Australia and Chile meet at the World Cup forty-two years after their first clash.
While Chile qualified for that 1974 tournament by virtue of the Soviet Union forfeiting the play-off, they did things rather differently for Brazil. Initially struggling under the more pragmatic reign of Claudio Borghi, they recorded a six-match unbeaten run when he was replaced by Jorge Sampaoli, who re-instilled the radical principles of fellow Argentine Marcelo Bielsa. Bielsa, who was in charge of Chile at the 2010 World Cup, is the central figure in understanding Chile’s footballing identity.
An eccentric, fiercely principled manager, Bielsa’s idealistic tactics revolve around ‘verticality’ (playing forwards quickly wherever possible) and a high tempo both on and off the ball. His sides always work tremendously hard to press high up the pitch, and then attack quickly and directly when they win the ball – Chile have lots of possession because of how aggressively they win it, not because of their desire to retain it.
In his four years in charge of Chile Bielsa gave them a discernible, definitive identity, one that is clearly popular amongst Australian fans given the widespread approval of the Bielsa rumours that stirred after the sacking of Holger Osieck. Sampaoli, too, is clearly a fan, describing himself a ‘disciple’. He turned club side La Universidad de Chile into one of the most formidable teams in South America with a thrillingly Bielsa-like brand of football, winning three consecutive league titles and the Copa Sudamerica.
His appointment as Borghi’s successor, thus, came as a little surprise, and he has restored Chile’s reputation as reckless, attack-minded entertainers. On paper, their clash against an exteremely positive new-look Socceroos side could be one of the most exciting matches of the tournament.
One of the fundamental concepts of Bielsa’s football is retaining a spare man at the back – so against two strikers, it’ll be something similar to a 3-4-1-2, and against a lone forward, a back four. Often, it can be impossible to distinguish between the two formations, both because of the way Chile push numbers forward in attack and because of the versatility of the deep midfield players (more on that later).
With Postecoglou set to use Tim Cahill upfront alone in a 4-3-3, it’d be a surprise if Sampaoli didn’t opt for something akin to a 4-3-1-2, with injury to Juventus midfielder Arturo Vidal allowing Jorge Valdiva to start in a hybrid false 9/number ten role. Valdiva’s nominally a playmaker but can drop deep from his high starting position, pulling defenders away and allowing the ‘forwards’, Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez, to drive infield.
Regardless of the makeup of the defence, Sampaoli always keeps with a attacking trident, using two pacey, aggressive wide forwards high up the pitch. Sanchez and Vargas are very similar in their ability to evade challenges with a sudden change of direction and tremendous bursts of acceleration, and are highly dangerous in both a creative and goalscoring sense, with Sanchez particularly dangerous with powerful shots from the right channel. He scored nineteen and assisted ten for Barcelona this season, and demonstrated his quality with three fine assists in a recent friendly against Egypt.
The two forwards are very clever to position themselves in that tricky zone between centre-backs, full-backs and holding midfielders (sometimes referred to as a half-space), although Sanchez tends to drop deeper on the right hand side and collect possession closer to the halfway line. That means the Socceroos left-sided central midfielder, presumably Mark Milligan, will play an important role in blocking passes into Sanchez’s channel. Vargas stays higher up, and is more likely to make runs in behind.
Vidal is quite simply the best all-rounder in the world, and his likely absence would be a enormous blow to Sampaoli. Not only is he technically excellent and able to both drop deep to link up play as well as timing late runs into the penalty box to be a goal threat, his energy is crucial to Chile’s pressing. His replacement, Valdiva, is clever with his movement and will be incredibly dangerous if he finds space between the lines as he looks to feed passes into Sanchez and Vargas. He is physically brittle, however, and doesn’t close down at the same intensity as the rest of the side.
Pressing is actually one of Chile’s major attacking weapons, because of the intensity and aggressiveness of where they press allows them to win the ball close to goal. Defending opposition goal-kicks, the front three will stay very high up and force the kick long. They work tremendously hard to prevent opponents playing out from the back, often supported by a central midfielder shuttling forward. Often, it’s possible to quickly switch the play across to the opposite side and find space, but the full-back down that flank will often steam forward from a deep position to maintain the pressure.
Chile’s mobile, athletic squad makes this physically demanding tactic possible. When they win the ball, they attack quickly and directly – they’re not a counter-attacking side, but are deadly in that moment of transition.
Full-backs getting forward
The other important contributors to Chile’s attacking game are the full-backs, with Mauricio Isla assured of his place on the right and Eugenio Mena and Jean Beausejour battling it out on the left (with the former more likely in a back four, and the latter more likely in a back three).
Isla has tremendous energy and combines well with Sanchez, the two having been teammates at Udinese. He motors immediately towards in possession, and is often available for quick switches of play into space where he can power forward on the outside. Beausejour is similarly energetic but less influential. Mena played under Sampaoli at Universidad de Chile, is the superior player and should start against Australia.
The video below demonstrates the role of the full-backs going forward.
