Joel Sked with the skinny on Universidad de Chile and a true perfectionist.
In the presence of more illustrious South American nations - Brazil’s financial strength allowing clubs to compete with their European counterparts, Argentina’s continued production of the world’s most sought after forwards and Uruguay’s successful national team, reaching the World Cup semi-final and winning the Copa America in the last 18 months with a population similar to Wales – Chilean football is silently flourishing. Or it was, until Universidad de Chile, known as La U, decided to attract attention to the west coast of South America by creating history and breaking records, all while playing some of the most exciting football in world football.
On the 15th of December they won their first international trophy in their first ever final; defeating LDU Quito of Ecuador 3-0 in Santiago, following up their 1-0 success in Ecuador the week previous, to lift the Copa Sudamericana, becoming the first Chilean side to do so.
Not that long ago one of Chile’s most iconic clubs fell on hard times, falling into bankruptcy in 2006 before being taken over a year later by a private consortium called Azul Azul.
Now, four years later, the team have just won the Torneo Clausura (Closing Tournament) completing an unprecedented treble with the Copa Sudamericana and Torneo Apertura (Opening Tournament) already in the trophy cabinet, helped by a mammoth 36 game unbeaten run which came to an end in the dying seconds of the Clausura play-off semi-final with rivals Universidad Católica with La U already through. And much of the transformation can be put down to one man, Argentine coach Jorge Sampaoli who took over for the start of the 2011 Torneo Apertura. With a reputation as a Marcelo Bielsa disciple he began, like Bielsa did, managing the youth teams of Newell’s Old Boys. However it was outside his country of birth that he got his break in management.
A five year stay in Peru saw Sampaoli take in spells with differing success at Juan Aurich, Sport Boys, Coronel Bolognesi and Sporting Cristal before his first job in Chile with O’Higgins. He took the modest Rancagua side to three consecutive play-off tournaments and qualification to the Copa Sudamericana. Ignored by clubs in his homeland and Brazil his success with La Celeste alerted Ecuador’s Emelec. In his year in charge of El Bombillo he overcame doubts from fans and media, leading the team to an opening championship win and into the two-legged grand final against none other than LDU. Even though they lost the final they took their place in the 2010 Copa Sudamericana and 2011 Copa Liberatadores.
Yet an opportunity arose back in Chile with Universidad de Chile. The club had won only one Apertura Championship since 2004 and the fans wanted a big name to lead their club. Ex- Argentina midfielder and former Catania manager Diego Simeone was among those shortlisted but Sampaoli was appointed. The appointment left the Azul Azul fans underwhelmed but the directors bought into his vision for the club.
A positive start – four wins and a draw from his first five games – was not enough for fans who had labelled Sampaoli as ‘El Bielsa de los Pobres (‘The Bielsa of the poor’). Some did not take to the way he re-shaped the team with a number of players including the experience and quality of Manuel Iturra, Walter Montillo, Miguel Pinto and Rafael Olarra moving on; players who were the hallmark of the clubs run to the semi-finals of the Copa Liberatadores in 2010.
But Sampaoli had a plan. He always has a plan. He soon brought back goalkeeper Jhonny Herrera and defender Marcos González to the club along with Albert Acevedo, Charles Aránguiz and striker Gustavo Canales on a club record-breaking deal – £825,000 – from Unión Española while promoting and playing young talent already at the club.
Relegating club icons like Diego Rivarola to a bit-part role frustrated fans but it would be easier for the Argentine to impart his philosophy into the squad with younger, less experienced players; a Bielsa theory. Sampaoli led his new team to instant success; second in the Apertura and to the play-off final against rivals Universidad Católica.
Sampaoli wanted his side to break from the clubs ‘traditional’ way of playing, much to the chagrin of fans, and adopt a high-tempo, dynamic and fluid system centred on an intense pressing game that would suffocate teams into submission. A 3-4-3 or 3-3-1-3 system was implemented with fitness and technical competence essential; wide players able to dominate their flank, central defenders comfortable in wide areas and mobile and creative midfielders. There are no fitting square pegs in to round holes, each player capable of adapting to different positions, situations and systems.
An 8-1 semi-final win over O’Higgins set up the Clásico Universitario final but Sampaoli’s first six months in charge looked like ending in disappointment, losing the first-leg at home 2-0. But it all came together in the return leg as La U overran Católica winning 4-1. That game could be identified as the turning point because what was about to transpire would be truly magical.
