South Africa 1-1 Mexico: a fair result but neither side will be happy

June 11, 2010

An entertaining game that finished with a fair result, a point apiece. Both sides will be relatively disappointed to come away from the opening game with just a draw, and the match demonstrated the faults of both sides more than it did their qualities.

Team selection

South Africa lined up similar to expected, with a narrowish 4-2-3-1 shape. Steven Pienaar was fielded in a central role with Teko Modise on the right. Lucas Thwala was preferred to Tsepo Masilela at left-back, and Kagisho Dikgacoi got the nod ahead of Thanduyise Khuboni in the centre of midfield.

Mexico were exactly as predicted, in their flexible 3-4-3 shape that saw Rafael Marquez playing ahead of the other two centre-backs, who moved into wide positions when Mexico had the ball. The two wing-backs took up advanced positions, and Giovani dos Santos drifted in from the wing.

Differences in style

The game was interesting because it featured two completely different styles of football. Mexico’s shape was fluid and they looked to retain possession of the ball in midfield, whilst South Africa’s were much more rigid defensively and looked to play quick, direct balls to the lone striker Katlego Mphela, who worked the channels well and clearly had the beating of the Mexico defence for pace.

Mexico were constantly threatening down the right-hand side, where Paul Aguilar was finding space between Siphiwe Tshabalala and Thwala on the touchline. The problem was that Tshabalala wasn’t sure who he was supposed to be picking up. As discussed here (see the first photo under ‘the basic formation’) the centre-backs spreading wide in possession means that they have three players on either flank (centre-back, wing-back, winger) and against most formations (in this case, a 4-2-3-1), that means a 3 v 2 on the wings. Tshabalala sometimes looked to close down Ricardo Osorio when in possession, but with Thwala concerned about Giovani dos Santos, who was playing more centrally than Carlos Vela on the opposite side, Aguilar got a lot of time on the ball and Mexico looked for a pass to him on numerous occasions.

Gaxa threatens

South Africa’s direct route of attack didn’t work particularly well in the first half. They often spent a long time trying to get possession from Mexico, and then immediately hit a long, ambitious ball for Mphela to chase – when that didn’t work, they were under pressure straight away. Their best moments were when they countered in numbers – not necessarily when they were pegged back inside their own third of the pitch, but when they won the ball in midfield and looked to exploit the fact Mexico often only had two defenders in position, with Marquez moving into midfield.

On two occasions, quick passing almost resulted in a ball to Siboniso Gaxa, the powerful full-back who loves to bomb forward. Mexico’s system, with three forwards, is set out to try and prevent opposition full-backs getting forward, and Carlos Vela was slow to respond when Gaxa got into dangerous positions, almost as if taken by surprise that South Africa were willing to gamble by pushing their full-backs forward.

South Africa looked to press Mexico’s backline when the ball was with the goalkeeper, forcing him to play it out to the midfield, but then dropped to the halfway line in open play, happy for Mexico to dominate possession.

Guillermo Franco had a mixed first half. His movement throughout the game was excellent, often dropping deep to draw a defender out of position and creating space for the lively dos Santos to exploit, but Franco wasted three good chances, two with his head from set-pieces.

Second half

South Africa made a change at half-time, bringing on Masilela for Thwala in a straight swap at left-back, and Masilela provided more attacking threat in the first ten minutes of the second half than Thwala had in the whole first half. South Africa began playing a more cultured game with a bigger focus on ball retention, and the technical skills of Pienaar, Modise and Letsholonyane were much more evident.

The goal came from a quick break, but one involving good interplay between players, rather than a straight, direct ball as they had looked to play throughout the first half. Marquez came forward into midfield but his ball to dos Santos was intercepted, and suddenly Mexico were left with just two players in defence. Tshabalala got a head start on Osorio, who was forced to turn before sprinting towards the ball, and hammered it into the far corner to give South Africa a slightly undeserved lead. It was a type of goal that Mexico were always prone to with Marquez stepping forward, and an example of why fielding a forward-playing sweeper can be dangerous.

Mexico switches

Javier Aguirre changed things straight away, bringing Aguliar off and inserting Andres Guardado, a versatile, creative attacking midfielder. Efrain Juarez moved to right-back, his customary position, and Mexico maintained a relatively similar shape, albeit with Guardado playing high up the pitch, and Torrado playing a deeper role.

Later, Vela and Franco were withdrawn, with veteran Cuauhtemoc Blanco and youngster Javier Hernandez both coming on, and Mexico ended up playing something like a 3-3-2-2 system – the three centre-backs with Marquez stepping up, Torrado playing inbetween two wing-backs, then Guardado, dos Santos, Blanco and Hernandez all playing around each other in fairly central positions.

The lack of width high up the pitch meant Mexico were fairly quiet when chasing a goal, and asking Blanco to move into wide roles didn’t work as he looked completely lacking in any pace/fitness. Mexico continued to have more possession but rarely looked like creating an opportunity.

Awful marking from South Africa

The goal came from Marquez, who was one of multiple men left unmarked after a short corner. South Africa defended set-pieces awfully all day – Franco missed two opportunities when unmarked in the first half, and Vela had a goal disallowed when Itumeleng Khune, the South African goalkeeper, managed to play him offside after a mad dash out of goal from a corner. Frankly, they deserved to lose a goal from this route and Marquez was one of three free players along the edge of the six-yard box.

South Africa suddenly looked nervous and sat back with little ambition, but they almost won it late on. Mphela’s pace again got him clear of the Mexico defence, but could only sidefoot against the outside of the post when through on goal.


Oscar Tabarez and Raymond Domenech will be delighted. Both sides look easy to score against, and lacking a poacher upfront.

Mexico can be opened up easily by exploiting space left by Marquez, and their high line doesn’t suit their centre-backs, all in their thirties and lacking in pace. They may dominate possession and the movement of dos Santos is a real threat, but Franco’s performance in front of goal was far from convincing and there is relatively little goalscoring threat from midfield.

South Africa are well-organised in open play and keep it tight between the lines, but they are awful at defending set-pieces. Playing a deep defensive line against them might negate their ability to play direct balls in behind the defenders. The technical quality of Modise is a real threat and Gaxa’s storming runs have to be watched, but whilst South Africa’s performance was not bad, it’s hard to imagine that any other side will play into their hands as much as Mexico did today.

A good game to start the tournament, but both sides will need to improve to progress.

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