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With such fine margins between Chile and Argentina in Saturday’s Copa America, it has been too easy to point to Gonzalo Higuain’s missed chance at the death, Argentina’s horrendous penalties or Gerardo Martino’s bizarre substitution patterns as deciding factors. While each of those three elements certainly had their role to play, for a game to have ended scoreless after 120 minutes with some of the world’s best attacking players on the pitch, how each manager strove to limit the opposition is perhaps more germane and revealing. After all, stopping Lionel Messi and Alexis Sanchez was a fruitless pursuit for most of La Liga and the Premier League’s top tacticians this season; how Martino and his counterpart Jorge Sampaoli managed it with a major title on the line certainly must be of some interest.
Chile: (3-4-1-2) Bravo; Silva, Diaz, Medel; Isla, Aranguiz, Vidal, Beausejour; Valdivia; Sanchez, Vargas
Argentina: (4-2-3-1) Romero; Zabaleta, Demichelis, Otamendi, Rojo; Mascherano, Biglia; Messi, Pastore, Di Maria (Lavezzi); Aguero
Chile decided to go with a back three, not entirely surprising given the fact that it would give the defense what was effectively an extra man to shackle Messi. What was somewhat of a shock, however, was the identity of the three, as all are more generally employed as defensive midfielders for their clubs, as they display the doggedness and tackling ability necessary for harrying opposing attackers, but lack the size one usually associates with the position. Granted, Gary Medel has played throughout the tournament at centre back, but Marcelo Diaz generally operated as a part of the midfield. However, the third centre back, Francisco Silva, was seeing his first action of the tournament, having not played for Chile since the team’s loss to Brazil in World Cup 2014. In addition to this level of positional unfamiliarity, none of the trio is taller than 5′ 10″, meaning that the likes of their opposite numbers, Martin Dimichelis and Nicolas Otamendi, as well as left back Marcos Rojo would become that much more dangerous at set pieces.
For Martino, meanwhile, the inclusion of Dimichelis over Ezequiel Garay was also somewhat of a surprise. While certainly an experienced campaigner at the top level, Dimichelis at 34 has begun to lose a step or two, and the prospect of the likes of Sanchez running at the Manchester City man on the day must surely have been cause for nerves on the part of Argentina’s supporters when the line-ups were revealed.
Both managers were redeemed as regards their selection, however, as Chile’s back three made good despite their size. As natural midfielders, the trio are much better than typical centre backs with the ball at their feet and as passers. With Arturo Vidal and Charles Aranguiz also often dropping back to aid in defense, rather than uncultured centre backs aimlessly hoofing the ball up the pitch under pressure, the back line was able to build play from the back. Too, the similarities in the three’s physical and positional sensibilities also allowed an ease of versatility that was integral to tracking the danger from runs posed by the likes of Messi and Sergio Aguero, as they were easily able to trade off assignments were one of them to be beaten.
Quickly switching between offense and defense as Chile built possession or hoped to spring Sanchez or Eduardo Vargas, the trio’s work-rate throughout was tremendous, managing to be sufficiently aggressive to upset Argentina’s attacking ethos but not so physical as to get sent off, a real concern as all three had picked up bookings in the first half. Often able to gain a moment’s respite via this supposedly makeshift back line, Chile were thus able to maintain their defensive shape and halt the runs of Messi and Javier Pastore, with Aguero all but invisible on the night. When Gonzalo Higuain replaced Aguero, Chile looked a bit more open, but the Napoli striker’s toothless display meant that, with a bit of luck and the right amount of positional flexibility, Sampaoli’s three-man gambit was a success.
For Argentina, the inclusion of Demichelis over the younger and faster Garay was also, as previously stated, a fairly big risk. With the lightning pace of Sanchez and Vargas in scintillating form, the prospect of a slow-footed centre back was daunting indeed. However, by packing the midfield with the defensively oriented pair of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Biglia, the back line enjoyed plenty of support, especially as Pablo Zabaleta rarely got forward, most attacking impetus coming from the left as Rojo and Lavezzi drove forward. Even Messi and Pastore got in on the act, the latter doing a fine impression of his best performances at PSG, consistently tracking back to shackle Vidal and Aranguiz.
