As Chile confirmed their place at next year’s World Cup it is nearly a year to the day Claudio Borghi made an impassioned last stand in the face of criticism over his management of the Chilean national team, following three successive defeats in World Cup Qualifying.
With much work to do and improvement needed he told the press: “Yo no tengo dudas que se va a clasificar al munidal” – I have no doubt that we are going to qualify for the World Cup.
Less than one month later his 21 month spell in charge of La Roja came to an end in disarray – a theme which plagued his time leading the national side. A 3-1 friendly defeat to Serbia in Switzerland was the final straw for ANFP president Sergio Jadue who relieved Borghi of his duties in the minutes that followed the conclusion of the match. The embarrassing defeat was Chile’s fifth in a row – a run of matches which saw La Roja pick up four red cards.
His words, however, ring true. But that is thanks to the effect of ex-Universidad de Chile manager Jorge Sampaoli. Results are often the best barometer of a manager’s success; by analysing the qualifying matches Sampaoli’s effect is apparent. Borghi’s record reads P:9 W:4 L:5. In contrast Sampoli’s record, following the 2-1 defeat of Ecuador last night stands at P:7 W:5 D:1 L:1.
But there is much more to it than that. It is about more than results. It is about an identity. A footballing identity. Borghi had begun to alienate the Chilean public like he had some of the players and the press. In replacing Marcelo Bielsa he was replacing an icon. He was replacing someone who had given Chilean football its own identity. One of passion, pace, verve and care-free excitement. One which took them to their first World Cup in 12 years in 2010.
Borghi failed to emerge from the Bielsa shadow. Rather than embrace his predecessor he appeared to do everything he could to distance himself from his fellow Argentinean. And over time he only succeeded in distancing himself from the public and Brazil 2014 with fall outs and unusual tactical tweaks.
To emerge from a predicament in the qualifiers which had placed Chile on the outside looking in, La Roja went back to Bielsa. But not to Marcelo. To a man who was once termed ‘El Bielsa de los Pobres’ – the Bielsa of the poor.
Jorge Luis Sampaoli Moya.
The 53-year-old Argentine began coaching the youth sides of Newell’s Old Boys, a team synonymous with Bielsa, after an unusual incident attracted attention to the diminutive character, who was a defensive midfielder in Newell’s youth structure before a knee injury put paid to his playing career. He was spotted in a tree coaching an amateur side in 1995 as he explains to fifa.com.
However, it was out with his native land that he began to make a name for himself as a passionate, tracksuit and occasional baseball cap clad manager. He had a five year spell in Peru before he came to Chile for the first time as manager of the brilliantly named O’Higgins. Success in Rancagua followed, including continental qualification, which prompted Ecuadorian giants Emelec to employ his services. But it was back in Chile at Universidad de Chile where he carried out his magnum opus.
Three national championships, the club’s first continental title, a 36-game unbeaten run and a host of other records as well as a style of football that wowed and excited in equal measure to the point where the Brazilian media gave the team the moniker of ‘Barcelona of South America’.
Sampaoli accepted the similarities: “In certain games, the sheer volume of our attacks surpassed even that of Barcelona at their best.”
As clubs around the world noted the success of the team players began to migrate, while offers were increasing for the man behind the La U revolution. And when the national team job became available, with Bielsa still at Athletic Bilbao, there was only one candidate for the job. A job which Sampaoli had admitted on previous occasions he would be keen to take, much to the chagrin of Borghi. And it was on December 3 that the upturn in La Roja’s fortunes began with his appointment.
Chile’s players, including captain Claudio Bravo, emphasised the need for Chile to return to their high-intensity and attacking identity. And that is exactly what they would get. There was no intimidation about being regarded as Bielsa MKII. Instead Sampaoli embraced it. After all he developed his coaching skills by listening to recordings of Bielsa’s talks on his headphones when he went walking.
“My relationship with Bielsa is almost mythical. Through his excellence he justifies an attacking style that I have always identified with, and I subscribe to his philosophy and ideas. Although Marcelo is constantly evolving, he has never lost the ability to convince his charges that they are as good as anyone, which makes him a central figure even when results go against him. That’s an admirable trait.”
