Mexico's 2-0 win over Brazil was not historic but the North American nation should be happy about the way it managed the game.Let’s get something clear. As exciting as it is to beat Brazil, Mexico’s victory Sunday wasn’t historic in most senses. Mexico has beaten Brazil plenty of times before - in fact, El Tri has had the better of the rivalry in recent years.
So there was little extraordinary about the 2-0 win in Dallas, in and of itself. But for those observing the way things played out on the field at Cowboys Stadium, there was at least one remarkable aspect to the game: the way El Tri managed the match for 90 minutes.
By any measure, Mexico is a very skilled team. But few would argue that El Tri is as skilled as Brazil from front to back. That’s not a knock on Mexico - few teams in the world fall in that category. (And for those who would take credit away from El Tri by saying that this was an U-23 Brazilian team, that argument doesn’t hold water. In all likelihood, this version of Brazil sports the majority of the team that will turn out in the World Cup in 2014. They may be headed to the Olympics this summer, but for all intents and purposes, this is the full Brazilian national team.)
Mexico has beaten Brazil in the past with plenty of flair, playing tu a tu. This time out, though, instead of rolling the dice and hoping for the best of an offensive slugfest, El Tri managed the game defensively in a way that significantly increased the chances of things working out in its favor.
A young and somewhat naïve Brazil team, it turned out, played right into Mexico’s hands. Happy to let O Selecao control possession, El Tri waited back in the opening half hour, attacking cautiously with few numbers. The strategy paid off in spades. Relying on a piece of individual skill from Gio Dos Santos, El Tri grabbed the lead, then doubled it on its second dangerous foray forward.
From there, Mexico was happy to sit back, sometimes with as many as nine players behind the ball, and defend. Brazil out-possessed Mexico two to one and outshot El Tri 16 to six, but seldom looked like a real threat to score after going down by two.
It was a masterful game plan that must have surprised the Brazilians, coming from a Mexican team usually expected to attack all out and let the chips fall where they may.
Of course there’s irony in all this. Last decade, Mexico had its regional dominance temporarily wrested away by an American team that played the same way. During no part of the 2000s was the U.S. clearly more skilled than Mexico, and yet match after match comments afterwards were almost always to the tune of “we outplayed them, but they won.”
Brazil may have said the same thing Sunday, though in soccer such words ring all too hollow. Possession or not, El Tri got the better of things, and it showed on the scoreboard.
The most important development from all this, then, is not another victory over Brazil, but rather the evidence that Mexico can play an intelligent, counterattacking game when called for. In fact, as Manuel de la Torre has no doubt figured out the pieces he’s been dealt on this squad will sometimes lend themselves to that strategy against certain opponents.
The defense is solid enough with Hector Moreno and Maza Rodriguez guiding it, but it’s that much surer with a pair of tough defending central midfielders to place on top of the line and stand pat. Though Mexico’s attack is the most vaunted facet of the national team, beyond a front four of Dos Santos, Barrera, Guardado and Chicharito, there’s not too much for top teams to fear at this point (though that will soon change when the U-23s are integrated). So de la Torre figures, why not let the front four counter at will while having the rest of the team hold down the fort against an attack-happy side like Brazil?
It’s a style that some might consider un-Mexican, but de la Torre knows that sometimes, going forward, it will be his best chance to get a win against the world’s elite. In the end, this more flexible version of El Tri, with a defensive scheme in the playbook, will have a better chance of getting deep into tournaments like the Confederations Cup and indeed, the World Cup.
Mexico is superior to the opponents it will face in coming months in CONCACAF, so we won’t see this counter-punching technique again soon. But the thought that such a strategy is available and proven effective for El Tri should give Mexico fans more hope of big things in the making than any single victory could, even if it comes against Brazil.
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