As impressively as the pair worked, however, for all of their tracking back, they were also somewhat exhausted by their efforts. So concerned were the two, especially once the swanning Ezequiel Lavezzi had replaced the more resolute Angel Di Maria midway through the first half, with their defensive duties that their dribbles and passing seemed to just lack that little bit of cleverness that would normally take them past their opponents. To be sure, Messi was instrumental in generating a host of chances via free kicks, but in terms of creating chances, the two made just one key pass each, a disappointing return knowing the duo’s creative abilities. With the pair thus limited, the attacking phase of Argentina’s game was thoroughly stifled, the dangerous Aguero starved for service despite his best efforts.
However, for a 0-0 to be played out, both sides need to have their best talent preoccupied with defending. While Arturo Vidal suffered through a campaign slightly below his best for Juventus this year, there was no question after his magisterial performance against Mexico the danger that the player could pose for opponents. We know the relatively static play-making abilities of Jorge Valdivia, the marauding runs of Jean Beausejour and the trickery of Alexis Sanchez, but of all of Chile’s attacking options, Vidal is by far the most difficult player to “legislate” for, as his role in central midfield means that he is rarely far from the action.
With Vidal often the leader in touches taken, his passing ability key to getting the ball to Valdivia in places where the no 10 can do his damage, if Argentina were to frustrate Chile in attack, the easiest way to do that was to limit the player who serves as a conduit between attack and defense. With that in mind, Pastore and Messi were, as mentioned, instrumental in harassing the Juventus man, each recording three tackles, good for second on the team behind Rojo. Vidal, who never stopped running in an effort to find space, still managed to get away the odd shot, but these efforts were either from a distance insufficient to trouble Sergio Romero or he had done so much running to put himself in position that he was unable to unleash his shot with the requisite power. As much as Messi and Pastore stuttered in attack, their defensive work was perhaps even more important on the night, given the positions in which Vidal often found himself.
With Vidal so limited, his fellow central midfielder Charles Aranguiz was given, if not full reign, something close to it. Ineffective and uninvolved in the match’s first half hour, the introduction of Lavezzi for Di Maria afforded the Internacional player piles of space as the holding pair of Biglia and Mascherano were otherwise occupied. With Messi and Pastore doing their best to assume responsibility for the player, but Vidal their prime concern, their effectiveness in this regard was likewise limited. But as Argentina needed to attack, the effectiveness of Aranguiz was effectively doubled when Marcos Rojo bombed on in attack.
While a player with the close dribbling ability and strength of Sanchez is always going to be difficult with which to contend, in a loosely called contest, the Arsenal player didn’t always get the calls which he wanted, somewhat limiting his importance. Thus, with dribbling less of an option to generate attacking opportunities, passing would become key, and Aranguiz rose to the challenge, completing the most passes of any non-defender at a fantastic 90.3%. Crosses, through balls, and over the top, Aranguiz constantly kept the Argentines at bay by doing his best to release Vidal and Sanchez into space or pick them out with a teasing ball, linking the back three with the attack with an understated grace. While their legginess and the fine defending of Argentina meant that Chile’s overall effectiveness in attack wasn’t exactly exquisite, by keying on Sanchez and Vidal, La Albiceleste consequently opened themselves up for attacks through Aranguiz, and had Chile’s pressing game not exhausted its players, the match may have been settled in regular time.
All told, the match was less than enthralling, as a highly energetic start soon gave way to a chippy encounter, both sets of players exhausted not only by their styles but also by a long season and whirlwind tournament. Defending was always going to rule the day in a match both sides were afraid to lose, and while the casual fan may have wanted to see more goals, the graft and cohesion on display in Santiago on Saturday were impressive indeed. Even with Martino’s poor choices regarding personnel at later moments, both he and Sampaoli did well to set their sides up for a slog, and each was duly rewarded.
Written by Eric Devin