Bielsa’s Chile the most tactically-exciting side

June 8, 2010

Marcelo Bielsa's 3-3-1-3 failed in 2002, can he make up for it in 2010?

Judge Chile by looking at their squad list and you might be rather underwhelmed, but many of those who saw Marcelo Bielsa’s side in action throughout qualification see them as the most intriguing prospect on offer in South Africa.

Bielsa is the most fascinating of the 32 managers at this World Cup – if you are not aware of his characteristics, further reading is certainly required. Marcelo Mora y Araujo’s column for the Guardian describes him when he took over as manager, Rodrigo Orihuela at When Saturday Comes touches upon some of his off-field eccentricities, and Tim Vickery has often spoken of his excitement about Chile under Bielsa.

He is a tactical obsessive, an innovator and a character, and he has done a remarkable job with Chile, a country whose only real star player – David Pizarro – gave up playing international football years ago.

Chile’s standard formation is a 3-3-1-3, similar to the one Bielsa used throughout his period at Argentina boss – where the shape was very successful in qualifying, but failed in the World Cup in 2002 when Argentina were eliminated from the first round despite being favourites. Various suggestions have been put forward for why it went wrong – the inability of the players to operate at the physical level needed (with little rest after the domestic season, and with the warm climate in South Korea), a lack of natural wingers, a striker who was not comfortable switching positions with other players, and Juan Veron being played in a position too far forward.

It’s a bit of a simplistic cliché, but after that failure Bielsa has unfinished business at the World Cup. Chile’s performance since he took over as manager has been sensational; when Bielsa lead Argentina to top spot in the qualification for 2002, Chile finished dead last – ten out of ten. Four years later they improved slightly, to seventh. But this time, under Bielsa’s stewardship, they finished in second place, an incredible achievement considering the relative lack of talent and resources he was afforded.

The basics

Bielsa’s 3-3-1-3 is an inherently attacking formation that aims to take the game to Chile’s opponents, press and defend high up the pitch, and stretch the play as wide as possible when in possession. His back three and the holding midfielder are essentially the four defensive-minded players, whilst the two wing-backs surge forward whenever possible, trying to create overloads against opposition full-backs, and also venturing into more central attacking positions to provide a goal threat.

The number of players Chile get into the final third is frightening at times. Take Mati Fernandez’s goal against Peru, where he is one of seven players who find themselves within twenty yards of the goal:

Bielsa never changes his favoured un enganche y tres punta (one playmaker and three fowards) system. The forward trio stretch the opposition defence – the wingers start from very wide positions and open up gaps that are exploited by Humberto Suazo, the centre-forward (if fit), and the enganche, Fernandez.

For such an unusual formation and such a specific style of play, the most surprising thing about Bielsa’s team selections is that he has found various players who fit into the system seamlessly, especially in defence. Of the players who play in the six positions closest to Chile’s goal, none of them started more than 12 of the 18 qualification games.

Bielsa is happy to chop and change between games and to deploy individuals in a variety of positions. Arturo Vidal, for example, has been deployed as a right-sided centre-back, a holding midfielder, a left-wing-back, a right-wing back, and a right-back when Chile switched to 4-2-3-1 (when up against one striker). He’s also happy to play nominal midfielders, like Jara, in the defence.

The system, by those in the know

Chile's possible starting line-up in their 3-3-1-3. The front four and back three are likely to start, but the three midfield positions are difficult to predict

The comments section on this website often features great insights about individual sides’ tactics from those who follow particular teams or competitions closely, and Bielsa’s Chile side has been discussed in great depth. Here’s two particularly enlightening comments, first from Roberticus, who runs a terrific blog about South American football, and then from Mave, a Chilean.


I’m certainly a long-term admirer of Bielsa’s philosophy and of his teams’ pro-active approach. I’ve tried to keep as close an eye as possible on Chile’s World Cup qualification games, their players’ individual fortunes at club level both domestic and abroad, and also followed the debates in the Chilean media.

In terms of how the midfield shapes up; it is generally laid out as a diamond and is never flat, which means that the wide-of-centre players do not necessarily have to be wide midfielders or wing-backs, though some indeed are. Overall, I think Bielsa likes to have a mix – and so, beside the obvious presence of a holding player (either Gary Medel of Boca Juniors or Pedro Carmona), it is common to see a wing-back/wide-midfielder on one side whilst a more well-rounded midfield player can take the other flank.

The idea here being that the playmaking duties will not be the exclusive preserve of the No.10 (Mati Fernandez or Carlos Valdivia) lest that guy’s creativity be stifled by close marking. So the wide players can indeed push out to support the outside-forwards and of course to assist the outside centre-backs in the three-man defence when the opponent is raiding down that particular flank.

Another result of having that diamond is that the wide midfielders do not have to overlap the wingers, but instead can surge diagonally through the middle to latch on to second balls; so in this sense they are like box-to-box midifelders.”


“I’m from Chile and I’m very impressed with Bielsa’s work. We’re happy to qualify for the World Cup with such a proactive game and we hope to give a good display. I think this is a unique moment for Chilean football, so I must admit that I’m kind of eager to see them perform in South Africa.

The formation changes so quickly and so significantly because there are a lot of players that can play two or even three positions in that scheme. Bielsa rarely uses pure defenders in the back line. He mostly uses defensive midfielders on that position for two reasons: (a) They are quick on covering defensive positions and (b) because they can pass the ball better through the rival attackers, and can assume advanced positions. The most notable players who do this are Gary Medel, Arturo Vidal and Marco Estrada.

As Roberticus said before, this system changes depending on the opposition formation. If the opposition are playing with three attackers, Chile plays with four in the back. If they play with one attacker, there is only the need for two centre-backs. Bielsa doesn’t ever move the three attackers nor the attacking midfielder (Matias Fernandez or Jorge Valdivia) in front. They are focussed upon starting the defensive pressure at the beginning of the rivals attack.”

That’s pretty much ZM’s job done! Bielsa’s insistence that Chile press high up the pitch and their consequent high defensive line means that they can often be caught out on the counter-attack. Despite their impressive qualification form, they were sometimes opened up too easily, and the questionable form (and fitness) of their back three is a cause for concern.


Chile are the most unique side in the competition, and as result it’s difficult to predict their performance. They should start with a comfortable win against Honduras, and then the second game against Switzerland will be a tremendous battle, with two vastly different styles. It’s not unthinkable that Chile could win the group if Spain ease off in their last game having already qualified – although this is perhaps unlikely seeing as they will be keen to avoid the winners of group G, likely to be Brazil.

Whatever happens, it will produce an interesting result tactically. In a month’s time, we’ll either be in awe of Bielsa’s work, or we’ll be questioning why his system works so well in the South American qualifiers, but not at the World Cup.

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