As mentioned at the beginning of that video, it is the holding midfielder/third centre-back that facilitates the freedom of the full-backs to get forward. Against Germany, Francesco Silva was trialled in that role, but it’ll almost definitely be Marcelo Diaz who starts – he played under Sampaoli at La Universidad, and has a fine record in the side: of the five games he missed in qualifying because of injury, Chile lost four.
The 27 year old reads the game perfectly – generally occupying the space just in front of the central defenders, but dropping in between them when necessary to create a back three. He distributes both short and long, and if given time on the ball, will allow the wing-backs to get forward.
Diaz can play slightly further forward if Sampaoli decides to use Silva at the back, and thus the format of the midfield is difficult to determine in Vidal’s absence. Even if Vidal can start, he could be used deeper to keep Valdiva in the side, or alternatively, Felipe Gutierrez of FC Twente can come into the side on the left as a box-to-box player.
The one constant would appear to be Charlez Aranguiz, who also played under Sampaoli at Universidad de Chile and is a Milligan-type player, primarily providing simple (but vertical) distribution but also capable of breaking forward into attack. He helps form neat triangles down the right with Sanchez and Isla. He didn’t quite work when used as a false nine against Egypt, but that demonstrated his versatility.
The centre-backs are the biggest concern. Gary Medel of Cardiff is a midfielder-turned-defender, demonstrating Chile’s lack of natural defenders – he’s aggressive with his positioning and tackling, and will come up the pitch to challenge onrushing attackers.
Alongside him will be Gonzalo Jara, after Medel’s partner in qualifying, Marcos Gonzalez, was surprisingly left out of the squad. Jara is speedier and better suited to the high line, but Gonzalez brought the attribute critically lacking in this side: height. Without him, Chile appear painfully short both physically and in terms of depth at the back. Chile will almost certainly have problems dealing with crosses.
Behind the defence is Real Sociedad’s Claudio Bravo, the captain of the side, comfortable with the ball and a quick sweeper – he’ll dart forward off his line to clear any balls in behind the defence. Bravo never seems confident claiming aerial balls, which doesn’t help considering Chile’s lack of height.
The negatory effect of Chile’s high-octane game is that the defence can appear utterly disjointed, and incredibly vulnerable to being dragged out of position. It sometimes feels like a complete lack of organisation, and it’s not far from the reality – it’s simply the by-effect of asking players to press high up the pitch, which inevitably leaves space if the initial closing down is played around.
Adam Taggart made it clear this is something Australia will target. “A lot of today [at training] we were working on high pressure and getting in behind because that’s a massive way that we can exploit Chile,” said the striker. “They play a really high line and as we’ve seen in their previous games a lot of the goals scored against Chile were from balls in behind, early crosses, things like that.”
The high line, too, is another consequence, and Chile can be caught out with balls in behind, particularly in wide areas with the full-backs having so much distance to recover in the defensive phase. They account for this with aggressive defending, lead by Medel, but have problems with discipline, being shown four red cards in qualification. The 25 goals conceded (verus 29 scored) in qualifying is simple quantitive proof of their weakness.
The lack of height is also a major factor defending set-pieces, for obvious reasons – against Germany, for example, the 5″11 Vidal was marking the 6″6 Per Mertesacker. As pointed out in Zonal Marking’s excellent Chile preview, Chile’s backline of Isla, Medel, Jara and Mena is 5″9, 5″7, 5″10 and 5″9 respectively. Chile account for this using a hybrid zonal-man marking system, with Jara and Vidal generally marking the biggest opposition threat. As aforementioned, it’s fairly obvious Cahill could be very influential at dead ball situations.
When attacking set-pieces, Chile look to play short where possible, and sometimes look for a quick ball towards the near post for one of the attackers to volley. They’re surprisingly inventive and varied with their execution of free-kicks and corners.
Sampaoli has a few cards up his sleeve – most obviously a formation change, with the versatility of the side’s spine allowing him to switch fairly freely between three and four at the back. In attack, he can call upon Mauricio Pinilla of Cagliari – the closest thing to an out and out forward in the squad, and remarkably, the only Chilean over 6 foot. He’ll provide more of a physical threat and should feature if Australia manage to crowd out the centre of the pitch and force lots of crosses from out wide, as they lack a natural target for those balls in their usual system.
Alternatively, there is Esteban Paredes, a fairly standard centre-forward capable of linking up play and making runs in behind. The biggest tactical switch will probably come via the starters, though, with a number of players as mentioned flexible enough to fit into different positions – Alexis Sanchez, for example, moved centrally against Egypt, allowing Beausejour to play higher up on the left.
While Chile are an excellent attacking unit, they remain short of the full package – and Vidal’s absence will be sorely felt, both in terms of his attacking contribution, versatility and ability to sustain the press. They’ll start strongly and maintain a goal threat throughout, but have very obvious weaknesses at the back with the high line, defending set pieces and the positioning of the full-backs.
With neither Sampaoli or Postecoglou set to compromise their principles, the key battle zone could be out wide. There’ll be four full-backs looking to get forward wherever possible, and they’ll have to be decisive when in possession – if they’re not, they could all be exposed ruthlessly by quick counter-attacks.
That determination to attack from both sides could make this a thrillingly open game.
To learn more about Chile, I also have a tactical look at their system in the July edition of FourFourTwo magazine.