Shake the Tri: Diving into Mexico’s tactical profile ahead of pivotal Gold Cup semi-final clash with CanMNT

Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team is getting set to take on Mexico in a pivotal 2021 Gold Cup semi-final clash on Thursday night. Here’s what to expect from El Tri tactically in that encounter, and how Canada can counter that. 

Having reached a frontier not breached in a long time, a familiar foe now awaits. 

Just by making the semi-finals of the 2021 CONCACAF Gold Cup, Canada Soccer’s Men’s National Team is already playing with house money, as they’ve reached that stage for only the first time since 2007. 

Having advanced to the semi-finals by beating Costa Rica quite soundly this past weekend, this Canadian side is relishing their chance to play in a game that this country has missed out on in 6 Gold Cups, with a chance to return to the final for the first time since 2000 sitting on the line this Thursday. 

To get there, though, a formidable test awaits them, as they must now face off against a Mexico side that is the class of CONCACAF, having won the Gold Cup a staggering 8 out of a possible 15 times, or 11 out of 25 if you include the original CONCACAF Championship. 

That means ever since CONCACAF has had a marquee continental men’s tournament, Mexico has won the competition pretty much 1 in every 2 tries, with only really the US even coming close to them as 6-time champions. 

So for a Canadian team that has just 2 championships, this Mexico clash will be a David vs Goliath battle of sorts, at least on paper, especially considering that El Tri did enter this year’s edition of the tournament as defending champions. 

But on the other hand, history is also on Canada’s side. As the only team not named Mexico (x8) or the United States (x6) to win the Gold Cup since 1991 (when the tournament rebranded to the Gold Cup from the CONCACAF Championship), there are a lot of similarities between their winning run in 2000 and this one. 

First, it’s worth noting that Canada wasn’t far off from participating in the final round of CONCACAF World Cup qualifiers for the 1998 World Cup cycle, a stage they only returned to this year for the first time since that cycle. 

Then, this Canadian team had to beat Haiti and pick up a result against Costa Rica along their way through to the knockout stages in 2000, much like Canada had to do at some point in their journey to date.

So now, while the parallels aren’t quite exact, the two things that left for Canada to do that they also did in the 2000 tournament? 

Beat Mexico, which they did in the quarter-finals, before taking out a guest nation in the final, something they can do if both they and Qatar win their semi-final matches, creating a rematch of the famous game that saw Canada beat guest nation Colombia for their first and only Gold Cup triumph. 

But to stray from the history book, even if we remove the supposed destiny that might just be lining up for Canada, it’s worth noting that if there’s a Canadian team that can overcome this Mexico team, whom they haven’t beaten since that 2000 Gold Cup triumph, it might just be this one. 

Fresh off of a victory over a Costa Rican side they haven’t beaten since 2007, Canada is eager to build off of what was a statement win from them to the rest of the region, showing that they can not only compete with veterans of the region, but they can take care of business in the big games.

Considering that, what better way to drive home that message than with a win over Mexico? Canada will be well aware of what a victory like that can do, so they’ll come pedal to the medal to make that happen. 

To do that, though, they’ve got to crack one of the best, if not the best, team tactically in CONCACAF. 

So here’s what Canada can expect from this Mexican side tactically, and how they can counter it, as they’ll look to pick up a victory over a team that many in this region have historically struggled to take down on their best day, Canada included. 

What to expect from Mexico:

And to start, when it’s said that Mexico is at another level tactically, it is no exaggeration. 

They might not have reinvented the wheel when it comes to how they play, but they are very calculated and measured in their approach, having struck a perfect balance between skill, organization and ‘CONCACAFitis’ that makes them the envy of the region. 

There’s a reason why they’ve been to 7 straight World Cups, progressing past the group stage in each one. Yes, they didn’t win any of those 7 knockout stage matches, but to be consistent enough to make it that far each edition shows what they’re capable of, and how efficient they can be. 

Along with their Gold Cup success, they’ve found a balance that only the US has been able to consistently match in CONCACAF, and even then the US has been just behind their southern foes. 

Diving into some of the tape from their most recent match, a 3-0 win over Honduras in the quarter-finals that was about as routine for Mexico as it is for a fish to swim, that sort of consistency quickly becomes evident. 

First, here’s how they lined up on that day. 

Then, focusing on the game itself, it’s worth noting that right from the beginning, Mexico started out quite aggressively, pressing pretty high up the pitch in pursuit of the ball, demanding it from their opponents. 

Here’s an example of that.

Plus, when their lines of pressure are broken, they’re comfortable maintaining that pressure all over the pitch, forcing opponents into a loose pass. 

