Mario Gotze’s first half goal was the difference between the two teams on paper. But on the pitch La Roja were the superior team and if it wasn’t for a lack of conviction and composure in front of goal, Chile would have returned to Santiago with another positive result to go along with another positive performance.
Much talk has been of Chile doing battle with the Netherlands for the runner-up spot in group B. However, that should be seen as a mark of disrespect to La Roja who have now shown themselves to be as good (and in some cases better) as Brazil, Spain, England and Germany.
The team are continuing to make progress towards Brazil and pick up admirers. Here are some thoughts from Wednesday night’s game.
Formation-less La Roja
Come the World Cup when ITV or BBC put the formation of the Chilean national team on the screen make a mental note of all the players but forget about the formation and definitely ignore the likes of Alan Shearer, Andy Townsend and, most of all, Mark Lawrenson.
Whether it be 3-4-3, 4-3-3, 3-4-1-2, 4-2-3-1, 3-1-3-3, 3-3-1-3, a false nine, a false 10, inverted wingers or other tactical terms just forget about it. This team under Jorge Sampaoli don’t have a set formation or system. It is more to do with a gameplan and structure to their play rather than numbers. 99.9% of formations are just numbers, giving the players a starting point. A 4-2-3-1 for example is often a 4-4-2 when in defensive mode, while how many teams play with a back four when attacking. It often becomes a back three (one full-backs goes forward the other tucks in/a midfielder drops between the centre backs and both go full-backs push on) or even a back two.
On Wednesday evening in the Mercedes-Benz Arena the world got another glimpse of the anarchic nature of Sampaoli’s Chile. This writer spent the first 20 minutes foolishly trying to work out the formation when he should have known better having watched most of Sampaoli’s matches in charge of La Roja and many in charge of Universidad de Chile.
To begin with it seemed as though it may be a back four but both Jean Beausejour and Marcelo Isla pushed very high up the park, while Francisco Silva and Felipe Gutiérrez were often dropping to form a back three – that duo even made a back two at the start of the second half with both centre backs higher up the pitch.
There was then the role of Arturo Vidal. Was he a number 9, a false 9, a number 10 or a number 8? I’m not sure even he knew as his performance suggested an amalgamation of all the above. Such is his quality he looked competent in every single position. He would exchange places with Charles Aránguiz, who would in turn make dashes from deeper midfield positions into his favoured right-hand side.
Ahead of them Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas were constantly moving and probing with and without the ball. Left, right, centre, deeper, runs in behind.
Even the greatest tacticians would struggle to define this Chile team. As mentioned previously it is more than numbers, it is a philosophy. In possession, starting from the back, the ball is played into defence, with a libero moving it into midfield where the ball is moved into attack. Everything is precise and everything is swift.
Movement is key to this game plan, both towards and away from the ball. Options on the ball are King. The German midfield of Toni Kross, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Philip Lahm, arguably the most complete in world football, were anonymous. If in a cartoon they would have the dazed eyes and the question mark symbol above their head as they struggled to get to grips with the front three (or two) dropping into midfield to get a pass from Silva or Aránguiz or Vidal or Gutiérrez. They would then follow their pass, with a second pass looking to penetrate the German defence for the runs of the wide pair or one of the midfielders previously mentioned or Sanchez and Vargas. Read it again? No wonder the Germans were confused.
Forget a strict, disciplined formation, just watch the sheer exhilarating nature of La Roja’s play. Even without the ball they are fun to watch as they hound and press, run and close down. The stars in the German squad would likely have been as mentally tired as they were physically. They’d have had to think quicker than they ever have had to before. Passes and runs have to be made in a split second as La Roja press them in, with the defence advancing, to make the pitch as small as possible. They would not have only seen the whites of the strip closing in on them but the whites in the Chile players’ eyes; pumped and aggressive with only one thing on their mind: the ball.
The role of Silva
‘El Gato’ Silva played arguably the most important and interesting role on the pitch. A deep-lying passer by trade with Universidad Católica, which earned him a move to Osasuna in La Liga, he was tasked to fill the colossal boots of Marcelo Díaz.
Under Sampaoli Chile have failed to win six games (one of which was played with domestic-based players). In three of the five games Díaz did not play due to injury (including the Germany game). In another Chile drew 2-2 with Spain having been the better team with Spain needing a 92nd minute equaliser. And then in a 2-1 defeat to Brazil the Basel midfielder was removed after eight minutes due to an injury. Six minutes later Brazil scored the opener with Chile still recovering from the loss.
There is a problem. Chile seem Díaz-dependent. After all, this is a player who starred for Sampaoli’s La U. He is the on field general. He knows exactly what passes to play and what positions to pick up. He knows. That is why this writer found it strange that neither David Pizarro or Colo Colo’s Jaime Valdes was called up as back-up. However, it was again foolish of me to underestimate Sampaoli. He had a plan if Díaz did miss the game. Which of course he did.
Silva was the man to take over the role. And minus a few uncertain moments when it came to picking up a position in the back line he coped well during his 83 minutes on the pitch.
In possession his passing was crisp as he moved the ball sideways in an attempt to move Germany about before going forward into midfield with more adventurous passes from deep. It is a quality which goes back to his days with UC. As does his combativeness. He is strong and mobile and was often the protector of the defence as well as the passer at Católica. So he was able at standing up an opponent before biding his time to strike and take the ball off him. An important quality in Sampaoli’s team with often no one but the goalkeeper standing in the way of a goal for the opposition.
