How an Unconventional Chile Team Became the World Cup’s Surprise Package

Chile was all smiles and fulfilled their potential when they defeated Spain 2-0 at the Estadio Maracanã on Wednesday.  For them it was a reconfirmation of the potential that the team had individually as well as collectively.

Many looked at Chile as a team always playing on the edge. Their frenetic pressure in all sectors, where wave after wave come after the player with the ball, always put them on the edge of greatness or disaster.  It was tiki taka meets speed metal when you saw them against Spain as they all flew around the pitch with reckless abandon and flustered the reigning champions. Some might say it was the best interpretation of “Bielsism.”

Their style has been hailed as one of the most exciting ones in the World Cup and those that looked forward to seeing them in this tournament have not been disappointed one bit. Yet for Chile it was a return to the roots that were established by Marcelo Bielsa when he arrived on Chilean soil and left something greater than success. It left an identity.  This is why Jorge Sampaoli’s arrival was one of the most important moves in Chilean soccer history. It wasn’t just him getting the team back on track. It was a continuation of a project interrupted.

Less than 18 months ago, Chile found itself “on the edge” but for a completely different set of reasons. Claudio Borghi was sacked after his disastrous tenure as coach of La Roja after several embarrassing incidents off the pitch and on it. The team was on the outside looking in when it came to World Cup qualification. Under Borghi, the team lost three consecutive matches and dropped out of World Cup qualifying positions.

What was more important was not that they lost those matches; it was that Borghi lost the team. The infamous “Bautizazo” incident where many of the leaders of the Chilean squad, including Arturo Vidal, were caught drinking late at night at a baptism was unfortunate. Borghi’s erratic management of the squad was what caused a great division within the squad and saw the team go downhill after he removed several players involved in that incident.

Borghi also changed some things tactically and the squad was a far cry from that they were when Bielsa was coach. Due to their disposition, Chile did not press as much as they once did and were vulnerable giving up more spaces than they did before. It was evident in some of their losses in qualifying to teams like Colombia and Argentina at home. The match that really was the final straw was the match against Peru in Lima.

Enter Sampaoli

The former Universidad de Chile manager was one of the most successful South American coaches of that time and he saw that two things were needed: (1) have the leaders return and (2) play like Bielsa had them. Sampaoli is a Bielsa apostle in his passion and has his obsessive attention to even the most minute detail.

His arrival led to a change in attitude as well as the return to the squad of players like Vidal as well Carlos Carmona, Jean Beausejour, Gonzalo Jara and Jorge Valdivia. He reacquired control of the squad and also got the players — most of them part of the 2010 World Cup side — to regain the essence of his and their “Inner Bielsa.”

Once that occurred, the squad went on a roll obtaining 16 out of a possible 18 points in qualifying and ending up in third place behind Argentina and Colombia. Chile’s play was high-intensity under Sampaoli and his offense was high-powered. Chile outscored their opponents in that stretch 17-6.  What makes that point even more impressive was that three of those goals were scored by Colombia in that thriller in Barranquilla in October of last year.

The defense no longer left spaces between the midfield. Although to many, that seems borderline suicidal. There is however logic to this madness. When there was a separation in the backline of three from the midfield, this left them exposed to what the opposition wanted to do offensively. It gave them room to operate.

This is why they were being decimated when Borghi was coach as matchups and numbers did not favor him once his shortcomings were being exploited.

There was that susceptibility of seeing a team play a ball over their heads, but the defense had the collective speed to recover. Speaking of over their heads, Chile was also looked at as a team that could be taken advantage of in set pieces with a backline whose tallest player stands at a towering 5’9”.

Nottingham Forest’s Gonzalo Jara quickly debunked that theory saying that he defended players six inches taller than him and was still able to hold his own. Save for Tim Cahill’s goal in Cuiabá, those “short Chileans” held their own, being able to neutralize heavy hitter like Sergio Ramos with good positioning on the ground and also the support of Claudio Bravo coming out very well on the crosses.

The Spain win was the crowning achievement for Sampaoli and his team.  The way they neutralized a team and the manner in which they knocked them out gained plaudits from the entire footballing world.

They have surely shown that potential and look like they want to show more. After the Spain match, Jorge Sampaoli said something that stuck with many in the media. “I always believe that our best match will be our next one,” he said. If what he’s saying is true, I think we should all watch out because the Red Tide could wipe out some contenders as they look to make the road back to the site of their greatest victory to date, the Maracanã.

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