Because of that, it makes it hard to attack them, as their pressure can be like a wave that just gets at you whenever you’re on the ball, meaning that you have to be quite mentally sharp to play through that sort of constant hounding. 

Even more frustrating for opponents? They also sit in a pretty low block, meaning that it’s hard to break them down via long balls, meaning that really the only way to break down Mexico is to go right through them. 

To get an idea of how that defensive system works, here’s an example of Honduras getting stifled by that low block after a nice bit of possession. 

Even if they don’t immediately win the ball right back, Mexico likes to stay on the hunt for it, making sure that at some point or another, you’ll fall into one of the traps set by them, be it their high press or their low block, or some variation of that. 

But then when they win it back, as they mostly tend to do, they are calculated in how they attack the space left by their opponents. 

They love to hold onto possession before attacking down the flanks, doing so at every opportunity, as they know how to create overloads in wide areas, forcing opposing defenders to choose between 1 or 2 Mexican players flying up the field. 

Here’s how that looks, as Mexico managed to isolate a Honduran full back after a bit of possession, making him choose between two players, allowing them to get into a good pocket out wide. 

From there, the full back was able to whip in a dangerous ball, one that nearly caused problems for the Honduran defence, forcing a bit of a scramble. 

And their propensity to play the ball wide is demonstrated in how they play in possession. No matter where they’re situated on the field, if they have the ball, Mexico tends to look like this, which is in a sort of 4-3-3/2-4-4, with the centre backs split, and the full backs high up the field, helping stretch the field. 

From there, the goal is to get the ball wide, where they do the most damage. 

They can play through the middle, and will do so if teams get complacent, but for the most part, they want to go wide. 

So the question has to be asked – why don’t teams just let them play down the middle if wide areas are open? 

And the answer lies in the skillsets of Hector Herrera and Jonathan Dos Santos, Mexico’s 2 generals in the middle of the park, who you cannot leave in space. With the level of skill that those 2 have, the last thing you want is to give them a bit of room, so teams try to choose the lesser of two evils by giving Mexico the wide areas. 

But it’s in those positions where Mexico comes alive, allowing them to pounce on their opponents, punishing them for leaving them free in those areas.

Here’s an example of that from their opening goal against Honduras, where they quickly shuttled the ball out wide from a deep position, before playing a dangerous ball into the box, one that Rogelio Funes Mori finished tidily to open the score. 

Having done well to stretch the field at the beginning of their possession, they took advantage of that space quite quickly, and made Honduras regret playing so narrow. 

Otherwise, it’s worth noting that Mexico is also quite lethal on set pieces, which isn’t a surprise considering their proficiency off of wide balls, but for a Canadian team that has had their fair share of struggles with long balls in their time, it’s just another wrinkle to keep an eye out for. 

If not, there could be a lot of this on Thursday.

All in all, expect a lot of high pressure, being relentless in winning the ball back, getting the ball into wide areas, and whipping in dangerous crosses. 

So for those who like a good TLDR, that’s basically what this clip exemplifies.

Overall, it’s quite the experience for opponents to have to deal with, especially when you factor in that Mexico usually plays in front of a pro-Mexico crowd everywhere they go in CONCACAF, giving them a distinct advantage. 

Like how many teams are going to have 50 000+ of their fans doing a wave in, *checks notes*, the 3rd (!!) minute of a tournament game not even played on their home soil? 

The answer is not many, and along with their unique style of play, it makes for quite the experience, one that many in CONCACAF have struggled to overcome. 

How Canada can counter:

Despite all of that, though, it’s not as if Mexico is invincible. 

So although the US has really been the only team in CONCACAF to break through that shield as of late, there have been moments where Mexico has been bending, and are close to breaking, but have just escaped by the skin of their teeth. 

Assuming one can manage the crowd, which to be fair, is much easier said than done, Mexico’s tactics can be countered. 

Defensively, it just means closing down wide areas immediately, while also being alert to any sort of movement in the box, snuffing out the crosses that do break through. 

Offensively, it means being able to play quickly and efficiently, opening up pockets in both central and wide areas to do some damage in. 

The good news for Canada? They’ve shown to be relatively solid at most of those things during this tournament, so it’s not as if it’d be asking too much of them to remain good at those things in this match. 

Defensively, they’ve struggled a bit with wide balls in the group stages, but they did also just keep a clean sheet against a Costa Rica team who was also quite good from those similar areas in the quarter-finals, so there’s that, too.

Otherwise, they’ve proven to be pretty good at playing right through the midfield in all games where they’ve had their first-choice midfielders, who are all available for Thursday. 

