Universidad de Chile take the 2011 Copa Sudamericana crown in style

December 16, 2011

Universidad de Chile's formation against LDU Quito

The club of the moment? Universidad de Chile: sweeping up trophies in their domestic league, unbeaten in 35 games, and this week crowned Copa Sudamericana champions, their first ever continental title.

More interesting than their success has been their style of play. Coming 18 months after Marcelo Bielsa took Chile to the World Cup having played dynamic, quick football with heavy pressing, usually in a 3-3-1-3 formation, his fellow Argentine Jorge Sampaoli is doing something similar.

“Their style of play is an indication that Marcelo Bielsa planted some interesting seeds in Chilean football,” says Tim Vickery. “Sampaoli is a Bielsa disciple.” According to Gabriele Marcotti in The Times, Sampaoli is “at the training ground by half past 8 and doesn’t leave before 9 at night. And, when he does go home, he sits in bed watching (football) DVDs and doing video analysis on his computer”, reminiscent of Bielsa’s habit of living in a room at the Chilean FA’s headquarters away from his family and compiling video databases of his players and opponents.

The basic Bielsa template is apparent. Sampaoli uses three at the back and his side attack very directly, with various players making forward runs towards goal and plenty ending up in the penalty area.

There are significant differences between Bielsa’s Chile and Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile, however. Sampaoli seems more pragmatic than Bielsa. Although Bielsa would switch between a back three and a back four depending upon the opponent’s formation and always maintain his ‘un enganche y tres puntas’ upfront, Sampaoli changes formation more. Reviewing his recent formations  (mainly courtesy of Joel Sked’s excellent site about Chilean football) shows how much variation there is:

That 3-0 second leg win over LDU saw UDC play their 3-4-3, which appears to be the main formation.

At the back, there was a fairly standard back three, with the central defender sitting deeper than the other two. The right-sided centre-back, Osvaldo Gonzalez, had license to move forward, and in this match the right of the side was more dangerous throughout.

The wing-backs were also standard wing-backs. They played high up the pitch and were attack-minded, but they generally looked to hug the touchlines and stretch the play, providing overlaps and allowing the wide forwards inside. This is a little different to how Bielsa played with Chile, however. He liked his front three players to stay wide, and the wing-backs were more like box-to-box midfielders, in the sense that they’d exploit the wingers creating gaps in the defence, and would make diagonal runs towards goal – although he often used one player like this on one side, and a natural wing-back on the other.

The midfield duo can basically be broken down into a holder, Marcelo Diaz, and an attacking midfielder, Charles Aranguiz. Diaz is clever with his distribution, rather than being solely a destroyer – he’s more of a David Pizarro than a Gary Medel. Aranguiz sometimes dropped deeper and allowed Diaz forward, bringing variability and unpredictability to the central zone. Because of that, Aranguiz doesn’t feel like an enganche, more of a midfield runner than a creator.

Gustavo Canales, the central striker, played a role almost solely focused upon creating space for the two wide players. He dropped deep, made backwards runs and held the ball up, and because LDU were playing only three at the back against the three forwards, there was no sweeper to cut out balls played in behind. Canales would bring the central of the three defenders out, and the wide players would make inward runs into goalscoring positions. It was very similar to the way Mexico played upfront going into the World Cup.

The wide players were excellent. Eduardo Vargas has been linked with a move to various European clubs and is clearly the star man. According to Jonathan Wilson, he is “a less technical, more direct version of Alexis Sanchez”, which can be attributed, at least in part, to the aforementioned differences in the duties of the wide players under Bielsa and Sampaoli. On the other side, Francisco Castro started deeper but made equally direct runs.

It all combines for a quick, exciting and overwhelmingly attacking brand of football, perhaps summed up best in the 4-0 win over Flamengo:

But the most interesting aspect of UDC’s play is their pressing. They close down from the front and they pressure in midfield, but the defensive line doesn’t seem as suicidally high as in Bielsa’s system. Even without the insistence on a spare man behind, they seem more controlled in the way they win the ball back and more organised, whereas Chile under Bielsa often seemed frantic for the sake of being frantic.

We should be careful in how much we hype this side – the Sudamericana is very much the secondary continental competition in South America. But the main positive from this tale is not about results or ability – it’s the fact that, in a globalised world of homogeneous football tactics, there is still the ability for individuals to bring a distinct character to footballing ideology in a particular country. “A Chilean style of play” has a clear meaning – other countries of similar size and ability can only dream of such an identity.

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