A fearless, proactive Mexico took it to a more timid USA in the CONCACAF Cup playoff, writes Liviu Bird in his tactical breakdown.
The entertainment of Mexico and the United States’ match for a spot in the 2017 FIFA Confederations Cup couldn’t hide both teams’ tactical deficiencies. Neither entered the game in an ideal situation, but Mexico seemed just slightly better-prepared for the one-off playoff, winning 3-2 in extra time.
While United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann settled into the reactive posture the Americans have displayed on the world stage for some time in the CONCACAF Cup playoff on Saturday, Mexico interim coach Ricardo Ferretti did the opposite. His bold and attack-minded lineup, featuring three center forwards and no true wingers, showed no fear as Juan Carlos Osorio would be taking over from him soon, regardless of the result.
That result was a win in which El Tri attacked from the first whistle and, at least in the top half of the field, looked largely comfortable. The U.S. displayed the same spirit that impressed fans worldwide at the World Cup, coming back from two one-goal deficits to tie, but the Americans hardly ever imposed themselves on the game.
The U.S. lined up in a narrow 4-4-2 with Michael Bradley reprising his usual free role ahead of Kyle Beckerman. Clint Dempsey drifted between the midfield and target man Jozy Altidore, linking the lines with mixed results, though his hold-up play improved in the second half.
Meanwhile, Mexico flowed between a 5-3-2 and 4-3-3, with Rafa Márquez playing between the back line and midfield. Ahead of him, Andrés Guardado and Hector Herrera covered a large amount of ground as dictated by the absence of José Juan Vázquez in the holding role. Raúl Jiménez shuttled between the higher lines, while Javier Hernández and Oribe Peralta stayed either side of him and acted as a traditional two-forward set.
The three-on-two matchup between U.S. center backs Geoff Cameron and Matt Besler and Mexico’s narrow forwards troubled the defenders all night. El Tri’s ability to match or outnumber the U.S. in the attacking third paid off early, as Mexico scored the first goal of the game in the 10th minute.
Besler and Beckerman both stepped to pressure Peralta’s dummy run, which took two defenders out of the play without even a touch of the ball and left Jiménez one-on-one with Cameron. Bradley’s higher starting position allowed Hernández to make an unmarked trailing run into the attack as Peralta received the return pass.
With the back line stretched, Fabian Johnson didn’t recognize the open space quickly enough and was too far away to effectively cover Cameron. Peralta blew past a ball-watching Besler, giving Mexico a two-on-one running at Brad Guzan’s goal that Hernández finished with ease after the quick combination.
Immediately upon his team taking the lead, Márquez withdrew farther between the center backs and advanced from a deeper position.
However, the U.S. equalized quickly, exploiting the width in Mexico’s narrow shape to win a free kick on the left flank.
Bradley perfectly weighted his service onto Cameron’s forehead after DaMarcus Beasley won the set piece. The play left the Mexican players staring at goalkeeper Moisés Muñoz in disbelief of their disorganized defense, which would be a frequent theme whenever the U.S. attacked.
On the opposite end, Bradley dropped next to Beckerman defensively to reduce the available space for Mexico’s forwards. Bradley, in another match that saw him cover an extraordinary amount of ground, also unbalanced Mexico’s defense with late runs from that deeper position.
Mexico’s forwards were either unwilling or unassigned to do the defensive work usually assigned to wingers, leaving the wingbacks and central midfielders to defend in wide spaces. As such, the U.S.’s most dangerous looks came from play initiated either on the flank or in the half-spaces just outside the central-most channel.
The U.S. failed to capitalize on its wide advantage besides winning the free kick that led to the first goal, and it caused no confusion in Mexico’s back line with decisive runs from the forwards. Beasley swung a couple crosses into the penalty area that Altidore nearly finished, but the play remained too one-dimensional and couldn’t induce any fatal mistakes from Mexico’s shaky center backs.
The U.S. attacked less frequently as Mexico continued to threaten in the second half. The Americans looked progressively more tired from chasing the game, conceding possession and space to El Tri while also making the mental errors that come with physical exhaustion.
The American wingers almost looked like second fullbacks as they stayed closer to their defensive partner on their side. The U.S. maintained strict vertical compactness between defense and midfield, but it often left too much space in front without the forwards also dropping back to close the gap between lines.
As the wide men collapsed, horizontal compactness between the wingers and central midfielders suffered, and Mexico circulated the ball at will in front of Bradley and Beckerman. Herrera and Guardado had time to pick their passes to the forwards checking into space or the wingbacks running in behind.
The U.S. also held too high of a line considering the lack of pressure on Mexico’s creative midfielders. The American midfielders continued to drop, while the defenders stepped up to leave spaces gaping behind them.
On Mexico’s first goal in extra time, Guardado had time to lift a pass toward Paul Aguilar as the advancing wingback ran behind Jones and Beasley. Jones and the back line dropped hard to close down Aguilar before he could control the ball, but the other midfielders didn’t follow and, again, Johnson left too much space between himself and Cameron.
Without the midfielders tracking back, the U.S.’s vertical compactness disappeared. Aguilar scuffed his cross, but Peralta still had time to adjust his run and finish past Guzan because Cameron had no defensive support.
The U.S. scrambled to tie the game again as substitute forward Bobby Wood provided the first challenging run Mexico’s central defenders had seen all night, cutting across the back line before finishing well across his body.
In effect, it was the same problem that just doomed the U.S. on the opposite end, as DeAndre Yedlin was under little pressure and had time to weight his pass perfectly.
The final result came not from Mexico playing its best, but the U.S. being unwilling to take the game to its opponent’s back line in the same manner that El Tri did. Mexico showed plenty of defensive deficiencies on Saturday and the three center forwards were only sporadically dangerous, but the U.S. seemed to prefer absorbing attacks to going forward.
It’s not that the U.S. parked the bus; it was probably the prudent choice against a Mexican team that looked stronger on paper than almost every American player. But if a team decides to play defensively (or in any fashion), each player has to be on the same page and execute his role.
That lack of understanding, and Aguilar’s golazo in the dying moments of extra time, slammed the door on the Americans’ hopes of competing in the Confederations Cup. The U.S. reacted meekly to its opponent’s style and tactical changes rather than imposing its own, and Mexico grabbed its opportunities when they came.