All in their 3-5-2 that head coach John Herdman has started to use the past few months, they’ve found a nice balance between defending and attacking that has seen them pick up some big results against the likes of Suriname, Haiti (x3) and Costa Rica, showing how important that set-up has become to them.

So with that in mind, here’s how they could line up in that 3-5-2 on Thursday, giving them their best lineup to try and take out Mexico. 

Obviously, in an ideal world, they have Alphonso Davies and Jonathan David, who both missed out on this tournament due to injuries, but even then, they’ll also be without 5 other players from their original Gold Cup squad due to a mix of injuries and suspension, and that’s without counting those who missed out altogether, such as an Atiba Hutchinson or Sam Adekugbe, for example. 

Despite that, they can cobble together a pretty decent roster, all things considered. 

To start, the back 3 will be key, as Kamal Miller, Doneil Henry and Alistair Johnston should give Canada a good backline, especially with usual starter Steven Vitoria suspended for Thursday, helping Canada defend Mexico’s wide balls. 

With Miller and Henry’s aerial presence, along with Johnston and Miller’s ability to close down space as the wide centre backs, they’ve certainly got the attributes to match up against Mexico, at least on paper. 

Then, there will be Canada’s 2 most important players, Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea, who are going to have to both be Canada’s creators, but also remain defensively responsible, helping keep Mexico out of those wide areas. 

From there, Canada’s midfield will also be key, as Stephen Eustaquio, Mark Anthony Kaye and Jonathan Osorio have been excellent as a trio as of late, with Canada sitting undefeated in the 5 games the 3 of them have started together since the start of June. Thanks to both their defensive and offensive abilities, their most important job will be to progress forward, but will have to do so without too much sacrifice to their defence. 

And then lastly, there’s the position with the biggest question marks surrounding it, and that’s up front, as while Junior Hoilett is a near-automatic starter, the options around him have quickly dwindled, with Cyle Larin (leg), Ayo Akinola (knee) and Lucas Cavallini (suspension) all joining David as absences up front over the course of this tournament.

Canada could go with a youngster such as Theo Corbeanu, or someone who is good but only recently came into camp as an injury replacement like Tesho Akindele, but they might actually be smartest to go for Samuel Piette as Cavallini’s replacement, shifting Osorio higher up the field. 

With the defensive solidity that Piette can bring, that then allows Eustaquio and Kaye to be unleashed further forward, and considering that Eustaquio has 3 goals and 1 assist in 3 games this tournament despite playing as a defensive midfielder, that’s a tantalizing possibility to imagine.

Against a Mexico team that seems most ripe for the picking up the middle, prioritizing that area of the field could pay off nicely, giving Canada what they need to impose themselves. 

It won’t be as straightforward as that, of course, but despite missing a lot of regulars, Herdman still has plenty of firepower at his disposal, and from what we’ve seen, they appear to match up decently against this Mexican side.

Despite a symphony of absences, Canada still has plenty of options at most positions (Canada Soccer/MexSport)

Players to Watch:

But while Mexico itself is an intimidating unit, there are several individuals who tend to stand out from within their system, playing a big role in their team’s success. 

Here are some of those players that Canada should watch out for on Thursday.  

Rogelio Funes Mori:

And to start, there’s one of Mexico’s newest recruits, Funes Mori, who despite his new arrival to Mexico’s squad, is someone that brings a wealth of experience. 

Born in Argentina, the 30-year-old forward has only become eligible for Mexico due to the naturalization process, as he’s been playing in Mexico for 6 years now, allowing him to become a citizen and rejoin their team at the senior level, having never played competitively for Argentina despite playing for them at the youth level. 

For a team needing striker depth with the absence of usual star striker Raul Jimenez, who has been recovering from a skull fracture, Funes Mori has quickly adjusted to his new surroundings, as well, scoring 3 goals through 4 games so far this tournament. 

Despite having to compete with the solid Alan Pulido for that starting spot at the front, Funes Mori has quickly made the position his own this tournament, scoring some big goals for El Tri, including the winner against Honduras in the quarter-finals, as well as a brace against Guatemala in the group stages. 

So for Canada, he’ll be one to keep a close eye on, as he’ll be one of the main targets they’ll look to seek out with their dangerous wide balls, knowing his ability in the box. 

With a goal per game rate of nearly 0.5, Canada will be well aware of that threat, too, so hopefully they can do a bit of a better job of marking him than Honduras did in the quarters. 

Jonathan Dos Santos:

Otherwise, we go from one of the least-capped Mexican players in Funes Mori to one of their most-capped in Dos Santos, who at 31 years of age, still remains a very key part of this Mexican team. 

