Chile’s Golden Generation is one of the big storylines of the Copa America, but not for the same reasons as in previous years.
These legendary players helped Chile to their first two Copa titles in the nation’s history, the first in 2015 and the second in 2016, each featuring a shootout victory over Lionel Messi’s Argentina in the final. In 2021, the storyline shifts from the hope of breaking a historic curse to the final ride for the heroes of the Golden Generation.
The likes of Alexis Sánchez, Arturo Vidal, Claudio Bravo and Gary Medel will take centre stage for Chile, but they’re certainly not alone. Though the generation following them doesn’t have the hype and marketability of their predecessors, Chile enters the tournament with a fantastic balance of veteran stars and core members who are in their prime.
Even though Chile enters the tournament with a large number of 30 and older players, there’s the hope that the next generation of Chilean footballers can make a statement, rising to the level of the Chilean winners of the past. Among this group of players are Guillermo Maripán from Monaco, Paulo Díaz from River Plate and Erick Pulgar of Fiorentina. Each of these players is either 26 or 27 years old and playing for big clubs in top leagues. For Chile to make a deep run in this tournament, these three players in particular must step into the spotlight and show their quality.
Martín Lasarte, who takes the reins from Reinaldo Rueda, enters the tournament with the understanding that he’ll have to lean heavily on the Golden Generation and must adapt his tactics accordingly. While we’ll still see the high intensity pressing that we grew to love during the Copa winning years, though to a lesser degree, look for Lasarte to tailor his approach to the physical capabilities of his veterans. The hope is to keep them as fresh as possible for a deep run in the tournament.
In this Chile Copa America preview, we’ll analyze the pool of available players through a scout report, focusing especially on the expected starters and key contributors. Through data and tactical analysis, we’ll also offer some insight into how Chile will approach the tournament. Hope remains high, even as the Golden Generation takes its final bow in the continental championship. Can Chile give them the sending off party they deserve? Let’s launch into that analysis, starting with the possible squad selection.
Though Chile will lean heavily on the remaining members of the Golden Generation, this is a squad with excellent depth. That mixture of veteran Copa America champions and players in their prime is most apparent among the front four. Looking at Chile’s most recent matches, Lasarte has rotated the squad with some consistency. Sánchez, César Pinares and Jean Meneses are three players who have featured more consistently over the past 9 months. Should Eduardo Vargas of Atlético Mineiro join them at the top of the formation, that would give Chile four players ranging from 28 to 32 years of age.
Those four will likely carry the load, but Chile also has players like Charles Aránguiz, Fabián Orellana, Gary Medel and Felipe Mora who can rotate into the starting XI.
Turning to the midfield, the mainstay is Vidal. Only injuries, suspensions or a meaningless group stage game with progression already clinched will move him to the bench. In all likelihood, his pairing in midfield will be the Fiorentina defensive midfielder, Pulgar. The two Serie A players will situate themselves so that Pulgar sits deeper while Vidal pushes higher to offer a presence in the box and engage in the counterpress.
The backline will likely feature Jean Beausejour and Mauricio Isla as the outside-backs. Meanwhile, look for Maripán and Francisco Sierralta to command the majority of the minutes at centre-back. Enzo Roco, providing he makes the final squad, and Medel could receive some playing time as well. They’ll protect 38-year-old Bravo, the Real Betis goalkeeper.
Turning now to the age profile, you get a nice breakdown of the age of the potential team members. With the rosters freezing just before the start of the tournament, we’ve taken the liberty of including each of the most likely players to make the squad.
Right away, you can see that this Chile team will rely once again on the Golden Generation, possibly in their last Copa America, but the roster will also have a large number of players entering the prime of their careers, which is a recipe for tournament success. There’s almost an equal distribution of 29 to 38-year-olds compared to the 24 to 28-year-olds.
Sierralta is the likeliest of the young players to make the final roster and earn minutes, though Víctor Dávila, who’s off to a fantastic start for Club León in Liga MX, could also force his way onto the final roster and see the field.
The difficulty of analysis with this Chilean side, as with all of the South American teams, is that they’ve played so few matches in the past 18 months. Covid-19 restrictions hit the region hard, so Chile will enter their June 3rd World Cup qualifier against Argentina with just five matches in a 19-month span.
Fortunately, all five of those games have come since 8 October 2020. It’s a small sample size, but it does give some insight into the way Lasarte’s group is shaping up.