One of the first objectives was to travel around South America and Europe to sit down with a host of national team players to present his plan for the team. He had the players buy into his philosophy as he returned to Bielsa values. He made them feel wanted – even the players who had long since retired and were reluctant to return or players who had been banished.
After months of persistence Sampaoli persuaded David Pizarro to return to the team since October 2005, while also convincing Humberto Suazo back with the national team in desperate need of a striker.
But the biggest move has been with Jorge Valdivia – the only player from the Bautizazo Scandal who had not returned, following a very public falling out with Borghi. A meeting between Sampaoli and Valdivia in Brazil, while Sampaoli was in charge of La U, was the beginning of a burgeoning relationship between the two. And there has had to be patience with, as always, injury problems impinging El Mago. But he has returned and starred in a hybrid of a number 10 and striker role and has been quick to say: “For all that Sampaoli has done for me, I could never fail.”
Sampaoli is always committed to playing with three forwards to help pin back the opposition. Vargas and Sánchez offer pace, directness, skill and a goal threat and also open space for Valdivia to offer his wizardry, threading passes through for his fellow forwards’ incisive runs or runs from deep by Eugenio Mena, Mauricio Isla and the rejuvenated Arturo Vidal.
The formation is often dependent on the number of forwards the opposition play with Sampaoli, like Bielsa before him, keen to have one more centre back than the opposition do striker. The players are comfortable fluctuating between 3-4-3 and 4-3-3. But it is not Pizarro who is the fulcrum in midfield. It is Sampaoli’s general from his La U days – Marcelo Díaz. Another feature of Sampaoli’s management – ‘names’ don’t matter. Díaz plays in a more advanced role for club side Basel but he is at home at the base of the midfield. With the team’s focus on being on the front foot, Díaz plays quick, often vertical, passes to team mates, never looking fazed in possession. He brings a semblance of serenity to what are often frantic affairs. It is no surprise that Sampaoli’s only dropped points in qualifying came when Díaz wasn’t playing.
Despite losing his first competitive match to Peru, the identify and mentality of his La U side has transferred to the national team – helped by significant presence of players who played under Sampaoli at La U.
“We tried to instil in them the habit of questioning precepts like, ‘you can’t play the same both home and away; ‘you can’t go out and attack Brazilian team’; ‘you shouldn’t set out to play an offensive game at altitude’ . . . I think that’s what made us almost unbeatable, at least during 2011.”
That mentality was clearly evident on Friday when Chile tore into Colombia, only for a questionable sending off to allow the home side back into the game. It was also apparent when Chile went toe-to-toe with Spain in a friendly only to be denied a famous victory in the dying seconds.
Under Borghi there was little structure at times. You only have to look at his team selection for an away match against Argentina, lining up with two number 10s and two number 9s. It was a disaster that ended in a 4-1 defeat. The defence was often the loser in it all as they were afforded little protection, the gap to midfield bordering on suicidal. There were three clean sheets under Borghi but also the concession of four to Argentina and Uruguay as well as three to Colombia and Ecuador.
Under Sampaoli the defence push much higher up the pitch to aid the team’s pressing game. In the aftermath of the Colombia game Sampaoli offered a pertinent point that the team do not possess the necessary defenisve ability to ‘defend the box’. After all he has often played with Gary Medel and Gonzalo Jara at centre back, something which will be of interest to English readers. But following Sampaoli’s arrival the average goals conceded per game in the qualifiers dropped from two to one.
If anyone is waiting for the team to revert to type and self-destruct off the field think again. Sampaoli, a strict disciplinarian at times, has earned the respect of the team. One of his biggest off-field victories was giving the team an afternoon off after it was requested by the squad. The problem which arose regarded Charles Aránguiz, who missed a meet-up with the national team after taking sleeping pills. The issue has been dealt with.
There will be none of the problems which marked Borghi’s time in charge, like the slanging matches in the press with players. For Sampaoli, a perfectionist, it’s only about football and winning. Winning the right way. He is a football obsessive.
Between now and June La Roja are set to play the best in Europe. And in June, under Sampaoli, they could prove themselves to be one of the best in the world. They, like Bielsa’s Chile before them, will have their admirers while doing so.
The era of Bielsita is in the past. Now is the era of Sampaolismo.