The build-up to the 2018 World Cup brings inevitable talk of the most fabled El Tri concept, “el quinto partido”. Reaching the quarter-finals should ultimately be the aim of a highly experienced Mexico squad, but before focusing on the last-16, there’s a challenging group to navigate.
Germany are obviously favourites to top the group, and whilst South Korea possess the threat of Son Heung-Min, their overall squad strength and recent poor run of form makes a top two finish unlikely. Therefore, Mexico’s group stage focus has been on Sweden.
It’s common for countries to prepare for group stage matches at the World Cup by playing friendlies against neighbours of the sides they’re set to face. Just ask Costa Rica, the quarter-finalists from Brazil have faced Tunisia, England and Belgium in the past three months, as the group G nations attempt to plan for surprise qualifiers Panama.
Preparing for a match by playing their neighbours is an over-simplification, but there is some sense to the practice. Neighbouring countries often play similar styles, with comparable players.
Sweden are a well-organised, pragmatic side that usually use a 4-4-2 formation, play direct and physically, and look to exploit set-pieces. Northern Europe is overflowing with nations that play this style of football, and Mexico’s preparation for the World Cup has consisted almost exclusively of games against Nordic and British nations; Iceland, Wales, Scotland and Denmark.
These were just friendlies, but it’s noteworthy that El Tri conceded just twice in these four games, both against a Denmark side that are widely regarded to have more talent than Sweden.
— Fut Mex Nation (@FutMexNation) June 10, 2018
“The biggest worry we have is the dead ball”
This was Juan Carlos Osorio’s reaction following Mexico’s one-all draw with Venezuela in the 2016 Copa América centenario. Osorio, who has previously stated the need for a certain number of players that are good aerially against some teams, has been effective at improving Mexico’s performance at set pieces since stating this worry.
Not conceding a single set piece goal against Iceland, Wales, Scotland and Denmark is an achievement, and whilst the physicality of Néstor Araújo will certainly be missed, the “deal ball” is unlikely to be Osorio’s biggest worry heading into Russia 2018. Mexico’s set piece improvement could prove decisive in securing a result against Sweden.
Aerially effective full-backs match well against Sweden’s direct style
Sweden often look to build attacks via long passes from their centre-backs towards one of their two usual starting forwards; Marcus Berg and Ola Toivonen. To improve their chances of winning aerial duels, the forwards often move wide when their centre-backs have the ball, thus pitting them against opposing full-backs rather than centre-backs. Berg and Toivonen, who won almost 55% of his aerial duels this season, then aim to feed wide midfielders with possession, one of whom will be key creator Emil Forsberg, who drift in from the flanks.
Osorio could pick two full-backs against Sweden that ‘naturally’ play in other positions, but their aerial abilities may combat Sweden’s long passing game extremely well. The right-back spot is likely to be taken by Carlos Salcedo or Edson Álvarez, both of whom stand 1.86m/6’1″ tall. Salcedo’s aerial duel win rate of 63% is superb, whilst Edson possesses an above average 54%. At left-back, Jesús Gallardo could get the nod, and whilst he isn’t as tall, at 1.77m/5’10”, Monterrey’s new signing won 55% of his aerial duels in the 2017-18 Liga MX season.
If Sweden only look to build via these long balls, and fail to hit Mexico with pace in transition, the Scandinavian nation are likely to struggle to create many dangerous opportunities.
— Fut Mex Nation (@FutMexNation) June 9, 2018
Time for Chucky to shine
Whilst Mexico have impressed defensively against North European opposition, goals have been hard to come by. In fact, after the three-nil win against Iceland, Mexico scored just once versus Wales, Scotland and Denmark.
With Javier Hernández and Raúl Jiménez coming off disappointing seasons where playing time was often lacking, Jiménez started just six league matches for Benfica, Hirving “Chucky” Lozano may need to step into the void.
Chucky scored 17 times in PSV’s title-winning campaign, and many outside of Mexico are talking up Lozano as one of the potential break-out stars of this World Cup. Lozano is known for his impressive dribbling and ball-striking abilities, but Chucky’s off-the-ball movement is perhaps even more significant in influencing his goal tally.
The former Pachuca man, who scored on his Liga MX debut at Estadio Azteca, excels when moving diagonally from wide areas, and regularly finds himself on the end of through balls from teammates. Sweden’s highly organised defensive system will make finding space in and around the box challenging for Mexico, but Chucky should be used to facing defensive-minded teams, as the majority of Eredivisie sides are inferior to Lozano’s PSV.
Mexico’s group is certainly challenging. Opening against holders Germany is far from ideal, there’s no rank outsiders in the group, and Sweden’s defensive organisation should make them tricky opposition. El Tri have enough quality to make it out of the group though, and if Sweden are seen as the biggest obstacle to qualification then Juan Carlos Osorio has done a huge amount of preparation for the match-up in Ekaterinburg.
Osorio has been successful at reducing Mexico’s worry from dead ball situations and has built a side that are capable of dealing with physicality and aerial duels. Combine this with the experiences of facing Iceland, Wales, Scotland and Denmark, and Mexico should be ready for the match that could determine who progresses through group F.