Though there’s an awareness in Chile that this veteran squad cannot play at the same level of intensity as the 2015 and 2016 Copa winning groups, there’s still an expectation for attacking football. Looking at the attacking radar, this is still a side that should enjoy an advantage in possession in most matches. They should also experience a great deal of success in their offensive duels.
The challenge is to produce the final product. Again, this does come from a small sample size of five matches, one of which was a friendly against Bolivia, but the squad rates very low in shots, forward passes per 100 passes and xG per match. Rating in the 38th percentile for touches in the penalty area per match is troubling as well.
Video analysis of the team shows that there is nuance within their possession. Rather than keeping the ball for its own sake, they have shown a tendency to possess the ball in order to stretch the opposition vertically and horizontally. It’s not until they’ve created significant space in the opposition’s lines that they progress from preparing to attack the opponent to attacking the opponent. In our first tactical image, Chile is enjoying a spell of possession and is in an expansive attacking shape. Once Colombia’s press is stretched, both vertically and horizontally, Chile initiates the movement up the pitch.
Once that initial pass is sent, signalling that it is time to attack the opposition, Chile’s tempo increases. They become very direct while the space is readily available.
Given the experience of the squad, Lasarte’s low tempo build-out to create space with a transition to a high tempo attack once the opponent is stretched is a brilliant way to adapt the team’s tactics to the physical abilities of the squad. Players like Sánchez and Vidal still have that 5th gear, but the ability to play at that tempo, with that level of intensity for 90 minutes, is simply not realistic.
Instead, this low tempo build-out to high tempo direct attack offers a nice balance for his star players.
When Chile has an open possession in the opponent’s half of the pitch, look for them to use a midfield square in their rest defence to deny their opponent’s access to the central channel when counterattacking, as is shown in the image.
The other aspect worth pointing out is the white shadow at the top of the formation. As Chile progresses the ball up the wing, look for them to situate two or three high targets to give them runners into the box.
As Chile make their move to goal, they’ll often use combination play to enter the box and send their final pass from the two half spaces. Meanwhile, they’ll have two or three players making runs into the box. This is where opponents must watch the runs of Vidal. The Inter Milan man makes fantastic runs into the box and is excellent in aerial duels. He’s a threat from deep in midfield and a player Chile will look to target in the box.
Turning now to Chile’s defensive tactics, our percentile rank radar is quite interesting. It shows a well-balanced squad that’s equally comfortable defending in a high press or dealing with crosses in a low block. Though they won’t counterpress with the same level of intensity that they would have five years ago, this is still a side that will aggressively hunt the ball once it’s lost.
Video analysis backs up that point, but it also shows a team that enjoys pressing high up the pitch in a man-oriented high press, and it’s very effective. From a statistical standpoint, that’s where recoveries in the final third, interceptions and defensive duels won percentage give credence to the impact of the high press.
So does the number of aerial duels per match and their win percentage. In our first tactical image on Chile’s defence, we find them in a high press against Colombia. The red arrows show the man-marking approach with just Sánchez responsible for two players, which is due to the fact that he’s the far-sided defender. Otherwise, Chile is man-for-man, eliminating all short and intermediate options. That forces Colombia to play long, leading to an aerial duel that Chile wins.
As opponents progress into the Chilean half, the squad will fully commit to getting numbers behind the ball. They suffocate the passing lanes and make it very difficult for opponents to play through their press.
If there is one defensive concern for Chile, it’s that they have shown some vulnerability on set pieces and against more direct teams, such as Uruguay. With 90 seconds left in their World Cup qualifier in Montevideo, Uruguay doubled down on their direct attacks, launching long passes into the Chilean box. To his credit, Sierralta won the aerial duel. However, he put the clearance directly into the path of Luis Suárez. Chile’s remaining defenders were too far from Suárez to apply immediate pressure, leading to the Atlético Madrid man releasing a shot from the top of the box, scoring the game-winning goal.
Though Chile has a great deal of success in the high press and can make life difficult for the opponent as they settle into a low block, it’s the more direct attacks and the corresponding second ball that offer the greatest threat. Pulgar and Vidal must offer coverage for the backline by winning the second ball.
We’ve mentioned that Chile engages in a high press and that opponents can find success playing more directly against them. One thing that points to is the significance of transitional moments.
From an attacking standpoint, Chile can use their man-marking high press to find their way to goal. With the players situated in close proximity to each other, a high or medium recovery means that Chile has a well-connected network higher up the pitch, typically in numerical equality. Once Chile claims possession, they can look to play the first pass up the pitch to take advantage of their highly concentrated numbers in one specific area.
