Copa America Spotlight:Chile

Having established themselves as one of the world's most exciting international teams en route to winning last summer's edition of the Copa América, one may expect Chile to head into this year's as an outright contender. But in the last few months, much has changed. Most importantly, the man who delivered them to their first ever silverware, Jorge Sampaoli, has left after less than four years in charge. Tension between the coach and the newly-elected president of the Chilean FA reached a head in January, when Sampaoli stepped down. He’s been replaced by former Spanish international Juan Antonio Pizzi, who will struggle to match the achievements of his predecessor.

It’s difficult to overstate quite how important Sampaoli was in Chile’s recent emergence onto the world stage. Most national team managers arrive with quite conservative ideas, and understandably so. Not only are they likely to be given considerably fewer matches than domestic coaches to prove their worth, they’ve also got much less time to introduce their players to a tactical blueprint. As such, the simplest is often seen as the best: packing men behind the ball and playing regimented counter-attacking soccer is much quicker to introduce than an intricate pressing game reliant on hours of training and absolute team cohesion.

But much like his inspiration and predecessor, Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli wasn’t afraid to take risks. He arrived seeking to build on Bielsa’s ideas, and implemented a flexible shape conducive to a game plan characterized by its lightning tempo. If they lost the ball, they won it back just as quickly; once in possession, they could transition from defense to attack with frightening speed. They won the hearts of the world with a series of thrilling performances at the 2014 World Cup, and were finally rewarded for their efforts when they lifted the Copa América last year.

Chile's recent success hasn’t stopped Sampaoli's successor from tinkering with a winning formula, with Pizzi having experimented with a diamond midfield instead of the flexible formation favored by Sampaoli. But maybe that’s not such a bad thing; in losing the Argentine tactician, Chile have effectively lost the mastermind behind their entire approach. It may well be better that Pizzi implements his own ideas rather than presenting himself as a poor imitation. However, that may well mean Chile come into this tournament still learning how their new boss wants them to play. In short, we may well see more disjointed performances than we’ve come to expect.

But it’s not just losing Sampaoli that leaves a question mark over Chile’s immediate future. There’s also the fact that their star players haven’t enjoyed their most successful of seasons. They arrived at the World Cup a couple of years ago very much on an upward curve. Arturo Vidal’s combative performances at Juventus had earned him a reputation as one of the world’s very best midfielders, and Alexis Sánchez rocked up in Brazil fresh from a 19-goal season at Barcelona. Their star men were peaking at just the right moment.

Flash forward two seasons, and things look rather different. Vidal has struggled to have the same influence after a bad injury and a transfer to Bayern Munich, and Sánchez has struggled to live up to an excellent first season with Arsenal in the Premier League. The natural momentum that appeared to propel them to their recent success has disappeared on an individual, as well as a collective level. The likes of Matías Fernández, Eduardo Vargas and Charles Aránguiz have all failed to push on and establish themselves as world class players. Though Chile are a very good team, they’re not really a great one.

But that said, certain teams have a habit of performing when their backs are against the wall. Though Argentina are sure to cause Chile a group stage challenge, Pizzi’s side should have no problem seeing off Panama and Bolivia to make it into the knockout stages. From there things become a little more of a lottery, and even with an out-of-form Alexis Sánchez, they’ll have a chance of running deep into this tournament. It may well be a long time before we see a Chile as exciting as we did under Sampaoli, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be any less efficient. It really is a case of wait and see.

Schedule & Results

Monday, Jun. 6
Friday, Jun. 10
Tuesday, Jun. 14
Saturday, Jun. 18
Quarterfinal
Chile
7
Mexico
0
Wednesday, Jun. 22
Sunday, Jun. 26