Chile sit perilously close to missing out on the 2018 World Cup with just two games to go in the ever-competitive CONMEBOL qualification. After an impressive showing in Brazil four years ago, two Copa America victories and a Confederations Cup final, it seems that the Chilean golden age is coming to an end.
Even if Chile do make it to Russia, it would definitely be the last hurrah for their core of graduates from the 2007 U20 World Cup while still at somewhere near their peak. Either way, the time to rejuvenate of their squad should be a priority going into the new cycle.
But for all their success at senior level, performances at youth level over the last 10 years have left a lot to be desired, while Chilean clubs have struggled to make an impact in continental competition since Jorge Sampaoli’s Universidad de Chile side romped to the 2011 Sudamericana title. The worry about who will replace this golden generation is a legitimate one.
One of the green shoots that should provide some cause for optimism is 20-year-old defender Sebastian Vegas. The Santiago-born Vegas started out at Audax Italiano and made his debut at the age of 16 in the Copa Chile against Deportes Magallanes. Over the next three seasons, he went onto to make over sixty appearances for Los Tanos before making his move to Monarcas Morelia in Mexico, first on loan before signing permanently for €1.2million.
Followed by Barcelona since he was 14 and previously linked to Valencia, Vegas has also been a regular for Chile at youth level and has captained the U15, U17 and U20 national teams. Although yet to make his debut for the senior side, he was called up by Sampaoli for a debut against the USA in 2015 and was an unused member of the squad that won the 2017 China Cup.
Quality defenders have been in short supply in recent years for Chile, even during this period of success, and so the emergence of Vegas couldn’t have come at a better time for a La Roja side in need of renewal.
PLAYING OUT OF DEFENCE
One of the things you notice immediately about Vegas’ style of play is his ability with the ball at his feet. A classy operator who likes to play his way out of trouble, he stood out from his time at Audax for his elegance, confidence and composure that belied his years.
Primarily a centre-back while in Chile, Vegas’ ability to bring the ball out of defence coupled with his good pace has seen him deployed a left back for Morelia. Although on the more defensive side of modern day full backs, he can still waltz his way forward in the final third too, as displayed by some of the clips towards the end of the video below.
This ball-playing ability gives Vegas an impressive versatility and adaptability which means he can be utilised in the centre or on the left of a back four and also as the left-sided centre-back in a back three. Obviously, this style can be a high-risk tactic if he is caught in possession but the positives far outweigh the negatives.
Another hallmark of Vegas’ game when breaking through as a young defender in Chile was his accomplished passing of the ball. Capable of picking out some great long raking balls from left to right, Vegas also had the composure to keep his head up and make sensible short passes too as you would expect from a ball-playing centre-back
Since moving to a more competitive league and playing at new position Vegas has had to adapt to a different way of playing and his passing stats have dropped somewhat. However, this could be put down to having less space and options to work with on the flank or having less decision-making time due to the higher tempo in Mexico.
There is room for improvement, particularly on his crossing if he wants to develop as a fullback, but he has nevertheless shown a good, expansive range of passing in both Chile and Mexico for a player primarily suited to a more central role.
As for any defender, the ball-winning aspect of the game is highly important and for all of Vegas’ ball-playing tendencies, he can get stuck in too. Physically strong and robust in the tackle, Vegas has had plenty to do while playing for a Morelia side that aren’t the most defensively-minded.
His reading of the game is also good and he senses danger well, possessing the pace to make good recovery runs. One criticism would be that he can lunge in too often and could do with reducing the number of cards he picks up.
At six foot he’s no giant but compared to other Chileans he’s on the more physically imposing side and as such possesses a good aerial presence. Certainly, when he is utilised as a left back his good heading ability means he can defend the back post well and gives his team from solidity when they are without the ball. Vegas’ good heading also makes him a threat going forward, particularly from set pieces, as demonstrated in the video below.
We have mentioned his ball-playing, passing and versatility but Vegas has also shown that he can affect things in the final third. As a centre-back by trade he is always going to be on the defensive side of full backs but this year he has shown glimpses of his attacking potential, whether it be attempting a dribble or unleashing a shot at goal. This has been highlighted by the two golazos he has scored this season – one a shot from range, the other an intelligent backheel – which is already a career best for Vegas.
Perhaps this shooting ability and ability to chip in with the odd goal shouldn’t come as a surprise as Vegas actually had a pretty good goal record at youth level, scoring 44 times in 120 matches for various Audax age categories.
What’s more, his clever header to get him out of a defensive situation versus Universidad de Concepcion shows his creativity and technique in a defensive capacity too.
Right now it feels like Vegas is in a great place to develop. The standard of Mexican football is strong and the league is very competitive, while Morelia have already proven that they are willing to make the 20-year-old a starter meaning plenty of first-team football. Given the growing presence of Chileans in Mexican football, with over 20 players now in the Liga MX, it means that Vegas will get plenty of exposure and stay on the national team radar.
Positionally his long-term future does still seem to lie as a centre-back but Vegas’ time learning the ropes as a fullback will stand him in good stead going forward, not only in improving his all-round game but it means he will be a good option in any squad if he can comfortably operate on the left or in a back three.
Looking at the larger picture, it seems like Chile are finally beginning to produce a few good defensive prospects for the national team. Along with Vegas, the likes of Paulo Diaz, Francisco Sierralta, Guillermo Maripan are also coming through and Igor Lichnovsky and Enzo Roco are still young and will be in the frame, even though they may not have lived up to expectations so far.
Having featured at every youth level and performing well at club level, you would expect Vegas to begin to be integrated into the Chile national team setup at the start of the next World Cup cycle and he could go on to become a defensive mainstay for years to come.