Pace, width, relentless pressing; Qualities that had been missing in Chile’s fall to Ecuador in the previous match. But against Argentina the Chile of old was evident, right down to the defensive deficiencies that ultimately cost La Roja a crucial point (or three) in the race to qualify for Brazil 2014.
The opening 45 minutes were chaotic and frantic, 100mph and end-to-end; football on amphetamines. Chile attacked, Argentina attacked, Chile attacked, Chile attacked, Argentina attacked and so on. It was one of those games I feared to look away to make notes on the match without missing anything.
Yet, even after such an explosive and positive opening Chile ended the game pointless, undone by their profligacy and Argentina’s ruthlessness. La Roja had chances, good chances, to go in front through Gary Medel, Sebastián Pinto and Mark González, but were hit by two sucker-punches before half-time; a coolly taken Lionel Messi goal and a ferocious individual goal from Gonzalo Higuaín.
Borghi’s side tried to find a way back into the game in the second half but could not break down an obdurate Argentina defence until it was too late.
With Osvaldo González and Pablo Contreras suspended and José Rojas injured Chile were missing their (likely) back three. So with options limited Borghi partnered the versatile Gonzalo Jara with Marcos González; Jean Beausejour dropped to left-back and Mauricio Isla to right-back. However it would transpire that neither full-back would play conservatively.
Gary Medel, Marcelo Díaz and Mark González were a midfield three; Díaz the defensive of the three with Medel’s energetic running the link and González playing wider and higher to the left. This left a front three of Alexis Sánchez, given freedom to come in from the right, Matías Fernández and Sebastián Pinto, who would drop left without the ball as González slotted into a more central midfield role.
Argentina was similar to how they played against Uruguay, but Hugo Campagnaro replaced Marcos Rojo and Pablo Zabaleta moved to left-back – he did not provide the attacking runs that Rojo had done in Friday’s game.
What Argentina’s attacking quartet lacked in width, they made up for in movement and fluidity as we will soon find out.
Chile’s Positive Start
In the previous game Chile started well, but it lasted merely minutes. Last night however they forced their game on Argentina; Pinto, Sánchez and Fernández pressed high onto Argentina’s back four forcing Sergio Romero to kick long. This set the precedent for the first half an hour.
The front three were supported by the industrious Medel who would become a fourth forward when pressing but as soon as he was wrong side of the ball he’d quickly drop back, goal side and get close to Messi. Defensively, Chile were 4-3-3ish with the full-backs pushed high as Chile squeezed the game giving Argentina little space to play in front of the defence.
The game was played as if someone had their hand down on the Sky+ fast-forward button; x30. Argentina did fire an early warning shot as to say, ‘this is what you should expect when you give us, especially Messi, space to run into’. Picking the ball up in the Chile half he left players for dead before slipping the ball to Ángel di María but the Real Madrid player was wasteful.
That did little other than force Chile further forward in droves. The centre-backs were only really up against one direct opponent, Gonzalo Higuaín, so both full-backs pushed high up the pitch. Mauricio Isla played the role of full-back, wing-back, winger and wide forward. He was never tracked by di María and was often unopposed in and around the Argentina final third. He enjoyed a partnership with Sánchez similar to that of Matías Rodríguez and Eduardo Vargas at Universidad de Chile; Sánchez took up central positions, creating room for Isla to fly down the right while still offering up the opportunity of a “uno-dos”. Zabaleta was non-existent for the most of the first half – getting dragged inside by the movement of Sánchez – as Isla zipped crosses into the six yard box; Mark González going closest to scoring with a header at the back post, beaten away by Romero.
On the opposite flank González stayed wider but still linked with Beausejour who was much more involved in comparison to the game in Quito. As soon as the Wigan player entered the final third González’s movement took him inside so to not congest the wide areas for Beausejour. Two crosses from Beausejour should have been finished by Gary Medel; one before the Argentina’s goals and one before half-time. The first saw Medel collect a cut-back but shoot straight at Romero before Pinto blazed over. In the second instance Medel took too long to get his shot away and was tackled by the backtracking di María.
