Chile will start the World Cup in a difficult group with Spain, the Netherlands, and Australia. While they lack the footballing pedigree of the Spanish or Dutch, the South American side will put up more than a fight due, in part, to their unique set-up and style of play.
At the 2010 World Cup, Marco Bielsa helped Chile advance out of their group. While they did lose 3-0 to Brazil, their 10th place finish was the country’s best performance at a World Cup since their 3rd place finish in 1962. They also provided spectators with a unique experience. In fact, prior to the World Cup, Michael Cox declared that Bielsa’s Chile was the most tactically-exciting side of the tournament. Going into the 2014 World cup, after a period in the wilderness, under manager Claudio Borghi, Chile have rediscovered the Bielsa philosophy of football (with some wrinkles) under Jorge Sampaoli.
The Spare Man
While Sampaoli started his time as Chile’s manager favoring a 3-diamond-3, more recently, Chile have gone to a 4-3-3 system. Chile have also played a 3-1-4-2 and a 4-2-3-1. This side is highly adaptable. The choice of formation tends to rely on how many men the opponent has up front. Against teams with two up front, Sampaoli favors a back three and against teams with one up front, Sampaoli favors fielding a pair of center backs. This way, Chile always have a spare man at the back, allowing them to mark and still have one player available to sweep behind. It will be interesting to examine how Chile defend against a side like Spain, who have shown a willingness to play without a center forward, as they did against Italy in Euro 2012.
Chile also have an ability to switch their formation during a match. Many of the players in a given Chile XI can function in multiple roles, in multiple areas of the pitch. The flexibility given to Chile by players like Gary Medel and Arturo Vidal (health permitting) allows them to seamlessly change formations, much like a boxer changes his stance. This helps to confuse the opponent, and given Chile’s high energy game, the South American side is more than able to take advantage of that confusion.
Chile play a high-energy game with a high line and a high press. While their pressing does depend on the structure of their opponent, let us examine how Chile press in their 3-4-3 structure. In their 3-diamond-3 formation, against a side with two center backs, Chile’s front line will push up the pitch. If the keeper has the ball, the center forward looks to close him down; the wide forwards mark the center backs; the wingbacks push up to deny passing lanes to the fullbacks; the advanced central midfielder will push up to take away the simple pass to the deep lying midfielder.
If their 3-diamond-3 formation comes up against a back three (3 center backs, 2 center backs with a full back deep, etc.) with a midfielder in front, then the front three will occupy the back three. The wingbacks and the advanced central midfielder push up as well. Again this 3-1-3-3 pressing shape emerges.
In either case, unless a more advanced midfielder makes himself available and the goalkeeper has both the confidence and ability to execute a defense splitting pass (one of the benefits of having a Manuel Neuer or Victor Valdes), Chile have taken away all the easy passing options. If the goalkeeper does play the ball into one of his wide center-backs or a withdrawn full back, then the wing back and the forward on that side can close down that player. The rest of the team shades over to the ball side to kill any easy passing options, leaving the man in possession with the option of dribbling out of the pressure, launching it forward, or hitting a back pass to the keeper. All of these options either have low success rates and/or have a decent potential for a high leverage turnover.
The goalkeeper does have some other options left to him. The fullbacks could run up-field and the goalkeeper could attempt to hit it long to one of them. This is not an easy pass to complete, especially if the goalkeeper is pressured by the center forward. He could try to chip a ball into the space behind the advanced central midfielder; however, the high line squeezes the space between those pressing and the back four (3 center-backs and central midfielder) and that allows the deep-lying midfielder to contest the pass. The keeper could hit it long, trying to hit a runner behind the back line. Chile are cognizant of this threat and look to field more mobile players (like midfielder Gary Medel) in the wide center back positions.
