Jorge Sampaoli’s first two competitive games in charge of Chile have been and gone and he has achieved his and the country’s short-term goal: move ahead of Uruguay and Venezuela into the fourth automatic place for Brazil 2014.
However, on Friday evening – well the small hours of Saturday morning to be precise – that target looked less likely as La Roja fell to a 1-0 defeat in Peru, carrying on Sampaoli’s first game hoodoo as he has yet to win a debut competitive game with a team he has managed in eight attempts.
It was a poor game with Claudio Bravo coming to his side’s rescue on more than one occasion as the team seemed unsure of their game plan – if not unsure then certainly lacking confidence.
Sampaoli switched tactics for the game against Uruguay in the Estadio Nacional on Tuesday evening, and it had an instant effect as they defended solidly and made Uruguay look ordinary, winning 2-0 and leapfrogging their opponents as well as Venezuela, despite their defeat of Colombia.
With five games remaining, three of which are winnable home games, the outlook for qualification is looking a lot rosier for La Roja, especially with the defence putting in such a sound performance against Uruguay.
Sampaoli opted for a back four against Peru with the focus on including Marcos González for his physical presence against a Peru side which started with Claudio Pizarro in attack and were on average 3cm taller than Chile.
Despite a competent performance from González, La Roja ceded too many goal scoring opportunities to Peru with Bravo living up to his surname and putting in a man of the match performance.
Eugenio Mena and José Rojas done their best to shackle Jefferson Farfan’s pace and movement but, ultimately, it was the Schalke man who recorded the only goal of the game in the concluding minutes, getting a split-second run on Rojas to score.
As a line of four, the defence were not comfortable and against Uruguay Sampaoli made a switch to his favoured back three with Gonzalo Jara coming in for González. While González was used for his height Jara was brought in for his pace against a tricky, but powerful, front pairing of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez.
Two of the players to benefit from the switch were Mena and Mauricio Isla who were pushed on to their preferred wing-back positions – a prime position for them to help out defensively but also exploit their attacking tendencies.
Yet, defensively the line of three were, as a whole, excellent. Gary Medel put in a performance of maturity, channelling his tenacity and aggression to focus on football – something which he is very good at when he’s not getting sent off or kicking a chair into unsuspecting policeman.
Equally impressive was Jara. Before the game some were concerned with the Nottingham Forest loanee’s inclusion. Not only did he not react to Suarez’s contemptible punch, but like Medel, produced a performance full of tenacity, leading Chile from the back.
Any viewers of La U under Sampaoli will know that teams could find space in behind the defence, but not once did a Uruguay player run away from the defence to have a one-on-one situation with Bravo, who was seldom called upon.
The defensive trio shut Cavani and Suarez down every time they looked interested in getting the ball. Suarez, for all his devious acts, is a crafty player at turning defenders inside and out but was not given the chance.
The pressing was one facet of their game which improved substantially against Uruguay. After the game Sampaoli told the media how he through La Roja had improved their recovery of possession, in comparison to the Peru game.
With the 4-2-1-3 on Friday there wasn’t the same intense hunting of the ball as we come to expect from a Sampaoli side. The 3-4-3 (it was actually more 3-3-1-3) was more suited to the wasp-like swarming of the man in possession or the options the man in possession had to pass to.
In Mena, Charles Aránguiz and Isla Chile possess three super-fit energetic players who can move between the attacking, midfield and defensive third with ease to try and win the ball back.
As was mentioned above Cavani and Suarez were unable to receive passes on the run in behind the defence or even to feet in dangerous positions. A lot of the credit can be put towards the pressing higher up the pitch. The Uruguayan defenders, Matías Aguirregaray especially, were uncomfortable being pressurised; the Uruguayan right-back began the period of errors that led to Esteban Paredes’ opening goal after being put under slight pressure.
