Jorge Sampaoli is bringing a deadly breed of football to Brazil. And, if history is any indication, Chile’s battle-hardened manager won’t be taking prisoners.
A few days before Chile’s friendly against England in November 2013, Jorge Sampaoli succinctly defined the attitude he has instilled into every team he has managed; “We will not allow ourselves to be modified by our opponents. We will go mano-a-mano against anyone.” It is the type of language and attitude that those who have followed Sampaoli have come to know well.
In another life, the Argentine may well have been a boxer; the intensity, swagger, work-ethic and the way he works the touchline for all 90 minutes gives the impression of a battle-hardened prize-fighter more than a forward thinking, tactically brilliant manager. It should come as no surprise then, that when asked how he wanted to be remembered, Sampaoli simply responded, “As a fighter.”
A fighter, indeed. The past three years have been a meteoric rise for Sampaoli, from winning four titles in his first 18 months at Universidad de Chile, to taking what was a struggling Chilean national team to the most successful World Cup qualification campaign in their history, Sampaoli’s reputation rises exponentially any time he steps onto the pitch. A self-confessed disciple of the equally brilliant and eccentric Marcelo Bielsa, Sampaoli has crafted a philosophy and playing style unique to any other team in the world. The journey has been anything but easy, but true to his fighting character, Sampaoli never backed down from adversity.
Sampaoli’s story, like so many in football, began in Rosario. He was born in the small town of Casilda, only 30 miles from Argentina’s second-city where the likes of Cesar Luis Menotti and Marcelo Bielsa were born and left an unmistakable influence on the way the city thinks about and understands the game. Sampaoli joined the youth ranks of Newell’s Old Boys at the same time Bielsa was enjoying his brief run in the first team, but a double-fracture of the leg ended his playing career at only the age of 19. Sampaoli was somewhat rebellious as a youth, but following the injury he grew more mature and began to show the signs of the fighting character that defines him so well. An injury of that severity to such a young player, ending any hope of a professional playing career, or even just playing with his friends, could have been mentally crushing. For Sampaoli, it was an opportunity to focus his time and energy one thing: coaching.
His first job in management came when he was only 32 years old at Aprendices Casildenses in 1992, followed by a stint at Belgrano de Arequito where he won the local championship in 1996. It was this season that Sampaoli would make his breakthrough in management, not only for his success on the pitch, but for a peculiar photo that would be picked up by the local newspaper, La Capital. The image showed Sampaoli, who had been refused entry into the stadium where his team was playing, sitting in a tree just outside the stadium, overlooking the pitch where he could watch and shout instructions to his players. It was a show of intense commitment and passion, but also a show of the kind of eccentricity that so many great managers seem to have. The president of Newell’s Old Boys, Eduardo Jose Lopez, saw the picture in La Capital and was so impressed by his commitment that he offered him a job to manage Argentino de Rosario, a lower division feeder club for Newell’s.
Sampaoli would spend four years at Argentino de Rosario before getting the chance to manage a professional club in 2002. The club was Juan Aurich of Peru, and the results were disastrous. He lasted only eight games in charge of the Peruvian club before departing, winning only one match. It was a failure that could have easily stopped his career dead in its tracks before it had even started, but Sampaoli once again showed the fighting character that has become one of his trademarks, and embarked on a journey that would see him manage clubs in Peru, Chile and Ecuador with moderate success before arriving back in Chile in 2011 at one of the country’s biggest clubs, Universidad de Chile. It was there, in the nation’s capital, that everything clicked.
Sampaoli didn’t just win at La U, he created a style unique to any other team in the world. The high-pressing, possession based thinking of Bielsa has undoubtedly influenced him, but Sampaoli’s philosophy is no imitation. The young manager’s team blew away the competition with suffocating pressure, flair, and teamwork. They ran rough shod through the Copa Sudamericana, not losing a single match and going on a 35 match unbeaten streak in total. His team became known as the Barcelona of South America, but Sampaoli’s system is not tiki-taka. What he instilled at La U, and now the Chilean national team, is nothing short of revolutionary, taking the idea of total-football to its modern extremes.
If Sampaoli represents the boxer, then his cherry red-shirted players are the gloves; throwing haymakers from the opening whistle in an attempt to KO their opponent before they can even think about settling into the game. His system is based on an unrelenting commitment to the collective; there is no room for apathy or egoism, as any relaxation in concentration or work-rate by a single player can put the rest of the team in danger. Sampaoli’s system is designed to play the game in the opponent’s half, meaning Chile press relentlessly when out of possession. There is an incredible fluidity to the way they play, to the point that it can be difficult just trying to work out what formation they are set up in, such is the way they have been schooled in the art of interchanging positions. While they play either a 3-4-3 or 4-3-3 on paper, they play with no true number 9, instead opting for two wide-forwards in Alexis Sanchez and Eduardo Vargas and a hybrid of a false-9 and traditional number 10 playmaker in Jorge Valdivia playing in between them, dropping deep into the midfield in attack but pushing forward to press when out of possession. Defenders can turn up in the midfield, midfielders in defense and the forward line, and forwards deep in the midfield. It is total-football that could make even Rinus Michels proud, and they become more and more comfortable in Sampaoli’s footballing vision with every passing game.
Chile isn’t blessed with the world-class talent as many of their competitors, or the same sort of funding that the perennial footballing nations receive. Their success is down to the exceptional ability of Sampaoli as a manager, his system that is able to maximize the talents of his players, and his ability to instill his confidence, discipline, and work-rate into the team so quickly. He is not the sort of character to back down from any opposition or challenge, and his Chilean team reflects that same attitude with their style of play.
Bielsa gave Chile the footballing identity it had always lacked, but Sampaoli has advanced and improved upon it. He is a fierce competitor, one look into his piercing brown eyes and you can see the fire and determination that makes him who he is, but his philosophy is about more than winning. “I believe that the only way to succeed is by uniting players with a love of playing,” he said. “You try to inspire in them a love of the shirt derived of enjoyment, not obligation. When you succeed in this individualistic society, it is by committing to something intangible, with humility. That allows everybody to come together; the social or cultural background of the people involved doesn’t matter.”
True to his Rosario background, football is just as much philosophical as it is physical. The players aren’t just athletes playing a game, but representatives of their culture; interpreters of their peoples’ every fear, joy, and sorrow. It is a romantic idea, and it is part of what makes the man from Casilda so unique. Football is his obsession, spending hours upon hours every day compiling research on his own team and his opponents, but it is also a vessel through which he can express his ideas of culture and society.
Sampaoli and his Chilean side will undoubtedly make their mark at the World Cup, whatever the results may be. He has come a long way from the tree in Rosario that helped to propel his career forward, but the World Cup is by no means the last round for the fighter from Casilda; there are many knockouts still to come.