A second half goal by Arturo Vidal added to those of Eduardo Vargas and Marcos González in the first half to give La Roja a 3-0 victory over Venezuela at the Estadio Nacional on Friday.
The three points lift Chile into third spot after an unprecedented four consecutive victories. Chile sit out the mid-week fixtures as they are the odd team out so will have to wait until October before they can confirm their place in next year’s show piece with tricky games against Colombia and Ecuador to come. With Ecuador (three points behind) and Uruguay (five points behind), who occupy fourth and fifth respectively, both playing on Tuesday what Chile require in October will be made clear in the coming days.
But here are a few thoughts on Friday night’s game and Sampaoli’s time in charge so far.
Wizardry in Chile
When Sandro Meira Ricci blew the whistle to signal the start of Chile v Venezuela it was nearly 700 days since Jorge Valdivia last pulled on the red of Chile – a 4-2 win against Peru.
Valdivia’s difficulties have been well documented among these pages, and among others; his fall out with previous manager Claudio Borghi following the Bautizazo scandal and then there has been the injuries. Valdivia was set to return in Chile’s 6-0 thumping of Iraq in Denmark but was prevented from doing so due to yet another niggling injury.
But in Jorge Sampaoli he has an avid fan of his talents. Sampaoli remained patient because he knew the quality El Mago (the wizard) could add to the team, and as the old saying goes patience is a virtue. That adage was emphasised during Valdivia’s 73 minutes on the pitch against the vinotinto.
Sampaoli opted for a fluid 4-3-3 position with Valdivia as the attacking focal point. But instead of a striker who operates within the confines of the area or one which battles manfully against the opposing centre backs, Valdivia moved towards midfield, which provided two facets of LA Roja’s play:
1) He created the space for the excellent Alexis Sánchez’s or Eduardo Vargas’s darting runs inside.
2) He linked with the trio of midfielders, finding space to touch, turn and thread through balls in behind a Venezuelan defence unsure as to how to defend against him.
He lived up to his El Mago moniker, and then some. Throughout the first half he constantly located ample space to work in. Twisting and turning, he swept passes beyond the away side’s backline for Isla, Sánchez and Vargas to run on to. And it was his clipped pass which set up Vargas to open the scoring.
In the 73rd minute he made way for Jean Beausejour and the endearing Chilean public took to their feet in the Estadio Nacional to let him know what they thought of his performance. After the game Sampaoli said he played to 60% of his ability due to the player still finding his fitness. A frightening prospect lies ahead if that was the case.
In the build up to Friday’s qualifier much talk, as it usually does, surrounded how Chile were going to set up. It is testament to the variety and flexibility available in the squad, and to Sampaoli’s expertise at getting the best out of the team in what ever formation they do line up in.
However, it does seem that 4-3-3 is the default, or should we say most popular formation. But like most formations they are just numbers. Chile took on something which resembled 2-1-4-1-2. In Mauricio Isla and Eugenio Mena, now playing in Santos but should be playing in Europe, Sampaoli possesses two of the continents finest set of wing-backs/attacking full-backs.
Their indefatigable marauding runs are a prominent feature of the team’s play, working the whole wing and stretching the game as Sánchez and Vargas move in field. They are a constant option for through balls. Sánchez and Isla have taken on the Matías Rodríguez and Eduardo Vargas double act which thrived at La U.
Five players lined up against Venezuela having played under Sampaoli so they know exactly what is required. While the other six are some of the best the country has ever produced.
There is a lot of mention of Universidad de Chile but that is only natural because of the manager, the personnel and the parallels between La U and La Roja. And another similarity is appearing in the shape of the team’s crucial component – the diminutive figure that wears the number 21.
Marcelo Díaz at La U was often overshadowed by the likes of Gustavo Canales, Eduardo Vargas, Charles Aránguiz, Matías Rodríguez, Junior Fernandes and Ángelo Henríquez. But for this observer Díaz was the man.
He would sit at the base of midfield and act as the heart, pumping passes throughout the team. And now he is reprising that role for the national team.
To me he is the on field manager, acting as an efficient delegator as he makes intelligent choices, in quick time, under severe pressure as to where the ball should go next to give La Roja the best chance of success.
