While Chile did not win World Cup 2014; however, they may have played the best football at the tournament. So even though they were eliminated by Brazil, they certainly earned their place as one of the biggest positives of World Cup 2014. Now, Chile has shifted their focus to hosting a tournament. More importantly, the 2015 Copa America represents Chile’s best opportunity to win a major international competition in decades. Given the ages of the players, their familiarity with one another and the system, and a system that can cause problems for even the best teams; they should go into the tournament as one of the favorites along with Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia. However, with so many players currently at the peak of their powers, the 2015 Copa America could represent the last time that this group of players truly contends on the international stage.
It seems like a strange time for South American football in that the continent lacks a truly great side, or at least one that can count itself in the highest tier of international football. The last time this occurred was probably the 1974 World Cup, where European organization and pressing, particularly those of the Netherlands, left South American clubs wondering how they should play football going forward.
In some ways, Brazil is in a similar place where they were 40 years ago. After the Netherlands dominated the Brazilians in the last match of the second group stage, Brazil found themselves wondering whether the way forward involved greater physicality and athleticism instead of technical ability. While it took their defeat in the 1986 World Cup for them to commit to that change in philosophy, the loss certainly played a key role in starting the debate.
In World Cup 2014, a mediocre Brazil side seemed fortunate to get past Chile, kicked Colombia off the pitch, and then got humiliated by Germany. Yet, instead of replacing Luiz Felipe Scolari with a manager who would move Brazil back towards the emphasis on technical ability and creativity that defined teams like the 1982 side, Brazil doubled-down on their current belief in athleticism, physicality, and beating teams on moments by bringing back Dunga. So while Neymar will likely improve as a player, Brazil have yet to properly address the philosophy that is holding them back, making them vulnerable at the 2015 Copa America.
While Argentina does not face the philosophical crisis that Brazil faces, they face the issue of a remarkably unbalanced side. Such is the case in international football that an attack boasting the likes of Lionel Messi, Sergio Aguero, Angel Di Maria, etc. lack enough support from deeper areas to make this era golden for the Argentineans. In addition to that issue, Sergio Aguero’s fitness seems to be a consistent concern for both Argentina and Manchester City for the last two seasons. This leaves Argentina with two players they can reasonably rely on in terms of quality and health, Lionel Messi and Angel Di Maria. Regardless of their quality, heavily relying on two players, even at the international level, poses quite a bit of risk. At World Cup 2014, a Di Maria injury severely damaged Argentina’s attack. A poor performance from either against a good team could very well see Argentina dropped from the 2015 Copa America. So while Argentina may have the two best players at the 2015 Copa America, their lack of balance and depth makes them vulnerable.
Colombia has problems going into the 2015 Copa America. One of the most beloved sides at World Cup 2014, they relied on Mario Yepes at center back. While the 38 year old played well in Brazil, asking him to repeat such a performance seems like a bridge too far. However, center back is not the only issue for Colombia. Radamel Falcao also poses an interesting problem for Colombia. Without him, Colombia focused more on playing counter-attacking football and highlighting the ability of James Rodriguez and Juan Cuadrado to excel at attacking transitions. Up front, Colombia fielded players who, at the very least, worked hard to occupy defenders and create space for the attackers behind him. Falcao does not do this. Falcao wants to operate as a penalty box threat, only springing into action when the opportunity to get on the ball and shoot presents itself. A player like this does not seem to mesh with plying style Colombia showcased at World Cup 2014. It could very well be that the addition of Falcao reduces the effectiveness of Colombia, thus improving Chile’s chances to win the 2015 Copa America.
Players at the Right Point in their Careers…Except for Arturo Vidal (Maybe)
When one looks at the Chilean national team’s squad, one can see that Chile’s team is set up well to win now. In particular, key players like Alexis Sanchez, Eduardo Vargas, Charles Aranguiz, Mauricio Isla, and Eugenio Mena are currently all under the age of 27. Maybe just as important as the ages of the players is the amount of time they have played together under Jorge Sampaoli. With international football’s lack of training time and disjointed schedule, teams with continuity in playing style and with one another have a significant advantage over the competition. Combine this with the pressing style and the amount of position/role-switching in Chile’s play, and Chile’s continuity allows them to get the most out of an effective and aesthetically appealing brand of football.
