Mexico’s fluid shape makes them dark horses

May 27, 2010

“There’s a lot of movement arrows on that diagram”, you might be thinking. And you’d be right – there are, for that’s the key to Mexico’s system – movement from almost every player on the pitch and plenty of width when attacking.

The 3-1 defeat to England was harsh on Mexico. They dominated possession and created the better chances – a lack of composure in the penalty area was their downfall.

Although expected to play a four-man defence, they instead lined up with what was basically a 3-4-3 system, with energetic wing-backs, pacey wingers, and Rafael Marquez stepping up in front of the defence to become a centre-half.

There has been somewhat of a turnaround since Javier Aguirre took over as manager. This side featured just two of the players who started the final game under the reign of Sven-Goran Eriksson just 13 months ago, a disastrous 3-1 defeat to Honduras.

Whereas Eriksson had the side playing cagey, static, rigid football, Aguerre has the side expressing themselves and playing more attractive possession football.

Despite this, for the England game Mexico did not play Andres Guardado, the exciting left-sided attacking midfielder for Deportivo La Coruna, who many would pinpoint as Mexico’s best player. Instead, both Giovani dos Santos and Carlos Vela interchanged either side of Guillermo Franco.

The basic formation

This photo from the first half at Wembley (they are attacking the goal closest to the camera) shows Mexico’s shape when they have the ball. The centre-backs (marked in red) spread across the width of the pitch, with Rafael Marquez the only one within the width of the penalty area. Ahead of them, the wing-backs push on over the halfway line, whilst Gerardo Torrado comes deep and looks for a short pass into feet. His midfield partner, Efrain Juarez, plays a more energetic role and is further up the pitch.

The three forwards are spread across the width of the penalty area. Guillermo Franco looked to drop deep and drag the centre-backs out of position (as you can see, there is a lot of space for him to receive a ball to feet), with Vela and dos Santos looking to run in behind the England defence.

The most notable aspect of the above picture is that Mexico have three players wide on their right-hand side, wider than any England player, despite the fact the ball is on the opposite side of the pitch. This is a key part of Mexico’s game, looking to stretch the play and make the pitch as wide as possible.

A five-man defence when not in possession

Now in the second half (attacking the goal at the far end), Mexico’s defensive shape when they lose the ball becomes clear. The two wing-backs (in pink) drop almost level with the centre-backs (in red) when out of possession, creating almost a back five. The middle centre-back, Rafael Marquez, steps up ahead of his two central defensive colleagues and picks up any player playing ‘in the hole’ – in this case, Wayne Rooney. The three forwards (in yellow) stay high up the pitch and press the defenders, whilst the two midfielders (in blue) take up fairly standard positions, with Juarez dropping deeper than Torrado.

Cancelling out a 4-4-2

This reiterates the point that Mexico only have two midfield players when defending – it really is a five at the back, and three upfront. Mexico’s wide players occupy England’s full-backs, there is a straight 2 v 2 battle in the centre of midfield (blue), the wing-backs occupy England’s wingers (pink) and the three centre-backs take care of England’s two forwards. In the end, the only ‘free’ player on either side was a single centre-back. Rafael Marquez was able to step up more confidently than Ledley King (leaving two centre-backs against two strikers is more comfortable than leaving one centre-back against one striker) and therefore Mexico dominated possession.

Marquez happy to step up

Here, Marquez’s freedom to get forward is underlined – he  moves a good 15 yards ahead of the other two centre-backs, giving Mexico a numerical advantage in the centre of midfield. It also shows how naturally Mexico’s system creates triangles in wide areas – here Torrado (6, in blue) and the two other players close to the ball should be able to hold possession and work the ball around England’s two wide players.

In all, this was a rather good demonstration of how an attack-minded 3-4-3 can dominate possession against a 4-4-2. The key is the ‘free’ centre-back, who must be able to move into midfield to help retain the ball in that zone.

As with many three-man defence systems, it may come unstuck against a side playing a 4-3-3 with two natural wingers. Look at the picture above, and imagine how much space England’s wide players in a 4-3-3 would have been afforded, with Mexico often leaving just two men at the back.

With the players Mexico use, however, they should be able to respond fairly easily to this threat – the wing-backs are full-backs and therefore would be able to drop back and get goalside of opposition wingers, and Marquez is more than comfortable in a permanent central midfield role, meaning the side would become more like a 4-1-2-3 fairly seamlessly. ZM has recently put forward the view that an imminent tactical trend is a ‘centre-half’ dropping back from midfield to defence, creating a back three and allowing the full-backs to push on – Mexico’s switch to a four-man defence would essentially be the reverse of that, but has many similar characteristics.


Mexico’s system seems organised yet fluid, and very difficult to play against. Although they lost 3-1 at Wembley, they dominated the ball and created more genuine goalscoring opportunities. If they are to get to the knockout stages in South Africa they will need improvements at both ends – their centre-backs must be more dominant in the air, and they cannot afford to waste such glorious goalscoring chances. The latter issue is probably the key – either Carlos Vela or Giovani dos Santos need to step up and demonstrate their full potential – if they can do that, Mexico could progress.

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