In the build-up to the 2010 World Cup, Marcelo Bielsa's Chile side got just as much media attention as any of the traditional world powers. After a two-cycle absence from the tournament, Chile finished second in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying with players that casual fans hadn't heard of before the qualifying tournament began. Thanks to Humberto Suazo's ten qualifying goals and Bielsa's preferred formation featuring three defenders, a playmaker and three forwards, they were as discussed as, and unavoidably linked to, group mates and eventual winners Spain.
Chile won both of their first two matches before coming up against La Furia Roja, who defeated them in what should have been a fascinating tactical battle. Unfortunately, their clash was marred by some questionable officiating and penalty drama. They finished second in their group and were defeated soundly by Brazil in the Round of 16, but Chile left their indelible mark on world football with their performance. Bielsa was discussed frequently following the tournament and linked to various jobs before taking over at Athletic Bilbao, who have become a fascinating team under his short reign.
Currently, the 'new Bielsa' is rising through the management ranks in South America. The man who has been stamped with that label, for better or for worse, is Jorge Sampaoli. Like Bielsa, Sampaoli is an Argentinian who has taken work in Chile. Like Bielsa, he started his career with Argentinian side Newell's Old Boys. And most importantly, like Bielsa, he favors a three-man back line, a playmaker and three forwards.
At present, Sampaoli's Universidad de Chile side is the hottest team in South America. They're undefeated in their last 18 matches between the Chilean Primera Division and Copa Sudamericana, and they're doing it in style. La U have scored 33 times in 13 games so far in the 2011 Clausura and recently defeated Ronaldinho's Flamengo 4-0, away in Brazil. The two sides meet for the second leg of their Copa Sudamericana Round of 16 tie on Wednesday, and Sampaoli has little incentive to play his first team.
Sampaoli took his first managerial job at Juan Aurich, a Peruvian club in 2002, but did not truly begin his rise to prominence until he took over Chilean side O'Higgins in 2008. In three consecutive seasons with La Celeste, Sampaoli guided them to the playoffs, attracting the attention of big clubs in other parts of South America. He was hired by Ecuadorian club Emelec in 2010, where he experienced some serious ups and downs.
In a situation reminiscent of the one Bielsa faced in his first few months in charge of the Chilean national team, Sampaoli's side struggled at the beginning of his tenure. As he had arrived only weeks before the beginning of Copa Libertadores, he was not able to get his team to mesh in his system in time to do well in the tournament. He impressively defeated his former club Newell's to qualify for the group stages, but only amassed two points once there as Emelec was eliminated.
He had similar issues domestically, but got the side turned around as Emelec won the first stage of the Campeonato Ecuatoriano de Fútbol de la Serie A, then finished second in the second stage and top of the aggregate table. This qualified them for the league final against Ecuadorian giants and 2008 Copa Libertadores champions LDU Quito. His side lost 2-1 on aggregate, as LDU star midfielder Miller Bolaños scored a 92nd minute backbreaker in his side's home leg, but Sampaoli's reputation as one of the top managers in South America was cemented, and he made another move up the coaching ladder when he took over Universidad de Chile in the start of 2011.
La U finished second to Universidad Catolica in the regular season table in Sampaoli's first season in charge, but they ran riot through the playoffs, sealing two particularly improbable wins to capture the title. After getting through the first round with a 3-2 victory over Union San Felipe and winning the first leg of their semifinal 1-0 over O'Higgins, La U dropped one of the most impressive results on this side of the earth in the second leg. La U dropped a 7-1 victory on Sampaoli's old side, advancing to the final against Universidad Catolica.
UC won the first leg 2-0, presenting an almost impossible task for La U in the second leg, but Catolica completely imploded, committing silly fouls and losing their positional discipline en route to a 4-1 loss that gave La U the title by an aggregate score of 4-3 in the final.
Now, 13 games into the second tournament of the year in Chile, La U have 10 wins, three draws, and no losses. They're eight points clear of their opposition at the top of the table, and they're 12 points clear at the top of the aggregate table that takes both tournaments into accounts, in which the top team drops directly into the second stage of Copa Libertadores.
A combination of Sampaoli's system, some emerging stars and his ability to place departed players with both diamonds in the rough and up-and-coming youngsters has contributed to the team's success so far. For those unfamiliar with Bielsa's Chile and other instances of the 3-3-1-3/3-4-3 system, it looks like this under Sampaoli.
The right forward, Eduardo Vargas, is the best of the bunch. As a 22-year-old, he's represented Chile seven times, scoring two goals. In the absence of Alexis Sanchez during the first set of CONMEBOL World Cup 2014 qualifying fixtures and going into the November qualifiers, he's been tipped as the man to replace Sanchez on a temporary basis for La Roja. He does not have the raw talent of the Barcelona man, but he is similar in body type and style of play, and is likely to make a fantastic deputy for Sanchez for years to come.
Their playmaker, Gustavo Lorenzetti, is a true diamond in the rough. With the Argentine Primera becoming a more physical league that favors larger playmakers like Ricky Alvarez and Erik Lamela, smaller No. 10s have moved elsewhere to make a career for themselves. He moved to Chilean side Universidad de Concepcion in 2007, making a career move similar to Flamengo's Dario Botinelli, Cruz Azul's 'Chaco' Christian Gimenez, and former Fluminense star Dario Conca. He's settled in wonderfully with La U since making the switch from Universidad de Conception and is just as important to the side as Vargas.