Chile should have made more of Medel’s forward runs as he was seldom tracked by Javier Macherano as the Barcelona player shifted right to support Fernando Gago in his efforts to protect Argentina’s right-side.
Defensive Downfall/Argentina Artistry
The problem with high-tempo football and pressing is that it is energy-sapping; it’s difficult to keep up for a sustained period let alone the 90 minutes. Just before 30 minutes elapsed Argentina were ahead against the run of play.
Having not won the ball back high up the pitch Chile dropped deeper and attempted to shut of Argentina’s passing into the front three or four. With no pressure on the ball Chile were susceptible to deliveries from deep, especially when a player of Fernando Gago’s quality is in possession, and so it proved. When he received possession Chile’s defence must have thought they were comfortable. Yet Higuaín made a dart away from goal taking Jara and González, who followed his centre-back partner, with him. Neither of Chile’s full-backs – both of which don’t play at full-back regularly – read the danger allowing Gago to expertly pick out the run of the onside Lionel Messi. Messi was closed down quickly but with the ball glued to his boot, swivelled and fired past Miguel Pinto.
One became two three minutes later. La Albiceleste eventually noticed that direct passes behind the defence or into the flanks would provide their best avenues to punish this Chile side, resulting in both Sergio Agüero and Higuaín moving left and right respectively. It was the latter who would add the second; di María’s cross field ball finding the Real Madrid striker in the right channel. Skipping into the box with ease he unleashed a shot into the far top corner. Batigol would be proud.
Looking at Argentina’s set-up without Rojo, they are a very narrow side. But when your attackers are of the quality of Messi, Agüero, Higuaín et al. it is less of a problem due to their innate quality and intelligence to realise opposition’s strengths and weaknesses.
The game could have been put to bed before half-time as both Agüero and di María had good chances, exposing the space available around and behind the Chile defence. Watching Argentina pick Chile’s defence apart with ease reminded me of Gary Neville’s criticisms of Manchester United’s full-backs in their defeat to Tottenham Hotspur. Fans watching the game are likely to come to the conclusion that Jara and González had really poor games – they certainly didn’t cover themselves in glory – but they were not helped by their full-backs who attacked at will but could not or did not get back quick enough to make the Chile back four a tighter defensive unit.
The second half was a more sedate affair with a number of stop-start periods due to niggly fouls and substitutions.
Chile had an early chance when Pinto headed over the bar. Sánchez again was prominent drifting in from the right, dribbling past players who had shifted over to stop him and passing to Beausejour who had space and time down the left to cross for Pinto.
Higuaín was then replaced by the fearsome looking Pablo Guiñazú. Despite looking like he should be starring as a baddy in a mediocre US cop show Guiñazu slotted into left-midfield with di María going right and Argentina switching to a 4-4-2.
Eduardo Vargas and Felipe Gutiérrez were brought on for Chile but struggled to make an impact before it was too late. Argentina had two banks of four and remained tight and compact, meaning a lot of lateral movement for Chile, both in terms of players and passes.
The Argentina back four are not the quickest and made sure they were never turned by passes or long balls. Chile had few opportunities to counter-attack as the two Argentine full-backs were cautious and were now protected by two wide midfielders, finally putting a stop to Chile’s wing-threat.
Argentina, with Messi still in attack, remained a danger on the counter-attack; Pinto denying Messi with a save to his left.
A fine move in injury time set up Gutiérrez for a consolation, but La Roja needed it to arrive at least five minutes earlier.
A much improved performance from Chile as they looked to expose the weaknesses in the Argentina team, namely the two full-backs. Through combinations down the flanks, Isla-Sánchez and Beausejour-González, and intense pressing they overpowered Argentina creating presentable chances that should have been converted, creating an altogether different game.
With little width it too Argentina slightly longer to attack the faults in the Chile line-up, but thanks to the movement from the front players and passing quality from deep Argentina did what Chile couldn’t: Score.
Chile was clearly hurt by the lack of defensive options, opting for a back four with two attacking full-backs; a risky strategy that did not pay off.
La Roja now have seven games to reach Brazil; at the very least they need 14 points. To do so they require José Rojas in the centre of defence and for their players at Europe’s top teams to raise their game from good to great.