Having played for the likes of Barcelona and Villarreal in his career, the current LA Galaxy man is very talented on the ball, making him Mexico’s tempo-setter on the ball, as he’ll often drop deep to help his team play the ball forward. 

His health hasn’t always been there the past few years, and his defence can be questioned, but when he gets on the ball – watch out. 

For a Canadian team that likes to play through the middle, neutralizing his offensive impact could go a long way for them, because if not, an in-form Dos Santos can often help shift the tide in the middle of the park. 

Hector Herrera:

So adding to that, Herrera will be quite central to those efforts, as the Atletico Madrid man is a key general in the middle of the park, doing a lot of the dirty work to help out Dos Santos defensively, while also helping launch attacks forward. 

Because of that, he’ll be a handful for Canadian defenders to deal with, as he can hurt opponents in so many ways. 

Offensively, he’s got quite the passing range, but defensively, he’s got that Colchonero spirit that Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone craves in his players, making him a nuisance to have to deal with. 

So if Canada is to really take command of the midfield, they’ll probably have to find a way to get around Herrera, because you know that he’ll look to make his presence felt at every avenue, especially as Mexico’s co-captain. 

As a leader on this team, he knows his role and isn’t shy in fulfilling it to the best of his ability, something that the Canadian midfielders will quickly learn on Thursday.

Battles to Watch:

Lastly, but most definitely not least, here are some key tactical battles to keep an eye out for on Thursday. 

As usual, the team that finds a way to win 2 of these 3 battles should have a better chance of winning the game, so it’ll be interesting to see who comes out top here. 

The Full Back Duel:

And to start, there’s the ferocious duel that will be Mexico’s full backs, expected to be Luis Rodriguez and Jesus Gallardo, against Canada’s full backs, expected to be Tajon Buchanan and Richie Laryea. 

Both sets of full backs love to get forward, both sets love to get stuck in, and they both just overall play such a big role in how their team attacks. 

So whichever pair ends up imposing themselves best in this battle should give their team a pretty big boost, one that could potentially be the difference between a win or a loss. 

Advantage: Even

Hector Herrera vs Stephen Eustaquio:

Otherwise, a battle between both team’s best midfielders might prove to be key, especially given how important both Herrera and Eustaquio are to their sides’ efforts. 

On one hand, you’ve got someone in Herrera who is playing at the top level for both club and country, and knows how to set the tone in so many ways thanks to his versatility. 

On the other hand, you’ve got someone in Eustaquio who’s on the precipice of a move to a top team at the club level, but is playing at the top level for his country, performing at a level that arguably no one else in this tournament is matching, making him an early tournament MVP favourite. 

Because of that, it’ll be one ferocious battle to keep an eye on, one that could alter the state of the game, especially given how important these players are to their respective teams’ hoped style of play. 

Advantage: Canada

Rogelio Funes Mori vs the Canadians CBs:

Lastly, there’s the battle between Mexico’s main threat up top, Funes Mori, and the Canadian centre backs.

With Mexico being so reliant on wide balls, it’s no coincidence that Funes Mori has fit right into this squad, as he’s quite proficient at getting on the end of those balls, as Honduras unfortunately learned. 

So for a Canadian team that can sometimes be a bit of an adventure defensively, they’ll need to stay on their toes, or you just have the feeling that Funes Mori might end up on the scoresheet. 

If that happens, it’ll be hard to imagine them winning, as Mexico is so good at opening up the game if they score first, something that Funes Mori will be intent on helping them do. 

Advantage: Mexico

Looking Forward:

Overall, though, this fixture promises to be a good one, even if Mexico is the heavy favourites. 

As Haiti showed in the last Gold Cup, where they brought Mexico to extra time before losing 1-0 on a penalty, this Mexico team can be threatened by teams other than the US, but those sides have to be prepared and execute when the moment comes. 

Considering Canada’s history, it’s hard to proclaim them ready to be that team quite yet, but fresh off of a game where they did just that against a really good Costa Rican side, they appear to have what it takes to get a win here.

So now, they’ve just got to find a way to execute on Thursday, allowing them to make history. 

21 years since they last did so, no better way for them to finally get over the hump they’ve long struggled to get over, especially considering what they’ve accomplished so far. 

Having already made all sorts of history in recent years, you just know that they’re itching to add to that list, so it’ll be interesting to see if they’ll have what it takes in order to make that happen. 

Canada’s Junior Hoilett opens the scoring against Costa Rica on Sunday (Canada Soccer/MexSport)

Up Next: Canada vs Mexico, Thursday, July 29th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (NRG Stadium, Houston)

Cover Photo via: Canada Soccer/MexSport

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