THERE are four things you can count on in life…death, taxes, Guillermo Ochoa putting on Gold Glove performances at the World Cup, and Mexico exiting in the Round of 16.
Mexico is one of the 10 most populous countries in the world.
Of the nine countries ahead of them, only Nigeria and Brazil are football-first nations.
Given their obsessive following of the sport and the fact that all their top athletic talents take the football route, Mexico’s limited success at the World Cup is a bit baffling.
Could this be the time they finally break the Round of 16 curse?
Predicted starting XI
Mexico is one of CONCACAF’s two perennial powers, the other being the USA.
Like many traditional powers, they have a very specific style of play and tactical system.
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When Mexico takes to the pitch in Qatar, they will set out in a 4-3-3. The objectives are dominance in possession, dictating temp, and aggressively counterpressing.
Regardless of the opponent, Mexico wants to play on the front foot. They’ll bring energy, intensity, and aggression to Qatar.
Looking at the predicted starting XI, it’s Ochoa time.
It seems like every four years he puts on a Golden Glove-worthy performance at the World Cup. At the age of 37, this will likely be his last hurrah.
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The veteran, Moreno, will anchor the backline. He’s surrounded by three very talented players in Montes, Arteaga, and Sánchez.
The two outside-backs will take very aggressive positions when Mexico is in possession. Look for them to be highly involved.
In midfield, the young Ajax stand-out, Álvarez, is undoubtedly the most talented player in the middle of the pitch, if not the entire squad.
Up top is full of question marks. Tecatito Corona suffered an injury and will miss the World Cup, leaving Mexico without their preferred right forward.
To make matters worse, Jiménez is struggling to regain his fitness. Though he should make the roster, Mexico can hardly count on him to be productive while out of form.
That puts a lot of pressure on Lozano. Antuna looks like the choice on the opposite flank, but it’s the star power of Chucky that Mexico will lean on. Should Jimenez miss the tournament, the burden only increases.
Jiménez has been Tata Martino’s go-to striker, but the Wolves player is coming back from an injury and was struggling for minutes even before the fitness concerns.
To score at the World Cup, Mexico will have to be exceptional in open play. In their 4-3-3 system, that starts with a strong build-out.
Mexico’s game model is a very standard 4-3-3. Two centre-backs split into the half spaces, outside-backs will push high and the midfield triangle will remain tightly connected with a single pivot.
That pivot player will oscillate between a higher position in midfield and dropping in between the centre backs.
Mexico’s midfield will drop into the centre back position and move the ball forward
Mexico’s midfield does rotate very effectively. If Álvarez, who will play the six, steps into the midfield, the player in the box-to-box role, typically Guardado or Herrera, will drop deeper to maintain the triangular structure.
If Mexico builds out, they’ll look to play through the lines and progress the ball near midfield.
As the team chooses to attack left, centre, or right, the forwards will adjust their positioning to coordinate their width with the sequence of play.
If the ball is in the wings, expect the near-sided winger to check towards the ball, the striker to pinch into that near half-space, and the far-sided forward to look for opportunities to get in behind.
The far side winger will always look to get behind the defence
If play is built centrally, look for the two wingers to maintain their width, at least initially.
They will look to stretch the backline in an attempt to get him behind.
If the opposition’s backline remains narrow, Mexico will look to play into the wingers, either looking for them to engage in 1v1 duels or drive inside to create the overlap for the oncoming outside-backs.
Once Mexico gets into the final third of the pitch they will look to push numbers into the box. They routinely get at least three players into the box, overloading centrally to increase their chance of latching onto a service.
In this example against Colombia, a clever dummy of a through ball got Mexico behind the backline, leading to their second goal of the game.
Mexico like to overload centrally to get behind the backline
In terms of Mexico’s attacking tactics, they should show well at the World Cup in the way they build out of the back and play through the lines.
It’s when they get to the final third, or really the box, that issues emerge. Without Chicharito’s trademark poaching in the 18, Mexico may struggle to find the back of the net in Qatar.
In the qualifying rounds, Mexico conceded just eight goals in 14 games, tying Costa Rica for the fewest goals against in the continent.
Expect Mexico to use the high press against Saudi Arabia and Poland.
However, against Argentina, we could very well see them drop into a 4-4-2 mid-block with an ageing midfield that can’t play a box-to-box game.
Those compact lines will create easier backtracking opportunities for Mexico.
Against Argentina, Mexico may drop into a 4-4-2 mid-block formation
The mid-block takes care of one vulnerability, namely, an ageing squad with the inability to play an end-to-end game.
It should also help Mexico’s box defending. With the midfield sitting a little bit deeper, they should offer better support for the backline and better track runners into the box.
They did have an issue tracking runners in the Colombia match, leading to a well-taken second goal. This comes despite sitting a little deeper in the game.
As Columbia made their way into the box, they were able to find lanes to send negative passes, as well as gaps in the Mexican lines that allowed the South Americans to get good looks at goal.
