Under the new management of Carlos Queiroz, Colombia had dominated their group having not conceded a single goal leading into their quarter-final clash against Chile. Likewise, Alexis Sánchez’s side had enjoyed a similarly successful run out of their group, only dropping points against an impressive Uruguay in a close 1-0 defeat.
Colombia‘s defence continued their dominance throughout the proceeding 90 minutes before being eliminated after a penalty shootout. This result saw this year’s favourites eliminated from the competition having not conceded a single goal from open play and making history in the process. This tactical analysis will examine why teams found it so difficult to break down the side led by a former Real Madrid boss.
Both sides set out in similar 4-3-3 formations with key men returning for both sides from the last group stage matchdays, most notably, James Rodríguez for Colombia and Arturo Vidal for Chile. In a bid to break down their rigid opponents, Chile moved away from their most recent 3-5-2 formation which saw them struggle against Uruguay on the last matchday of the group stages.
Colombia’s organic defensive system
The most fascinating aspect of Colombia’s defensive tactics concerned just how fluid and interchangeable they became as the game evolved and developed. In the opening stages of the contest, Queiroz’s side lined up in a traditional 4-3-3 shape that transitioned into a structured 4-5-1 defensive block positioned just behind the halfway line.
The compactness of the central midfield three for Colombia initially funnelled Chile’s possession away from the central areas of the pitch and hence there was a lot of early opportunities for their wide men to use the ball. This created issues for the tricolours however as this meant James Rodríguez inherited a lot of the early defensive workload, which he struggled to adapt to.
The above image was taken from the buildup to Chile’s first disallowed goal of the game. With James being so passive during this transition, Beausejour has the freedom to advance forward and provide the overlap for Sánchez, creating a 2v1 situation down Colombia’s right flank. The chaos this creates allows for the wingback to play in the initial cross which is harder for Colombia to deal with as Cuadrado has been drawn away from defending the central area of the pitch, creating another overload centrally for the Chileans. Colombia were lucky on this occasion that the goal was disallowed for a questionable offside call in the buildup.
Queiroz’s defensive tweaks
In an almost immediate response to this lucky break, Queiroz tweaked the coordination between James and Cuadrado ever so slightly down the right flank. Cuadrado now adopted a slightly wider role amongst the midfield three in response to James being stationed more centrally.
Upon the ball being switched to Beausejour, it became Cuadrado’s duty to pressure the fullback and thus creating the space for James to drop into in order to defend and maintain a central position. This solved the issue of Beausejour being able to combine with Sanchez unchecked down the left but now created the issue of Arturo Vidal being allowed more time and space in the centre of the pitch. Alert to the situation, the Barca man quickly took up positions behind his Spanish rival once Cuadrado moved wide taking advantage of the resulting confusion amongst James, Barrios and Uribe.
Aware of this and Chile’s buildup strategy, Queiroz again made a tactical change, switching Colombia’s defensive 4-5-1 shape into an orthodox 4-4-2, with James now supporting Falcao upfront and Cuadrado adopting a right midfield position.
This change temporarily fixed many of the issues revolving around James’ inactivity off the ball but still left Colombia overloaded through the middle of the pitch which contradicted their competition-long gameplan. This move also disrupted Colombia’s offensive tactics and made Cuadrado and James’ movements much more predictable. As the game wore on, Queiroz returned his side back to their original defensive shape and strategy, with fatigue setting in and opposition moves slowing down, James’ passivity became less of a pressing issue.
Cuadrado’s hybrid role
A vital cog in his nation’s side, Cuadrado owned his unique and tailored midfield role for this game. Adopting an unusually central role for the famous wide man, Cuadrado acted in a manner not too dissimilar to the role executed by Ivan Rakitić under Luís Enrique alongside Lionel Messi and Dani Alves. To illuminate further upon this, Cuadrado’s movements on and off the ball was almost entirely dictated by his compatriot James, in the sense that the Juventus man had to mirror his teammates moments in order to maintain the balance of the side.
We’ve already seen how this was the case in a defensive situation and the fluidity of the pair’s orientation remained just as consistent in an offensive sense. To make the most of James’ creative vision and Cuadrado’s pacy wide play, it was often the case that once Colombia had the ball, Cuadrado would move wider thus creating the space for James to roam centrally.
With the pair interchanging in this manner, Colombia sought to find a balance between remaining defensively sound and combative whilst optimising the respective abilities of Colombia’s most creative attackers. As James drifted between central and wide areas in possession, Cuadrado would react by taking up the occupation in the spaces James left behind. This created plenty of time and space for Cuadrado to receive the ball and cross from which worked out to be Colombia’s main offensive weapon during the first half.
Cuadrado’s flexibility and versatility in this game allowed for the majority of Queiroz’s gameplan to function effectively. It was this performance which explained the winger’s longevity and continued involvement in a Juventus side that continues to champion their domestic league.
The legacy of Marcelo Bielsa lives on
Despite the fact the notorious Argentine left his position as head of the Chile national side in 2011, his teachings and those of his disciple, Jorge Sampaoli, still heavily influence the play of La Roja.
Colombia’s offensive threat was heavily nullified by Chile’s high press in this game. Led by the tireless Sanchez, Chile’s front three pressed the Colombian backline fiercely in an organised and relentless fashion.
In a similar fashion to Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool side, Chile’s front three pressed the opposition using the striker to cover the opposition’s defensive midfielder whilst the wingers pressed the centre-backs from the line of the fullbacks. This leaves the near defensive midfielder and the near-side fullback in the presser’s cover shadows and thus unavailable to the centre-back on the ball, often forcing the opposition to clear the ball long downfield.
This meant Colombia struggled to maintain possession for long periods of time and explained just how Chile was able to win the possession battle. Another large reason for this, however, was down to Chile’s structure when building up their possession. Employing many of the tactics known as La Salida La Volpiana, Erick Pulgar often dropped in between the centre backs to open up the space to play around Colombia’s frontmen and allow for Vidal, Beausejour and Aránguiz to occupy the spaces in and around the Colombian midfield.
Chile often adopted variants of the above 3-3-3-1/3-3-2-2 structure during their buildup so as to ensure they created enough overloads in central areas so as to play through and around Colombia’s front and midfield lines. This tactic allowed Chile to enjoy the best of the chances in this game as they were able to progress the ball often cleanly and effectively into the opposition’s half. Chile could consider themselves rather unlucky that both their goals in this game were disallowed by VAR for different reasons and in the end, it was a penalty shootout that decided the contest, with Alexis Sanchez scoring the decisive winner.
Despite maintaining their perfect clean sheet record in the competition, Colombia were fortunate to not concede in the 90 minutes and offered very little offensive threat themselves. The result of the penalty shootout, meaning Chile now progress into the semi-finals probably reflects the fairer result of the game’s events and Chile continue to threaten another potential Copa America win despite their ageing side.
As proven in our analysis, Colombia can still find a lot of positives from their displays in this tournament and not just from their defensive output. With the introduction of talents such as Duván Zapata and the side’s continued development under Queiroz, this side will continue to be a danger in international tournaments for years to come.