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Showdown in Ohio: How the U.S. Can Beat Mexico

To the extent tactics matter when the U.S. plays Mexico, especially when El Tri has a new coach who could import his own philosophy, ASN’s Liviu Bird looks at the keys to Tuesday's game in Columbus.

BY Liviu Bird Posted
September 09, 2013
1:40 PM
THE INTRIGUE SURROUNDING the United States’ World Cup qualifier against Mexico on Tuesday is greater than any in recent memory. Both teams lost important games on Friday, Mexico hired a new coach in Luis Fernando Tena, and the U.S. lost its most important player, Michael Bradley, to injury.

Mexico’s 2-1 loss at Azteca Stadium to Honduras sealed Jose Manuel de la Torre’s exit, while the U.S.’s 3-1 defeat in Costa Rica knocked the Americans out of first place in the Hexagonal standings. Still, with the right results elsewhere, the U.S. is just one win away from clinching a ticket to Brazil.

Both teams will want to bounce back after disappointing showings, and no time is better for a rebound match than against their biggest rivals. So while the pressure on the teams is different, it should add another element to an already deep and fierce rivalry.

Chepo’s Last Stand

In de la Torre’s final match, he continued with a 4-3-3 experiment he utilized in an August friendly against the Ivory Coast. While Tena will likely import a different philosophy in time, the broad strokes of the system will likely remain the same for at least his first game in charge.

Mexico is a dynamic team whose players interchange freely. Outside backs Carlos Salcido and Severo Meza get forward consistently, Christian Gimenez and Fernando Arce pull wide from central midfield to open space for Giovani dos Santos and Angel Reyna to check back, and everybody seems to know when to get out of the middle to avoid killing a teammate’s space.

Often, central players end up on the wing, and wide players end up in the middle. The only exceptions are target forward Oribe Peralta, who typically stays around the middle of the field to post up and lay balls off to teammates, and Gerardo Torrado, who stays in front of the center backs.

(Torrado picked up his second yellow card against Honduras, so he will be out against the U.S., which is a big blow to an already shaky Mexican defense.)

Again, while exact the formation could change under Tena, the tools at his disposal will not, and it’s those tools that dictate the type of soccer El Tri plays.

Sharp on the Counter, Dull in the Back

Mexico’s most dangerous attacks against Honduras were on the counter. On several occasions, Mexico won the ball and went directly to goal, scoring once and setting up several other good opportunities.

As the name implies, the key to Mexico’s counter-attacks is rapid, almost entirely vertical movement. On its opening goal in the sixth minute, the ball moves from the defensive line to Reyna to dos Santos very quickly, with vertical passes and runs.

Mexico only countered with three players (sometimes four): dos Santos, Peralta, and Reyna. The speed of their runs and vertical movements created numbers-up situations on Honduras’ relatively slow back line. The only goal came from incisive passes and dos Santos’ 60-yard dribble at speed down the left side.

In the 12th minute, Honduras center back Victor Bernardez coughed up a ball inside his own defensive third, and Mexico again went quickly to goal. This time, Gimenez got involved to make the advantage four on two, rather than the three on two Mexico had on its goal-scoring play.

Anytime Mexico wins the ball, it wants to get forward as quickly as possible. The passes are vertical and sharp, and the ball moves from north to south, not east to west.

On the other end, each individual defender showed poor one-on-one skills in the back.

Watch Honduras’ goals and Jerry Bengtson’s wide-open look at the end of the game in the highlight video above. On Bengtson’s goal, which tied the game, he has time to bring down a ball and turn on top of the penalty area with two defenders on his back.

On Carlo Costly’s game-winning goal, he blows by center back Diego Reyes. On Bengtson’s 86th-minute chance, the Mexican defenders dive into poor tackles on Roger Espinoza, one by one, until it opens up a gap to slip Bengtson in. Somehow, he pulls his shot wide from seven yards while staring at an open goal.

Winning the Middle

At Azteca in March, the U.S. won the middle of the field in its defensive third. Omar Gonzalez and Matt Besler held strong in central defense, and Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley swept up well in front of them. That’s the area Mexico dominated against Honduras (in red on the Mexican formation graphic at the top of the page), pressing high to win the ball and cause panic.

El Tri’s counterattacks end with Mexico numbers-up in that area, and Honduras struggled to contain Mexico’s movement there. Whoever U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann plays next to Jermaine Jones in defensive midfield should be a strong ball-winner and provide an outlet to relieve Mexico’s high pressure in that area.

Bradley failed to connect on just one pass in March in Mexico City, and most of his passes originated in that high attacking space in which Mexico tried to win the ball.

Kyle Beckerman would likely be the closest facsimile of Bradley that Klinsmann could expect to find. He is a tenacious tackler and can keep possession under pressure in the back half of the field. Combined with Jones’ pit bull mentality, that central pairing becomes difficult to break down.

Kick Them While They’re Down

Mexico is vulnerable. It shouldn’t be able to attack as early or as often as it did against Honduras, due to being on the road in a hostile environment and the Americans’ likely high energy at the start of the game.

However, it would be dangerous to throw numbers forward right from the kickoff. If the U.S. falls prey to Mexico’s venomous counterattack and concedes early on, it will be hard to break down a packed-in defense, regardless of individual mistakes in the larger block.

It will take a measured approach to balance attack with the necessary precautions in the back against Mexico. If the U.S. scores once, that makes a second goal more likely because Mexico will have to stretch itself a bit to push forward, but until the first one falls, expect a cagey and stubborn progression.

Liviu Bird is ASN’s tactical analyst. He is also a contributor to NBC ProSoccerTalk and Cascadia regional editor for SoccerWire.com.

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