Colombia were able to break Mexico’s mid-block and score
Improved organisation, placing intense pressure on the opposition’s first attacker, and timing of pressing triggers will be massive for Mexico.
They have had issues in all three areas leading up to the tournament, leading to concern among the fan base.
Take this example against the home of MLS, the USA. All 10 Mexican outfield players are in that shaded area. The camera angle distorts the size a little bit, but it’s approximately a 25m square.
The press is very aggressive, which is fine provided Mexico wins the ball. They simply can’t afford to let the USA play out of their press.
An aggressive press could leave Mexico exposed
However, that’s exactly what happens. The Americans can play into the forwards and clip the ball behind the backline. That puts them into the box and leads to a beautiful delivery across the goal mouth.
Given Mexico’s issues in front of goal, they simply can’t afford to slip up defensively.
When Mexico looks to counterattack, they will look to get behind the opposition’s outside-backs. Notice the centre-forward occupying both Colombian centrebacks.
That’s a perfect scenario for Mexico. If Lozano and the other wide forwards can consistently get behind the opposition’s outside-backs, they will create 3v2s and 3v3s.
When Mexico counter they will look to get behind the opposition’s outside backs
In those attacking transitions, the front three and No10 will bear the brunt of the attacking burden. Part of this is down to the system, but another part is the personnel in midfield.
At the risk of beating a dead horse, Mexico’s midfield simply won’t have the legs to consistently get in support of the front three.
Take this example against Canada. Mexico recovered the ball in their defensive third, then immediately played into the forward line.
Initially, this was a 4v3 scenario in Canada’s favour. Three seconds after the ball is initially played in, look at the evolving context.
While it’s still 4v3 to Canada behind the ball, they have another four players quickly recovering. In the end, the Canadians were able to snuff out the counterattack and comfortably restart their attack.
Mexico’s midfield struggles to support their forwards
At the World Cup, when Mexico’s opponents progress into the attacking half of the pitch, El Tri must get organised quickly and slow the tempo of the game to encourage the opponents to take more aggressive starting positions.
As the opposition becomes more expansive, Mexico will increase the likelihood of the front three’s success in attacking transitions.
Mexico could come unstuck when they send too many players forward in the final third
Mexico’s ineffectiveness in attacking transitions has been an issue the past 18 months, as has an expansive rest defence that has led to poor counterpressing and quality chances conceded during opposition counterattacks.
They ask a lot of their two centrebacks and defensive midfielder. Every so often, the squad asks too much of them. There’s simply too much ground to cover.
In a way, Mexico’s World Cup campaign will come down to how well they perform in the attacking and defensive transitions.
When you look at the list of attackers, Raul Jimenez and Hirving Lozano leap out at you – even if Jimenez is in a difficult period in his career.
Also watch out for Lainez, once a hot prospect who is slowly rebuilding his reputation at Braga in Portugal.
Chivas Guadalajara’s Vega is enjoying a strong season and will likely get on the pitch and there is also the exciting young Feyenoord option in Gimenez.
We might have seemed a bit harsh on the Mexican midfield so far – ageing when then have a 24-year-old pivot in Alvarez alongside a 25-year-old Rodriguez?
Well, it’s the third spoke in the midfield wheel which slows it down – be that 36-year-old veterano Guardado or 32-year-old Herrera.
Mexico’s game needs energy and if one of the box-to-box midfielders can’t get from one box to the other it causes problems.
Yet, they are both highly-respected in the group making it hard for Tata to pull the trigger.
Mexico are strong at the back – not many are household names with many being based in LigaMX with a couple who have recently made the move to Europe in Arteaga and Sanchez.
Arteaga is doing well at Genk which could be a good platform for him and Sanchez is getting game time at Ajax.
Moreno, back in Mexico after a strong European career in La Liga and Serie A will lead the defence alongside Montes.
A couple of seasons ago, we’d have been talking about Jimenez being the main man and pointing out Lozano as the hot prospect to watch out for. But now, with the Wolves striker out of fitness and form, it’s Chucky time.
His season with high-flying Napoli has been sporadic – only nine Serie A appearances at the time of writing with four starts and a handful of Champions League matches – but when we’ve seen him he’s been very very good.
Right now, he’s Mexico’s biggest threat – and he is also their most consistent performer. Their whole game will go through him because it has to if they want to progress.
The last time Mexico got past the Round of 16 was in their backyard, 1986. It’s seven exits in a row at that stage – and with Argentina clear favourites for the group, Mexico will be backing themselves to finish second and progress.
As ever, the first match is crucial – it’s really Mexico vs Poland for second in the group and it’s the first game up for both.
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If they can finish second, providing the French have woken up and remembered they are champions, Mexico will face them in the first knockout stage.
Sure, knockout stages are chaotic and anything can happen – but even so, an 8th consecutive Round of 16 exit seems most likely for Mexico.
For even more detailed analysis of all 32 teams in the FIFA World Cup 2022, download your copy of the November Total Football Analysis magazine here