Chile and Latics’ Identity

Above: Owen Coyle, Marcelo Bielsa and Roberto Martinez.

To beat England at Wembley is something to savour.  The look of joy on the faces of the Chilean players after beating England 2-0 on Friday was memorable.

Chile had beaten an experimental England team. Things would have been much harder against the first choice home country lineup. In contrast with England, Chile put forward a team that had played together throughout the demanding South American qualifiers for the World Cup. Moreover having a good prior record against England they were not going to be intimidated.

The  manner of Chile’s victory was something Roberto Martinez would have approved of.

In the first half they threw caution to the wind and attacked England. The forwards Jean Beausejour, Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez  were a constant danger and the Latics player got into a good scoring position in the 31st minute. He could not put it away. But then again, if Beausejour were able to score from positions like that on a regular basis would he still be at Wigan?

In the second half Chile had to defend against England pressure and they were unable to keep up the football of the first half. However, they maintained their composure, passing the ball out of defence, despite having ten England players almost camped inside their half.

It is something that Owen Coyle’s current defensive quartet could not even dream about.

Chile’s attacking style derives from the time Marcelo Bielsa was coach. Current incumbent Jorge  Sampaoli recognizes Bielsa’s influence saying  that “Through his excellence he justifies an attacking style that I have always identified with, and I subscribe to his philosophy and ideas.” .

Chile typically played a high defensive line, meaning their defenders were pushed into risky last-ditch tackles when their forward pressing was by-passed.

Bielsa clearly influenced Sampaoli, but probably also Martinez and his preferred style of play .

I first saw a Bielsa team twenty years ago when I was living in Cali, Colombia. Bielsa’s Newells Old Boys played at the atmospheric Pascual Guerrero Stadium in Cali in the semi final of the Copa Libertadores. They knocked out local club America – who had a great record in the Copa – on penalties . Newells were to be defeated by  Sao Paolo in the final, also on penalties. The football of that Newells of Cordoba team at the time was something different.

Back in Colombia a decade later, I was to see Bielsa’s Argentina team draw 1-1 with Colombia in a World Cup qualifying match in Barranquilla. Argentina  played an exciting formation with three central defenders and two wing backs. Captain Roberto Ayala was superb in the Gary Caldwell role in the centre of defence and Hernan Crespo  got their goal. Bielsa was not to achieve World Cup success with Argentina despite a record of W42 D16 L10 during his tenure.

Chile are an exciting team to watch, almost a throwback to the times when teams attacked with abandon. Last year Barcelona paid dearly against Bayern Munich for their lack of height in the centre of defence. But Chile played 5’8” Cardiff midfielder Gary Medel in a three man defence against an England team who are always going to be dangerous from set pieces.

Sampaoli has bravely continued with the tactical approach put in place by Bielsa from 2007-2011. The team seems to play without fear, characterised by high pressing and 3-3-1-3. Even when under intense pressure they continue to play with composure and belief. Critics would say that the approach is naïve, but it has produced the best results Chile have ever had.

In Bielsa’s  early days at Chile they were able to get a point away to Uruguay at Montevideo and also to beat Argentina. Both were firsts for Chile. But then there was the flip side –  heaviest-ever home defeats in qualifiers, 3-0 against both Paraguay and Brazil.

If Bielsa achieved anything with Chile then it was  giving them an “identity”. In order to play in such a way every player needed to buy in to the system. Players coming in would know exactly what was expected of them and would play with enthusiasm.

At Wigan,  Martinez probably aspired to what Chile do, but never quite had the players to do it. But there are clear parallels.

Latics certainly had those ups and downs, with fantastic  wins over the elite clubs that dominate English football, but also humiliating eight or nine goal defeats.

But then again, like Chile under Bielsa or Sampaoli, there was  certainly “identity”.

Chile will probably get undone in the World Cup finals through set pieces. For the moment they are fascinating to watch, playing with confidence and with a strong footballing philosophy.

Since Martinez left Wigan the style of football has nose-dived. There is a distinct lack of identity about the way this current Latics team plays.

It remains to be seen whether Owen Coyle can provide the results to go along with his more ‘direct’ approach of football.

In the meantime we continue to look for an ‘identity’ at Wigan.

But then again lovers of good football will hope it does not resemble an identity such as those developed by Sam Allardyce at Bolton and Tony Pulis at Stoke.

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Current Barcelona manager Gerardo Martino and current Southampton manager Mauricio Pocchetino played in Bielsa’s Libertadores Cup Final team for Newells. As coaches both follow the example of Bielsa
– an attacking approach, with high pressing.

