Thursday 14 July 2016, 15:08

Pizzi making his presence felt

Juan Antonio Pizzi knew the scale of the task he had given himself when he took on the Chile job. His immediate predecessor, Jorge Sampaoli, had set the bar very high by winning the country’s first major trophy at the Copa America 2015 and giving La Roja a style and a character all of their own.

Sampaoli’s Chile stood out not just for their dynamic pressing game and directness, but also for their belief that they could take on anyone. His was a golden generation of players that learned to compete, and to do so successfully.

Suddenly, all eyes were on his replacement Pizzi, not least those of his new charges and the nation’s increasingly demanding supporters. As well as keeping the finely-tuned Chile machine on track, he also had to make sure it kept on winning. Now seven months into the job, he has fulfilled that brief in style, steering La Roja to more glory at the Copa America Centenario.

“We knew the demands were huge, because we had to go out and win the title if we were going to match the team’s previous achievements,” said Pizzi after seeing his side beat his native Argentina in the final. “There was more chance of us not achieving that objective. We managed to get our message across to a group of players that is worthy of praise and admiration, and I hope we can keep on developing together.”

Laying the foundations Pizzi’s path to success has been far from smooth, however. Doubting his abilities, many were unimpressed by the Chilean league title he won with Universidad Catolica in 2010, or, for that matter, the Argentinian championship he landed with San Lorenzo or the impressive campaigns he enjoyed with Valencia in Spain and Leon in Mexico.

On being unveiled as Chile coach on 5 February, he chose to make his strategy clear: “Chile have been centre stage in the last few years and we’re going try and make sure things stay that way. While we’re going to follow that same line, we’ll also be looking to impose our own style and make a mark of our own.”

Pizzi is a coach heavily influenced by the Barcelona way, and took coaching courses in Spain along with Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique, former team-mates of his during the three years he spent with Barça as a player.

“I’m delighted he’s taken on such a big challenge. Good people should have good things happen to them,” said Guardiola. “He’s more than capable of coaching the Chile team and he has a very clear idea of how to gain possession and dominate play,” added Luis Enrique. “He’s an excellent choice.”

First steps Offering a less radical approach than Sampaoli, Pizzi has never been reluctant to adapt formations in pursuit of that philosophy. Since taking on his new job, however, he has only been able to do that at the Copa America, the first two matches of his reign – the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ qualification double-header in late March – having come too soon for him to make any tactical adjustments.

The first of those two qualifiers came against Argentina in Santiago, a baptism of fire for Pizzi, especially with the Charles Aranguiz, Jorge Valdivia and Eduardo Vargas all unavailable. Though his side took an early 1-0 lead through Felipe Gutierrez, midfield duo Marcelo Diaz and Matias Fernandez both limped off with injuries in the opening 20 minutes, with Chile eventually going down 2-1 and the new coach coming in for criticism.

The return of Vidal and the decision to play Mauricio Pinilla in the centre of attack and Alexis Sanchez down the flank paid dividends a few days later against Venezuela. Reacting to his side’s emphatic 4-1 win, a cautious Pizzi said: “We’ve still got a long way to go to reach our objective.”

Pizzi began to impose his ideas in selecting the Roja squad for the USA, calling on in-form players with slightly lower profiles, such as Edson Puch, Nicolas Castillo, Enzo Roco and Erick Pulgar, none of whom had figured in Sampaoli’s squad for Chile 2015.

He raised eyebrows by also calling on the versatile Jose Pedro Fuenzalida, a player in his own image, and whom he has used as a full-back, midfielder and wide man. Having failed to play a single minute at last year’s continental championships on home soil, Fuenzalida would silence the doubters with his performances in the United States.

However, the lead-up to the Copa America Centenario featured unimpressive friendly defeats to Jamaica and Mexico, generating more criticism, which only intensified when a sluggish Chile suffered another 2-1 reverse to Argentina in their opening match of the tournament.

Making his mark It was then that Pizzi’s influence began to show. Openly defending his goalkeeper and captain Claudio Bravo following his shaky performance against the Argentinians, the coach confirmed he would remain his first-choice custodian. Bravo later repaid that faith by making crucial contributions in the semi-final win over Colombia and in the final against La Albiceleste.

Showcasing his tactical flexibility, Pizzi had no qualms in switching to a 4-3-3 line-up for the second group match against Bolivia, shelving the 4-2-3-1 he had begun the tournament with, though he would fall back on it for the final, part of his plan to cut the supply lines to Lionel Messi. He even tried out a more balanced 3-4-1-2 formation, a sign that he was anything but obstinate.

A further indication of that came when it became clear to him that Sanchez was more effective out wide than down the centre, a realisation that led to him reshaping the attack. “We’ll find the attacking solutions we need,” he pledged ahead of the final group match, against Panama.

He was true to his word. With Vargas leading the front line, Alexis and Fuenzalida operating on the flanks, and Vidal afforded the freedom he needed, Chile began to click. After dispatching the Panamanians with ease, they thrashed Mexico, with Puch positioned wide on the right, and turned in a clinical display to see off Colombia in the last four.

Facing Argentina again in the final, Chile overcame an early red card for Diaz, a setback that Pizzi responded too by reshuffling his ten men to perfection. Sticking to his philosophy, he prevented the opposition from taking control by ensuring his players spread the ball wide. While also managing to isolate Messi, Chile remained a threat up front, with the subsequent need for penalties a reflection of the parity between the two sides rather than any lack of ambition on the part of La Roja.

And though he eventually won the day, Pizzi was determined to stay grounded: “I’m happy. I’ve had to make a lot of sacrifices to achieve things in life, both as a player and a coach. I’ve had more disappointments than triumphs, and I think things will stay that way. That’s why I try to enjoy it as much as I can when I win. We promise to keep on working.”