Rants and musings from the magazine team
A lot has been said about the early rounds of this year’s Copa America, most of it criticism of the lack of goals thus far.
It’s barely necessary to remind people that such a dearth is inevitable at this early stage of the competition. You only need to look back to last summer’s showpiece in South Africa to see that it’s far from unusual for the early stages of a major tournament to be similarly characterised by overly-tense affairs.
It’s an inevitability of tournament football that sides are massively fearful of losing their first game, as doing so would leave them with a mountain to climb as far as knock-out stage qualification is concerned.
In addition, thanks to seedings, the first fixture of a group is quite often a mismatch, and nobody could criticise the minnows for setting out to frustrate their more illustrious opponents by sitting deep.
The theory at this level is the same as in the third round of the FA Cup, only instead of seeing Manchester United toil on a boggy pitch against Halifax Town, it is Argentina against Bolivia, or Venezuela against Brazil.
When these sides set out primarily to defend, perhaps looking to nick a goal on the counter-attack or from a set piece, it’s merely a natural attempt to bridge the gulf in quality between the sides, and not something that should be vilified.
What happened to Argentina (twice) and Brazil was that they succeeded when it came to dominating play, but then failed to find the breakthrough. They both had chances throughout their opening games and didn’t take them, this is what led to the panicked play on the field. Off the field though, is where the direction and substitutions can swing a game, but that’s not how it turned out.
In the first two fixtures of this Copa, Batista’s changes have been mindless. He has attempted to shoe-horn players into a system that is clearly not working and by refusing to make the necessary changes, he has put Argentina’s quarter-final qualification in jeopardy, something utterly thinkable just over a week ago.
The only change Batista had made between the opening draw versus Bolivia and the second game against Colombia was to bring in Pablo Zabaleta for young left-back Marcos Rojo. This was despite the obvious problems caused by the midfield being too reserved and playing two central attackers as wide-men.
Contrast this with Claudio Borghi’s game-changing alterations as Chile came from behind to beat Mexico.
Once more, it was a well-fancied team struggling against underdogs who were playing with plenty of men behind the ball. Disaster struck for the Chileans when Mexico got a goal from a set-piece to put themselves in front. Chile were not only struggling to get the goal they’d deserved but they now needed two, fortunately, Borghi had a plan B.
Unlike some other coaches in this tournament and others, Borghi was not overwhelmed by the fear of his team losing their opening match. Instead, he continued in the fearless vein of previous boss Marcelo Bielsa and brought on striker Esteban Paredes for wing-back Beausejour.
The change in shape that accompanied this removed Mexico’s numerical advantage in defence, which ultimately proved the telling factor as Chile scored two and won the game.
In Chile’s second game of the tournament against equally well-fancied Uruguay, both managers were left happy with their pro-active approach.
The celeste brought in Sebastian Coates at centre half for the shaky Victorino, while replacing one of their standout performers for the first game – Nicolas Lodeiro – with Porto left-back Alvaro Pereira.
Replacing a playmaking midfielder with a defensive-minded player may not be a popular choice with neutrals or even some fans, but knowing Chile’s strength, Oscar Tabarez opted for the work rate and industry of Pereira and was rewarded with the opening goal.
Young defender Coates came into the side and was exceptional too, keeping the usually excellent Humberto Suazo very quiet, and doing a better job of dealing with Alexis Sanchez than many have in recent months.
Trailing 1-0 and being continually pinned back, it was Chile’s turn to roll the dice. Borghi introduced Valdivia, the Palmeiras playmaker, with the hope that his renown passing ability would help them keep possession and possibly create the chance they needed.
Once more, fortune favoured the brave. Valdivia’s wizardry left a couple of Uruguayan statues in his wake as he set Alexis Sanchez through on goal, and the Udinese (for now) starlet finished brilliantly.
Hernan Dario Gomez of Colombia can also take plaudits for starting Carlos Sanchez for the clash with Argentina. Having a player behind the midfield to nullify the intention of Batista’s well-publicised ‘false 9’ position gave his side a valuable point and virtually guarantees the cafeteros a quarter-final berth.
With a crunch game coming up against a Costa Rica team needing just a draw, hosts Argentina will need to show more patience and craft. Perhaps it’s time to make a change, abandon the Barcelona imitation and let the quality of the players shine through…
In matters of style, swim with the current; In matters of principle, stand like a rock - former US president Thomas Jefferson
While Batista is dedicated to trying to swim with the Barcelona current, his standing like a rock in the defence of these same principles could cost him his job.
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