Reinaldo Rueda hopes to ease Chile's transition from the Vidal and Sanchez generation
Outside of Brazil and Argentina, there is a traditional tale with the other South American nations -- one generation and out.
Peru, for example, struggled for years to replace the Teofilo Cubillas generation of the 1970s. It was the same story with Colombia and the Carlos Valderrama-led team of the late '80s and early '90s. Paraguay have found it hard to follow the Roque Santa Cruz team. And now it's Chile's turn.
Arturo Vidal, Alexis Sanchez and company formed the most brilliant and victorious generation in Chile's history. The Copa America wins of 2015 and '16 were the country's first major trophies. But failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup suddenly brought the curtain down on an era.
Chile, though, reacted quickly. Where some South American sides are experimenting with caretaker coaches, Chile brought in Reinaldo Rueda at the start of the year. For a number of reasons, it looks like a sound choice.
Rueda has plenty of national team experience, taking Honduras to the 2010 World Cup and Ecuador to 2014. But first he made his name as a youth development specialist, reaching the semifinals of the 2003 Under-20 World Cup with his native Colombia. This capacity to bring on young talent is precisely what Chile need and it also helps that Rueda is widely recognised as a gentleman. Even at the best of times, the Chile dressing room was a tough one to control. A dose of Rueda's calm control seems to be doing no harm.
He already has six games under his belt. In March his team beat Sweden 2-1 and drew 0-0 with Denmark. In late May and early June they lost 3-2 to Romania, beat Serbia 1-0 and drew 2-2 with Poland. And now, after an earthquake forced Friday's match with Japan to be called off, they shaded a bright goalless draw on Tuesday at South Korea.
The results are acceptable but more important is the direction the team is taking. Rueda is a methodical figure and his team is far more orthodox than the Chile sides constructed by Marcelo Bielsa and Jorge Sampaoli. There is no flitting between a back three and four and no place for little Gary Medel in the defensive line. Instead, Rueda fields an orthodox back four, with traditional big centre-backs, Igor Lichnovsky and Guillermo Maripan. Previously, Chile's lack of height was a problem; now, the centre-backs are big enough to win the key headers in both penalty areas -- Maripan scored against both Romania and Serbia while Lichnovsky came close against South Korea.
Rueda has also found a successor to Claudio Bravo in goal. The naturalised Argentine Gabriel Arias is proving an impressive replacement.
The basic formation is a 4-2-3-1. With Sanchez rested for this tour, the team against South Korea was built around Vidal, who was allowed to roam from the centre-forward position. But, no fool, Rueda is attempting to construct a new Chile which incorporates some of the virtues of the old. True, Medel now features in midfield, rather than in the defensive line, but when the team have possession, he drops between the centre-backs to organise play from deep.
Chile continue to attack constantly with the full-backs, looking to create two-against-one situations down the flanks. And the strikers in wide areas also have the capacity to drift inside and operate in the centre-forward channel. Arturo Sagal did this well from the right, as did Diego Rubio from the left. The Sporting Kansas City man Rubio was playing his first international since winning a few caps as a teenager back in 2011, and did enough to warrant further opportunities.
And Chile continue to press high. It was this that made the match against South Korea so interesting. The South Americans had the bulk of the play but the speed of the Koreans in transition was a real test for the Chilean press. Most of the time they managed to stop the move, but when the Koreans managed to break through the Chilean press, there were occasional moments of panic at the back. Arias, though, was smart off his line to snuff out the danger.
For all of Rueda's methodical ability, there is a giant question mark hanging over the new Chile. Can they replace the individual quality of their golden generation? Vidal, for example, remains an imperious figure. But he is losing some pace, and cannot go on forever. Are Chile capable of unearthing talent of the calibre of Vidal, Sanchez, Medel and former playmaker Jorge Valdivia?
The latter has been replaced by Diego Valdes, of Morelia. He has some excellent moments but it is unclear whether he will be able to tip the balance at the highest level. The last kick of the game against South Korea was his, as he latched on to a terrible back pass, beat the keeper by going left, but with the goal gaping he sent his shot horribly over the bar.
Rueda's Chile, then, have plenty of work ahead if they are going to hit their targets. But unlike many of the other CONMEBOL nations, at least the process is already underway.