Throughout this World Cup, teams have shown a tendency to adopt a rigid system, cautious not to concede. In what seems like a drastic revert to the tactical philosophies of decades ago, managers of unfancied teams are more than happy to stay solid, play for an early draw, and then take the second game by the horns. Most of these managers have watched their team exit in the group stages. However, one team has broken the mould, and seen a highly respected success ensue from this change in mentality.
Chile have not only finished in the knockout phase, they’ve also won the respect and admiration of fans because of the way they play. While other sides have adopted a negative approach, Chile have shown flair, excitement, and a desire to score goals. Watching a team play this way makes for more entertaining football, a stark contrast to most games at this tournament where teams will both try not to concede, leading to football uneasy on the eye.
Of course, the first step to building a good team is a good manager. Marcelo Bielsa is a man who knows what he’s doing, aware of the strengths of his team and how they should look to play. A former Argentina manager, Bielsa encourages forward thinking and a passing game which is as decisive as Italy and as direct as Brazil.
It’s all very well winning admiration for the good football you play, but it won’t please your own fans, your confederation demanding success, or your country who are likely to want their nation’s World Cup success to propel their country into the spotlight, if your team is unsuccessful. So how have Chile fared with their style of football compared to other, negative teams?
Chile began their campaign against lowly Honduras, both teams widely tipped to make an early trip home. Something that immediately struck me as a spectator was that one team was dominating over the other.
Because both sides were group underdogs, it was expected that the game would be fairly even, with both teams trying to claim a win before facing the group’s favourites. This was not the case. Chile showed much greater skill levels and technical prowess which their opponents struggled to contain.
Alexis Sanchez was tearing the Hondurans apart: The wide man’s technique and direct runs showed the world why Real Madrid are allegedly chasing his signature. How Chile only won this game by a single goal, nobody knows. Nevertheless, the group was thrown wide open due to Switzerland’s shock victory over Spain.
The Swiss were Chile’s competition for a second round place and, as previously mentioned, got off to a flyer against the European champions. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s approach contrasted that of Bielsa’s. Switzerland were extraordinarily disciplined, limiting the Spanish and containing their attacks, keeping their own fitness levels high. They were a touch fortunate to get the game’s only goal, but this was the aim of their strategy. And it more than paid off, giving the Swiss fans a famous victory to celebrate.
Unfortunately for Switzerland, they used a similar approach against Chile. Letting the Chileans come forward, they were again happy to sit back and take a point to their final game against Honduras. This move didn’t pay off, as, common in many games at these finals, a red card changed the game.
Valon Behrami, twice in a matter of seconds, raised arms and elbows to his challengers, catching the face and the referee’s attention. The West Ham player was shown a red card for violent conduct, causing the Swiss to retreat further into their collective shell. If Switzerland were defensive before, what followed was sixty minutes of nail-biting, clinging-for-a-point, containing play: allowing Sanchez and Chile to come forward with wave after wave of attack.
Mark Gonzalez eventually won the game, leaving the Swiss needing a win in their final game, although it could have been so different if Derdiyok had slotted home a gift of an equalising chance in injury time. Hitzfeld’s tactics not paying off this time, Chile’s attacking flair meant they could always seek to catch Switzerland in the counter attack as their opponents chased an equaliser, rather than sit back and allow the ten men to come forward and put them under pressure.
That second game proved to be decisive for Chile, but other World Cup underdogs haven’t seen such euphoria. Greece showed no attacking force against South Korea, and were comprehensively beaten. While Rehhagel’s men couldn’t hold out for a draw against Argentina and were eliminated, Uruguay topped their respective group but also showed attacking shyness, missing a trick in their opening game.
While the French may appear forceful on paper, Uruguay showed no attacking ability against what was a very fragile and wayward team. Quite a mistake, considering they possess Diego Forlan within their ranks. The South Americans did cruise through eventually, but the defensive mentality of their opening game proved to be an opportunity missed to collect maximum points.
Other unfancied teams have fallen the same way as Greece. North Korea didn’t have much of a choice than to defend, but they couldn’t hold Brazil, Portugal, or Ivory Coast to a draw.
Algeria played their opening game against Slovenia, a crucial game which would give the winner a real chance of progression. After much negative football, the coaching staff sent on striker Ghezzal to win the game. A brave move that probably would have worked if the substitute hadn’t got himself sent off for a deliberate handball. The move came too late, and Algeria departed with a single point, not making any real attempt to beat the USA in their final game, a win which would have taken them through.
Perhaps the most heinous decision was made by Ivory Coast’s manager, England’s old friend, Sven-Goran Eriksson. While Bielsa was quick to establish Chile’s strengths lay in attack, Sven was not as on the ball. Even though he selected forwards Drogba, Kalou, Dindane, and Gervinho in his squad, he still played defensive football against Portugal in his side’s opening game. Such was the negativity; a last-gasp corner was played short, resulting in the full time whistle rather than an opportunity on goal. It proved costly, Ivory Coast lost to Brazil while Portugal turned on the style to demolish North Korea, all but sealing the West Africans’ elimination.
Despite Bielsa’s attacking philosophy, his side were still in a tricky position come the final game against the Spanish. Even though Chile had collected maximum points thus far, a defeat against the European champions, coupled with the other likely result of a Swiss win over Honduras, would put them out by virtue of goal difference.
Chile fans could point to a failure to score more goals against Honduras and Switzerland as the reason their goal difference was of no aid to them come the final game. This would surely anger Bielsa, but he was determined to seal Chile’s qualification with a point against Spain. A promising start gave the hoards of travelling Chileans encouragement that they would even avoid Brazil in the second round.
Unfortunately, a moment of madness by their keeper gifted Spain the lead. Iniesta added a second, and an extremely harsh red card left the struggling South Americans with a mountain to climb.
Not giving in to temptation, Bielsa rallied his troops, seeing them pull a goal back. The attacking mentality was back with a vengeance as they pushed for an equaliser that would never come. However, they were rewarded by the Hondurans holding Switzerland to a draw, who must have been regretting not going full-throttle for their must-win game.
Their attacking play put them through and has set an example: telling the smaller nations you can find success without playing for a draw and boring the watching world. Many spectators wanted Chile to defeat Brazil and progress as far as possible. Unfortunately, their colossal game against Brazil proved to be a game too far, with the five-time World Champions' superior class telling on the day. But despite the result; Bielsa and Chile have taught several World Cup finalists a humbling tactical lesson.