It’s common for young coaches these days to be given the label Bielsaista if they play a certain way – high tempo pressing with a high defensive line, quick vertical short passing in possession with wave after wave of players supporting the attacking movement. Each of these is certainly present in the playing philosophy of the great Marcelo Bielsa. It’s a label that’s been given to coaches like Andre Villas Boas (wrongly) and Southampton coach Mauricio Pochettino who at least played for the Marcelo Bielsa when he was at Newell’s Old Boys. Arguably though there is one coach in football that truly deserves the label Bielsaista – Jorge Sampaoli, coach of Chile.
After Bielsa left Chile there was a brief relatively unsuccessful period under Claudio Borghi before the Chilean FA decided to return to the tactical principles of Marcelo Bielsa as such Universidad De Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli was approached and appointed coach.
With Sampaoli in charge Chile qualified comfortably for the World Cup in Brazil this summer and in recent friendlies against European opposition in England and Germany they have exhibited familiar and extremely exciting tactical characteristics.
In this article I will examine the three main tactical themes of a side coached by Jorge Sampaoli. First we will look at the way they press, secondly we will see the moment of transition from defence to attack and lastly we will look at movement in the attacking phase and in particular the use of overloads to overwhelm the opposition. To look at these properly I will use examples both from Chile themselves but also going further back to look at Sampaoli’s time in charge of Universidad De Chile.
Sampaoli likes his teams to press in a very high block, characteristically he plays with three advanced players although there are various permutations of this and occasional the central player will drop in to a slightly deeper position allowing the wide players to cut inside and make horizontal runs in behind the defence.
There are three specific pressing triggers which are clear to see 1.) The ball is played to a centreback who is facing his own goal 2.) The ball is played to a player against the sideline and 3.) A difficult bouncing ball is played to a player facing his own goal in the mid section of the pitch. When any of these triggers are activated Sampaoli instructs his players to press quickly and in numbers, there is a tendency for the first three players to pressure the ball and for another 2 or 3 players to hold off slightly adding depth to the press and preventing an easy pass out.
This is illustrated perfectly by the image above. The ball is played in at chest height – a difficult ball to control and immediately three U. De Chile players press. In the area highlighted in red there are two more supporting players closing off passing angles both vertically and horizontally.
This time we can see the match between Germany and Chile recently. The press is triggered when the ball is played to a player against the touchline. As you can see the press is right in the German half and 5 Chilean players look to press and cut off passing angles. there are three distinct zones in the above example and each one is being pressed to bring around a turnover in possession.
Again in this example the ball is being pressed against the touchline. It’s interesting to note the positioning of the Chilean players as the most advanced player is not involved in the initial press but does shift position to cut off an obvious passing option – this has the added benefit of meaning he will be available and in a close position should the ball be won and the phase transition in to attack.
This time the press is slightly different. The player in possession is still challenged but this time he has two easy short passing options. Not the way that the Chilean players are immediately in position to cut off these passing options and they even have single spare man (X) who is positioned intelligently to be able to press any of the three players should they be in possession of the ball.
Finally we can see another press in the match against Germany. The trigger is an awkward pass being played in to a central position with the player facing his own goal. The initial press comes from the players in the zone highlighted white. There are three supporting players in the red zone that can either press the ball or cut off passing options. Finally the positioning of the deeper player is very interesting as he is positioned to support the press or shift angle should the player escape.
Pressing is without a doubt very important in the modern game and Sampaoli uses pressing to both make up for defensive deficiencies and ensure that his side are on the front foot as much as possible. Equally important though is what happened when the ball is recovered and Chile transition from defence to attack.
In modern football transitions have become an important part of tactical gameplans. How you plan to capitalise on the few seconds in which your opponent is out of position and having to recover a defensive position while you attack is essential. For the most part Sampaoli as with Bielsa favours a very quick transition with the ball being moved quickly and vertically although not with long high balls but rather with a succession of short sharp passes moving the ball up the pitch. This is enabled by the positioning of players in close connection to one another so that they are ready to take possession in transition and change the angle of the attacking move quickly. This close connection not only gives depth in the attacking transition but also in the defensive press.
Here the player in the centre of the web is the one that will take possession as Chile win the ball and they transition in to the attack phase. He immediately has three short passing options as players are in close support and there are another three slightly longer and more dangerous passes that he could make. This positioning and the options it gives make it very difficult for the opposition to launch an immediate counter press and have it be successful.
Once again the player taking possession as Chile win the ball back is the player in the centre of the web. This time he has two short passes open given the close connections offered by team-mates. There are three more passes open although it is rare that a Sampaoli side will choose to play the ball backwards in this situation. The two longer advanced passes are unopposed and should have a high success rate, this tends to be the option that is chosen.
Transitions are very important but not every quick transition can lead to a change on goal. Instead when in en established attacking phase Sampaoli likes to give the opposition problems with movement both from his attacking players and players moving from deep to support the attack.
Movement is an essential part of Chile under Sampaoli and at times the attacking move can resemble organised chaos. Wide forwards are free to either attack infield or hold the width of the pitch either making space for advancing midfielders in the central zone or for wing backs that are attacking along the wide line. Midfielders and especially Arturo Vidal will move beyond the strikers attacking space and creating marking issues for the opposition. Overloads are also used regularly with players moving in and out of the wide areas to create 2 on 1’s and allow penetrative passes and runs.
Above there is already an overload in effect as the ball is played out to the free player on the left wing. He moves inside mirroring the movement of the player in the inside left half space and the space is emptied for the left wing back who is arriving at space to attack the empty space and he is played in behind the defence.
This time I’ve capture and attacking movement from Universidad De Chile that led to a goal. The ball is played to the marked player on the inside left of the penalty area, he has already moved in from the left wing earlier in the move and the space is empty allowing an easy pass to be played to the on rushing midfielder who carries the ball to the touchline this movement draws the entire defence over to neutralise the threat and allows the far side attacking player to drift to the far post for an easy tap in when the ball is crossed.
This image is captured from the recent England Vs Chile friendly and Chile are in the attacking phase. The player in possession is moving forward backing down the highlighted England defender. The two advanced attackers make short diagonal runs, the far side player moves the English supporting defenders out creating space for the deep midfielder whilst the near side attacking player means that the single England defender has to cover two separate runs.
Finally Chile have the ball in the wide left area, the highlighted area is a half space that offers options in terms of movement and passing angles and it’s attacked by the near side player. The two players further over attack zones of their own and the German defence is pulled apart as they can’t defend movement at so many angles and depths.
These are only three aspects of the obviously more complex tactical variations offered by Chile under Jorge Sampaoli. For me though these are three of the key aspects that make them so interesting to watch.