After watching one of their starting center backs undermine their chances today at Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion fans won’t be the only ones regretting the performance of Diego Lugano. For those hoping Uruguay can recreate 2010’s magic at this summer’s World Cup, outings like today’s from the veteran defender are cause for concern. Is this somebody La Celeste can count on in Brazil?
Those doubts are nothing new, with Lugano’s play having prompted questions ever since he left Fenerbahçe for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2011. On Wednesday, however, there was no doubt about the extent to which he hurt his club team. Committing three major errors over a span of 50 minutes, Lugano was the biggest difference between a one-goal loss and a victory in Albion’s West Midlands derby.
The first mistake came in the 12th minute, with the Baggies in control after taking a shock 2-0 lead. Off a long ball from Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan, Lugano headed back toward his own goal from the edge of West Brom’s defensive third. His ball went straight to Andreas Weimann, who lobbed Baggies goalkeeper Ben Foster to bring Villa back into the match.
Lugano’s second gaffe came 10 minutes into the second half when a Villa mistake defending a restart left him with an open header at Guzan’s left post. From eight yards out, Lugano only needed to redirect his shot on goal, with Villa’s transitioning goalkeeper unlikely to be in position to stop a ball put on target. Instead, Lugano pushed his shot wide of the right post, leaving the shootout tied, 3-3.
Just after the hour, Lugano committed his decisive error. On a cross sent in from Villa’s right, Lugano wrapped his right arm around Christian Benteke’s shoulders and neck, pulling the forward to the ground as Leandro Bacuna’s ball went through the area. With a foul so blatant, all discretion was taken out of Mark Clattenburg’s hands. Lugano cost his team a point, gifting Benteke the penalty that led to the game’s decisive goal.
Even from a player who has become highly scrutinized over the last two-plus years, this was an especially bad day, one that would be unfair to pick apart were it not for its place in a bigger context. At one time the cornerstone of his national team’s defense, Lugano is clearly in the sunset of his career, a decline that’s led him from PSG to West Bromwich (via Málaga). Like most players his age, he’s lost a step, something that’s make him much more mistake prone.
For West Brom, the solution’s obvious. Gareth McCauley has started 20 times this year but hasn’t appeared since Pepe Mel took over. Today, he was on West Brom’s bench, having returned from a hamstring problem. While Mel may have wanted to give a player of Lugano’s reputation another chance in the team (Lugano’s only made five starts), Wednesday should be enough to convince the Baggies’ new boss to turn back to Steve Clarke’s duo. While Lugano’s unlikely to be that bad in his next start, the performance was consistent with somebody who was unable to win more time under the previous boss.
For Uruguay, the solutions aren’t as obvious. While Atlético Madrid’s Diego Godín is an obvious choice at one center back position, there’s no clear candidate to take over for Lugano at the other, part of the reason the then-rarely used Baggie was still in Óscar Washington Tabárez’s starting XI during Uruguay’s World Cup playoff against Jordan. Among the inexperienced (José María Gutíerrez, Gastón Vila, Emiliano Velazquez), rarely played (Sebastián Coates, Martín Caceres), or potentially too old (Andrés Scotti, 38), there’s nobody whose play screams ‘this man should unseat the captain of the national team.’
For West Brom, Wednesday’s Lugano problem doesn’t have to be a big deal. Pepe Mel can move on. For Uruguay, it’s a bigger problem. This is a team that can again be a dark horse contender at a World Cup, but unless Lugano can recapture some of his Fenerbahçe self, Tabárez as a potentially debilitating problem at the back.