Brilliance or Bust for Bielsa’s Chile

by Kevyn Doran

The internet is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Okay, so that’s not the best way to open an article about a perennial World Cup underdog, but bear with me here. As you’re reading this article online, I’m going to assume you’re privy to the wicked ways of the world wide web. Therefore I won’t be going into the mechanics of how one could find themselves researching one certain or specific topic on a forum at 3:00 am – perhaps for a college paper or a work report – yet find themselves in a polar opposite corner of the internet at 3:01 am. Now narrow the scope of the internet we’re talking about here to just football blogs and websites, and you still retain that same sinister, almost subliminal habit. It was the summer of 2009, and I think I must have been reading up on the latest transfer rumours and general garbage you get during a non-international tournament year, but that’s not what’s important. What’s important is the random football forum I ended up on at a ridiculous hour in the morning, and the anonymously posted message I read while I was there. There was a discussion on what teams people were looking forward to seeing at the World Cup. Now, obviously there was a great deal of predicting and assuming going on, as South Africa were the only sure team to be there given that they would be hosts. But that’s the joy of footballing debate.

Before I go any further, I’m going to ask you to fast forward to today – Tuesday 15th June to be exact – and ask you again to bear with me, because I’m really excited about what lies ahead. The World Cup has been a pretty cautious affair so far, with only those boring old Germans coming close to thrilling us as we enter the second last match day of the first round of fixtures. But there’s no need to fear, because Brazil are about to kick off their campaign against a lowly, unheard of North Korea side, right? And then there’s Spain, who commence with the tag of favourites the following day, having arrived in South Africa with a run of 33 wins in their last 34 competitive matches. They’ll be the business too, won’t they? Well, either way, I’m not bothered. I’ll watch their respective matches, but it’s neither the Brazilians nor the Spanish that I’m excited about, for there’s another team who kick off their campaign tomorrow. It’s the team whose bandwagon I’ve made myself at home upon, and a team who I’ve studied relentlessly for the past year. It’s the same team I read about that fateful night at God-knows-what hour, thanks to a simple, anonymously posted two word response:

Watch Chile.

The Coach

To understand Chile, you must first understand their coach Marcelo Bielsa. The 54-year old is very much a cult favourite among those of us who like to analyse games a little bit beyond plain old results. If you are already a follower of Bielsa, then it may please you to discover that you belong to a clique of Bielsistas, a term coined to refer to subscribers of Bielsa’s philosophies. El Loco – as he is affectionately known – is a colourful character, and one who demands the utmost respect from his players, an offering he is more than happy to reciprocate. His renown for being a leader in the tactics of football is derived from his implicit attention to detail and a meticulous examination of whatever resources he has available to him about his opponents.

Bielsa has been in management for just over three decades now, but don’t let that fool you into thinking that his hunger for success may be on the wane. No manager in South Africa has a greater point to prove than than the former Argentina boss, who saw his highly talented side crash out of the 2002 World Cup in South Korea/Japan. A dream strike partnership of Gabriel Batistuta and Hernan Crespo never materialised due to the players’ mutual dislike of one another, and Bielsa and co. were sent packing before the knockout stage of the tournament. He went on to atone for such a disappointment by guiding Argentina to an Olympic gold medal and a Copa America runners up spot, but you get the feeling that such is Bielsa’s fiery, tempestuous character that this is the moment he was been waiting for.

The Team

As for the Chile squad itself, it is one of the younger sides taking part this summer with an average of 25 and only one player above the age of 30. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that this is an unproven and untested squad though, as many of these players have played together at underage level for years during a particularly prosperous period in Chilean football. In 2007, the under-20 national team finished 3rd in the World Cup, being knocked out by eventual winners Argentina in the semi-final. This was followed by the under-21’s finishing as runner’s up in the 2008 Toulon Tournament. Make no mistake about it, this group of players are very familiar with one another and have already tasted a relative level of success on an international scale. This is a team who have performed remarkably under Bielsa’s tutelage, finishing just one point and one goal adrift of first-place Brazil in qualification – a team seen by many as favourites to lift the cup. But long gone are the days of household names such as Marcelo Salas, Ivan Zamarano or David Pizzaro. In their places are a team of young, hungry players eager to prove themselves on the biggest stage of all. There are no superstar names in Bielsa’s squad, but that could all change should the Chileans perform to the best of their capabilities this summer.

The Key Players

Alexis SanchezAlexis Sánchez (WF) is very much the poster boy of Chilean football. Chris Mann has already put together an excellent report on the 21 year old for BackPageFootball as one to watch this summer.

“21 year-old Chilean winger Alexis Sanchez has hardly just burst on to the scene, but this season has seen the Udinese player begin to show signs that he may develop into one of world football’s brightest talents in the years to come.”