The summer brought about more departures as Felipe Seymour and Edson Puch left but it allowed Sampaoli to recruit the last pieces, completing his puzzle; Gustavo Lorenzetti and Osvaldo González arrived. That summer also saw defeat to Primera B side Magallanes in the Copa Chile. 14/07/2011 the date. The last loss La U would suffer. Nine straight wins would kick start the Clausura season, setting a new Chilean record for consecutive wins, beating the feat of eight wins recorded by Cobreloa (1978) and Colo Colo (2007). Participation in the Copa Sudamericana games would see games come thick and fast and the perfect start in the Clausura allowed for rotation to a squad thriving with young talent. As the squad continued to remain unbeaten throughout the Clausura season it was in continental competition that the team blossomed; the players on the field and Sampaoli off it.
Bielsa is renowned for taking 2,000 videos packed with match footage with him to the 2002 World Cup when in charge of Argentina. Similarly Sampaoli immerses himself into improving his team any way he can, working long hours, almost to the point where one shift merges with the next then the next. Off the field he is quiet and conservative. On it, white Adidas baseball cap stuck to his head, he can be seen storming around his technical area. But always studying, calculating, thinking. Looking for even the smallest of advantages. Striving for perfection.
This insight could be seen in some of Sampaoli’s decisions throughout the Copa Sudamericana campaign. In the first-leg of the final he withdrew a forward from his usual starting line-up to position Acevedo in front of the defence in a 3-1-4-2 system, frustrating LDU and winning at the altitude of Quito. Even when he did get it wrong he was quick to respond. Playing against Vasco da Gama Lorenzetti played behind three forwards in a 3-3-1-3 but seeing that it wasn’t working Sampaoli replaced him with Matías Rodríguez in the first-half, recovering to draw 1-1. No stubbornness. No indecisiveness. Only what is best for the team.
It was one of few imperfections in the sides run to Copa Sudamericana success; 12 games, 10 wins, 2 draws, 21 scored, 2 conceded. On top of their 36 games unbeaten La U broke the Chilean record for the longest time – 543 minutes – without conceding in international competition, the tournament record for least goals conceded and the best overall record in the tournaments history.
The comparisons with Bielsa do not appear to concern Sampaoli who openly admits his admiration for Bielsa: “I always set the team out to Bielsa’s philosophy . . . to show great intensity and control.” And it was only been too evident in their dispensing of Uruguay duo Fénix and Nacional, Brazil’s Flamengo and Vasco da Gama, Argentina’s Arsenal de Sarandí and LDU.
The energetic play of wing-backs Rodríguez and Eugenio Mena, dynamism and guile of midfielders Marcelo Díaz, Aránguiz and Lorenzetti, the speed of Francisco Castro all complemented by star man Eduardo Vargas. The performance that encapsulated it all was the Last 16 away-leg in Brazil against a Flamengo side containing Ronaldinho. A devastating show of aggression, pace, pressing, control and quality in all areas of the pitch saw Universidad de Chile stroll out of the Engenhão 4-0 winners as South America sat up and took notice.
While the Sampaoli/Bielsa comparison went into overdrive Brazilian football website Globoesport.com termed the Chilean side the ‘Barcelona of the Americas’ saying: “They (Universidad de Chile) have a Messi, David Villa, Xavi and Iniesta. The attacking trio formed by Lorenzetti, Vargas and Castro is the mainstay of the team.”
The ‘Xavi’ of the team, Marcelo Díaz, was missed but is an essential cog in front of the back three through his reading of the game and positioning to receive a pass at all time. A player who was previously used in a variety of positions Sampaoli made Díaz the base of the team able to slow the game down but more importantly speed it up when La U hit teams with rapid attacks.
However the man everyone wants to talk about is forward Eduardo Vargas. Internazionale, Chelsea, Manchester City and Villarreal were among those who sent scouts but the forward will join Napoli for around £11m. The eleven goals he scored in the campaign make him the competitions highest scorer beating Humberto Suazo’s record of ten and his 13 goals in continental competition altogether takes him past Marcelo Salas’ club record in CONMEBOL competitions.
The high-intensity system is perfect for him, playing on the right of a front three – but equally capable in each position. As quick with the ball as he is without it, he combines a low centre of gravity to bounce off challenges with his impeccable fitness, ideal when pressing from the front. He has perfected the out-to-in run from wide, using it to great advantage – including a goal for Chile; the second of two in seven caps. Defenders have to be wary not to allow him to turn with the ball or leave space in behind; his goal in the second-leg of the final shows him at his breathtaking best. He will be sorely missed but there is talent waiting in the wings; Felipe Gallegos, 18-year-old Christian Bravo and recent signing Junior Fernandes.
A bigger miss however would be Sampaoli who has admitted to being interested in the Chile job when Claudio Borghi exits. But his departure is unlikely in the short-term and in the New Year all eyes will be on the team of the moment in the Copa Liberatadores to see if they can complete a continental double, turning their 84 year wait for an international trophy in to two in the space of a year. Not too bad for ‘El Bielsa de los Pobres’.
A more apt nickname may now be ‘El Perfeccionista’.