Talking Tactics

Escape from Mexico City: How the U.S. Avoided a Loss

It was only a goalless draw, but the U.S. should be encouraged by the result against Mexico. ASN tactician Liviu Bird looks at what the Americans can take from the game against Mexico.
BY Liviu Bird Posted
March 27, 2013
11:22 AM
Luck and poor Mexican finishing played large roles for the United States on Tuesday at Estadio Azteca, allowing the visitors to cling to a 0-0 result. The Mexican attack, however, lacked a certain cold-blooded ruthlessness it used to possess, despite having the run of play.

The U.S. aimed to start in the same 4-3-3 formation it used on Friday against Costa Rica in Denver, but it quickly had to adjust to a 4-4-2. Less than 10 minutes after kickoff, Herculez Gomez and Graham Zusi withdrew to wide spots just above Maurice Edu and Michael Bradley, and Clint Dempsey assumed more of a shadow striker role.

Mexico did the opposite, pushing forward from its starting 4-4-2 formation to more of a 4-2-4. At times, it even looked like a 2-4-4, as both outside backs advanced at the same time when the U.S. sat far enough back.

Despite withdrawing, the U.S. maintained an offensive presence through Gomez and Zusi’s ability to release quickly. The holding players—especially Bradley, who completed 57 of his 58 attempted passes—controlled the tempo of possession well when their team had the ball, choosing when to go forward quickly and when to keep the ball and take pressure off the back line.

In the heart of defense, Matt Besler and Omar Gonzalez looked like a tandem that could easily start for their country in Brazil 2014. They stifled multiple attacks with solid positioning and tackling ability, save for some early nerves from the less-experienced Besler.

Flying Forward
Mexico attacked for the majority of the game, as is to be expected when it plays at Estadio Azteca. As usual, El Tri concentrated numbers on the flanks, with central players drifting to provide support for combination play down the sides. In this example, both layers of wide players have stepped up, allowing for maximum numbers in attack: Outside backs on both sides bombed forward at every opportunity, but left back Jorge Torres Nilo in particular stayed high. The winger on his side, Andres Guardado, stayed fairly central and checked back to find the ball, allowing Torres Nilo to overlap constantly. Central midfielders Carlos Salcido and Jesus Zavala held deep, but they were far from defensive. Instead, they operated as deep-lying playmakers, which allowed them to act as instigators of attacking moves down their respective flanks.

The trouble for them came with how flat the front line tended to get. If the ball had to be dropped back, the options were all too predictable; the U.S. dealt well with balls over the top, which often ended up being the only possible penetrating pass. Another effect was a lack of play on top of the American penalty area. The central area on top of the box from about 18 to 22 yards out saw little action, as did the 18-yard box itself.

Picking on Beasley
Much of Mexico’s attacking movement focused on isolating American left back DaMarcus Beasley, playing out of position for the second game in a row. Winger Javier Aquino caused problems with his pace, but Beasley held his own, as he did against Costa Rica. Despite Beasley’s experience in Liga Mexicana and lack of tendency to get flustered, Mexico likely wanted to exploit any discomfort he would feel by playing out of position in the special Azteca atmosphere. Mexico’s build-up play focused on forming triangles down each flank, but particularly on the right side. The ball travelled from outside to inside with relative ease, as the various polygonal points moved into proper position. In the example above, El Tri works the ball from Aquino to Severo Meza to Zavala, but the options are endless: Meza could also play to Salcido, who could then play Zavala; or Zavala could find Aquino again, who could play to a checking Giovanni dos Santos. FC Barcelona made this kind of triangulation famous, and its effectiveness is obvious. The idea is to isolate defenders and always have multiple passing options, no matter who is on the ball. It requires constant adjustments off the ball to ensure passing lanes stay open. Dos Santos played under target man Javier Hernandez, floating from wing to wing to facilitate play and open up those passing lanes. He covered a lot of ground in this match, constantly trying to provide an outlet for midfielders on the ball.

Because Gomez stayed too high in the first half, Mexico had an easy time penetrating down the Americans’ left side. Beasley often had insufficient defensive support against two or three Mexican attackers, who could use their passing triangles to move around him like a cone in training.

Gomez improved his tracking back in the second half, which condensed the space and forced Mexico to resort to deeper crosses and more long balls than in the first 45 minutes.

Cautious on the Ball
When the U.S. won the ball, Mexico pressured immediately, trying to win the ball back as quickly as possible. Hernandez and dos Santos initiated this immediate high press, but with how deep the central midfielders played, the U.S. could often find space on the ball if it breached the initial line of pressure.

As a result, Edu and Bradley had a lot of touches in the middle of the field. Dempsey and Altidore didn’t get a hold of the ball as often as would be ideal, but Bradley’s composure allowed him to find their feet more often than in the friendly at Azteca in August. The U.S. attempted 351 passes to Mexico’s 491. By comparison, the Americans were on the wrong end of a 490 to 248 difference in August. In Mexico’s first home qualifier against Jamaica in February, El Tri attempted 510 passes to Jamaica’s measly 181.

This was possible in part because Mexico’s central midfielders were dropped off and allowed space to play in front of them—although not in behind them, as the passing chart shows—and because of the positive U.S. formation and game plan. Sitting back was not on the agenda; Dempsey, Altidore, Gomez and Zusi all wanted to get on the ball in attack.

Bradley’s performance was particularly of note among the U.S. players. His perfect-minus-one pass completion included balls of all distances and angles, and he once again set the rhythm of the U.S. attack. The American metronome is well on his way to being captain of his country, which he probably should have been this week with Carlos Bocanegra’s absence.

A Turning Point Moving Forward?
The most encouraging aspect of this match for the Americans was Jurgen Klinsmann’s positivity in his lineup and formation choices. The U.S. held Mexico off while playing an attacking formation, not sitting three defensive midfielders in front of the center backs for 90 minutes.

A lot has changed in a week.

The U.S. has gone from a team in turmoil, under heavy criticism from fans and media, to a group capable of earning tough results in contrasting but difficult environments. With the second match on the road, Klinsmann decided to stick to what the team did best four days prior. For that, he deserves to be commended—as long as he learned from it and stays the course in June. Surely, it’s time to see what this team can do on the road if it always goes for three points rather than simply hoping for a tie. It doesn’t get any tougher than a match at Azteca, but the U.S. showed courage there. The Office in Kingston, Jamaica, is another difficult environment, but it is no Azteca.

If the U.S. continues its positive play and begins taking full points on the road, this March qualifier in Mexico City will have become a vital turning point—perhaps the most vital—on the road to Brazil 2014.

Liviu Bird is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. Follow him on Twitter.

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