Wigan Athletic vs. West Bromich Albion: Last chance saloon at the DW

Let us know if these previews are starting to become a bit ridiculous with their constant references to must-win fixtures, but I think it’s time to face reality — barring any major miracles against the big boys, if we lose to West Brom this weekend it’s game over. A draw would be pretty bad news too. Three points would give us a chance.

The gloom is founded in our ensuing fixtures, which involve Liverpool, Stoke, Chelsea, Man United and Arsenal — three of them away — followed by in-form, new-look Fulham (also away), and tricky though beatable Newcastle. The only saving grace, if survival is still mathematically attainable by then, is that the final two matches of the season are against direct rivals Blackburn and Wolves.

When we wrote our survival analysis several weeks ago, we were banking on a real point return from the recent fixtures against Villa, Swansea and Norwich. We should have emerged with six points from those nine, and instead got two.

The interesting thing is that I would argue that recent performances — excluding the Swansea match when key players were jetlagged or benched — have been on par with those that saved us in the run-in last year. The defense has pulled together as it did last year, with Gary Caldwell and Antolin Alcaraz hitting form over the last 5-6 matches, and the Jimmy Macs strong in midfield. The desire is there.

The difference of course, is in the goals. We don’t have Charles N’Zogbia. Hugo Rodallega was bright enough against Norwich but was a substitute for most of the season due to his clear desire to be somewhere else. Victor Moses took his goal very well against Norwich, as he did the last time we met West Brom — but those were both exceptions to his generally sub-par finishing. Mo Diame could have won the game for us twice last Saturday but fluffed his lines. It’s tragic to watch.

I’m just not sure what to think about this one. West Brom have been in decent form and will be out for revenge after Latics came from behind to beat them at The Hawthorns not too long ago, but really ought to be beaten at home. Except of course, for our poor home form.

From a selection perspective, there is good news. Influential defender Jonas Olsson is suspended, and Peter Odemwingie is apparently doubtful. Just about everyone is fit for us, the most inspirational of whom could be Shaun Maloney, who made such an impact with his incisive passing and sharp footwork when replacing Jordi Gomez against Norwich. What might the season have looked like if he had been fit and involved all along? I’ve often felt that our attacking problems are in equal parts poor finishing and lack of service. The strikers live on scraps. Maloney, in his 30-odd minutes on the pitch, provided more defense-splitting passes than Jordi has all season.

Surely this will be the match Mohamed Diame reclaims his starting berth in midfield. He was by far the best outfield player in a Wigan shirt before leaving for the African Cup of Nations in January, but has not started a match since. One suspects that he has taken a leaf out of Rodallega’s book and focused his attention on a summer move rather than the Robin Park training ground during these winter months. But he’s still the best we have in midfield, and should be on the pitch.

Another of the real revelations of the season, Ronnie Stam, must be wondering what he’s done wrong. Given the opportunity to play in his  natural position at wing-back, the Dutchman excelled until the return to fitness of Emmerson Boyce. He is clearly not as good a defender at Boyce, but a much better attacker. Home fixtures against mid-table or lower teams like WBA present reasonable opportunities to take attacking risks. Beausejour and Stam have yet to feature in the same lineup, which is an absolute crime for a team struggling to score goals.

Last but not least, there’s Callum McManaman, who has barely featured since his return from a successful loan spell at Blackburn. He scored in his only start, the embarrassing loss at Swindon. Fellow Amigos’ writer Jakarta Jack suggested that McManaman’s performances for the reserves in the striker role should see him replace Rodallega. We could certainly use someone with some confidence in front of goal, someone who has scored some goals this season and doesn’t hesitate at the crucial moment. With reports this morning suggesting that the Colombian is doubtful, it could be an opportunity. Although Di Santo is likely to start ahead of him should those reports be true.

Keep an eye out for:

Shaun Maloney, if he plays. He was dynamite when he came on against Norwich. If he’s fit enough to start, fantastic. If not, I would hope for a McArthur-McCarthy-Diame midfield, with Maloney on in the 2nd half as an impact sub. Unfortunately, Jordi Gomez has produced too little to to retain his place in the starting lineup, despite a string of games over the festive period that suggested he had finally found his feet in a Wigan shirt.


My heart says we are finally going to break the jinx and win this one. My brain, or the tormented bundle of nerves and anxiety that is left of it, reserves comment.