Vidal verve gives Chile hope
Team sports are about balancing the individual and the collective. When one guy hogs the ball and tries to do everything, it's not good. But then neither is when the team ethos is so strong that everything gets shared out. With talent comes responsibility, and it's right and logical that the best players take on the lion's share of the burden.
Chile coach Jorge Sampaoli built a myth -- the Legend of La U -- around the collective. The idea that ordinary individuals acting in concert can achieve extraordinary things. And make no mistake about it, with three or four obvious exceptions, the bulk of Chile's players are no standouts.
It's the basic concept that applies to almost any team sport. You may be better than your teammate at just about everything, but if he's open and you're not or if he's better placed than you are, you get him the ball and place your trust in him. Space and positioning turn average players into good ones and good ones into greats. And it's the system -- and the diligence and selflessness with which it's applied -- that creates space and positioning.
That's the theory, anyway. Because then you have the opposite end of the spectrum. One that looks a lot like Chile's opponent today, Brazil. There is an obvious top-to-bottom qualitative gap between Luiz Felipe Scolari's crew and the Chileans. But there is also a philosophical divergence, with blue-collar types serving the superstars.
Luiz Gustavo, Paulinho (or Fernandinho, should he get the start), the two centre-backs, Hulk, even Fred the finisher are cogs in a machine that defers to Neymar, Oscar and the two full-backs. It's not that the latter four don't work hard, they do; it's that, when in possession, they're the difference-makers, they're the ones with the licence -- and the expectation -- to create something positive. The rest of the side, very broadly speaking, works to put them in positions where they can generate opportunities. (This applies to Fred as well, whose main job is simply to provide an advanced reference point, create space through movement and convert opportunities.)
Put another way, it's a team with specialists in which players know their roles and there is no shame in deferring to those more talented. In a nutshell: Chile's patterns are democratic in their distribution and predicated on the notion that danger can come from anyone at any time; Brazil is based on the idea of getting the best guys in the best positions as often as possible.
At least, that's the general idea. Because then there's the X factor and, in Chile's case, his name is Arturo Vidal Erasmo Pardo. He may be the most complete midfielder in the world for the simple reason that he combines seemingly disparate skill sets -- aggression, work rate, finishing, vision and creativity -- in an athletic 5-foot-11-inch frame that makes him Chile's biggest starter among outfield players.
Given that he can perform such different tasks so well, his nickname, "Celia Punk," seems strangely appropriate. It combines the first name of the late Celia Cruz, the Queen of Salsa, with, well, punk. A man whose moniker can accommodate both salsa and punk rock is surely one for all seasons.
In a perfect world, Sampaoli would field 10 Vidals (nah, make that 11, he's probably a pretty darn good keeper too ...) rampaging interchangeably around the pitch. Alas, he only has one, and the one he has is nursing a bum knee.
Vidal sat out the final group game against the Netherlands in an effort to be ready against Brazil. Even before that, against Spain, he was on the pitch, but in a reduced capacity. Sampaoli changed the system to legislate for the injury, placing him somewhere between midfield and strikers and reducing his responsibilities to cloak his diminished mobility. He knew that Vidal at 50 percent was going to be better than most of his men at full capacity.
But now it's in or out. And Vidal will not only be there, he will need to step up. Together with Alexis Sanchez, he's the the value-added on a side that habitually doesn't champion them.
"We know that we have one chance in a hundred of advancing," Sampaoli said on Friday. "They're the favorites and they're the home team. It's a very tough game, but then we've faced tough opponents before. And one thing I'm sure of is that we have no fear."
No fear. That's the reason he'll go with his preferred system and unleash Vidal in midfield, rather than in the cloaked hybrid role he filled against the Spanish. It means Jorge Valdivia will likely return to the starting XI and join the front three, making Chile even more attacking than they usually are.
He knows that Brazil are strongest where Chile are weakest. By going for the jugular, they'll leave themselves exposed to the counter and the terrifying prospect of Neymar running at them in the open field. And then there are set pieces: Brazil have four 6-footers; Chile have none. He knows too that, psychologically, Brazil have had the hex on Chile in World Cup knockout rounds. In 1962, it was 4-2 to the Selecao, in 1998 it was 4-1 and in 2010 the score was 3-0.
What's the difference between then and now?
Maybe it is Vidal. Maybe it is the willingness to bow to the superstar that little bit more. A proclivity that his predecessor, Marcelo Bielsa -- who was equally "democratic" in his brand of collectivist football -- tended to shy away from, but which Sampaoli has embraced in small doses.
If your difference-maker is as immense as Vidal, why not look for him that little bit more and give him that little bit of extra responsibility, even at the expense of the fluidity, tactics and cohesion that got you there in the first place?
That's the choice Sampaoli seems to be making today. It's not a betrayal of his beliefs. It's simply a tweak of the scales. And you wonder if maybe his opponent -- who in that sense is at the opposite end of the spectrum -- wouldn't be better off making a similar tweak towards the center, taking some of the burden off Neymar.