As mentioned previously there were times of uncertainty when and where to make it a back three. But what he did in moving into the centre of defence was allow Gary Medel and Gonzalo Jara – neither of which are natural centre backs – to move wide in turn pushing Beausejour and Vidal even higher up the park. And crucially it helped with the swift distribution out to the wings. Rather than a more risky diagonal pass it meant a shorter pass to the wide centre backs and then another up the side line, keeping the pitch as big as possible in attack.
Finally, his protection allowed for Medel and occasionally Jara to move in to midfield to close down and press. Especially for the former, it helped his urges as a central midfielder and kept a defensive solidity in front of Jhonny Herrera.
The main negative which came out of the game was Chile’s profligacy in front of goal. The closest La Roja came to an equaliser was when Eduardo Vargas rattled the under side of the bar in the second half. Other than that there were a handful of presentable opportunities which were let down by lack of conviction (think Vidal’s scuff into Manuel Neur’s hands) or the wrong choice (both Aránguiz and Sanchez chose to square the ball when it would have been better shooting). There was also the case of a lot of crosses either going nowhere or being blocked and/or cleared.
It is no secret Sampaoli does not fully trust any of the number 9s currently available to him. Esteban Paredes and Carlos Muñoz were used in the friendly against Haiti with the squad made up of predominantly domestic-based players. But despite Muñoz’s goal and Paredes’ form for Colo Colo neither were called upon, while Mauricio Pinilla was given barely minutes to showcase what he can offer the team. Nicolas Castillo and Ángelo Henríquez are still seen as players for the next World Cup unless either endear themselves to Sampaoli with goals, and lost of them, between now and May.
In the aftermath of the game it emerged that Sampaoli had talked to Mauro Zarate, currently at Vélez Sarsfield, about the possibility of switching allegiances to Chile, where both his dad and grandad were born. But people close to Zarate say that the mercurial forward is still holding on to slim hope that he will be called up by Alejandro Sabella for Argentina.
It leaves Sampaoli to work with what he has got. However, the answers are already in his squad, it’s just whether these answers can all reveal themselves at the one time in Brazil. Against both the Netherlands and Spain Chile need to be sharp in front of goal. They can not go into games thinking they will get as many opportunities as they did against Germany.
Sanchez, as he did so against England and as he has done for Barcelona, has proved he can score goals. But the problem against Germany was that he was often coming deep and wide too often to get involved in the build up rather than the build up coming to him so he could be the one in front of the goal. While Vargas had a more frustrating night, not contributing as much as Sanchez to the build up but often being in good positions but not getting the final ball. When he did he hit the bar.
The final piece of the puzzle could be the player who arrived on 76 minutes. Jorge Valdivia. Likely to be given a free role, he showed in his cameo the penetrative passing and incision he brings to the squad. Every player in the midfield for Chile are capable passers but none are quite like Valdivia in conjuring a moment of magic when there looks to be little on.
Sanchez can often look greedy when he comes deep for the ball, twisting and turning, turning and twisting and then doing it all over again. He has the pace and the finishing ability to score when set free, while Vargas is very similar in that regard. It will also help to free Isla and Mena if he is brought back to play in the left.
While question marks are still there in the attacking third the defensive third is looking a little bit clearer with Gary Medel a certainty to play in defence with Jara doing himself justice against Germany. He will face competition from Universidad de Chile duo José Rojas and Osvaldo González as well as Marcos González, even if appears to have slipped down the pecking order.
The way in which La Roja play there are also going to be times where the defence looks similar to that of an under-11 side’s; bodies everywhere, players being attracted to the ball and others sliding and diving in. It’s the last-gap nature of the way in which they play. They leave gaps and if the opposition can pass it quick enough they can be out numbered.
In terms of open play the defence would be happy to play against a tall lone striker as they can push up and not worry about the striker running in behind. Although when it comes to set pieces they had no real height against Germany. So much so that Per Mertesacker was being marked by Vidal at corners. This is the real benefit which Marcos González brings to the side. Rojas’s main attribute is his pace to recover situations but his form fro La U has waned in the last 12 months.
There would be no surprise if Chile line up without a recognised defender but with Claudio Bravo’s abilities in sweeping and perfect execution of their game plan the defence may just hold up. But in all likelihood Chile will have to score more than one goal if they are to beat either the Netherlands or Spain.
Slowly but surely, after each game, the final squad begins to announce itself. This writer was asked on Twitter the other day which players are definite starters. My answer was Claudio Bravo, Gary Medel, Mauricio Isla, Marcelo Díaz, Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas.
Leaving four places, I am pretty confident in three, if they remain fit: Eugenio Mena, Charles Aránguiz and Jorge Valdivia.
That leaves one defender. But as Sampaoli mentioned to in an interview with a Spanish newspaper he makes tweaks depending on the opposition. But those players mentioned can morph into any structure and more importantly fit his game plan and philosophy.
It was also a good evening for Jhonny Herrera, Francisco Silva, Felipe Gutiérrez and Jean Beuasejour who will all go. Sampaoli seems to have little interest in taking David Pizarro as he mentioned Silva, Carlos Carmona and Gutiérrez as the men to fill in for Díaz.
A number 9 is still important as an option from the bench but there is little time to impress meaning club form is imperative. But Pinilla is proper number 9 who can offer an aerial threat in the box when need be.
But for the third game running against one of Europe’s big nations La Roja were, over the 90 minutes, the better side. There is an abundance of positives to take from the 90 minutes on Wednesday and no reason to rule out La Roja from topping the group. And with the news that Sampaoli is committed to the end of qualifying for the World Cup in 2018 the week can be labelled a good one.