunate not to have a yellow card next to his name before Saturday’s wild quarter-final and only Kevin Ortega, the Peruvian referee whose performance in the final group game against the U.S. was heavily criticised, knows why he booked Tyler Adams for a challenge on Mathias Olivera, when the Uruguay left-back was the offender.

With all of that in mind it would be a stretch to say that Uruguay have cracked the code when it comes to knowing how to stay just the right side of the line with yellow cards. In reality, they got off lightly prior to facing Brazil and they were not alone in that respect.

What is clear is that the way in which Uruguay get on top of teams in the final third, legally or illegally, is a fundamental part of their game under Bielsa. Cynical at times? Yes. Effective? Damn right. Their opponents are simply unable to get into any flow.

Some neutrals will rage, especially when Uruguay’s fouling can seem so systematic, which was the case against Brazil. But there are also plenty of people in South America and beyond who marvel at how a country of only 3.4 million people can keep finding ways to triumph against the odds.

Brazil were not all sweetness and light either. In their case, the midfield was the area where the majority of their fouls were made – often petty, arguably deliberate at times and generally disruptive to the opposition.

The chief protagonists were Bruno Guimaraes, who has committed more fouls (13) than anyone else at Copa America, and Joao Gomes (10). As for Lucas Paqueta, he made more tackles than any other Brazil player, committed only four fouls but ended up with two yellow cards, which was twice as many as Guimaraes.

Brazil player fouls

Gomes made half of his 10 fouls against Uruguay and it is no exaggeration to say that the Wolves midfielder could easily have been booked on three separate occasions (each of those challenges are shown in the first three pictures below) prior to finally receiving a yellow card for a lunge on Nandez (the fourth image).

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Dario Herrera, the Argentinian referee, was lenient throughout, letting things slide early in the game. In that sense, he was like the supply teacher who walks into the lesson and is viewed as a soft touch within minutes. What followed was anarchy.

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The free-kick patterns are not so obvious with Argentina but there are still some interesting themes, the first of them being that Lautaro Martinez, the leading goalscorer at the Copa despite only starting two matches, averages a foul every 26 minutes, which is pretty much the same as Guimaraes.

Martinez’s fouls are often from behind, when he’s chasing back with little chance of getting the ball, and force the opposition to restart and rebuild their attack.

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Something else jumps out when you watch Argentina out of possession, and that is the way that their two centre-backs, Cristian Romero and Lisandro Martinez, squeeze high up the pitch when the team is attacking and refuse to allow anyone to go past them if the ball is turned over.

Both Romero and Martinez close down their opponent quickly and aggressively, get overly tight and think nothing of making a tactical foul in the opposition half. In fact, you get the impression that’s all they’re thinking about at times.

They are also experts at turning on their heel and fleeing the scene as quickly as possible, barely giving the referee time to blow his whistle, let alone show a yellow card.

Most significantly, that type of foul stops Argentina from being vulnerable to a counter-attack and enables the team to regain its defensive structure, with every player behind the ball.

Below is an example of each one of those steps unfolding in the Ecuador quarter-final, when Romero clattered into the back of Enner Valencia, and even had his arm around the striker’s head, but somehow avoided being cautioned.

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And here is Lisandro Martinez doing something similar against Chile after – and this was a collector’s item – Lionel Messi lost control of the ball near the edge of the penalty area.

The way in which Martinez reacts to the transition is fascinating – he closes down Eduardo Vargas at breakneck speed, cynically cleans the Chile striker out after he get turned, sprints away without even waiting to see how the referee will respond to that challenge, and Argentina are back in their 4-4-2 out-of-possession structure.

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Our final case study is Colombia, who have played beautifully at the Copa America, scoring 11 goals across four matches and producing fast, free-flowing football. But they also have a couple of persistent foulers in Jhon Arias, hugely impressive in the half-space on the left, and the rampaging Daniel Munoz on the right.

Munoz locks down that right flank, where he attacks and defends aggressively. The Crystal Palace defender has two goals, one assist, and committed 12 fouls – the joint second-most at the Copa America – but avoided a yellow card. Seven of those fouls were against Brazil and three of them on Vinicius Junior – a point that the winger made to the referee (see the clip below).

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Persistent fouling tends to go unpunished here because, it seems, the threshold for showing a yellow card is so high, and naturally that plays into the hands of some players. Indeed, the graphic below, which includes a CONCACAF player in the form of Canada’s Stephen Eustáquio, makes for interesting reading.

copa player fouls

Where on earth is Jefferson Lerma, you might ask?

Lerma, remarkably, has committed only one foul in the Copa America so far.

Alas, some things never change: the Colombia midfielder still managed to pick up two yellow cards and get suspended for the quarter-finals. Quite a feat, that.

(Top photo: Uruguay’s Nahitan Nandez brings down Brazil’s Rodrygo; Ian Maule/Getty Images)





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