He has such awareness that he looks almost arrogant in the way he plays the game. One moment in the second half saw a Venezuelan forward try to anticipate Díaz’s next move by closing down Chile’s defenders as if he was set to knock the ball back. But, with his back to the player, he knew what was happening and performed a swivel, almost a Cruyff turn even, to move away from trouble and make his opponent look like he was running to no man’s land.
His passing is swift and it speaks volumes that he is keeping David Pizarro, a man Sampoli tried is hard to bring back to the national team, out the team.
He also provides an important defensive role, prised with dropping in between the two centre backs when needed.
While he may be surrounded by bigger names he is, for me, Chile’s important player. And there has been no luck needed.
Secure defence . . . for now
It wouldn’t quite be Chile without a controversy leading up to a massive encounter. Only days before Friday’s match it became apparent that José Rojas had been given a substance to treat a back injury. What’s wrong with that you ask? Well, the substance, which was administered by Universidad de Chile doctors, appears on WADA and FIFA’s banned list of substances.
It is a complex situation, but the long and short of it is that Rojas was removed from the squad because the substance would have likely still showed in tests if the player was randomly chosen after the Venezuela match.
That meant Marcos González entered the back four alongside Gary Medel at centre back. Having worked under Sampaoli at La U González will have known that the defence can get exposed due to the way they play. But throughout the game Medel and González stood up to the Venezuelan threat comfortably, with the latter especially making crucial blocks, tackles and interceptions when needed.
One ability González brings the team which is lacking his is presence in the air and Chile did suffer one scare when Salomon Rondon flicked an in-swinging free-kick into the bottom corner, only for the referee to mysteriously rule it out with the score at 2-0.
Despite the solidity on Friday, the defensive game is always going to be a worry against a better class of opposition. I’d compare Medel to Javier Mascherano at Barcelona. Both are midfielders playing at centre back (although it could be argued Mascherano could not be classed as a defender). They are more than capable players, especially when the teams they play for control a lot of the ball meaning they only have to deal with sporadic threats.
However, the time will come when Medel will come under more intense pressure, like Mascherano did at times when Barca played in the Champions League or against Real Madrid. A greater bearing could be gleamed from the next three matches as to just how comfortable the defence really are against top class opposition with Spain on Monday then Colombia and Ecuador next month.
Sampaoli: record maker and breaker
There is no question. Sampaoli is the ultimate Marcelo Bielsa disciple. As they had done for Valdivia, those in attendance at the Estadio Nacional made their feelings for Sampaoli known when he appeared on the edge of his technical area towards the end. Sampaoli, a coach who doesn’t court attention, offered a tentative wave of acknowledgement for the applause before buzzing about his area once again, barking orders at his players.
There was no great love for Claudio Borghi. After all he was the man replacing Bielsa. When he was facing criticism he uttered the words “Yo no tengo dudas que se va a clasificar al mundial” (I have do doubt that we are going to qualify for the World Cup). And he looks like he is going to be correct, only that he wouldn’t be in charge to see it through.
While Borghi appeared to try too hard to prove that he wasn’t Bielsa, Sampaoli has embraced Bielsa’s philosophy and returned Chile to how the players want to play and the fans want to watch.
This is only this writer’s opinion but there is no team better, more exciting and fun to watch than that of a Jorge Sampaoli team. Football anarchy; attack with pace, attack with numbers, take risks, move the ball quickly, win the ball back quickly then attack and attack some more.
At Universidad de Chile he took the team to tricampeons, led La U on a 36 game unbeaten run and of course delivered the club their first ever continental trophy winning the Copa Sudamericana, while the team received admiring glances from all over the world for the way they played (Flamengo 0-4 Universidad de Chile – seriously watch it!).
There was defeat in his first competitive match but now he has led Chile to four consecutive victories in World Cup qualification, the first time in the country’s history that that feat has been achieved. La Roja are on the brink of qualifying for successive World Cups, again for the first time in their history (they did not have to qualify for the 1962 edition as the country hosted it).
After the match Sampaoli told the media “con estos jugadores, uno puede entusiasmarse con grandes cosas” – with these players, one can get excited about great things.
There has been a lot of talk of Colombia and Belgium as outsiders for the World Cup. Can we start adding Chile to that list?
First half full:
Second half full: