Mexico: talented squad, but highly unpredictable
No other country has such a frustratingly consistent record at recent World Cups. Mexico have been eliminated at the second round stage in 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010 – often after some promising performances in the group stage.
By now, they should be capable of pushing on and finally reaching the quarter-final stage. They were genuinely impressive at points in 2010, won the Gold Cup in 2011 with a brilliant 4-2 win over the USA in one of the best international finals in recent memory, then shocked Brazil the next year by winning the Olympic title.
However, there have been serious problems since then. World Cup qualification was a farce, with four different coaches taking charge of Mexico games in 2013, amongst various tales of player indiscipline. Miguel Herrera was appointed shortly before the play-off victory over New Zealand, triumphed with a squad of purely domestic-based players, and now has gradually brought European-based stars back into the side, although Carlos Vela remains in international exile.
For the third consecutive World Cup, Mexico will play a back three. In 2006 it was 3-4-1-2, in 2010 it was 3-4-3, and now it’s more like a 3-5-2. Mexico play an attacking game, attempting to command possession and throwing plenty of players forward, although it’s hard to believe there won’t be some defensive mistakes.
As in 2010, the key to the backline is Rafael Marquez. Captain for the fourth tournament in a row, a World Cup first, he understands the positional requirements of playing in this defence, covering for the two markers either side when needed, but also stepping up ahead of them to start passing moves from a deep-lying midfield role. When this works it’s brilliant to watch, but Marquez’s mobility has declined, and neither of the centre-backs are entirely comfortable covering the wide areas.
In particular, the right-sided centre-back Francisco Rodriguez looks clumsy on the ball, lacks pace, and doesn’t really suit a three-man defence in an attacking side – he’d be more at home in a back four, on the edge of his own box. Hector Moreno is a much better defender – more mobile, better positionally, good on the ball and left-sided, which helps the balance of the defence.
Therefore, it seems highly likely Mexico’s errors will come from the right of the defence, with the different abilities of the wing-backs a further reason to believe there’s an imbalance in the side. Paul Aguilar pootles up and down the line rather tentatively, while Miguel Layun motors forward with great attacking intent.
Whereas in 2010 Mexico played a front three and therefore had natural attacking width, now there’s more responsibility on the wing-backs to push high up the field.
The midfield is also different from at previous World Cups, with one sole holding midfielder and two who push on. Jose Vazquez is a small, stocky holder who breaks up play, and the attacking qualities come from his two midfield colleagues.
Andres Guardado is a left-sided, energetic player who dribbles with the ball at great speed, but can lack end product, while Hector Herrera is a powerful and technically talented box-to-box midfielder, who will probably captain Mexico in future and is their best hope of being able to dominate matches here.
Upfront, Herrera seems likely to leave out Javier Hernandez. The Manchester United poacher plays more of an all-round role with the Mexican side, dropping off the front into wide positions, but hasn’t appeared sharp in that position having been displaced upfront by the ruthless, clinical Oribe Peralta, who has a turn of speed and scored the crucial goals against Brazil in the Olympic final.
That means, somewhat pleasingly, Giovani dos Santos should start instead. While his club career stalled quite astonishingly having left Barcelona in 2008, he’s enjoyed a good campaign with Villarreal and more importantly, is a consistently brilliant ‘tournament’ footballer. Deep breath: he won individual awards at world U17 and U20 level, was named the best player at the Gold Cup in 2009, the second-best youngster at the actual World Cup in 2010, scored the sublime clinching goal in the 2011 Gold Cup, and then has looked lively at the 2011 Copa America, the victorious 2012 Olympics and the 2013 Confederations Cup.
It’s difficult to think of another player who has so consistently underwhelmed at club level while looking so dangerous for his international side, but that’s not an uncommon problem for Mexican players in Europe. Dos Santos’ main quality is his appreciation of space, always drifting laterally to collect the ball in wide areas, before dribbling directly towards goal. Against Croatia and Cameroon sides that lack protection for the defence, he could be a (belated) revelation.
Who knows? On paper this seems a good team, but Herrera was appointed relatively recently and it’s tough to know how effectively the players understand his gameplan. Marquez and Vazquez have huge responsibilities positionally, while Aguilar, Herrera, Guardado and Layun need to cover lots of ground. The front two, with Hernandez an option from the bench, should grab some goals.
The defensive section of the side will surely make errors, and therefore it’s tough to imagine Mexico finally reaching the quarter-final stage. The final group game against Croatia will probably decide whether Mexico go out in round one, or round two.
Coach: Miguel Hector Herrera – likes attacking football, and players he knows
Formation: 5-3-2 in defence, something like 3-1-4-2 in attack
Key player: Herrera can help dominate the midfield
Strength: A good left flank
Weakness: Likely to make defensive errors
Key tactical question: Can Dos Santos find space?
Mexico: talented squad, but highly unpredictable