Uruguay 1-0 Mexico: the best two sides from Group A progress
A strange match, considering both teams’ prisoner’s dilemma in this final group game.
Both sides were going for the win, of course, but the match is difficult to analyse because the mentality of the sides changed at various points in the game. Mexico started playing with their normal mentality, then switched to an urgent attacking strategy just after half-time, when they became aware of the South Africa v France scoreline. Finally, when they heard France had got a goal back, they reverted to a more cautious approach – still trying to score, but acknowledging that conceding a couple of goals on the counter-attack was not a risk worth taking.
Uruguay maintained their 4-3-1-2ish shape that they moved to for the second game, after playing 3-5-2 in the opening game against France. This saw Diego Forlan playing as a trequartista behind Luis Suarez and Edison Cavani, who switched sides and dropped into deeper, wide roles when not in possession. Alvaro Pereira was the most attacking of the three ‘central’ midfielders, and he also played slightly to the left, with the other two protecting the back four.
Mexico’s shape changed from their previous two games. They maintained the rough 3-4-3 / 4-3-3 formation, but the different personnel gave it a slightly different tilt. Firstly, Efrain Juarez was replaced by Andreas Guardado, a far more offensive player. This provided more of an attacking threat in the final third of the field, but Juarez’s box-to-box tendencies were missed in linking defence and attack.
The game’s main battle was in Mexico’s left-back position. In their second game against France, Carlos Salcido consistently got forward to cause the French defence problems. Today, though, one of Uruguay’s outside forwards always made sure they got into a position to occupy him defensively, wide on the right-hand side. Salcido was much less of an attacking threat, and with the right-back / right wing-back Ricardo Osorio being more naturally defensive-minded, Mexico struggled to get their wide defenders into the game.
The lack of Juarez was also a big blow. He provides an extremely energetic midfield presence, and allows Gerardo Torrado to play a more casual, low-key passing role in the centre. But Guardado was in place of Juarez – he drifted into attacking zones when Mexico had the ball rather than looking to receive simple balls to feet. This made Torrado seem slightly lazy and with Rafael Marquez not able to step too far into midfield because of the presence of Diego Forlan, Uruguay were allowed to dominate the centre of midfield.
That’s not to say they necessarily had the better of the game, as Mexico often look to play along the flanks anyway. But Mexico had the same problem they’ve had in their previous two games, and in their pre-tournament friendly against England – they dominate possession, but they can’t work the ball into goalscoring opportunities. The centre of midfield was ‘out’ as Uruguay were dominating that zone, the flanks were less of an option because of Salcido being nullified, and Uruguay’s deep defensive line meant that the movement of the Mexico forwards didn’t work as well as it did against France – whose high line was exploited to great effect for the first goal.
Mexican problems upfront
The selection of Cuauhtemoc Blanco on the left was an incredible decision considering Mexico’s shape relies on movement and running – Blanco is a Mexican legend and all, but he is quite possibly the least mobile attacking player in this tournament. He runs as if he is permanently about to collapse, and his lack of movement further prevented Salcido’s progress.
His fellow striker Guillermo Franco must also fear for his place. He is the opposite of Blanco – his movement is superb, dropping into midfield zones and allowing Giovani dos Santos (and Carlos Vela, when fit) to exploit space in the centre of the opposition defence. But Franco frequently miscontrols the ball when it comes his way, and has missed easy chances in the competition. Javier Hernandez is presumably seen as a supersub, but Mexico need his pace and running from the start.
Uruguay played excellently throughout. They dropped deep and although they were happy to let Mexico have the ball in reasonably advanced positions both on the flanks and in the centre, as soon as Mexico looked to work the ball towards the goal, the Lugano-Victorio-Arevalo-Perez defensive square made it difficult for any Mexicans to get time on the ball. The two full-backs almost man-marked the Mexico wingers, never looking to get forward and always remaining strictly goalside.
Forlan the man
The most impressive player on show was Forlan, who seems to be thriving in his deeper role where he can become more involved in build-up play. Uruguay lacked creativity when he played upfront alongside Suarez, and his movement and link-up play is very impressive. He not only caused Mexico a threat in terms of creativity, he also largely stopped Rafael Marquez’s move forward into midfield and gave them one less option when they had the ball. With Cavani and Suarez starting in wide positions, Uruguay had a traditional 4-3-1-2 shape when they had the ball, but a near-strikerless shape when they didn’t.
The goal showed how each of the three attacking players stuck to their zones well – Forlan picked up the ball in a deep position and drew in Salcido from his wide position. That created space for Cavani on the flank, and he got into an advanced position before swinging a long, deep cross over to the opposite side of the pitch, where Suarez met the ball with a superb header.
Playing a 4-3-1-2 can be a problem defensively in wide areas, if it leaves opposition full-backs free, but both Suarez and Cavani showed a willingness to drop back and help defend.
Mexico had most of the play for the second half, but created few real goalscoring opportunities for the aforementioned reasons, and they need more cutting edge upfront if they are to make a real mark on this competition. They look like facing Argentina in the second round – where raw pace upfront is the key. If it’s half as good as the two sides’ meeting at the same stage in 2006, it will be a tremendous match.
The outcome from the final group A round was the best result possible. South Africa got the win the nation wanted, but the superior two sides in the group progressed. Much will be made of Bafana Bafana being the first-ever hosts to fail to progress past the first round of the competition, but they performed better than expected. And besides, if your perspective is a desire for South Africans to enjoy their team’s performance, a triumphant victory over France in the first round is a better finale than a thrashing against Argentina in the second.
These two sides were far better than their group opponents. Uruguay qualified with seven points and some ease – considering they were clearly playing for a draw against France in the first match, Oscar Tabarez has effectively played each game perfectly.
Mexico are a wonderful side to watch and their tactical shape is fascinating, but they need goals.