Saturday June 13th, 2015

VIÑA DEL MAR, Chile — A day after host Chile opened the Copa America with a win over Ecuador, Mexico and Bolivia battled to a scoreless draw in the second match of the tournament.

One of two invitees to South America's premier competition along with Jamaica, Mexico is without a number of its top players, who are being preserved for the CONCACAF Gold Cup. It appeared that way in its opening match, with Mexico unable to muster much but able to secure at least a point.

Here are three thoughts on Friday's game:

Soria's Bielsa blueprint

When Bolivia’s Argentinean coach Mauricio Soria was appointed in October, he said that he wants to do for his adopted nation what Marcelo Bielsa did for Chile, giving it an identity and encouraging an attacking style of football. He’s got some way to go before he achieves that, but there were signs of a cohesive pressing game beginning to develop.

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It’s high-risk, of course: A 5–0 defeat to Argentina in Bolivia's final friendly before the tournament showed just how dangerous it can be for the defense to push high and leave space in behind it.

Only once on Friday, though, did it really look like Bolivia may be caught in that way, as Jesus Manuel Corona ran clear on the overlap early in the second half but smacked his shot well wide.

That risk is particularly acute when one of the center backs is Ronald Raldes. He is a player of many gifts, but at 34, pace isn’t one of them. For a long time it had looked as thoug Raldes would be ruled out for the game due to injury, but the Oriente Petrolero defender recovered to win his 82nd cap. He trudges through games, shoulders hunched, belly a little rounder than those of his teammates, but his positional sense and his organizational qualities shouldn’t be underestimated. He was in constant communication with Soria, always pointing, encouraging his fellow defenders to hold a high line.

They couldn’t prevent Mexico dominating possession, but Bolivia’s pressing game did prevent El Tri from generating any kind of rhythm, and for the first hour Bolivia had the better chances. Ricardo Pedriel hit the post and only a fine tip-over from Corona kept out a long-range effort from Jhasmani Campos.

Mexico's shadow squad

There’s something slightly odd about Mexico’s attitude about the Copa America. Again and again it is invited as one of the two guest nations from outside CONMEBOL, again and again it accepts the invitation, and again and again it then sends a weakened team in order to protect its stars before the CONCACAF Gold Cup.

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It’s understandable that it wants to prioritize its own confederation’s tournament, but the Gold Cup can’t come as a surprise to it—so why bother sending a team to the Copa America? It seems a little disrespectful to the tournament (CONMEBOL presumably welcomes Mexico because of the TV rights it brings), and also to the hundreds of Mexican fans who have come to Chile as though they can’t remember what happens every four years. It’s a strange conspiracy of collective amnesia.

The change of personnel creates confusion on the pitch. Miguel Herrera has followed a fine Mexican tradition in selecting a tactically flexible side that tends to play with a back three, but here there was an imbalance that seemed to count against it. The starting system (although Herrera switched to a 4-4-2 just after the hour) is perhaps best described as a 3-3-2-2, but in the first half particularly Corona operated so wide on the left that he and left wing back Adrian Aldrete repeatedly ended up in the same area of the pitch, essentially getting in each other’s way.

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Bolivia's time-wasting

The only negative in a generally encouraging performance from Bolivia was its time-wasting, although it may argue that was balanced by Mexico’s pathetic attempts at simulation. It began in the first half with goalkeeper Romel Quinonez dawdling over goal kicks and continued after halftime when the entire team’s pain threshold dipped alarmingly.

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Quinonez was perhaps the most persistent offender, but Campos at one point suffered what was blatantly a strategic injury, collapsing after Mexico had been awarded a free kick. The Mexicans played on, as they were entirely within their rights to do, and when Raul Jimenez had headed wide, Bolivia protested vehemently. Protocol on this varies across the world, but surely for the flow of the game the match should only be stopped for extremely serious injuries or knocks to the head.

To allow the practice to continue, that sides should be guilted into putting the ball out of play every time an opponent goes down, simply encourages teams to feign agony every time they want to stop an opponent breaking. In fact, given how prevalent the practice of breaking up the rhythm of the game is, would it not make sense for a regulation to be introduced that if a player needs treatment on the field—as opposed to hobbling to the sideline himself—he should be forced to stay off for a minimum period of time, say three minutes?

After all, if the injury is that serious, it’ll take that long to put it right.


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