The presence of Vargas and Lorenzetti causes center forward Fransisco Castro to be underrated, but the 21-year-old has quickly established himself as an important part of the side and has already earned two caps for Chile. His work rate from the center forward position is fantastic, giving him value beyond his lethal finishing skills. 'Prince' Charles Aranguiz and wing backs Eugenio Mena and Matias Rodriguez provide a lot in the way of work rate as well, giving the side a fantastic balance.
In addition to getting these players, both new and established to click and play to the best of their abilities, Sampaoli has also done a fantastic job at minimizing the impact from the club's losses. Just months after defensive midfielder Manuel Iturra left, another defensive midfielder, Felipe Seymour, left the team for Genoa in May of 2011. Seymour unquestionably would have been a major key in La U's team going forward, and Sampaoli had to replace him. Apparently, he had an adequate replacement just waiting in his side. That player was just playing a different position.
24-year-old Marcelo Diaz has never had a 'true position', playing all over the pitch. The diminutive midfielder had spent some time in the center prior to this tournament, but was primarily a wide player. He's become the replacement for Seymour, filling in brilliantly in a defensive midfield role that is more demanding than the defensive midfield role often is in other systems. Diaz's ability to easily replace Seymour has to at least be partially credited to Sampaoli, as a drop-off in quality from that position and an increase in goals conceded almost seemed like a foregone conclusion when Seymour exited.
In addition to Seymour and Iturra, La U has also lost Edson Puch to Diego Maradona's fabulously wealthy Al-Wasl team and goalkeeper Miguel Pinto to Club Atlas in Mexico over the last two years. Aranguiz and Jhonny Herrera have replaced them without issue.
And then there's the youngsters. The most heralded of them all is Angelo Henriquez, a 17-year-old striker/winger who was recently handed his first team debut. He's scored three goals in four games for the U-17s and is considered one of the brightest young talents in Chile. He's so widely regarded that Manchester United have reportedly already secured a first option to purchase him.
Henriquez is just one of the talented young players coming through the ranks, though. Key attacking bench player Felipe Gallagos is just 19-years-old, while a half dozen other teenagers have been handed debuts in the past year. La U is a team preparing for the inevitable departure of their stars, and they could be turning into a talent factory on the scale of some of the biggest clubs in Argentina and Brazil. This policy provides just another point of comparison between Sampaoli and Bielsa, who brought a number of unknown young players through the ranks in his time in charge of the Chilean national team.
However, while there are a number of striking similarities between Sampaoli and Bielsa, the most obvious of which is the formation and style of play of their teams, they are not the same manager. Bielsa's nickname is 'El Loco', earned for a variety of reasons. Sampaoli doesn't deserve that tag - or anything similar - partially because he's a less animated than the man he looks up to and his sides are significantly more disciplined.
Universidad de Chile is a more organized team with better positional discipline than Bielsa's Chile side, and the same can be said about La U compared to the current Athletic Bilbao side. However, that could possibly be down to the amount of time that a manager has to work with a national side under most circumstances and the amount of time Bielsa has had with Athletic Bilbao so far. Bielsa hasn't had a long-term role with a club team since 1998, so it's quite possible that discipline will come, but at present Sampaoli's side seems more adept in that regard.
Sampaoli is also not the same manager because he's already 51 years of age. Bielsa took his first managerial job at the age of 34, moved to Espanyol at 42, and became manager of Argentina at 43. Conversely, Sampaoli took his first managerial job at 41 and has yet to manage outside of South America. Perhaps, due to his late start in management and his current age, his chances of making it in Europe are small. However, both Manuel Pellegrini and Luiz Felipe Scolari were in their 50s when they took their first job across the Atlantic.
So, what's next for Sampaoli and La U? The domestic playoffs are a given with the team so far clear at the top of the table, and they will be favorites when they get there. Arsenal di Sarandi is next up in Copa Sundamericana - assuming they don't lose their 4-0 lead - and their defense has been poor this season. The road to the final is paved with average teams for La U, where they will likely face one of the giants of the South American game.
They're going to compete in the 2012 Copa Libertadores, and the bar for success was set just a couple of years ago. A completely different kind of Universidad de Chile side made an impressive run to the semifinals of the 2010 competition, defeating Alianza Lima and Flamengo in the knockout stages.
That team, much like the Peñarol and Cerro Porteño sides that had success in the 2011 edition of Copa Libertadores, was primarily a counter-attacking side. That has proven the recipe for teams outside of Argentina and Brazil to compete for the big boys in South America's premier competition, but Sampaoli's team seem intent on trying something different.
If Universidad de Chile can take down the big sides in Argentina and Brazil in both the Copa Sudamericana and Copa Libertadores while playing with un enganche y tres punta, it will be a fantastic accomplishment. Hopefully, if it happens, it gets people outside of South America talking about the work that Jorge Sampaoli has done, following the principles and system made well-known around the world by Marcelo Bielsa.
North and South American soccer journalist and blogger Nicholas Rosano contributed to this article. Follow him on twitter for his expertise on South America, FMF, and Major League Soccer. Sardines From The Trawler runs Monday through Friday on SB Nation. Miss anything? Check out the archives.