The midfield players did not fare much better as Gaston Ramírez and Nicolás Lodeiro put in weak performances, unable to influence the game. Neither lasted the 90 minutes.
While no doubting he is a fine player, it is a popular criticism of Ramírez that he can not function to his fullest when games are played at a quick tempo and he is pressed into moving the ball quicker than he would like.
Difference in attack
After the withdrawal of Humberto Suazo and injury to Sebastián Pinto before the Peru game, Sampoli attempted to call-up Paredes for the match against the Peruvians only to be denied by Paredes’ Mexican club Atlante, meaning Alexis Sánchez started through the middle with the inexperienced duo of Nicolás Castillo and Ángelo Henríquez as ‘number 9’ options off the bench.
Sánchez showed signs of promise and an understanding with Eduardo Vargas against Egypt once he had been moved central and Vargas brought on to play the wide right forward role. Sánchez would move around the forward positions, while Vargas would move infield as Isla bombed forward from right-back.
There was not the attacking threat from Isla against Peru and Vargas was largely anonymous. Sánchez, meanwhile, dropped deeper and deeper to collect the ball but as soon as he received it to feet a Peru player was tight to him. He is a fantastic talent so was able to turn and wriggle free once or twice – setting up Vargas with a glorious pass which the ex-La U man saw saved.
With Sánchez working in deeper positions there needed to be fluidity with someone making bursts to fill the space vacated in the centre. Neither Aránguiz nor Vargas did so to good effect.
Sánchez picked up a booking late in the game to rule him out of the match with Uruguay so Sampaoli went back to Paredes and was able to call him up. The ex-Colo Colo talisman is a different proposition.
He prefers receiving the ball closer to goal, especially on the turn or facing defenders. Similarly to Suarez he is adept at turning opponents inside out in and around the box and he forces them back. He is not the most astute link player but can do a more than capable job and was a continuous threat all night.
His strikers instinct was highlighted when opening the scoring, reacting quickly, readjusting his feet, to a loose ball in the box. Yet, he could have scored four, which perhaps shows his lack of quality and the very top level. Look around the other South American squads and the majority have at least one top-level striker.
Whoever does take the central attacking role will know they will get chances if Matías Fernández is supplying passes. In the second half Uruguay were controlling the ball and to counter the situation Sampaoli brought on Fernández has they looked a lot closer to 3-3-1-3. Although it wasn’t until Carlos Carmona was brought on to stiffen up the midfield that Chile wrestled back control.
Fernández, not fully fit, provided moments of sublime skill and inspiration as you come to expect from him, including a superb through ball through the legs of an opponent to set up Mauricio Isla, with Vargas tapping in the rebound.
When everyone is fit (and not suspended) Sampaoli will have extensive options. Arturo Vial, Fernández, Jorge Valdivia, Sebastián Pinto, Paredes, Sánchez, Vargas et al. Sánchez proved his worth in a central area for Udinese, but to make room for Matigol or Valdivia he could switch to the left forward position currently occupied by Jean Beausejour who had two mediocre games.
One aspect that is likely to remain is the presence of La U players who were at the forefront of the club’s Copa Sudamericana success in 2011. The metronomic influence of Marcelo Díaz will likely be prominent as it was for La U at the base of the midfield. He possesses the innate ability to improve players around him, similar to Andrea Pirlo at Juventus.
While the five players who played under Sampaoli started against Peru may not always feature they will likely be in the squads because they understand Sampaoli’s philosophy and have formed partnerships with other players from their time at club level.
Sampaoli noted Vargas’ and Aránguiz’s understanding prior to the Peru game, while Mena and Rojas will no doubt bring their formidable left-hand side partnership to La Roja. All of which will allow Sampaoli’s ideas to transpire on the pitch more effectively.
After 180 minutes of football La Roja are back on track to qualify for the World Cup next year, and with Sampaoli’s clear ideas, which focuses on the power of the team, they may just gather momentum at the right time heading towards the summer of 2014.