The USA going scoreless for the 2nd time in a row vs Mexico certainly wouldn’t have been in Gregg Berhalter’s plan. Coming off of a 1-0 loss in the 2019 Gold Cup Final the USA started well in this 2019 International Friendly against Mexico. Still, even after a relatively strong first 20 minutes, the USA was unable to cope with the organized shape and pressure of former Barcelona coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino’s Mexico side.
Conceding the first goal of the match in the 21st minute to LA Galaxy’s new star signing Javier “Chicarito” Hernandez, certainly wasn’t the start the USMNT was looking for either. This set the scene for the USA to be playing from behind and on their back foot. Ultimately resulting in Mexico winning the match 3-0. Putting Tata’s men at 2-0 in two matches versus the recently appointed Berhalter and his side. This tactical analysis will explain the effectiveness of both teams in their different pressing tactics and the USA’s lack of ability to create attacking chances.
The USA lined up in an interesting 4-4-1-1 utilising Weston McKennie of the Bundesliga sitting underneath Gyasi Zardes providing more space out wide for the EPL‘s Christian Pulisic and Tyler Boyd. Mexico started in a classic 4-3-3 utilising Héctor Herrera as the holding midfielder placing Carlos Alberto Rodriguez and Andrés Guardado in more advanced positions. Leaving Chicharito central and keeping both Mexican wingers high and wide. Typical of both managers these starting formations began to evolve as the match developed.
Mexico vs US pressing strategy
A critical component of defending in groups is that it allows teams to make the next pass predictable. Often times when pressing in numbers larger than 2 the idea is to show the ball one direction in an effort to eliminate options or persuade the opposition to pass to a certain player or direction. Tata’s Mexico utilised this idea of funnelling and were most effective when they utilised defending in groups of 4 and 5 typically.
In this first example, Mexico is pressing with 4 players. Chicharito is pressing the ball and eliminating the pass back towards the right side of the field. The RW Joe Corona has cut out the LB for the USA. Here the ability of the pressing players to make the next pass predictable was huge in Mexico’s ability to win the ball off of the USA. This situation allowed for the two central midfielders to stay man marked in the centre of the field, while allowing Mexico’s RB to move with his mark creating a predictable next pass. This sequence resulted in Mexico winning the ball back after Aaron Long plays into the centre midfielder Alfredo Morales. Morales has no other option other than to try and first time play a ball into the wide channel down the left side where Mexican CB Diego Antonio Reyes intercepts.
Pressing in large numbers occurred all over the field in the first half and created numerous attacking chances for Mexico as they were able to win the ball and immediately play forward.
In this example again Mexico has pressed with four players and effectively cut off any ball to be played on the left side of the field. Leaving the USA CB, Walker Zimmerman, with one option to play the RB, Reggie Cannon.
After playing Cannon, Mexico remains pressed high and is able to again funnel the USA to play in one direction. This was to Morales who’s marked tightly as his run was late results in him losing the ball trying to play forward in one touch. Putting Mexico in the USA’s half with possession numbers around the ball.
Unlike Mexico, the USA decided to press in a 4-2-2-2 requiring McKennie to join Zardes in initiating their press. However, in the early going the USA had trouble breaking the rhythm of Mexico. This was due to the decision of Martino to utilise goalkeeper Jonathan Orozco as CB creating a backline of 3 in building possession.
This situation occurred frequently in the first half because the USA pressed in a low front two, they experienced difficulties. Here both Zardes and McKennie are caught preventing an entry pass to Mexico’s holding midfielder, Herrera, and pressuring the ball.
This resulted in both players tracking back in forth in a yo-yo pattern as Mexico cycled the ball between their back three (including goalkeeper Orozco). Resulting in pockets for Mexico CB’s to start going forward under minimal pressure, and unnecessary extra sprinting for Zardes and McKennie.
To the credit of Berhalter and the USA, they were able to alter their press in order to disrupt Mexico late into the first half which carried over to the second as well.
The change the USA made was to press the goalkeeper as he received the ball and eliminate his outlet to the opposite CB causing the entire team to step higher up the field. When the USA was able to do so it resulted in Orozco playing longer dumping the ball and created situations for them to intercept or gain possession.
USA wasn’t sharp enough in possession
Ultimately, the pressure of Mexico is what undid the USA in possession. Even when they were able to play out of the initial pressure, the final pass to get them out of their defensive third was rarely clean or sharp enough. This was often due to the position and shape of the midfield three of the USA who seemed unable to solve the problems on the field with their movement. This was supported by the Wyscout match report which showed a relatively even match when looking at normal possession statistics. However, looking at the number of attacks with shots and each teams passing breakdown tells a very different story.
This breakdown shows the true difference in the game. While total passes and pass accuracy are similar, Further investigation of these is much different. The most telling being the accuracy in progressive passes between the two teams. Overall, Mexico was able to complete 13 more progressive passes which when looked at individually seems relatively insignificant.
13 passes may even seem meaningless until you have a look at the attacking report. While the USA was numerically more efficient creating three shots from their 18 attacking chances, Mexico attacked 13 more times than the US, nearly doubling their attacking chances. Still, while they created 13 more attacking chances it only resulted in one more shot.
It’s important to understand these stats are only useful in providing extra information about a match. For this particular match, the impact of playing through pressure and going forward was an area the USA was not as good as Mexico. It could also be argued Mexico should’ve created more quality chances given the number of times they attacked the USA. A key contributor to the USA’s lack of success in possession was holding midfielder Will Trapp. He was the link for the USA in creating possession. Often times his movement and Mexico’s press response directly affected if the USA was able to maintain or lose possession. Unfortunately, for the USA and fortunately for Mexico the times the USA was successful in playing through this pressure was limited.
The root of the problem possessing from their defensive line into the midfield was caused by Trapp picking the wrong time to drop low to receive the ball. This situation occurred frequently throughout the match. Here Trapp has dropped low bringing an extra defender to come and press the USA. His movement creates a favourable 5v5 situation for Mexico pressing in the USA’s defensive half.
If Trapp moves higher toward the centre of the field, he creates several options for the players around him. 1) He creates space for the opposite CB to receive the ball. 2) His movement then will require McKennie to move either wider or higher. 3) Which then will allow for Cannon to push higher up the field as well ultimately creating more space centrally. Resulting in creating space to play through Mexico instead of resorting to easily read, low percentage passes over the top.
This tactical analysis has explained what both teams did well in their pressing to disrupt each other in possession. Ultimately, Berhalter’s men were committed to developing a style of playing and building out of the back. However, their inability to link between the defensive and midfield lines is what cost them. After a brilliant move to find Chicharito in the 21st minute for the first goal the USA was in trouble. Mexico’s ability to press the US in their own defensive third and make play predictable created their second. And the third was the product of the USA committing too many numbers forward in an effort to try and salvage any chance at taking points from the match. Looking at the match report it indicates a fairly even game until you look at the progressive pass accuracy and attacking chances. Lastly, moving forward both teams will still be looking find their top XI players under their new bosses. Will we see new tactics from Berhalter with a different group of players, or will we see Tata move to 3-0 vs the USMNT?