As the sun set upon the Andean backdrop of El Estadio Monumental David Arellano, the illuminated crest of Chile’s most decorated domestic club, Colo-Colo, and its powerful Mapuche chief settle in as a fitting personification of the ideologies that have embodied Chile’s most successful squads of the past few years. With their uniform aesthetic, the members of La Roja evoke images of the country’s ancient Incan warriors with their silent aura of speed, ferocity, and intensity. Eduardo Vargas, Alexis Sanchez, Arturo Vidal, Gary Medel, and Mauricio Isla all add to that idea by dawning menacing haircuts that help draw more than just aesthetic similarities to the Colo-Colo crest. Verticality, lightning quick play, and physicality are all traits that would do well to describe the nature of Chilean national team and one that personifies the very country, even stadium La Roja plays in. To complete the look, Chile’s intensely red jersey’s iron out a mental image that is almost as terrifying as the style of play that ends up taking the field.
Beginning with Marcelo Bielsa, Juan Antonio Pizzi has done well to continue the philosophy La Roja has been synonymous with. Bringing a consistent group of players into a national team setup that operates under similar tactical ideas has brought the Chilean’s unparalleled success in recent years, and “El Loco’s” ideological fingerprints were quite clearly visible in the South American sun on March 28th when Venezuela arrived at altitude.
Initially setting up in an aggressive 4-3-3, the Spaniard’s focus on meaningful possession sought to utilize and accentuate the qualities of his best players, while demanding intensity and surgical positioning from his entire team. While many would agree that the most readily identifiable offensive talents lie within the likes of Sanchez, Vidal, and Vargas, the usage of Claudio Bravo as a way to pull out opposition pressing actions, especially ones as disorganized as Venezuela’s, allowed for Chile to achieve their goal of extremely efficient vertical play. Through the passing and positional experience provided by converted central defenders such as Gary Medel and Gonzalo Jara, Chile were able to consistently simulate training ground passing triangles and play out of somewhat token, yet overreaching, defensive pressure provided by the Venezuelan forwards. Once possession had left the defensive third, the positional rigidity held by Mauricio Isla and Alexis Sanchez was put to full use.
Overloading and Under loading through Sanchez
One of the most prominent tactical practices within this game was the unique usage of Alexis Sanchez. In addition to the mighty mite’s belleza of a free kick just four minutes into the match, the Arsenal star’s performance was nearly flawless when it came to linking up with his international teammates; especially Beausejour. The attacking fullback often overlapped or underlapped around his compatriot with almost telekinetic expertise, creating a number of dangerous crossing situations. However, what made their link up especially devastating was the way in which both the status of Alexis, and, at times, the quantitive overload employed by Chile through Sanchez, Beausejour, and either Vidal or Pedro Hernandez was able to enthrall the Venezuelan defenders, subsequently allowing the positionally disciplined Isla to take full advantage. The overload drew players to one side out their defensive shape, allowing Chile to exploit the free space on the opposite end of the field. Though the tactic was mainly utilized on one side of Chile’s formation, Pizzi also saw to it that Alexis’ teammates passed him the ball without much help, underloading the left wing and drawing defenders towards the mercurial player, then switching the play to take advantage of their advanced numbers.
Alexis was also purposely isolated on the counter after a save or defensive action. Often, Bravo would quickly look up directly after making a save, and if Sanchez was in any sort of space, the ball was launched at him. Even if the former Barcelona forward had little chance at winning the ball in an aerial duel, the ball was still flung towards him, giving him the opportunity to isolate and press defenders in awkward situations.
In keeping with the practice of holding possession in deep zones if an effective vertical pass isn’t readily available, Chile were able to bypass the midfield bank of Venezuela’s 4-4-2 formation by creating space through possession. By holding possession at the back, the Venezuelan forwards had no choice other than to come forward to try and win, or at least delay the progress of their possession. The triggered press opened up space between the two banks of four, allowing Chile’s best players to have the most amount of space on the ball. Whether possession was delivered through a direct long pass or by the completion of passing triangles formed through overloads and wing play, the Venezuelan midfielders were always playing catch up with Chile’s attacking threats. This constant sense of forced disorganization in defense unsettled the Venezuelan shape and often allowed for late runs by deeper midfielders such as Vidal, Hernandez, and Aranguiz to accrue palpable threat.
Midfield and defensive flexibility
As previously mentioned, since many of the members of the Chilean back four were converted midfielders, La Roja were given a unique dynamism and quality when it came to their crucial buildup play. In fact, only one of the four players deployed in the back line can actually be described as a defender, and should still be mentioned with an asterisk considering Beausejour’s inclination to get forward. What exacerbated Venezuela’s spacial issues was the Chilean flexibility that saw Vidal, Hernandez, and Aranguiz all switch positions with various members of the back four at any given point during the match. This fluidity in positioning made it increasingly difficult for the defending players to mark and track players in dangerous spaces.
Though Chile’s fantastic performance allowed to them to exercise a number of tactical practices that made life extraordinarily difficult for the opposition, the rather dour performance from Venezuela highlighted their preparedness. Pizzi and his band of experienced warriors never allowed Venezuela to get into the game and played the majority of the 90 minutes as of they were a goal down. The lack of invention or even basic execution of their own formation from a tactical perspective allowed the Chilean’s to do as they pleased.