Once they play into that numeric overload, they have the clever and highly technical players to break down the opposition with a sequence of one and two-touch passing. This collection of players shows a nice understanding of each other as they look to progress up the pitch with quick combination play, as is seen in this sequence against Uruguay.
Aránguiz and Vargas quickly combine around Rodrigo Bentancur, allowing the Bayer Leverkusen midfielder to run at Sporting Portugal’s Sebastián Coates. By pinning the Uruguay backline to the spot, Chile creates a scenario where Sánchez can run onto a through ball in the box. This attacking transition is an excellent example of Chile’s effectiveness when counterattacking.
In terms of defensive transitions, Chile will undoubtedly counterpress the opposition with the desire to quickly recover possession. Again, since they are possession dominant, have a PPDA (passes per defensive action) that rates in the 62nd percentile and make a high number of recoveries in the final third each match, defensive transitions have long been a strength of the Chilean national team.
Perhaps the greatest concern for Lasarte is the recovery after a failed counterpress. When that happens, Chile will often go on the offensive and send the nearest defender to pressure the ball carrier. At times, it would be better to delay the opposition’s attacks, but that doesn’t necessarily fit the aggressive philosophy of a nation that’s won two of the past three Copas with virtuoso performances based on aggression and speed of play.
If opponents can break the counterpress and gain space against the first recovery defender, the remaining Chilean players must show a greater attention to detail in their recovery runs. In the World Cup qualifier against Colombia, Chile over-committed near the ball, leaving Sierralta to mark two runners in the box. Jefferson Lerma’s strike gave Colombia an early lead as he was untracked on his run from the midfield.
If Chile can correct that aspect of their transitional defending, they’ll be incredibly difficult to score against.
Turning now to the player performances over the course of the 2020/21 season, we’ve broken the Chilean national team into three distinct groups, the forwards, midfielders and defenders. We’ve plotted the groups in comparison to each other in certain statistical categories.
Let’s start with the forwards, looking first at touches in the box per 90 by shots per 90. Right away, we see key figures like Meneses, Sánchez, Mora and Vargas near the top of the touches in the box per 90 category. Dávila and Gaete join these elite performers in the category, but they also lead the player pool in shots per 90 minutes, averaging nearly three per match. Diego Valdés is at the top end of the shots for 90 minutes scale as well, but he offers the fewest touches in the box per 90 minutes.
The second graph plots goal contributions by expected goal contributions per 90 minutes. Here, Sanchez is the clear top performer in the group, averaging approximately 0.725 real and expected goal contributions per 90 minutes.
Mora and Dávila have also performed well in the two categories, which is a major positive for this Chilean team. Should Andrés Vilches make the squad, which is a possibility given his strong season at Unión La Calera, he offers another dynamic presence higher up the pitch. His contributions fall in line with Mora and Dávila, as do those of Bryan Carrasco. The Club Deportivo Palestino winger could force his way onto the squad despite totalling just four appearances for the national team. He remains a fringe candidate to make the final roster.
Turning now to Chile’s midfielders, the first statistics we’ll consider are progressive passes per 90 minutes and passes to the final third P90. As listed on the data visualization, passing accuracy is indicated by the size of the data points. The larger the circle, the better the passing accuracy. A quick glance at the visual shows that there’s very little variation in the passing accuracy among the squad.
Looking at the stats, Aránguiz Is the clear top performer among Chile’s midfielders. He averages roughly 2.5 more progressive passes P90 than the next competitor, Pablo Galdames.
After those two, Vidal and Pulgar rate third and fourth on each chart, which is a good sign for Lasarte’s midfield. The fact that each player carries an excellent passing accuracy percentage is a major boost to the squad as well.
As we did with the forwards, we’ll now look at xGoal contribution and goal contributions per 90 minutes. We certainly see much more variation in these categories. Pablo Parra of Curicó Unido offers the highest xGoal contribution among the potential player pool. In fact, he’s in a league of his own with elite numbers in the expected goal contribution and one of the top statistical performances in actual goal contributions.
Second place in each category goes to Pinares, who’s a likely starter in the team as an attacking midfielder. He often plays on the right-hand side for Chile, so expect him to make his mark as a winger.
An interesting player is Ángelo Araos. He recently started for Corinthians in their Copa Sudamericana victory over Sport Huancayo, playing 70 minutes. He may not have the necessary match fitness to earn a spot in the squad, but he is certainly a player to watch in Chile’s future.
Finally, we look at the potential defenders in the squad. The player pool is rated first on possession adjusted interceptions and successful defensive actions, each on a per 90-minute basis.