“Having scored eight goals in his 26 appearances for the national team to date, Sanchez has shown that he more than has what it takes to play at the very highest level and, after impressing during qualification”……………”the coming months could well shape the career Alexis Sanchez, one of football’s most exciting prospects.”

Humberto SuazoHumberto Suazo (ST) may not be as instantly recognisable as the aforementioned Salas or Zamarano, but Chupeto certainly has a goalscoring record to rival the very best. In 2006, he had more goals than any other recognised striker in a single season, plundering his way to 52 goals for Colo-Colo. Now plying his trade for Zaragoza in Spain, Suazo is blessed with a delicate touch that tremendously contrasts the thunderous shot at goal that typically follows. On the downside, when things don’t go his way, you’ll be sure to know about it as his reputation for being a goalscorer is often eclipsed by that of being a trouble-maker.

Matias  FernandezMatías Fernández (AMC) is a skilful player known for both his trickery on the ball and a penchant for scoring sensational goals. An indifferent spell at Villareal where he was groomed to be Juan Roman Riquelme’s successor seems to have affected Matí’s confidence, and as a result he can be terribly inconsistent. He has since resurrected his career at Sporting, and Chile will be looking towards Fernández to pull the strings in the trequartista role at the head of a midfield diamond formation – a role he excels in. If Ferández is on form this summer, Chile will be too.

Gary MedelGary Medel (DM/DR) is a player for whom I have all the time in the world. For all of Chile’s attacking innovation and ingenuity, there is the need for a tenacious defensive talisman to keep a watchful eye on happenings at the back. Given that, there are very few players in South Africa this summer more tenacious and warrior-like than Medel. I have already written about The Chilean Gattuso on my ConsolationGoal blog, but Medel is at the very top of my watch list for the World Cup, and I am sure he is relishing the prospect of going up against Torres, Villa and co. as much as I am looking forward to watching him.

Arturo Vidal

Arturo Vidal (DM) will occupy the holding midfielder position to offer Chile some balance and protection from the counter attack. He has played alongside midfield partner Carlos Carmona since the under-20 World Cup in 2007, and although he has struggled to maintain the abnormally high goalscoring record he held for a defensive midfielder at underage level, he is still one of Chile’s most important players as he offers the forward quartet of Suazo, Sanchez, Fernandez and Gonzalez peace of mind should they lose possession.

The Tactics

This is where the fun begins, as Bielsa adopts a very strict 3-4-3 formation. Attacking wise (below left), this makes for some scintillating viewing, as Fernández operates as the trequartista, providing service out wide to Sánchez and ex-Liverpool winger Mark Gonzalez. Expect to see those three interchange positions regularly as they look to confuse their opponents and shake markers. It is an extraordinarly quick forward line that will leave defences requiring an awful lot of help from their defensive midfielders in front. Don’t be surprised to see Spain start with Sergio Busquets when these two meet, regardless of assured qualification or not. Expect Millar and Vidal to provide that quick link between defence and attack as they look to get the ball to Fernández, especially on the counter attack which Chile just love to play. Watch out for Gary Medel darting forward quite often too, as asking him to stay back for a whole game is akin to placing a juicy steak in front of a pitbull and commanding him to sit.

Defensively, or more appropriately, when they are not in possession (above right) Chile seem to come up short which is no surprise given their formation. Sánchez and Gonzalez are required to track back whenever possession is lost to help out Jara and Medel. The latter will revert to right back where he plays for Boca, while Jara – the more central of the two – often needs help from Carmona and Vidal, or indeed Gonzalez should the threat come from a left wing position. As a result, the regular back three stretches itself, while a new narrow block of three midfielders (Vidal, Carmona and Millar) drop back and sit on top of them, creating a trapezoid or flat-top triangle. Fernández and Suazo are relieved of defensives apart from closing down nearby opposing players, and positioning themselves in the way of prospective passes.

Despite a lack of celebrity, Chile are not in South Africa to make up the numbers. They have more than enough quality to cause even the best of teams serious problems, a theory that will be put to the test when they face Spain on June 25th. While there is a very realistic possibility that Spain will simply prove too efficient for a Chile side who like to be the ones doing the attacking, Marcelo Bielsa’s side should make the knockout stage with relative ease.

I have to say it’s been an interesting year here on my new bandwagon. Marcelo Bielsa and his tactics have opened my eyes to a world beyond packing the midfield, and prioritising not losing above winning – something I seem to have become accustomed in 99% of the matches I watch. Sadly, it’s been well documented that we are currently experiencing the dullest start goals scored-wise to a World Cup on record. And traditionally, it’s the South Americans and their attractive, easy on the eye brand of football who open up these tournaments for the better. However, this time round, it might not be the two you have in mind…

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