A new era is almost upon us. Marcelo Bielsa take two. Only it is not Bielsa leading the Chilean national team, it is arguably his closest disciple – Jorge Sampaoli.
Chile are set for a crucial double header against Peru and Uruguay in the qualification for the World Cup in Brazil next year. After the haphazard end to Claudio Borghi’s spell in charge La Roja are on the outside looking in as they currently sit sixth in the qualification standings, level on points with Venezuela in the fourth and final automatic qualification spot, and Uruguay who occupy the play-off spot in fifth – a two-legged encounter with a team from the AFC awaits.
The full squad was announced earlier this month but Sampaoli has had to contend with Humberto Suazo withdrawing his services from the national team; the intrigue of Jorge Valdivia returning to the squad for the first time since the ‘bautizazo’ scandal and then proceeding to get injured and having to pull out; Sebastián Pinto pulling out through injury and David Pizarro continuing to refuse to play for Chile.
The new era technically started in January as Chile defeated Haiti and an under-23 Senegal team with domestic-based players, before a 2-1 friendly win over Egypt in February with the majority of the first team squad in attendance for the game played at the Vicente Calderon in Madrid.
Claudio Bravo talked before the Egypt game that Chile had lost the respect they had earned in South America under Bielsa, while others in the squad spoke of the similarities of the two managers. Sampaoli may be the student most like Bielsa – he even admits listening to Bielsa’s talks when out running. He has also shrugged off the ‘Bielsa of the poor’ tag bestowed on him by fans of Universidad de Chile when he first joined the club.
The game versus Egypt is the closest bearing to what we can expect Chile to play and line-up like against Peru on Friday (well kick-off is 2.10am GMT Saturday morning).
Chile 2-1 Egypt
After a promising opening period La Roja struggled in the first half. The three in midfield are all very good footballers but as a trio, the dynamic and set-up was not quite right. None of the three were regularly willing to drop off the midfield to collect possession from the defence. This made it harder for La Roja to play out from the back and it was easier for Egypt to defend.
Carlos Carmona was the most willing in collecting passes from the defence but was prone to adventurous long balls rather than quick, vertical passes through midfield and in to attack. Carmona, like Vidal, is a dynamic player who is better going the other way as shown in the second half.
Like the good manager he is Sampaoli noticed things were not quite right and sought to change it with the introduction of Marcelo Díaz for Bryan Rabello, who struggled to impact the game as an enganche, and Eduardo Vargas for Humberto Suazo.
The second half saw a massive improvement with the introduction of Díaz and Vargas, allowing Sampaoli to move from a 4-2-1-3 to a 4-3-3 with Díaz deeper than Carmona and Vidal, while Vargas played right and Alexis Sánchez was moved into a central role.
Díaz’s presence had an affect on both sides of midfield; on the one side he was able to play in front of the back four and, as he always did for La U, make himself available to receive a pass. This meant there was less pressure on the defence and prevented them from aimless long balls. On the other hand it freed Vidal and Carmona to play further forward.
However, if anyone witnessed Díaz at La U they would have noticed that he is not constrained to the holding midfield role. He is prone to driving forward and shooting from range. In the 60th minute it was he who was pressing high up the pitch, winning the ball back and it would be moved quickly to Vidal, then Sánchez before the Barcelona man played in Vargas to fire across the goalkeeper and into the corner of the net.
Throughout the game it was Sampaoli who was setting the tempo for the team’s pressing, which was much more effective in the second half. He constantly patrolled the touchline and the fourth official did not even bother trying to shackle him by ushering him into the technical area – he would have needed restraints. While Bielsa paces around his technical area, Sampaoli charges. It is only a matter of time before he starts closing down opposition players himself.
It clearly had an affect however as Chile swarmed Egypt, like La U had done to so many teams under Sampaoli. The pitch was made as big as possible in possession and then tightened without it as the team hunted.
The second goal came in the 66th minute – six minutes after the first – when Isla drove forward from right-back and, with Vargas pulling wide, made an inside run before threading a pass through to Sánchez, who saw his shot turned into the path of Carmona who netted from close range.
