Bielsa plots Brazil downfall
Chile coach Marcelo Bielsa came to the World Cup with a point to prove. Eight years ago, in charge of his native Argentina, his side turned up in the Far East as favourites but crashed out in the first round and despite their impressive start in South Africa, there was a moment when it seemed that Chile, too, would not make the knockout stages.
When they went two goals down to Spain and had a man sent off, hopes of a place in the last 16 appeared to be slipping away but they pulled a goal back, and with Switzerland held by Honduras, Chile were safe.
You might have expected Bielsa to be ecstatic. But then you would have misjudged the man. "To celebrate qualification," he mused, "when it is superimposed with a defeat generates ambivalence." It was classic Bielsa . The language, the approach - it could only come from one of the most curious and refreshing coaches in the world game.
I first had contact with Bielsa in the 1999 Copa America when, in the early stages of his spell with Argentina, his side had just been beaten 3-0 by Colombia. Watching his centre-forward Martin Palermo miss three penalties had proved too much for him. Bielsa had been sent off for yelling at the referee.
In the press conference Bielsa, in what I came to appreciate was his own eccentric style, sat staring transfixed at a spot in space. What had he thought of the refereeing? "I don't have the habit of commenting on referees," he said, "but on the subject of this one I would like to say..."
I waited for the standard diatribe of how his team had been robbed. But something very different came out. "I would like to say that in terms of my expulsion the referee was correct because I protested in an ill-mannered form." My jaw hit the floor. I was captivated.
During matches Bielsa's demeanour on the touchline betrays the fact that he is no ordinary coach. He squats to watch the action from ground level. Then he goes for a little walk in his technical area, muttering away to himself, head down with the air of a man who has dropped his keys. In fact he is deep in thought - and what he is usually thinking about is how to attack the opposition.
"In today's football caution is a virtue," he said after the Spain match, "and daring is not well thought of." But Bielsa is nothing if not daring. Iin an attacking line - up, he sees no point in the conventional full-back. He wants his width higher up the field. If the opponent plays with two strikers he will have three at the back, two to mark and one to cover. A defensive midfielder will provide protect and for the rest, they have the job of squeezing the opposition back in their half of the field.
This is the thinking behind his trademark 3-3-1-3 formation. At times he will go with a 4-2-1-3, but the principle stays the same. There is always a front three - two wingers and a central striker. Behind them is an attacking midfielder. And the two wide midfielders are expected to keep pushing forward - both at the same time, unlike the normal full back. They link up with the winger to create two against one situations against the opposing full-back.
It is high-tempo football. The team attack at pace, with quick exchanges of passes, lots of width, plenty of options for the man on the ball and presence in the penalty area and when a move breaks down the objective is to put the opponents under pressure and win the ball back in their half.
This recipe has worked even better with Chile than it did with Argentina. Bielsa had moments of success with the land of his birth - under him Argentina cruised impressively through qualification for the 2002 World Cup, were desperately unlucky not to win the 2004 Copa America and claimed gold at that year's Olympics.
Sanchez has admitted he wants a move away from Udinese this summer Photograph: Getty
But he was fighting an uphill battle. Under Bielsa there was no place in the team for an old style Argentine foot-on-the-ball playmaker like Juan Roman Riquelme. Once when Bielsa went to Boca Juniors' stadium the entire crowd were booing him and calling for Riquelme. Characteristically, Bielsa loved it. The crowd's response, he said, was "the essence of football."
With Chile, though, Bielsa did not have to push against an established tradition of play. Chilean football has no fixed identity. As the country's great defender Elias Figueroa once told me: " We've tried to imitate Argentina, we've tried to imitate Brazil, we've tried to imitate Germany and Spain."
It was fertile soil in which Bielsa could plant his own tradition. And he took over at an excellent moment, inheriting a hungry young group of players who had just come third in the 2007 World Youth Cup.
The pick of the bunch is right winger Alexis Sanchez. Up against the weaker flank of the Brazil defence, he offers the best hope of Chile pulling off a surprise .
In qualification Chile's bold approach and lack of height and strength played right into the hands of the big, strong counter-attacking machine that is Dunga's Brazil. Chile went down 3-0 at home and 4-2 away but Sanchez has come on since then, and Chile may have grown in confidence, perhaps surprising themselves with the way they bettered Spain for the first half hour.
Brazil, though, represent a different kind of challenge - one Chile will have to meet without Waldo Ponce, their best defender in the air, and Gary Medel, their best defender on the ground.
"While you're sleeping," Marcelo Bielsa once told one of his players, "I'm thinking of ways for the team to win." He might be entitled to some sleepless nights as he ponders how to beat Brazil.
Comments on the piece in the space provided. Questions on South American football to email@example.com, and I'll pick out a couple for next week.
From last week's postbag :
Q) Watching Chile in the World Cup I have enjoyed their attacking football, but I am a bit concerned about where the goals are coming from. They seem to be looking to walk the ball into the net. Is this the way they played in qualifying and did they have the same difficulty in scoring goals then?
A) This was not a problem in qualifying because of centre forward Humberto Suazo, who finished the campaign as the continent's top scorer. He was injured in the build up and has hardly featured so far - just the first half against Switzerland, when it was clear he was well short of 100%. A fully fit Suazo would give them more of a chance against Brazil - Sanchez to make the bullets and Suazo to fire them.
Q) Can you tell me about Uruguay's outstanding defender Diego Godin.
He was particularly outstanding in the opening game against France helping his captain Diego Lugano through an uncertain period in the match , he certainly looks the type to easily play for a top European club.
A) I picked him out as one to watch in World Soccer magazine after the 2005 South American Under-20 Championships. It took me a couple of games to realise how good he was - he was so unflustered, doing the right things neatly and inconspicuously. And he's certainly living up to that potential. He's had problems with illness and injury in this World Cup, but while he's been on the field I haven't seen too many better centre backs. Came through with Nacional, one of the Montevideo giants, has been in Spain with Villareal for a few years now and at 24 has plenty of time to go higher still.