Spain 2-1 Chile: Chile press, foul, then hold on

June 26, 2010

The starting line-ups

What a bizarre game. Chile started better, then conceded a silly goal, then went two goals and one man down in the same move, then started the second half brightly, then realised a 2-1 defeat would send them through, and stopped bothering.

They made changes from their previous game, chiefly thanks to the suspensions of Mati Fernandez and Carlos Carmona. In came Marco Estrada and Mark Gonzalez, with a slight reorganisation in the front four.

Spain started with a lopsided (Brazil-esque?) 4-2-3-1 system, with Andres Iniesta looking to come in from the right, and David Villa driving forward from his left-sided position to join Fernando Torres upfront.

For the first 20 minutes, Chile were by far the better side. Their pressing all over the pitch completely unsettled Spain, who had been used to playing against two sides – Switzerland and Honduras – who dropped deep and got men behind the ball. Spain couldn’t play out from the back, Xabi Alonso had no time to hit long passes to the wings, Xavi wasn’t able to turn, and David Villa barely touched the ball.

Chile fouling

As always with Chile, there were concerns about their discipline. Their high-tempo, intensive pressing approach naturally causes physical confrontation with opponents, but even so, Chile often struggle to stay on their feet and instead dive into tackles. Sometimes, this is a deliberate strategy high up the pitch – they push men forward and are vulnerable to the counter-attack, and so breaking up attacks with tactical fouling can often be beneficial.

But their fouls tonight weren’t of that nature; they were simply over-eager, reckless tackles. There were three bookings within the first twenty minutes, and it was only a matter of time before they went down to ten men. Estrada was harshly dismissed for an innocuous coming-together with Torres, but in truth he was fortunate not to have been sent-off previously.

High Chile line

Another downside to intense pressing is a defensive line which is often too high to deal with the strikers the team is facing. Spain almost got Fernando Torres in one-on-one with Carlos Bravo from a simple, hopeful ball over the top that Gary Medel only just got to, despite a significant head start over the Liverpool player.

When teams play a high line, the goalkeeper is often forced to play a part-time sweeper role, coming out of goal and clearing any balls that are played over the defence. And this was Chile’s downfall – Bravo came 40 yards off his line to intercept a through ball towards Torres, but it rebounded to Villa, who sidefooted it in from distance.

Chile continued to dominate the game, however. Their formation was of even more interest than usual. Usually, Marcelo Bielsa likes three centre-backs against two opposition strikers, or two centre-backs against one opposition striker – in other words, always a spare man. He was presented with an interesting problem here, because Spain were using two strikers, but one in a withdrawn position – so they were essentially shifting between a one- and two-man strikeforce.

Did Mauricio Isla's dual role cause a problem for Chile for Spain's second goal? When Iniesta (yellow) releases the ball for David Villa, Isla is in a good position to mark him. But when he looks to support Gary Medel, he leaves Iniesta free to sidefoot home. Isla's instinct to double up against Villa is understandable, but it leaves four Chilean players picking up just two Spanish strikers (Torres, out of shot, has just been tripped) and hence a Spanish midfielder was likely to be free.

Bielsa’s system seemed to be designed in response – nominally a three-man defence, but with the ability to shift into a four-man shape with Mauricio Isla dropping back to right-back, and Medel shifting across.

This seemed to cause a slight problem with Isla for the second goal. When Villa got the ball in a wide-left position, Isla dashed over from a central position to help double up against him (no doubt looking to prevent a repeat of Villa’s opening goal against Honduras), but in doing so, left Iniesta free on the edge of the area. He slotted home to make it 2-0, and in the aftermath, Estrada was dismissed.

Second half

Chile got to half-time, when Bielsa made two substitutions, with Esteban Paredes going upfront, and Rodrigo Millar coming on as the central playmaker. Chile seemed to line up in a rough 3-2-1-3 system, and continued their pressing.

They got a goal back immediately – Millar had an instant impact with a deflected strike sailing past Iker Casillas. A slightly fortuitous goal, but of particular concern for Vicente del Bosque will be the fact that two Chileans found space between the lines for the goal. Surely, with his controversial ‘double pivot’ system of two holding midfielders in a 4-2-3-1,  that is the last thing that should be happening?

The use of both Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets supposedly gives Spain good protection in front of the defence, but here they allow two Chilean players (blue) space between the lines (pink). Carles Puyol is out of position (yellow), creating a 3 v 3 situation at the back.

After that, Chile barely threatened, and both sides realised they were going through. Chile backed off into their own half – surely the first time in Bielsa’s coaching history where one of his sides has done that. Spain knocked the ball around in defence with no intention of moving forward, and the game died a premature death. That was a shame, as the first half was fantastic, and the beginning of the second was very promising.


Can Spain win the tournament with this team? Torres looks unfit, and Iniesta’s desire to come into the centre combined with Villa’s tendency to move into a striking position leaves Spain narrow and predictable. Xavi is still a very good player in his advanced role, but probably not the truly great player he is at Barcelona.

Whichever six players midfielders and attackers are chosen by del Bosque, there will always be a top-class player left out; there will always be someone sitting on the bench who provides something different to those on the pitch. But there seems to be too much overlap in responsibilities when Busquets, Alonso, Xavi and Iniesta are all fielded in the same side. They need either the direct driving midfield runs of Cesc Fabregas, or the width of Jesus Navas or David Silva (coming inside less than he did against Switzerland). Much will depend on the fitness of Fernando Torres, but another re-jig might be on the cards.

Chile depended on Honduras to get through – but thank God they did. They are certainly the most tactically-interesting side in the competition, and their second round game with Brazil could be one of the games of the competition. Today showed their naivety as well as their ability, but in terms of variety and excitement, they’re fantastic. And besides, collecting six points from the group and losing only to the pre-tournament favourites is a great achievement considering the relative lack of individual ability on show.

Chile v Brazil and Spain v Portugal has worked out rather nicely.

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