Sánchez has gone more than 18 months without scoring for Chile, and he has not had the best of times recently for Barcelona, coming in for criticism from both fans and the media. However, he admits he has more freedom and can create more chances from a central position. He thrived at Udinese after being switched to a central position from a wide position and could take the role Gustavo Lorenzetti performed so well at times under Sampaoli. He is an intelligent player with blistering pace – something which Lorenzetti does not possess – and can moved around the attacking areas of the pitch, which in part opens up space for Vargas.
Vargas, who seems to have rediscovered his confidence at Grêmio since his loan move from Napoli, terrorised defences, especially in the Copa Sudamericana – where he finished top goal scorer when La U won in 2011. He perfected the run from wide right across the box to attack the front post where he would attempt to get on the edge of deliveries from Eugenio Mena – that task will be designated to Jean Beausejour, an adept crosser.
There were also positive signs of a blossoming relationship with Mauricio Isla. Very familiar to a certain relationship with Matías Rodríguez. Isla is more wing-back than full-back and attacks with pace, directness and energy. If the duo click it is a frightening prospect for both Chile and opposition defenders – for varying reasons.
Of course there were still frailties within the team and unsurprisingly it came in the defensive third of the pitch. José Rojas struggled when his pace – one of his biggest attributes – was matched by those in the Egypt frontline, while Gary Medel readjusted to playing in defence – a position he played under Bielsa. The duo had a mix-up to allow the North Africans to score a late consolation goal and seemed uncomfortable with the high line demanded by Sampaoli.
But behind them they have one of the best goalkeepers currently around. Claudio Bravo, also Chile captain, is adept at playing a sweeper role and played an important part, especially in the first half where he kept Egypt at bay with a strong of good saves.
He is a real asset to the way they play due to his qualities as a sweeper and as a technically sound goalkeeper who is calm and composed passing out from the back.
The biggest problem facing Sampaoli is not the call-offs or the El rival no duerme campaign started in Peru, but the fact that both Marcelo Díaz and Arturo Vidal are suspended for game in Lima. Díaz will be back for the Uruguay game on Tuesday, while Vidal misses both.
Sampaoli, keeping his cards firm to his chest, said that he is 90% decided on his starting XI. Defensively the speculation surrounded a defensive line of three or four. However, Sampaoli expects Peru to line up in a way that a back four is necessary which means it is likely to be Eugenio Mena, José Rojas, Marcos González and at right-back Gary Medel.
One player Sampaoli did talk about was Prince Charles Aránguiz and the relationship and understanding he enjoyed with Edu Vargas at La U – he often linked with Vargas and Rodríguez, naturally drifting to positions on the right of midfield. Aránguiz will be joined by Mauricio Isla in midfield, and with Vargas the trio will likely overload the left full-back of Peru.
This leaves one vital midfield position. Analysing the different qualities the varying midfield options possess suggests, if Sampaoli opts for the system which La Roja played in the second half against Egypt, it will be Francisco Silva.
Silva, who is currently on loan at Osasuna, will likely take on the role of deep-lying play-maker. He is not quite at the level of Díaz but he is a very able deputy. His passes tend to be longer than Díaz’s but he can mix it up in midfield, and he has proven to be tenacious and combative.
The triumvirate which started the second half versus Egypt will line up against Peru. Beausejour and Mena should combine on the left, while Sánchez will be given freedom to move around the attacking positions.
Suazo’s withdrawal could be a blessing. Despite all the goals for Monterrey in Mexico he has not been as effective for La Roja. Sampaoli prides himself on verticality and likes to play with a traditional numero 9 such as Gustavo Canales or Ángelo Henríquez. But arguably La U’s best performance under Sampaoli was the fluid 4-0 destruction of Flamengo.
If Sampoali can provide a return of four points from the two games, getting La Roja back on track to Brazil 2014 he will edge his reputation that little bit closer to Bielsa.