Chile have been one of the most exciting sides in this World Cup. They’ve played with a wonderfully aggressive style that dominated Australia and then eliminated Spain, the defending champions, far earlier than anyone predicted.
For all the press their attack gets, and rightfully so with the show Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas have put on, the defense is the most fascinating thing about how Chile plays. Despite varying formations, despite a shutout of one of the world’s best sides, despite impressive showings when actually defending, one thing stands out above all the rest for Chile: they have yet to use a single actual central defender.
In fact, the defense that Chile’s coach, Jorge Sampaoli, is using is so completely unorthodox that he only has one “real” center back on his entire roster, Jose Rojas of Universidad de Chile, and he hasn’t played a minute yet in the World Cup. Instead, he’s using defensive midfielders with a high motor and positional intelligence to get the job done, and so far they’ve acquitted themselves extremely well.
How Chile are defending without defenders
The onus of making this system work lies on the shoulders of Gary Medel of Cardiff City and Gonzalo Jara of Nottingham Forest. Both are primarily defensive mids, but both can operate in defense in a pinch, though Jara has mostly played at right back when moved back. The duo have been all over the defensive half of the pitch, pushing up and wide as much as they’ve been in the middle, and spending a lot of time overlapping and working with the defensive mids ahead of them, mostly Charles Aranguiz and Marcelo Diaz.
They’ve also been joined by Francisco Silva on the back line for the Spain match and part of the match against Holland. Silva is another more defensively-minded midfielder who has next to no experience on the back line, but working on the right side of a back three he’s used his ability to read the runs and passing options of his opponents to cut off and disrupt attacks. He’s worked effectively with Medel next to him and getting occasional support from Mauricio Isla’s wingback position, and this three “defender” setup is one we could see more of from Chile, especially against Brazil in the next round.
The key to making this work for Chile isn’t just in having midfielders adjust to being the deepest outfielders on the pitch. Medel, Jara, and Silva have also been heavily involved in Chile’s build-up play, with Medel in particular seeing a lot of the ball, including a crazy 120 touches against the Netherlands. With their reduced ability to fend off a sustained attack, winning back and keeping the ball is vital to Chile, and that trio, working in concert with Chile’s wingbacks and midfield, have done an impressive job of jealously guarding the ball.
Sampaoli deserves a lot of credit for taking such a crazy idea and making it work. In a way, the whole system is a vague nod to Total Football, the system once engineered by Ajax and the Dutch national side and rarely used successfully elsewhere, but with its own special bit of Latin American flair. As the saying goes, it’s only crazy if it doesn’t work; by that definition, this definitely has been more genius than insanity.