However, Chile do face a big question go forward. How healthy will Arturo Vidal be, come the 2015 Copa America? For a team that seems built upon tenacity and players with the potential to operate in multiple roles, Arturo Vidal represents the zenith of everything that Sampaoli wants in a footballer. As Michael Cox wrote in 2013, Vidal’s all-around ability made him the footballer that best represented football in 2013. He can operate as a central midfield, in front of Marcelo Diaz. In that role, he can act more as a linker of play, a presser, a ball-winner, and a late-arriver in the box. With the rise of Charles Aranguiz, Chile has a player who can operate in that role, allowing Vidal to operate as a rather unique kind of advanced playmaker. There, he can win the ball closer to goal, provide more of a goal threat and a threat to make the killer pass, and link the midfield with the attacking front. Alexis Sanchez could operate as a kind of dynamic advanced playmaker, although a different one to Vidal. However, no one on the Chilean squad could play both roles, in addition to playing deeper in midfield.
His versatility gives Chile remarkable flexibility both during the game and between games. If opponents’ want to mark Chile’s advanced playmaker out of the match, Arturo Vidal can take on that role. So while the opponent attempts to block one avenue, Chile have an alternate route that is plenty effective and also punish their opponents for man-marking or focusing too much on stopping one player, by exploiting the spaces that such a system grants the attacking side. If Chile wants to beef up in midfield and focus more on winning the ball in that area, Vidal has no problem dropping into a deeper role and still linking play when Chile had the ball. However, all of these wonderful benefits of Arturo Vidal go out the door if he is not fit for the 2015 Copa America.
One underrated disappointment of World Cup 2014 was not being able to see Chile with a fully fit Arturo Vidal. Despite their excellent performance, one wonders how far they could have gone if Vidal was anywhere close to his normal fitness level. While that may have been an issue of poor luck with respect to timing, it may be a sign of Vidal’s decline as a player. While his footballing skills have not eroded, one wonders if his physically demanding style will cause him to break down at a younger age than he otherwise would have.
If Vidal follows the path of a dynamic player like Patrick Vieira, who fell off a cliff after his age-28 season, then Chile may never reach the heights they reached in World Cup 2014 qualifying or during the actual tournament. Even if Vidal evolves into a more restrained player, he may wind up not being an ideal fit with the Chilean national team. With a system based on pressing, intensity, and covering space, a player with a restrained approach in the positions that they need a fit Vidal to occupy could lead to holes in the press, leaving Chile vulnerable. Without his normal dynamism, he may slow Chilean’s ability to transition and catch opponents in poor positions. So if Chile wants to wish their first professional international tournament, they will probably need a close to fully fit Arturo Vidal playing like the world’s greatest all-around player that he has been for a few years now.
If Not Now, When?
One of the unfortunate aspects of international football is the luck a nation needs to have with a particular group of players so to capitalize on having a talented squad. Few teams win major international honors with a young enough core to allow them to come back four years later and win again. Instead, teams tend to win tournaments when a group of players, whose emergence has fortunately come close enough to one another to grow together, reaches their peak. Four years later, too many of these players have started to decline or are well into the decline phase of their career. A side is then faced with having to rely on an older group of players or trying to integrate a new generation of players, provided that they are good enough to deserve to play. Italy at World Cup 2010 is a classic example of a team well into decline when they had to defend the title they won four years earlier.
Looking at Chile’s squad, many of the most important players are currently 27 or under, but are also 25 or older. Come World Cup 2018, these important players, like Sanchez, Aranguiz, Vidal, Isla, Mena etc. will be 29 or older. Come Copa America 2019 (ignoring the Copa America Centenario), these players will be 30 or older. Given that attacking players tend to peak between ages 24-27 and Chile needs players with the stamina and intensity to operate in their system, Chile seem to need a massive injection of young talent to help ease the burden or take control from the current group of players making Chile as good as they are. Without this new blood, this generation of Chilean football could fade away without a single major tournament won, despite their excellent football. Therefore, in addition to Chile hosting the tournament and the expectations that come with that, and given the uncertainty of future success, Chile face some pressure to win the 2015 Copa America to ensure this generation does not go to waste.