Chile: The great entertainers, even after Bielsa

by Darragh Fitzpatrick

With South America’s big three of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay so far failing to live up to expectations in this year’s Copa América, it is Chile that have taken up the mantle as the tournament’s most entertaining side. Many will fondly remember the highly attack-minded team of Marcelo Bielsa from last year’s World Cup, particularly for the manager’s eccentric 3-3-1-3 formation, but two wins over Honduras and Switzerland were eventually followed by a comprehensive defeat at the hands of Brazil.

Even after Bielsa’s departure, Chile continue to display an attacking verve that is increasingly rare in international football. Current coach Claudio Borghi not only inherited a group of players from the preceding regime, but a system that is more usually associated with club football. The brevity of international football means most coaches don’t have time to work with their players to create a detailed style of play, but Chile have proved to be an exception to the rule thanks in no small part, of course, to the work of Bielsa.

When Bielsa did resign from his post in February, citing the election of Jorge Segovia as president of the Chilean Football Board as the reason for his decision, fellow Argentine Borghi was appointed as coach. Rather than overseeing a complete overhaul of the previous system, Borghi has recognised the merits of Bielsa’s work and continued in a similar vein to his predecessor. While he has refined Bielsa’s system to his own liking (for instance, Borghi prefers two deep-lying midfielders while Bielsa generally played with one), the flat back-three and wing-backs Chile have played with in the Copa América are the legacy of Bielsa. All differences and similarities between the two teams aside, the most important characteristic the Chile of Bielsa and Borghi share is an unapologetic commitment to attacking football. It is for this reason that Chile won the hearts of the neutral’s in South Africa last summer and it’s why many will be cheering for them in Argentina this year.

Chile’s style at its very best is sometimes reminiscent of the fluid totaalvoetbal of Holland ’74. While they may not play to the lofty standard of that team of Michels and Cruyff, the free movement of Chile’s players and the constant swapping of positions are characteristics that can be attributed to both sides. This free movement was evident in Chile’s 1-1 draw with Uruguay, with midfielders Arturo Vidal and Gary Medel popping up all over the pitch to support attack and defence. Udinese’s Mauricio Isla, though listed as a midfielder, acted as a wing-back on the night, often rampaging forward but still coming back to help Chile’s defenders. His tireless work was almost rewarded with what would have been one of the most bizarre goals of all time when he charged down Sebastían Coates’ attempted clearance, only for the ball to ricochet off his leg and balloon over Muslera in the Uruguayan goal and hit the crossbar. Such a moment was typical of the unpredictable but entertaining nature of this Chilean team, which is probably the most prominent reason they have endeared themselves to so many in recent times.

Incredibly, Chile’s 23-man squad for the Copa América is composed of only three nominal defenders. In an age where most managers inists on bringing cover for each defensive position to every tournament, Chile instead elected to pack their team with versatile midfielders. Players such as Jorge Valdivia, Sporting Lisbon’s Matías Fernández and former West Ham player Luis Jiménez are generally seen as exclusively attacking options but the aforementined Isla, Vidal, Medel and Birmingham’s Jean Beausejour are capable of providing competent defensive support. Yet these players, Vidal in particular, are perfectly comfortable on the ball when Chile go forward. Vidal has shown his passing quality and ingenuity on numerous occasions, both at international and club level, and his excellent performances for Bayer Leverkusen last season have attracted serious interest from Bayern Munich. It is no exaggeration to say that he is the heartbeat of the Chile side, the player who dictates Chile’s tempo and instigates their forays forward. His style of play is comparable to that of the deep-lying playmakers like Xabi Alonso and Bastian Schweinsteiger that were so prevalent (and successful) in the 2010 World Cup.

Another of Chile’s exciting attacking options is perhaps the country’s best-known footballer and one who would likely dispute the assertion that Vidal is the key to the Chile team. Alexis Sánchez enjoyed a wonderful season with Seria A club Udinese last year, helping the team qualify for the Champions League with twelve goals and eight assists. His superb form has not gone unnoticed by Barcelona, with the Catalan giants currently negotiating a transfer with Udinese for a fee that may exceed the 30 million euro mark. His future will not be resolved until after the Copa América, and Sánchez has so far given Barça no reason to pull out of any deal. His performances have lived up to the hype that surrounded him entering the tournament, as he has been deployed in a freer, more central role than the wide-right position where he caught the eye in South Africa last year. This new role gives him the freedom to create attacks and dictate the play further up the field than Vidal. When Chile were searching for an equaliser in their opening game against Mexico, Sánchez exploited his free role by moving right to link up with Isla and create confusion in the Mexican defence. This tactic was ultimately rewarded when Chile came back from a goal down to clinch a very useful win. Sánchez’s contribution in Chile’s second match was even more tangible, when he scored the goal that drew Chile level against Uruguay. After Valdivia had played Beausejour through with a gorgeous pass, the winger crossed for Sánchez who found the bottom corner with the outside of his right foot.

The precise passing and quick movement of that goal (watch Beausejour’s surging run down the left flank in the buildup) embodies exactly what makes Chile such an entertaining side to watch. Even the three defenders in the squad are adept passers and are more than happy with the ball at their feet. The wonderfully-named Waldo Ponce regularly charges forward from centre-back and his partner Gonzalo Jara (no relation to Wolves midfielder Jamie O’Hara, to borrow a joke from David Pleat) looks unrecognisable to the player we see playing in the Premier League for West Brom. The Chilean system evidently inspires confidence in Jara and his teammates and we, the neutral spectators, reap the benefits of the attacking endeavour that stems from this self-belief.

Chile may not yet be on the same level as their more illustrious South American counterparts, but based on the performances of the teams at the Copa América so far, mounting a serious challenge for their first ever major international honour may be within their reach. Even if it does prove to be beyond them for the moment, they may take some solace in the fact that they have entertained fans throughout the world. In a Copa América that has been short of goals and quality, they have brought joy to this spectator at the very least.

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