Potentially, the best way for a side to beat Chile’s press is to take advantage of their lack of size in defensive midfield. Marcelo Diaz, Chile’s controller in possession, stands at about 5’5”. A side like Spain could field Javi Martinez at the No. 10 to start the match with Diego Costa or Fernando Llorente at center forward (or field two target men, though that may be a bridge too far for Spain). While Chile’s 6’3” center back, Marcos Gonzalez, could mark one of the aerial threats, the other becomes the responsibility of Marcelo Diaz, 5’7” Gary Medel (who will start in a back two with Gonzalez or back three), or probably one of 5’9” Jose Rojas or 5’10” Gonzalo Jara. While this tactic may decrease Spain’s effectiveness in the final third, it may prove a net benefit. It can dissuade the Chileans from fiercely pressing or prevent the Chilean press from creating those high leverage turnovers, making their press more a waste of energy than an effective attacking and defending tool. In fact, Chile’s lack of size could prove their greatest weakness, not only against this tactic, but also with respect to defending set pieces.
When Chile do win the ball back, high up the pitch, they transition quickly and look to have as many men running beyond the ball as possible. Wide forwards like Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas look to make diagonal runs through the back line. The wingbacks will also push forward, giving their opponent’s wide defenders the choice of either tracking the wide forwards or picking up the advancing wing backs. While Chileans always have one advanced playmaker (probably Jorge Valdivia or Arturo Vidal depending on intra-match circumstance), the rest of the midfielders (or the center forward) have license to run beyond the playmaker. The only the deep-lying midfielder and the center backs will not consistently advance, allowing Chile to have up to six men running in on goal.
Attacking: Starts From the Back and Ends In a Furor
Chile also have clear goals in mind when they have possession closer to their own goal. With a likely front three with Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez as wide forwards and Jorge Valdivia in a false nine role, Chile do not have target men to whom their goalkeeper or back line can launch the ball. Instead Chile focus on building attacks from the back. This requires them to have center backs who can comfortably play with the ball. This makes a player like Gary Medel at center back vital to the system as a whole. If they play with a back four, their deep-lying midfielder, Marcelo Diaz drops deep to form a back three with two ball-players. Given that sides tend to play with one or two up front, this ensures that someone has time and space to attempt the right pass or advance with the ball.
However, unlike Spain who look to play shorter passes and maintain possession, Chile create this time and space to play a more direct game. In front of the 3+1 or 2+1 (back three in possession with two center backs), the wide forwards often stay wide, either occupying the opponent full backs or exploiting the space in behind. The wing backs also advance, creating an overload on one or both flanks or pinning back the wide midfielders. The center forward, especially if it is Jorge Valdivia, will drop deep, in a position more in line with the 2nd highest line of attack. In the 3-diamond-3, the advanced central midfielder may look to drop deeper, giving the deep-lying midfielder, Diaz, a short central passing option and ensuring three men in central midfield. In a 4-3-3, both central midfielders take up wider central positions. If the deep-lying midfielder does not drop too deep and the false nine does drop particularly deep, then a diamond in central midfield becomes apparent. With all this movement and with all these options, Chile rely on the close control and passing ability of Marcelo Diaz to pick out the most devastating option.
When the ball is advanced into the final third, the false nine poses its typical problems for the back line. With a withdrawn forward, the center backs do not have anyone to mark. One of the center backs could advance to mark the false nine; however, in doing so, he leaves a gap in the back line. This gap could be exploited by the wide forwards, making a diagonal run from a wide position. If the wide defenders commit to marking them, then the wing backs can exploit those gaps. In central midfield runners like Arturo Vidal and Charles Aranguiz look to run beyond the false nine. So the defense knows a run is coming, but there exists a high degree of uncertainty as to the source and number of these runs, making it difficult to defend.
A team could look to mark the false nine out of the game; however, with a versatile and skilled midfielder like Arturo Vidal (whose condition will play a significant role in how far Chile can progress), the false nine could swap roles with Vidal. The center forward now becomes a runner and Vidal takes on the role of enganche. Vidal’s versatility also allows him to take up a wide position with ease. While a side may look to nullify Chile’s play-maker by flooding the center of the pitch, having a player like Vidal allows the play-making role to move to wherever the space exists. Overall, this versatility in attack allows playmakers and runners to come from various areas of the pitch. This creates greater uncertainty for opposing defenses, increasing Chile’s effectiveness in attack.
Chile play a unique brand of football relative to international football. They play with an energy, directness, fluidity, and flexibility that define them. This unique style makes them a true dark horse for the 2014 World Cup. And even if they fail to reach the knockout stage (though that seems unlikely as Holland will not have Kevin Strootman available), they will entertain audiences more than any other side.