Díaz, who suits up for River Plate, leads the way with more than 10 possession-adjusted interceptions per 90 minutes, an incredible total. He rates second in successful defensive actions for 90 minutes to Erick Wiemberg of Unión La Calera of the Premera División de Chile.
Beyond those two players, Valber Huerta of Universidad Católica performs well in the two categories and is followed by the remaining players more or less in one cluster.
The final two metrics for assessing Chile’s pool of defenders is progressive passes per 90 minutes by progressive runs P90. This is where the age of Isla and Beausejour are very apparent as the two players rate among the bottom of the player pool in progressive runs P90 minutes, averaging fewer than one per match. However, they make up for those runs with more than 10 progressive passes per 90.
Ignoring Wyscout’s error in placing José Pedro Fuenzalida among the defenders, Wiemberg and Yonathan Andía offer the greatest balance between the two categories, though the latter is less likely to make the squad. Andía, however, offers some versatility to the squad and could prove himself as a highly valuable member when Chile has to press forward in the attack.
One final note is to look for Díaz to play a prominent role in the team’s build-out. Given that he’s far more likely to progress the attack than Maripán, Sierralta or Medel, he should be a fixture in Chile’s starting XI.
After consulting numerous sports journalists and coaches from Chile, it was abundantly clear that the nation looks to Sánchez as their most important player heading into the tournament. From the conversations I had, the view is that when Chile needs a goal, it’s the Inter Milan marksman who produces the moment of magic. Without a world-class centre forward in the squad, it will be El Niño Maravilla, who’s no niño these days, who will bear the burden to produce goals.
His transfer away from Manchester United has revived his career. Totalling just 32 matches for the Red Devils from 2018 to his transfer in 2020, Sánchez has gone on to make 29 league appearances for Inter this season, starting 12, with just the season finale to play. In that time, he’s produced seven goals and five assists, helping the Nerazzurri claim their first Serie A title since 2009/10, breaking Juventus’s run of nine consecutive titles.
He’s found his form and the depth of Inter Milan has allowed Antonio Conte to use Sanchez in a manner that preserved the freshness of his legs. That’s key for Chile.
Over the course of the season, his statistics read among the top Serie A forwards in virtually every attacking and shooting statistic, as well as passing and progression categories. He’s had an excellent year, exerting his influence every time he steps onto the pitch.
Looking at the defensive actions section of the player profile, we see that he’s also putting in the work defensively, which is a credit to his Chilean heritage. That hard-working, high-intensity mentality that carried Chile’s Golden Generation to unseen heights on the international scene is very much a part of the 32-year-old’s performance identity.
While he’s the one many highlight as the top Chilean player heading into the tournament, his club teammate, Vidal will help to carry the load. With both players returning from late-season injuries, which included knee surgery for Vidal, the burden can’t rest solely on one player. The mohawked Vidal will bring his passion and intensity to the midfield.
Elsewhere, look for the deep triangle of Maripán, Sierralta and Bravo to play key roles as well. The two centre-backs, each in the early prime of their careers, must show the leadership and cohesiveness that Chile need at the back. Their partnership, as well as their individual quality, will be key for the national team in this edition of the Copa America and well into Chile’s future.
For Bravo, this is likely his final Copa. At 38 years old, there’s an outside chance that he makes it to the next one in 2024, but time is certainly not on his side, even if he is playing at a high level. The Captain’s leadership, both at the back and for the team on the whole, will be critical.
PREDICTIONS FOR THE TOURNAMENT
As mentioned, I had several conversations with Chilean journalists and coaches as part of the research for this Copa preview. In the end, each person had the same expectation; a good tournament meant a deep run, at least to the semifinals. Though the hopes of the nation aren’t as high as they were five years ago during the peak years of the Golden Generation, there is still the prevailing hope that Sánchez, Vidal and Bravo can guide the team to another Copa America title.
There’s an understanding that other squads in the tournament have a stronger collection of players, especially Brazil and Argentina, but there’s the hope that the Chilean collective, with its high intensity, hard-working identity can secure one more Copa before the Golden Generation rides off into the sunset.
It’s a tall task and certainly a hope built on the best-case scenario, but Chile is not a nation that shrinks in the face of pressure. This collection of players has traditionally risen to the occasion.
The nation asks for one more run, one more dance to the Copa America finals before the national team enters a full transition. Should Lasarte’s men secure the title, Chile will carry its heroes to their well-deserved national team retirement.