It was impossible to be surprised by Jorge Sampaoli's Chile lineup on Friday night. The footballing world is by now inured to the fact that no matter what the 54-year-old does, it'll be unorthodox, unexpected and pretty deeply weird. And so when La Roja lined up in a hybrid 3-4-3/4-3-3 that featured a gimpy Arturo Vidal doing his best impression of Juventus teammate Arturo Vidal, the collective reaction was muted. Chile? Doing something odd? You don't say.
But their lineup -- particularly their defence -- for the Australia game, a 3-1 win that was every bit as exciting as the Netherlands-Spain shocker the proceeded it, was so transcendentally strange that it's probably worth making more of a fuss about. Consider this: against the Socceroos, whose only known method of scoring goals is to pump crosses into the box for Tim Cahill, La Roja fielded a team that didn't have any central defenders in it.
That's right. Not one. Yes, there were people playing in the positions one would usually associate with central defence -- sometimes two, sometimes three, depending on Marcelo Díaz's whimsies -- but not one of them was anything like what you'd expect them to find there. Gonzalo Jara spent the 2013/14 season with second-division Nottingham Forest, splitting his time between right back and defensive midfield, and Cardiff City Gary Medel midfielder will be joining him in the Championship in two months. Broadly speaking, two midfielders for second-tier English sides form the backbone of this Chile side's defence.
Granted, it's not unusual for defensive midfielders to fill in at the back when their team needs help, but moving from midfield to centre back brings to mind a certain kind of player: Bayern Munich's Javi Martinez, for example, is both 6'3" and more than happy to play in either a midfield pivot or the back line. But Chile don't have Javi Martinez. They don't even have significant fractions of Javi Martinez. Medel and Jara laid end to end would be roughly one Peter Crouch long; that pairing against Tim Cahill looked like the sort of football you'd see in the Shire.
One suspects that this is the first time in the entirety of Cahill's career that he's ever had a physical edge on his markers. Instead of having to rely on his freakish jumping ability just to be competitive on crosses, Cahill was turned into a vengeful little god, towering imperiously over Medel and reducing Jara to tame shirt-pulls in an attempt to keep him quiet. Every single cross became a heart-in-mouth moment for Chile, an amusing sight considering how thoroughly outclassed Australia were everywhere else on the pitch.
La Roja knew this, of course, and they spent much of their defensive effort doing everything in their power to prevent the Socceroos from getting crosses in. But they couldn't hold out forever, and came within a few inches of blowing a 2-0 lead before finally getting it back together in the game's closing stages. Chile have been touted as a dark horse candidate in the buildup to this tournament, and it's obvious that they've got astonishing quality going forward (albeit less if Vidal isn't quite right after his knee surgery), but if they persist with this defensive setup they're going to have major difficulties against teams with good centre forwards. Robin van Persie and Diego Costa are probably licking their chops.
But the World Cup isn't just about winning. Or, at least, it's not if you're Chile. Coach Sampaoli might have introduced an obvious and easily-exploitable weakness into his squad, but in doing so he's ensured that every team that plays optimally against La Roja will look like the tactical lovechild of Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis, slinging cross after cross into the box while Chile spend all of their time weaving intricate patterns across the pitch.
Style over substance isn't going to get Chile very far in this tournament, and we can expect a rather thorough spanking at some point in their future. But, really, who cares? They're going to be fun to watch -- they're delightfully mad, ferociously potent and possess the curious property of being utterly irresistible while simultaneously having a defensive line built of marshmallows. There are worse looks for international teams.