Chile's Thrilling World Cup Attacks

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Hua's note: Will it ever end? I kept wondering this as I switched back-and-forth between watching that epic, 11-hour Wimbledon match and just living my life. There was something genuinely awe-inspiring about the way both John Isner and Nicolas Mahut soldiered through each point, toward infinity. Occasionally, the tennis was spectacular. But generally, over those last five hours or so, it was engrossing only because of how exhausted Isner and Mahut must have been, the pair taking turns holding serve. When Isner finally broke Mahut and ended one of the most notable matches in the history of tennis, he collapsed to the ground—but only for an instant. As if suddenly realizing Mahut's profound disappointment, Isner returned to his feet, walked to center court, and the two men embraced.

You experience an opposite sensation watching the World Cup—the clock is always running. There are few sports as sensitive to the cruelties of time as soccer. When the match begins, there is a feeling that anything is possible--that, roughly two hours (or one very long lunch break) from now, you might just witness something magical. But as the clock continues to tick, past the thirty minute mark when the sides have established their personalities for the day, past the 65- or 70-minute mark when a bold substitution might belie strategy, as those seconds mount, impervious to a ghastly injury on the pitch or the sideline gesticulations of a coach who sees something, your feelings—of hope, despair, anxiety—fluctuate.

Which is in stark opposition to an NBA Finals game, when a fourth quarter implosion is experienced in timeout! TIMEOUT! slow-motion, or the late-inning, eye-for-eye calls to the bullpen, each new reliever heralding a reset of your team's fortunes. As we watched the United States and Algeria yesterday, time bled away with the cold, familiar efficiency of real life, American boss Bob Bradley helpless in his "technical area" save a quick burst of instruction as his players jogged by. In an adjacent TV at the bar, the seconds could not run fast enough for England. Their supporters had the time to nervously dissect Fabio Capello's strange substitution choices; we were pathetically screaming for the Americans to sprint faster, win the ball back more quickly, etc. And then, it happened. The England supporters burst into applause, relieved that they had held on; a second or two later, the rest of the bar joined in, agog at Landon Donovan's winner—in stoppage time, no less.

Today, Chris Ryan joins us with his thoughts on the thrilling Chilean side and their "eccentric" boss, Marcelo Bielsa. No need for in-game adjustments here: just quicksilver strikes, predatory instincts and, if their unusual formations continue to net positive results, the shape of things to come. Blink and you'll miss it.


Wrath of the Math
By Chris Ryan

A childhood spent being goaded into retrieving lost tennis balls and Nerf footballs from other people's dog-patrolled backyards and a high school life marred by a complete and total disinterest in geometry, algebra and calculus has made me averse to both math and dares.

Those pieces of useless biographical information are brought to you by the Argentinean-born Chilean national team boss Marcelo Bielsa, his 3-3-1-3 formation and his clique of all-attacking keeper-eating piranhas who play a style of football that looks like a dare predicated on some very, very simple math. They dare you to try and stop them, to keep possession, to make a suicidal run towards their goal. Because if you do and you fail, Chile, La Roja, will pour forward in superior numbers and they will make you pay.
 

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The moment I fell in love with tactics was during Euro 2008, watching the Netherlands' knockout stage match-up with Russia. The Dutch were the presumptive favorites (or at least the in-form side), led by playing legend turned manager Marco Van Basten. Russia was helmed by another Dutchman, Guus Hiddink. As the thrilling, end-to-end match wore on, and with Holland struggling to break down the well-organized, well-drilled Russians, Van Basten panicked, using all of his subs by the 64th minute. After sending Ibrahim Afellay came on, the Dutch boss had played his hand. And that's when Hiddink bodied him.

 

It was as if he looked up at the gesticulating Van Basten, sighed and said, 'You through?'

He proceeded to send on his subs, including Dmitriy Torbinski, in the 81st minute. In the 112th minute, Torbinski scored the winning goal for Russia; but Hiddink had won the match.

That's the day I realized what tactics were. It's not just lining up three lines of players in varying formations, it's dictating atmosphere, pace, tempo and tone.

At the height of their powers, matches can become works of a manager's imagination. And it has been one of the outstanding pleasures of this World Cup to get a peek into the mind of Bielsa.

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Bielsa is an eccentric, I suppose; in so much as anyone who doesn't give stone-boring interviews about "the lads" and "deserving more from the match" can be considered eccentric. He flees from the media spotlight, but answers all his fan mail. He was hired in 2007 by Chile—after a legendary if volatile spell in charge of Argentina—but didn't pick up his paycheck until 2009.

It goes on—visiting the zoo for inspiration, living in a small room at the Chilean training ground—but I'm not here to play folk songs. I'm here to play speed metal.

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If the last few months of European club football have been, if you believe the Guardian and the Spanish sports dailies, a referendum on the soul of football. And, after Inter Milan's bulldozing run to the Champions League crown (including a suffocation of holders Barcelona and their series of precise attacking movements), and the way teams like Spain, Germany, Brazil and Argentina have been stifled, block, stymied and frustrated, to varying degrees, during this World Cup, it looks like the might is making right.

Except Bielsa is staging a takeover, using numbers against the same teams that would defend en masse.

Three goals in three games does not exactly make you think you are watching '70 Brazil YouTube videos, but the end product isn't really the point with Bielsa's Chile, the point is the creation of the possibility of end product.

His defensive philosophy is simple: with pressure high up and all over the pitch, he only believes in having one more central defender than the opposition has forwards.

If the opposition plays two forwards, Chile play three center backs. Everyone else? They are playing part in the opposing keeper's waking nightmare.

At its most sublime, the ball will be won in midfield by someone like Boca's Gary Medel, fired off to the wing to Alexis Sanchez who goes barreling forward and of course the Swiss or Hondurans would love to worry about him but they're more occupied by the red wave of eight Chilean players moving in chaotic harmony towards their keeper.
 

There is no Riquelme or Xavi keeping time, picking the perfect pass. They don't need one; Bielsa has devised a system that depends on a team playing a certain way, not a player making a certain pass. There is no Torres or Forlan waiting to bury the perfect cross, battling the three defenders hanging off of them in the process; Bielsa's system makes everyone in red a potential goal scorer...whether it's Suazo, Beausejour, Gonzalez or anyone else.

 

It is a work of a sublime imagination, it's football from a team unbothered by the results of any referendum. It is simple numbers, simple math. I dare you to look away.


Chris Ryan is the author of the blogs Chauncey Billups and Gabe Said "We're Into Movements." He has written about soccer for GQ, The Village Voice, Don Rodriguez and the Wall Street Journal. He currently lives and works in New York City and as working on a book about Lethal Weapon, due out early next year.

Elsewhere on this blog: I wrote about the World Cup TV commercials, the vuvuzela-as-zeitgeist and the North Korean national squad. Anmol Chaddha considered the meaning of rooting for South Africa and R. Kelly's allegiances, Pete L'Official measured the dimensions of Louis Vuitton's World Cup trophy case. Piotr Orlov recounted the beauty and tragedy of Dutch football. On the anniversary of the Soweto uprisings, Anmol meditated on Mandela and the lines marked "out-of-bounds" by FIFA. Pete, on a quest for "authenticity," reported from up in the air. Bethelem Shoals dissected American rooting politics. This week, I discussed boredom and webcams, what it means to have "heart," and the racial politics of France's early exit.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.
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