What is it with this Universidad de Chile side? 25 games unbeaten, a Chilean record broken for consecutive minutes without conceding in international competition, a 4-0 destruction of Flamengo in Brazil and on Sunday in the Superclásico rescuing a draw in the 101st minute despite playing the whole of the second half with not eleven, not ten but nine men. And I haven’t mentioned the talent in the team or the vibrancy in the side’s play.
Now – thanks to a hard-fought performance – the club’s first ever competitive win on Argentine soil.
Arsenal are the antithesis of their English namesake; set up in a 4-4-1-1 shape they favour a direct approach, two traditional wingers in Diego Torres and Juan Pablo Caffa supporting a front two of Emilio Zelaya and the target-man and focal point of the Arsenal attack Mauro Obolo, charged with holding the ball up. The midfield base of Jorge Ortíz and Iván Marcone play a simple game, if one goes forward to support the other stays to protect the defence; essential with the forward runs of both full-backs.
By now we all know how Universidad de Chile like to play; a fast possession based game, suiting their diminutive personnel while putting pressure on the opposition when out of possession. The starting line-up was identical to the one which started away to Flamengo. However Matías Rodríguez was pushed into a more advanced role down the left, making a 3-1-3-1-2 almost as you can see from the formation diagram.
The performance was unlike the one in Brazil the previous round; Arsenal not allowing the plethora of attacking talent – which La U possess – the space in which they can run rings around the opposition. Instead they were drawn into a battle that got feisty and niggly as the game wore on.
The Argentines immediately set about putting the back three of La U under pressure. As U. de Chile coach, Jorge Sampaoli, predicted pre-match Arsenal would be dangerous from set-pieces, and after two minutes Jhonny Herrera had to make a point blank save to deny centre-back Lisandro López.
The home side were the first to settle into any sort of rhythm, enforcing the way they wanted to play rather than be dictated by Los Azules quick passing and moving. La U seemed uncertain and a bit shaken and Arsenal can take credit for that. In the match with Flamengo , La U’s players were not pressed and harassed when in possession allowing Gustavo Lorenzetti to thrive and pick passes. Here though, Arsenal put pressure on the back three as they tried to play from the back with Zelaya tracking Marcelo Díaz forcing La U to revert to longer, ineffectual passes. When the away side were in advanced positions with the ball, Arsenal retreated to the edge of the box, nullifying the space and making it tremendously difficult for La U.
Universidad de Chile had stretched the play against Flamengo, exploiting space when it became available but they struggled to do so against Arsenal. Left-back Cristián Trombetta was similarly progressive as Fla’s left-back Júnior Cesar. Yet Eduardo Vargas, Charles Aránguiz, Rodríguez et al. could not take advantage. Crredit has to go to the two screening midfielders who provided significant cover.
Trombetta was becoming ever more effective in La U’s half. Happy to leave Vargas to the central defenders, he forced Rodríguez back to a full-back role as he linked effectively with Caffa. And Caffa should have opened the scoring. Competent at going down the line or coming inside off the left flank he linked with Obolo who played a perfect cross on to Caffa’s head, but a lack of conviction sent the ball wide. A role reversal and it would have been a goal.
Rather than looking to play the ball up to the forwards La U realised that they could utilise the pace of the forwards, notably Vargas, to take advantage of Arsenal’s high line when they pressurised the Chileans defence and play balls in behind to turn the home defence. Already Rojas had released Vargas twice from deep. This time Aránguiz dropped deeper, turned quickly knocking a ball over the defence, positioned a yard off the half-way line, for the whippet, Vargas, to run on to, skip past the onrushing Cristián Campestrini and finish into the empty net.
Question marks were rightly raised by Arsenal’s players over the non-appearance of the near-side linesman’s flag; Vargas looked to be in an offside position.
Unlike the start of the first-half where Arsenal should have scored, they DID score two minutes after the restart. Arsenal came out of the blocks positively again and applied significant pressure outside the away side’s box to win the ball back, left-back Trombetta sliding a ball through to Caffa who delivered a perfect ball, just out of the reach of Herrera, for Obolo to tap in.
Moments later it should have been two through the same combo. Caffa, using his pace to create space, delivered another sweet cross between goalkeeper and defence but this time Obolo could only volley straight at Herrera.
The goal visibly rattled La U. And there was enough concern for Sampaoli to withdraw Rodríguez who struggled with the Trombetta, Caffa combination and replace him with the club’s record signing, Gustavo Canales. Aránguiz moved to the right with Canales up front and Lorenzetti in a deeper midfield position. Canales offers a bigger presence in attack, Sampaoli clearly recognising their normal game was too ineffective.
The game became scrappy, both sides conceding silly free-kicks, players going to ground easy and a general poor quality of play.
Universidad de Chile would have been more than content at travelling back to Santiago with a 1-1 draw, but their home journey got much better ten minutes from time. Canales pulled left to pick up possession before skipping past two challenges and drawing a foul on the edge of the six-yard box. I say drawing the foul as there was minimal contact, if any at all. Canales, who has struggled since moving from Unión Española, stepped up himself and made no mistake from 12 yards – a welcome goal to celebrate his call-up to the national team in place of the injured Mauricio Pinilla.
Despite making changes in personnel, rather than formation Arsenal could not find a way back into the match.
It wasn’t a typical Universidad de Chile performance; they struggled to assert themselves they way they like, instead getting dragged into a battle with a competent and well-drilled Arsenal side, both goals coming when they were not the dominant side. Gustavo Lorenzetti was squeezed out of the game, unable to play neat passes to Castro and Vargas. It speaks volumes of the side however that on one of their poorer days they can still travel to Argentina and win a crucial match. An indication that they can play conservatively and efficiently.
Arsenal will probably be wondering quite how they got beat. Obolo proved a nuisance for the centre-backs while Caffa and Torres offered width and penetration with support from the full-backs, looking to get the ball into the box as quickly as possible. They may look at two decisions for the goals which could, and maybe should, have gone their way.
Back in Santiago La U should be able to impose their way of playing, putting Arsenal under pressure like they didn’t do on Thursday. They will need to be wary of the aerial threat Obolo possesses and the quality supply from Caffa. With that they need to make sure they cut out giving away silly free-kicks around the box.
Advantage Universidad de Chile.