Chile: like in 2010, the most attacking side
Four years ago Marcelo Bielsa’s Chile were hyped up as the most exciting side travelling to South Africa, and in terms of pure entertainment, they didn’t disappoint.
Whereas most sides sat back in their own half and counter-attacked, Chile pressed relentlessly high up the pitch, winning the ball as soon as possible and attacking with quick forward passes and direct dribbling. It was trademark Bielsa.
But in a different sense, they did disappoint. Look at Chile’s results from that competition, and they only scored three goals in four matches, two of which were rather fortunate. They were handed a tough draw, in the same group as Spain and up against Brazil in the second round (they were the two pre-tournament favourites) but, quite frankly, we expected more goals. They were always on the front foot, yet scored less than a goal per game.
Bielsa had left by the time of the 2011 Copa America, but under Claudio Borghi it was exactly the same thing at that tournament. Chile were ‘better’ in every match they played, yet kept missing chances and then conceding unnecessary goals when they were seemingly in command. In a tournament that was ludicrously short of attacking quality, Chile were a breath of fresh air, but they were eliminated by a deeply average Venezuela side in the most stereotypically Chilean way possible. They dominated, then lost a goal from a set-piece, then made two attacking substitutions to play a hilariously attacking 3-2-3-2 formation, then equalised, then lost another goal from a set-piece, got a man sent off, and ran out of time.
Yet Chile continue to be enthralling. In March, they travelled to Stuttgart to play Germany, and absolutely battered them. They had 17 shots to 5, and 7 on target to 3. And yet, predictably, they lost 1-0. It’s almost illogical how a side can dominate games so clearly, yet fail to score.
The Bielsa era may be long gone, but his impact upon Chilean football as a whole was so great that the country’s football style, and the national team’s style, remains distinctly Bielsian. Current manager Jorge Sampaoli idolised Bielsa, and predictably wants heavy pressing, direct attacking and constantly changes shape to throw players forward. His Universidad de Chile side was briefly one the most tactically interesting sides in the world, and he’s a perfect fit for the national side.
Most of his favoured concepts are familiar from the Bielsa days, but perhaps the standout feature is Sampaoli’s absolute insistence on retaining attacking width, which often prompts quick attacks following huge diagonal balls towards the opposite side. If a wing-back can get forward and create an overload, Sampaoli’s plan has worked.
His formation is undecided. Bielsa regularly switched between a back three (against two upfront) and a back four (against one or three upfront), sticking to the principle that his side should always have a spare man. Chile could do something similar, although Sampaoli has played a three-man defence more often than a back four.
The area which shouldn’t be affected is the front two. Sampaoli deploys two highly mobile, pacey and energetic wide forwards drifting inside into goalscoring positions, and it’s difficult to tell whether Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas are truly strikers or wingers.
They’re somewhere in between, and opponents will find it difficult to work out whether the full-backs or the centre-backs should be marking them. This can be highly effective, as it means Chile can pin back a four-man defence with just two players, and therefore have an extra man in midfield (as well as the usual spare man at the back).
Sampaoli likes to play with a number ten. This could be Jorge Valdivia, a wonderfully talented footballer who is almost comically plagued with disciplinary problems, usually involving alcohol. He might be used as a supersub, however, because he can’t press for 90 minutes. This means Arturo Vidal will probably play at the head of the midfield.
Vidal is possibly the best all-rounder in world football. He can tackle, head, dribble, pass, shoot, he’s played in defence, midfield and attack, and he’s the most brilliantly energetic player too. He has suffered from fitness problems in the build-up to this tournament, undergoing meniscus surgery, but he should be fit to play a part.
Because the forwards occupy such wide positions, Vidal is almost like a false nine at times, particularly when he leads the pressing and moves high up. He makes brilliant late runs into the box, and scored four goals in five qualification games under Sampaoli.
Vidal could play deeper if Valdivia plays, but the rest of the midfield depends on what shape Sampaoli uses. It it’s a 3-4-1-2, then it will be the combination of Marcelo Diaz and Charles Aranguiz, who both played under Sampaoli at Universidad de Chile, and therefore know everything about his system. Diaz sits and holds, playing good passes into attack, while Aranguiz breaks forward more. In a midfield diamond, Felipe Alejandro Gutierrez would come into the side on the left, and gets up and down well.
Right-sided Mauricio Isla will be either the right-wing-back or simply the right-back. Although he’s found life difficult at Juventus, he’s a brilliantly attack-minded footballer who charges directly towards goal when receiving possession, and probably has more stamina than anyone bar Vidal. On the left, energetic-but-nothing-more Jean Beausejour is the first-choice wing-back, although Sampaoli seems reluctant to use him in a back four, which is where Eugenio Mena could come in. Francesco Silva is another option and very mobile, Jose Rojas more of a natural defender.
Gonzalo Jara can play on the left of a three-man defence or in the middle of a four, alongside Gary Medel. Medel is a tough-tackling holding midfielder at club level, but an even tougher-tackling centre-back for Chile. His major shortcoming is his lack of height, which meant it was a real surprise Marcos Gonzalez was left out of the squad – he’s 6′3 and had been a regular in qualifying, although admittedly seemed incompatible with a high defensive line. Claudio Bravo isn’t the tallest in goal, only 6′1, and will probably showcase some Hugo Lloris-esque sweeping.
The lack of height is a significant problem for Chile. A back four of Isla, Medel, Jara and Mena features players that are just 5′9, 5′7, 5′10 and 5′9. It barely needs to be explained that defending set-pieces will be a problem.
They’ll certainly put on a show, and for the second consecutive tournament might be the most tactically distinct side in the competition. Expect heavy pressing and quick attacking, and there’s every chance Chile could embarrass a supposed favourite.
But there are too many question marks about the side, in terms of their inability to collect the wins their performances deserve. That, combined with problems in terms of discipline and set-pieces, means they, and many neutrals, might be left disappointed.
Coach: Jorge Sampaoli – a huge fan of former coach Marcelo Bielsa
Formation: 3-4-1-2, or possibly 4-1-2-1-2 – with the front two starting very wide
Key player: Vidal. Is he 100% fit? If so, he’s the best all-round footballer at this World Cup
Strength: The pressing high up the pitch is brilliant, although both Spain and Holland will be relatively accustomed to this.
Weakness: They don’t convert dominance into results, they’ll be extremely weak when defending set-plays, and they’ll probably pick up too many bookings.
Key tactical question: Three or four at the back?
Chile: like in 2010, the most attacking side