Claudio Borghi’s team is worth watching

Perusing the Brazilian media last week, I caught an update on the physical condition of former international Socrates and cast my mind back to the last time I shared four walls with the big man. Debating the current state of Brazilian football at a London’s Festival Brazil last year, he told the room, “It’s not what you achieve that counts, but the way in which you achieve it.”

It was a quote I would dig out just over a year ago when Marcelo Bielsa confirmed he was leaving his post as Chile coach, and one I found myself thinking of again on Tuesday evening Bielsa’s successor, Argentine coach Claudio ‘Bichi’ Borghi, led La Roja to a thrilling 4-2 victory over Peru in the second round of CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying.

New man in charge: Claudio Borghi brings excitement and energy to the Chilean national team. (Photo by Sylvian Thomas/AFP/Getty Images)

Under Bielsa’s tutelage, Chilean football was transformed. They raced through qualification for World Cup 2010, sealing their ticket to the big show for the first time in 12 years. Nobody in the tournament won more games than they did, with only first placed Brazil managing more than the 32 goals they notched along the way. But more than results, what Bielsa brought to Chilean football was a sense of joy. He gave Chilean football an identity – one the whole country embraced, with tens of thousands of online candles lit with messages of thanks, one to which Borghi is fully committed.

Like Bielsa and Socrates, Borghi is an idealist, committed wholeheartedly to an entertaining and expansive brand of football. He cuts a gregarious figure, too, akin to the friendly uncle cracking the jokes at a family asado. A classy No.10 in his playing days, he was an example of what Jorge Valdano once referred to South American football’s “essential character: the owner of the ball.” Seven years into a coaching career that has seen him win five league titles in two countries, he has a genuine joy for the game and for those perennial entertainers who star therein.

During his time at Boca Juniors he gushingly described Juan Roman Riquelme as “unique, like a woman with three breasts.” Just over a week ago he likened Barcelona’s Andres Iniesta to an “erotic dream that you don’t want to stop,” and when asked about his current ‘10’, Jorge Valdivia, earlier this year, he simply replied: “I enjoy watching him.”

A Borgi favorite: Jorge Valdivia has won Claudio Borghi’s trust since the Argentine took over the national team back in February. (Photo by Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)

Borghi puts out teams that he’d like to watch himself: Teams he can enjoy. And over the last week, as South America began its long and gruelling qualification process for Brazil 2014, we saw the best, and the worst, of Borghi’s somewhat quixotic philosophy.

The ‘worst’ arrived on Friday night when Bichi, armed with a teamsheet akin to self-harm, returned to his birthplace of Buenos Aires to face Argentina. With his opposite number Alejandro Sabella having built a pragmatic reputation at Estudiantes based on solid organization, effectiveness on set-pieces, and swift counter-attacks, Borghi went too far – way too far, selecting five outright attacking players in his eleven. Mauricio Pinilla was tasked with running around front-man Humberto Suazo, while winger Jean Beausejour manned the entire left flank. Most audacious, however, was the decision to play two playmakers, Valdivia and Mati Fernandez, in a midfield three. Poor Carlos Carmona was left all alone in front of a back three, completely overrun as Argentina raced through midfield with ruthless efficiency, running out 4-1 winners.

Bielsa always chose to rotate Fernandez and Valdivia. In nearly four years in charge, only twice did he start with both (against Mexcio and Honduras), the reasons for which were made abundantly clear in Buenos Aires on Friday night. Borghi’s men were picked off with ease. Yet for all the Argentinian goals, Chile moved the ball well and largely dominated possession, completing 262 passes, around 80 more than their opponents. On balance of play, Chile probably weren’t three goals worse than Argentina. Tactically, though, they were miles away.

Four days later, Borghi was able to restore combative midfielder Gary Medel – suspended against Argentina – to midfield and push Aturo Vidal up alongside him following the reintroduction of Marcos Gonzalez to the defense. Chile were transformed, the balance in midfield instantly restored; Valdivia granted the protection that allowed him sit behind Suazo and link the play between the lines. With a solid base in front of the back three, wing-backs Beausejour and Mauricio Isla had the freedom to gallop forward, giving the width Chile lacked against Argentina. They were ahead inside two minutes, Waldo Ponce heading in from a corner, and were two up 15 minutes later when the impressive Eduardo Vargas finished neatly following a fine interchange between Beausejour and Valdivia.

Vargas was brought in at the expense of Pinilla, as Borghi searched for suitable replacement for the injured Alexis Sanchez. The 21 year-old Vargas was mightily impressive, not only making intelligent runs both on and off the ball, but defending from the front. Chile’s pressing game saw them recover possession twice as many times as their opponents, with Vargas winning the ball more often than anyone else on the pitch. After 20 minutes, the Santiago crowd were greeting every pass with an olé (Chile would go on to make almost three times as many as the visitors). It was party time at Estadio Monumental, with the atmosphere reaching fever pitch when Medel smashed a glorious third into the top corner two minutes after the break.

Yet the warning signs from Argentina remained. Defensively, Chile looked vulnerable, with Peru hitting the woodwork twice in the first half. “There was a clear difference between the first and second half, because [in the first] we pressed at all times,” said Valdivia after two Peruvian goals in 10 second half minutes had his team on the ropes. “We were careless. Within minutes they scored two goals, but luckily we were able to get the fourth.”

For better or for worse: Chile’s ‘carefree approach’ promises yield wide-ranging results. (Photo by Rodrigo Arangua/AFP/Getty Images)  

And yet it’s that ostensibly carefree approach that makes Chile so appealing. There were some fantastic matches in the opening two rounds of CONMEBOL qualification this past week, but the two most enthralling starred Bichi Borghi’s Chile. They had it all: goals, cards, tactical battles, penalties, skill, pace and flair. And three points from two games isn’t a bad return – especially considering the fact that of the seven nations to have played twice, only Uruguay have managed to better it.

Against Argentina, Borghi was at best naïve; at worst suicidal. But so what? He did it his way. And his is a way that should be cherished. After all, when qualification has been sealed, leagues have been won and cups lofted a high, all that’s really left to remember is how they were won. Whatever Bichi Borghi’s Chile does (or doesn’t) achieve during his time in charge, one thing’s for sure: The way in which they’ll go about it will be well worth watching.