Mexico 4-2 United States: Mexico go 2-0 down but recover to win a brilliant final
Mexico retained the Gold Cup after an open, attack-minded game.
Jose Manuel de la Torre kept faith with the side that overcame Honduras in the semi-final. Andres Guardado and Carlos Salcido were declared fit to start.
Bob Bradley sprung a huge surprise by picking Freddy Adu from the start, after his key contribution against Panama in the semi-final. Landon Donovan also returned to the side, with Clint Dempsey moving upfront.
This was one of the best international finals of modern times – six goals, some of them superb, plus countless other chances that should have been converted. Both sides had plenty of attempts, but Mexico created more throughout the game, and eventually took advantage of their opportunities.
The two formations were broadly similar – both sides defended with two banks of four without the ball, then allowed their wide players inside quickly when they won possession, creating fluid quartets on both sides. In turn, the full-backs had plenty of space to exploit when getting forward, and the result of each wide player coming inside into the middle of the pitch was that they often weren’t in a good position to track the opposition full-back.
The main tactical difference between the teams was their attitude without the ball. The US stood off and let Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro play passes, whilst Mexico looked to press quickly, epitomised by Torrado nicking the ball from Dempsey and playing in Giovani dos Santos for a chance he flashed wide of the far post.
Dempsey was most frequently found on the left of midfield but took it in turns with Donovan to become the highest player up the pitch, meaning both tended to move towards the ball, whereas Javier Hernandez generally looked to sprint into space over the top. Mexico had clearly identified the lack of pace at the heart of the US defence as a main weakness, and balls were continually chipped over centre-backs or slid into channels for Hernandez and dos Santos to run onto.
In truth, both US goals were completely against the run of play, and came when Mexico were arguably playing their best football in the game. Their opening goal came from the first US attack – Steve Cherundolo forced a corner that Adu sent to the near post, where Michael Bradley powered home a header.
The second goal also originated from the right-back zone, where Eric Lichaj was now playing. Some tremendous combination play saw Dempsey pick up the ball between the lines – he slipped a great pass to Donovan who rounded off a tremendous move with a confident finish.
At this point, Bradley was in a difficult situation. He found himself 2-0 up despite his team having been completely outplayed in the opening 25 minutes. A change in tactics to beef up he midfield would have been the sensible option, but with the players he had available, it’s difficult to see what he could have done without looking to his substitutes. With one change already made through injury, his options from the bench were limited. Bradley is no stranger to a radical change of tactics midway through a game (often with great results) and as much as a tactical switch after 30 minutes would have been an extremely bold move, he must have considered bringing on another midfielder to try and preserve the lead.
Mexico got back into the game with two quick goals, both coming because they brought their wide players inside to become goal threats. Hernandez, having spent the first quarter of the game playing on the shoulder of the last man, then dropped deep and found space in the hole, knocking a good pass over the top for Pablo Barrera, who finished at the near post. The second goal was more scrappy but owed to the same feature – wide players coming into the middle. Guardado squeezed the ball in after good work from Barrera.
Amongst all this, Mexico had two make two substitutions because of injuries to their defenders. Jorge Torres Nilo replaced Salcido, and then Hector Reynoso came on for his debut for Rafael Marquez. This should have destabilized their defence but seemed to actually make it more solid – Salcido was a big injury doubt before the game and may well not have been fit from the start.
In the second period, Dempsey and Donovan came towards the ball quickly, which meant the US had a couple of decent spells of possession, but also meant they were playing in front of Mexico rather than penetrating the back four, and there was a feeling that Mexico were probably more vulnerable to direct breaks (when their wingers were high up the pitch, and to exploit the lack of mobility of their central midfielders.) Jermaine Jones was slightly more of a force in the game, but still relatively quiet – with Bradley sitting deeper, Jones should have been providing the driving runs from midfield that were so effective against Jamaica, but there was a lack of inspiration from that zone.
Mexico took the lead for the first time with a familiar combination – Guardado came into a central zone to play in Barrera, whose finish again took Tim Howard by surprise.
Then, the game changed. Mexico were so relieved to be finally in the lead (and no doubt exhausted too) that they retreated to a counter-attacking system, dropping the wingers back and becoming 4-4-1-1. The wingers were much less of a threat – Barrera, having been the most dangerous attacking player, faded to such an extent that he was replaced.
At this point, the US came into the game and could have made it 3-3 when Dempsey hit the bar, but Mexico were still a huge threat on the break. Alfredo Talavera’s quick distribution set dos Santos off on solo runs, and he and Hernandez’s pace always looked likely to get a fourth. That clinching goal eventually came when dos Santos retreated from a couple of challenges in the area, before clipping a wonderful ball into the far top corner. It was a fitting goal to end a remarkable final.
Despite the US taking a two-goal lead, Mexico always seemed to be winning the tactical battle – more possession, more chances – and eventually, more goals. They were more proactive without the ball early on and more dangerous in the final third with the wingers coming in – it’s amazing they managed to score four goals, and yet tournament top scorer and MVP Hernandez didn’t manage to find the net, but that is to their credit – they had plenty of goalscoring options.
Bradley’s main decision, to pick Adu, was broadly a success. He was probably the brightest attacking player for the US, finding space between the lines and drifting wide to get more time on the ball. The back four was constantly overwhelmed by the pace and directness of the Mexico attacking quartet, however, and Mexico were superior for the majority of the game.