New Saudi Arabia coach entitled to a bit of swagger in his stride

New Saudi Arabia coach entitled to a bit of swagger in his stride
Updated 30 November 2017

New Saudi Arabia coach entitled to a bit of swagger in his stride

New Saudi Arabia coach entitled to a bit of swagger in his stride

RIO: Saudi Arabia have sacked Edgardo Bauza, but stayed Argentine. Replacing Bauza, who had a short, unsuccessful spell in charge of the land of his birth, they have appointed his compatriot Juan Antonio Pizzi, who failed to take Chile through to next year’s World Cup.
The word “failure,” though, would be a very harsh verdict on Pizzi’s time with Chile. He boldly stepped into the breach in January of last year, following the resignation of Jorge Sampaoli. With his dynamic, attacking style of play, Sampaoli would be a hard act to follow. He had just taken Chile to their first ever serious piece of silverware, the 2015 Copa America. And his resignation might have been partially motivated by the feeling that he had taken the team as far as they could go.
Pizzi took them still higher. The 2015 Copa America win had come on home soil. Twelve months later, to celebrate the centenary of the Copa, an extra tournament was organized in the US. Chile triumphed again, this time without home advantage. And their astonishing 7-0 quarter final demolition of Mexico is a strong candidate to be the finest game ever played by the Chilean national team.
The virtues that Pizzi showed then will surely come in useful in his latest challenge. For a start, he proved that he can adapt. A center forward in his playing days, Pizzi’s teams have usually featured a target man figure, often in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Chile did not play that way, and the coach did not force a change. He was more conservative than Sampaoli, sticking with a back four rather than the constant switches his predecessor made between a line of three and four. But he respected the team’s style and worked within it. If he calls his old friend Bauza — the two played together at Rosario Central in Argentina — then he will surely tell him about how Saudi Arabia struggle to defend against top-level teams. An entirely different process of adaptation will be necessary, then, if he is to succeed in his new job. Where his Chile side sought to impose themselves on the game, his Saudi Arabia will surely concentrate on solid defense and sporadic swift break-outs.
In his previous job Pizzi also demonstrated the capacity to handle a notoriously difficult dressing room. Relations in the Chile camp have often been strained. Pizzi kept them focused with leadership that was strong but low profile, with a refreshing lack of ego. There was never a feeling that he was competing with Sampaoli’s legacy.
He is a man entitled to a bit of swagger in his stride. As a player Pizzi was good enough to become the top goalscorer in the Spanish league while playing for Tenerife. He was sufficiently accomplished to spend two seasons at Barcelona. And, realizing that he was not going to get a game ahead of Gabriel Batistuta, he gave up dreams of playing for Argentina and instead naturalized as a Spaniard, representing his adopted country in both the 1996 European Championships and the 1998 World Cup.
As a coach, his CV includes domestic titles in both Chile and Argentina, as well as spells in Mexico and in Spain with Valencia, where the decision to replace him taken by the incoming Singaporean tycoon Peter Lim does not in retrospect appear to have been a wise choice.
So where did it go wrong for Pizzi’s Chile? On the field, the team picked up enough points to finish fifth and make the play-off against New Zealand. But Bolivia were penalized for fielding an ineligible player — and the extra points and goals awarded to Peru were sufficient to take them above Chile on goal difference.
It is undeniable, though, that the goals dried up for Chile. In their last six competitive games they could only score twice. The explanation is simple enough — the side grew old together, and lost some of the zip that was essential for their success. It was surely a mistake to take the full-strength squad to Russia for the Confederations Cup in the middle of the year — a fourth consecutive summer tournament for an aging group of players who would have been better served with a rest. But it does mean that Juan Antonio Pizzi has gained first-hand knowledge of the conditions that will apply in next year’s World Cup — and if Chile are no longer able to put that to good use, perhaps Saudi Arabia can.