“Chile” and “dull game” are rarely to be found in the same sentence. Even while the Chileans Confederations Cup opener against Cameroon threatened to be drifting toward a goalless draw, it was still enthralling — because Chile turn every match into a declaration of the worth of doing things differently.
They hurl their players forward. Both full-backs advance at the same time, Chile look to hit them with diagonal passes and then take advantage of numerical superiority in the final third of the field to quick-pass their way through the opposing defence. And when the move breaks down high up the pitch they use their numerical superiority to block the counterattack at the source and keep the opponent under constant pressure.
It can be a tightrope strategy because it has inherent risks. Every misplaced pass in midfield can offer the opponents the chance to go back at speed. And if Chile stop their busts at the expense of a set piece, their lack of defensive height can be exposed. Moreover, for a team so set up to attack, they at times struggle to turn dominance and possession into goals.
All of this was plain to see against Cameroon. With Eduardo Vargas having a 45th-minute goal disallowed for offside by the video referee, Chile had nothing to show for their first-half exuberance.
Of course, their attacking options are greatly enhanced when Alexis Sanchez is on the pitch. Nursing an ankle injury, he sat out the opening period, and was not introduced until the 58th minute — by which time the pattern of the game had changed.
Playing the “Chile way” requires a high degree of intensity. The creation of numerical superiority is made possible only by the lung power of the players. And this is an aging group. Assuming they qualify for Russia 2018, far from a done deal, it will be the third World Cup for the same group of players. The heart of the side came through together from the 2007 Under-20 World Cup. They are now approaching the veteran stage. Running and pressing for the full 90 minutes may now be beyond them.
That is certainly the way it seemed after the interval in Moscow. Chile defended much deeper. Cameroon had much more of the ball. Chile coach Juan Antonio Pizzi used his three substitutions early. Sanchez, of course, came on. But with the team losing the midfield battle, he found it hard to make an impact. Leonardo Valencia added fresh legs and moments of quality down the right — and the replacement of Charles Aranguiz with Francisco Silva spoke volumes. Aranguiz is a dynamic figure, working from box to box. Silva’s role is much more conservative. His introduction indicated that Chile would keep themselves protected, and count on their stars to tip the balance.
It worked. Sanchez and Arturo Vidal have an uneasy relationship, vying for leadership in the side. But in his low-profile way, Pizzi appears to have done a fine job managing this situation since taking over from Jorge Sampaoli at the start of last year. There has been little sign of ego from Pizzi. Instead he has worked well within the structure he inherited — though sticking to a back four where Sampaoli would switch between a line of three and four depending on the situation.
There has also been little talk of internal ructions from a dressing room known to be hard to handle. Sanchez and Vidal combined for the breakthrough goal, and Vargas added a second at the death to get Pizzi’s side off to a winning start.
Their next match, though, offers an intriguing contrast. Thursday’s opponents are Germany, who have brought an experimental squad to this competition. The current world champions have huge experience in big games, and came to the decision that their first-choice stars would be better served by a summer’s rest — something that the Chileans have not experienced for some time.
In 2014, Chile reached the second round of the World Cup. The following year they won the Copa America on home soil. And 12 months ago, they claimed the Copa America Centenario in the USA. Here they are in Russia for the Confederations Cup, and next year, if all goes to plan, they will be back for the World Cup. Might Pizzi be taking another risk — that of burning out his players? Whatever the scoreline on Thursday, this is a question that can be answered only next year.