In the past year the country of Chile rose to prominence for two things. Most widely circulated around the world was the remarkable story about the 33 miners trapped for a record 69 days in a copper-gold mine in the Atacama Desert. The other, more prominent in the football community, was Marcelo Bielsa’s adventurous young Chile side that featured at the World Cup in South Africa last summer. They played an exhilarating and tactically audacious brand of football that captured the imagination of football purists world wide.
Part of that formidable side was Arturo Vidal, the 23-year-old midfielder from the Santiago province who plies his trade for Bayer Leverkusen in the Bundesliga. To be fair, calling Vidal a midfielder does not do him justice. Vidal is as versatile as a player can get in the modern game. While he has mostly played as a midfielder throughout his career he has filled in at just about every position in nearly every tactical set up imaginable and done so admirably. His versatility speaks volumes about his qualities as a footballer and the Chilean has firmly established himself as one of the premier players in Germany over the past two seasons.
This past year in particular, Vidal has achieved arguably his peak as a professional footballer to date and led his side in their most serious bid for the title in almost a decade. Borussia Dortmund had a quite remarkable season and in the end wrapped up the title but they were pushed to the brink by a Leverkusen side that breathed down their necks for the entirety of the season. Vidal’s contribution was one of the primary reasons for why it was largely a two horse race for the title.
With 13 goals and 12 assists to his name this season, Vidal was the league’s highest scoring midfielder, not too shabby considering he is often deployed in a holding role deep in midfield. Those impressive statistics are a culmination of a blooming career marked by hard work and merited achievement.
Bought from Chile’s record winning Colo Colo in 2007 for 5.2 million Euros, Vidal came to Germany relatively unknown to most Bundesliga supporters. Vidal made his professional debut in his home country at the tender age of 18 back in 2006. It did not take long for Vidal to impress scouts after immediately slotting into Colo Colo’s side and helping them win a second successive league title as well as impressing in the team’s Copa Sudameriana campaign. The following year Vidal participated in the U-20 South American Youth Championship in which he finished as the tournament’s second highest scorer with 5 goals, from a central midfield position to boot. Vidal outshone his peers in the tournament and helped his country qualify for the U-20 World Cup in the process.
Leverkusen in particular took notice after Vidal’s strong showing at that World Cup during the summer where Vidal and his team earned an impressive 3rd place finish. Vidal again stood out and scored key goals in the process, amongst them the match winner against Portugal in the Round of 16. Chile lost in the semi finals to eventual winners Argentina but the midfield dynamo peaked the curiosity of many with his outstanding performances. Leverkusen’s Director of Football, Rudi Völler, especially took note and made it a mission to sign the then 20 year old. So convinced of his talents was Völler that he ended up signing Vidal for what would be a new club record transfer fee for the Chilean club.
In his first season in Germany Vidal made 33 appearances including participation in the UEFA Cup where his side was eliminated by eventual winners Zenit St. Petersburg. Vidal started 25 matches in a rather disappointing season for Leverkusen, finishing 7th and just barely missing out on Europe. Leverkusen could have clinched the final European spot with a win against Werder Bremen on the last matchday but lost 1:0 at home. Despite the disappointing finish, Vidal impressed in his first season in a new league and was one of Leverkusen’s better performers over the course of the season. He made an immediate impact and scored his first goal just three matches into his Bayer career. His tenacity and strong on field personality became apparent in impressive performances against Bayern Munich and Leverkusen’s run to the Quarter finals of the UEFA Cup. Things looked promising as the Chilean made a strong case for becoming a permanent fixture at his new club.
His sophomore season did not go as well however and Leverkusen had their worst finish since the beginning of the decade in that 2008/09 season. Leverkusen’s reputation for falling short when it mattered would haunt the club yet again as their home form suffered in a terribly disappointing second half to the season after a quite promising start. Vidal had by now established himself as a starter and played in every game when fit. He missed a month of action due to a concussion towards the end of the season but made an immediate impact upon his return as he scored in the semi final win against Mainz that would send his team to the domestic Cup final. Vidal had been key in Leverkusen’s Cup run, scoring or assisting in 4 of the 6 matches. Leverkusen lost a hard fought final against Werder Bremen but Vidal had distinguished himself once again and showed the character and leadership that he would eventually become so renowned for.
Despite his continued growth as a player, Vidal was criticized for his disciplinary record on the field. His tenacious playing style and over commitment to the ball landed him 12 yellow cards and 2 sending offs that season, one of the highest card totals in the country. Admittedly, it was an aspect of his game that needed refining. At the same time, Vidal was excelling in Chile’s World Cup qualifying campaign, playing in 11 of their qualifiers, scoring a goal and assisting three from a rather unusual defensive position in Bielsa’s set up. Chile surprised many with their aggressive and bold playing style and finished just one point behind Brazil in the final standings.
As things improved for the club, so did conditions for Vidal and the increase in quality in the squad and the appointment of manager Jupp Heynckes paved the way for Vidal’s to truly reach his potential. The 2009/10 was a relative success for Leverkusen and saw them make their way back into Europe, just two points shy of the Champions League. Thanks to Vidal, Leverkusen had one of the league’s best defenses and attacks, behind only Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich. Heynckes’s goal was to instill a discipline and confidence in the team and prevent the late collapses that the club had become notorious for.
Few players epitomized that those attributes more than Vidal and under Heynckes, he became a central figure in Leverkusen’s set up. He was given more freedom to roam the field and dictate games. As a result, Vidal became the box-to-box midfielder that made him so dominant at the various youth levels. It was a role that he had to grow into a bit at that level and his stats did not reflect the level of performance yet but there was no question that Vidal was growing as a player as he started to take charge of matches more and more as the season progressed. Slowly but surely he became the motor and heart of Heynckes’s Leverkusen. Vidal only missed 3 games in the league that season, of which Leverkusen only won one. Leverkusen were also eliminated in the second round of the Cup that season, conceding the match winner as soon as Vidal was substituted. It was obvious that Vidal’s influence on the team had taken a firm hold.
The breakthrough for Vidal came this past season where the culmination of his hard work and further refinement of his game made for a truly outstanding campaign. Few would argue against a Player of the Season nomination as Vidal stormed his way through the Bundesliga. Most impressive was the maturation process he underwent. Whereas Vidal led the league in yellow cards the season before (14) this past year he collected only 5 in the league. It was an important step as a player and on field leader. Along with his impressive goal and assist tally Vidal also had a staggering 2810 touches on the ball in the league, more than influential players like Bastian Schweinsteiger and Nuri Sahin. He also completed an impressive 82% of his 1891 passes. Defensively speaking, Vidal won 56% of all his tackles, outperforming Sven Bender, arguably the league’s best pure defensive midfielder.
Since agreeing to take over at Bayern Munich next season, now former Leverkusen manager Jupp Heynckes has made no qualms about wanting to bring the Chilean to Germany’s most prominent club. That despite the fact that Bayern have several quality options in that area of the pitch. Such is Vidal’s reputation however and few can deny that the Santiago native has made tremendous strides as a player. For Vidal it seems, the sky is the limit. And considering his trajectory so far, who can doubt him?