This Ecuadorian team was built from scratch when the unheralded Argentinian Gustavo Alfaro came in to bring some stability after the short and unsuccessful tenures of Hernán Darío Gómez, Jorge Célico and Jordi Cruyff (who left without taking charge of a single game). The road to Qatar looked long and winding when Alfaro came in in 2020 but he discarded the old guard, including players such as Antonio Valencia, Christian Noboa and Felipe Caicedo to make room for youngsters such as Piero Hincapié , Moisés Caicedo and Gonzalo Plata among others. “It was all about getting our teeth into the challenge and making our mark on the project without altering the essence of Ecuadorian football, while at the same time introducing new elements to try and reverse the dynamic that resulted in Ecuador failing to qualify for the 2018 edition in Russia,” he told fifa.com.
Alfaro is not afraid to change tactics depending on the opponent but 4-4-2 is the most common formation although there have been increased flirtations with 4-3-3. During the qualifiers the 3-5-2 formation was utilised but that has not been seen since. After Alfaro’s restructuring, Ecuador became the youngest team to qualify from South America with an average of just over 25. Sadly some key players have suffered from serious injuries, such as Sao Paulo’s Robert Arboleda, who tore ankle ligaments in June, as well as Santos’ Ayrton Preciado and Monterrey’s Joao Rojas. Ecuador qualified for the tournament after finishing fourth in the South American section, two points ahead of Peru, who had to go to an intercontinental play-off, which they lost to Australia.
Gustavo Alfaro, who was born in Rafaela, Santa Fe, in Argentina, gave up his playing career back in 1992 so that he could focus on coaching – and 30 years later he will be at the World Cup with Ecuador. He has earned the affection of the Ecuadorian public for the way he speaks and represents the national team as well as his confidence, which he transmits to his players. He had coached several clubs back home, including Boca Juniors, as well as Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia when he took over Ecuador 30 days before their first World Cup qualifier, in the middle of a pandemic. “It wasn’t easy,” he admitted. After Ecuador had qualified for the World Cup he said in a rousing speech: “The challenge was a blank wall where they had to hang their picture of making history. For the they had to believe – and they did. They believed from the first day, they stood together. They were patient, they were persevering but they were also hunters of an impossible utopia. No one believed in Ecuador but today Ecuador stand tall.”
Without a doubt, the star of this team is Moisés Caicedo – or as he likes to be called, ‘Niño Moi’. The Brighton star has become an indispensable part of the national team, providing the required balance and defensive structure. As a box-to-box midfielder, he contributes to the attack but also helps out his backline leaving his current Brighton coach Roberto De Zerbi to label him “one of the best midfielders in the Premier League,” adding that: “Caicedo is a top player with and without the ball. There are many players who are very good with the ball but without it in defensive spaces are not so good. With Caicedo I can’t see anything not at the top level.” Clearly, Caicedo isn’t your typical star player. He won’t score a bicycle kick from the halfway-line or dazzle opponents with silky skills, but his effective passing, great positioning and game-reading intelligence could be pivotal in Ecuador’s attempts to progress.
This is a player who does not always shine the brightest in a game – and is sometimes even on the bench – but he is enormously valued for what he does on and off the pitch by everyone in the squad. We are talking about Ángel Mena here, one of the most experienced players of La Tricolor, whose intelligence enables his team to play the high-speed football the coach prefers. He is a left-footed player, with great vision and a superb shot. Now 34 years old, he has been with the Mexican side Club León since 2019.
Probable Line-up | 4-4-2 Domínguez; Castillo-Torres-Hincapié-Estupiñán; Gruezo-Caicedo-Plata-Ibarra; Estrada and Valencia.
By Stéffano Dueñas of Expreso via Get Football’s partnership with the Guardian