Under Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli, Chile went from one of the afterthoughts of South American soccer to one of the most entertaining national teams on the planet. The transformation was sometimes slow and rough, and Claudio Borghi’s tenure was not a pleasant one in between the teacher and student. After Sampaoli resigned earlier this year, Chile struggled not only to find a manager to continue the two men’s legacy, but a manager in general. Juan Antonio Pizzi was charged with bringing Chile forward after their Copa America triumph last year, and in his first major assignment, his team are still showing signs of growth, even if it has been painful at times.
Pizzi had never managed a national team before, let alone one in such a purple patch of form. He also had to carry on the legacy of two managers whose style is so distinct and difficult to carry out, so his task wasn’t enviable. Pizzi started with two wins and four losses, and even this week in Chile’s win over Panama, there were still noticeable signs of weakness. While Chile are still pressing with the same verve and tenacity they did under Bielsa and Sampaoli, the system somehow seems a touch bit more reckless, even with the same players. While that is certainly a symptom of the high press, somehow it felt better defined under Sampaoli especially, and Chile’s creaky defense has become more of an Achilles heel.
While two successive Round of 16 losses to Brazil in the World Cup isn’t by any means earth-shattering, the style with which they achieved that as well as players such as Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas and company have formed the backbone of a team that could be even better. Finally winning the Copa America on home soil certainly meets some of that promise, some bad habits from the past are starting to creep back into their performances, especially in this Copa America. They were out-pressed by Argentina, struggled to break down Bolivia without the help of a soft penalty in stoppage time, and against Panama in Philadelphia, looked the attacking part but thanks to some horrific goalkeeping by Claudio Bravo, let Panama hang around far longer than they should have.
The evolution of this Chile side has been met with criticism in the homeland, which Panama coach Hernan Dario Gomez talked about after the match.
“Criticism is normal, especially in soccer,” he said. “I thought it was spectacular how they played, and it was quite a spectacle to play them.” He said their style was more technical and faster than the teams they usually come up against in Central America, which might seem obvious, but Chile didn’t play with that same verve earlier in the group stage.
“It was a game that gives me a lot of pride,” Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi said. “We know that we have stages of growth that are going to be complicated. There was more aggressiveness when we had to attack tonight and we were in control.”
For the first time under Pizzi, it did seem that Chile had a tactical grasp of the press even though it wasn’t entirely new to them. Their speed of play and the intricacy of passing seemed more like what the world has come to expect of Chile rather than the early days of Pizzi’s tenure.
Playing this well against Panama is one matter. A true test will come against Mexico, and Pizzi’s teams have not looked up to it against both Argentina and Mexico, who they have played three times before and lost all three. Mexico has the ability to break down the press and beat it whereas teams such as Bolivia and Panama didn’t have those capabilities. How Pizzi’s men press and defend could go a long way to determining whether they can beat a team like Mexico, as much of a challenge that it will be.
Chile’s evolution over the past decade or so has been one of the truly positive advances in international football, and that evolution is going through a rough patch as the transition in manager continues. Finally against Panama, it seemed that the Chile of old was emerging again, though the true test of whether they are back will come against Mexico on Saturday.
With so much talent, and such a unique and powerful style, Chile’s rise has been a welcome sight. Now, do they have the staying power to keep up what they have built? The signs are there, but bigger tests are to come.
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