Argentina 4-1 Chile: debut victory for Sabella

October 8, 2011

The starting line-ups

Alejandro Sabella’s first competitive game ended in a convincing 4-1 win over an ever-entertaining Chilean side.

Sabella chose a flexible 4-4-1-1ish shape for the game – more on that later. One of the more eye-catching selection decisions was his choice of Rodrigo Braña in the holding role, his trusted number five from Estudiantes.

Having played 3-4-1-2 for most of the Copa America, Claudio Borghi tilted the midfield triangle to include both Mati Fernandez and Jorge Valdivia, leaving Carlos Carmona as the sole holder in an unusual 3-1-4-2ish shape. Main man Alexis Sanchez was out injured.

There was no overall pattern to the game – Argentina dominated, yet not as much as the 4-1 scoreline suggests, and they also came under sustained spells of pressure from Chile.


The most interesting factor of this game was looking at Argentina in isolation, seeing what Sabella is trying to do with the side after the ultimately disastrous spell of Sergio Batista. The back four was familiar, but the midfield combination was all-new. Braña was the holding midfielder, sitting deep ahead of the back four and always looking to move into a position to receive a pass, generally distributing it out to the full-backs. Ever Banega played just ahead to the right, and it was more of solid midfield duo than a flexible ‘double pivot’, as Banega generally stayed in position.

Jose Sosa played on the right, in advance of the central midfielders yet not quite as a winger, more as a traditional wide midfielder in a four. Angel Di Maria was higher up the pitch and drifted inside to link up with the front two, meaning Argentina often looked like they had a forward trio. The second goal was a little reminiscent of the Kaka-Robinho-Luis Fabiano triangle unlocking Chile at last year’s World Cup. Messi was a support striker, and rekindled his good natural relationship with Higuain.


Banega had essentially been forced into playing as a second holding midfielder because Borghi was more or less using two number tens, and the player to left, Valdivia, was the higher up the pitch, pushing Banega back. With Braña more focussed upon protecting the centre-backs than picking up an individual, Fernandez had time on the ball in the centre of the pitch, and those two dovetailed well to create passing angles through the midfield.

The use of both those players left Chile vulnerable deeper in midfield, however – and an Argentina counter-attack always looked on. Messi could drift deep to leave his marker Arturo Vidal unsure whether to come out of defence, and this would then occupy Carmona, allowing Di Maria to push on into space. Formations weren’t strictly a factor for the opening goal, since Chile had sent a couple of their defenders forward for a free-kicks, but it did come from a rapid break instigated by Di Maria down the left.

The Real Madrid player contributed to Chile’s main source of attack, however, because he played high up the pitch and offered little protection to Marcos Rojo, who was prone to Mauricio Isla’s bursts down the flank. With Argentina’s centre-backs both occupied, neither felt able to come out to assist Rojo, so Isla got plenty of joy and dribbled inside to good effect. A couple of times Chile brought one of their outside centre-backs forward to overload Argentina down one side of the pitch, which forced the Argentine wide midfielders back.

Few changes

The game was open and enjoyable, spoilt only by the number of free-kicks in the first half, but it never really progressed as a tactical battle. There was only one sub before the scoring ended, Eduardo Vargas replacing Mauricio Pinilla, in a change that reeked of Borghi being unable to make up for the absence of Sanchez. In truth, when Chile start with two forwards, two number tens and wing-backs allowed to get forward, it’s difficult to know how they can change the game with an attacking move.

The game remained in the same state throughout, and Sabella’s changes shut the game down well. Braña was the only starting midfielder to remain on the pitch by the end, with Eduardo Salvio, Jonas Gutierrez and Fabian Rinaudo brought on to combat Chile’s energy in the centre of the pitch.


A decent start for Sabella – structure without the ball, then fluidity and movement when in possession. For periods they seemed stunned into retreat by Chile’s attacking thrust, but then that’s often for sides playing against Chile – the wing-backs and outside centre-backs have such great freedom to get forward, that there’s often no ‘natural’ response to it.

Still, it should be said that Batista’s debut as Argentina coach was equally impressive (if not more) and look how that turned out…

Chile are the same as always – crazily attacking, brilliant to watch, but flimsy at the back and amazingly bad at turning pressure into goals. They have scored eight goals in the nine competitive games since the start of the 2010 World Cup, which barely makes sense for such a gung ho side.

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