You wonder what Marcelo Bielsa must think of it all. In 2011 the two most successful club sides in the world have been Barcelona and Universidad de Chile. Both play hard pressing, attacking football, often going with three at the back. In other words, they both play Bielsista football – which raises the question of why the man himself is leading Athletic Bilbao to upper mid-table in Spain rather than managing one of the continent’s giants.

It is probably that he is too idealistic and unable to deal with the politicking and compromises necessary for those in charge of the biggest organisations – something he perhaps demonstrated by his troubled handling of Juan Roman Riquelme when in charge of Argentina’s national team. His theories, however, have taken root and are starting to dominate the world game.

Although Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona remain a side that draws its basic principles from Rinus Michels, Johan Cruyff and the Dutch school of the early 1970s, the radicalism of late is derived from a fusion of the Bielsista and totaalvoetbal models.

The use of a midfielder, in Sergio Busquets, in the defensive line to initiate attacks is a classic Bielsa ploy – he is doing the same with Javi Martinez at Athletic – as is the principle that the key battles should, as far as possible, be conducted in the opponent’s territory.

Varied and effective

Universidad de Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli is an out-and-out disciple of Bielsa. His basic model is a 3-4-3, with striker Eduardo Vargas (now with Napoli) cutting in from the right. Where Sampaoli stands out, though, is in his tweaks for individual games, which have been extraordinarily varied and highly effective.

Perhaps the most striking was the away game at Flamengo in the last 16 of the Sudamericana Cup. La U lined up with a back four, with two highly attacking full-backs in Matias Rodriguez and Jose Rojas, and the holding midfielder, Marcelo Diaz, sitting deep to cover. Vargas’ habit of drifting in from the right flank placed him in exactly the area to exploit a 4-2-2-2 such as that played by the Brazilian side, making the most of the space, in the area behind the attacking full-back Junior Cesar, who is forced to get forward to provide width in what is otherwise a very narrow system.

Seemingly petrified of Vargas’ pace, Flamengo sat deep, which gave Gustavo Lorenzetti, the Chilean side’s playmaker, time and space, something augmented by the fact that, with Eugenio Mena and Charles Aranguiz to support him, La U had an extra man
in central midfield.

With full-back Rojas so attacking – he scored the opening goal from an attack channelled through Vargas’ exploitation of the space behind Junior Cesar – there was perhaps a risk that Thiago Neves would be insufficiently looked after, but that’s one of the subsidiary advantages of the high press: the game simply took place in another part of the pitch, restricted almost entirely to Flamengo territory.

La U won 4-0, but their domination was even more complete than that.

The same personnel started the quarter-final away to Arsenal de Sarandi, but Rojas was used as a third centre-back, with Mena taking on the wing-back role on the left flank. That meant the shape was effectively a 3-4-1-2, but with Diaz dropping deep to pick
up Arsenal’s Emilio Zelaya.

Away to Vasco da Gama in the first leg of the semi-final, La U used a lopsided 3-4-3, but lost control of the midfield. Sampaoli was preparing a change as Vasco took the lead after 33 minutes, but his switch, taking off Lorenzetti, who had looked lost in a deeper midfield role, to bring on Rodriguez and shift the more naturally deep-lying Aranguiz into the middle, turned the game, and his side found an equaliser 11 minutes from time.

Before the first leg of the Final, away to LDU Quito, the suggestion was that Sampaoli would opt for a comparatively defensive approach and play a 4-4-2. When his line-up was confirmed an hour before kick-off the assumption still was that La U would be playing 4-4-2. On the pitch, though, it soon became apparent that Albert Acevedo, who replaced the forward Francisco Castro, was playing not as a centre-back but just in front of the back three.

That may not sound like much, but it gave Sampaoli’s side two clear advantages. For one thing, it meant Acevedo could pick up Ezequiel Gonzalez, LDU’s playmaker. It also meant that La U’s two wing-backs, Rodriguez and Rojas, could play higher up the pitch and so engage LDU’s wing-backs in their own half, again conducting the battle in opposition territory. La U weren’t as emphatic as they had been in earlier rounds, but their 1-0 win – secured as Vargas, cutting in from the right, latched on to a Diaz through ball – was comfortable enough.

They completed the job with a comfortable 3-0 win at home, becoming the first Chilean side to win a continental competition in 20 years. More than that, though, they did it in what is becoming recognised as the characteristic Chilean style. Bielsa’s time as national coach brought some fine performances and made Chile a side neutrals wanted to watch, but it also implanted a philosophy. It is that harvest that La U and Sampaoli are reaping.

By Jonathan Wilson

Here’s a compilation of clips showing Universidad de Chile’s triumphant Sudamericana Cup campaign.

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  • Guilherme Larangeira

    Jonathan,
    I´m a reader of your Inv Pyramid. Here´s a question. Why then, is Bielsa always getting thrashed by more solid conventional sides, like Dunga´s Brazil etc etc?