The outcome of the 0-0 draw at Estadio Azteca hinged on one fundamental question: could Mexico's supremacy in the wide areas overcome the Americans' desire to pack the center?
Mexico enjoyed a bright first half because it managed to focus its efforts in the wide areas. This approach falls in line with how José Manuel de la Torre asks his team to play on a regular basis: he wants his fullbacks – particularly Jorge Torres Nilo on the left – to overlap and create two-versus-one and three-versus-two situations to overwhelm opposing fullbacks. By focusing their attentions in the wide areas, the Mexicans aim to either create good crossing opportunities or weave their way through a back four unable to keep its shape as it adjusts to the gambit.
In the first half of this tense encounter, Mexico managed to fulfill that brief with a little help from the visitors. U.S. coach Jürgen Klinsmann exposed fullbacks DaMarcus Beasley and Geoff Cameron by asking his side to advance when in possession and leave potential spaces to exploit on the counter (especially in the areas Beasley and Cameron vacated). Inconsistent tracking work by Hérculez Gómez and Graham Zusi (though the Sporting KC man did recover to make a critical clearance in the second half) exacerbated the problems and invited further pressure.
Mexico made good use of that advantage by relying almost solely on its wide players to produce dangerous opportunities. Javier Aquino challenged Beasley repeatedly after Beasley picked up a yellow card inside the first 10 minutes and posed most of the problems on the right. Torres Nilo surged into the attacking half repeatedly to heap additional pressure on Cameron. Their work on the touchlines allowed Andrés Guardado to drift inside a bit to find operating room and permitted Giovani dos Santos to float outside to create the numerical edges sought in those departments.
Fortunately for the Americans, they were able to clear the resulting crosses, mitigate those concerns and shift the game toward the middle of the park after the interval. Both fullbacks primarily tended to their defensive duties when play resumed after sneaking forward occasionally in the first half. Klinsmann told reporters after the match that he asked Maurice Edu to shade to the left side to provide cover for Beasley. Edu's tendency to float to that side and Aquino's penchant for fading out of the match in the second half reduced the problems on the right. Torres Nilo's second half withdrawal also helped.
Mexico inevitably shifted its focus toward the middle with the influence of the wide players dwindling, but it did not look nearly as threatening in that department. Dos Santos' pedestrian display left the home side without the necessary creativity and incisiveness to expose the preferred gaps – usually found between the center back and the fullback, though the U.S. did well enough to close these areas down – or slice through the compact American shape. The absence of a traditional center forward to support Javier Hernández or a two-way midfielder capable of providing more support from central midfield (and pulling Edu and Michael Bradley out of position) limited the diversity of the Mexican forays.
As expected, the Americans fended off one or two scares in the late stages from crosses and set pieces. They, however, could not have expected to emerged from this game without alarm for large swaths of the second half. The inexperienced back four – including two makeshift fullbacks and a center back tandem with less than 10 combined caps – somehow navigated this trial by fire with a minimum of fuss.
Much of the credit for this precious point lands squarely on the discipline and the organization displayed by the Americans over the 90 minutes. Yes, the visitors pursued the game a bit too ardently in the first half and nearly suffered the consequences as Mexico flew up the flanks relatively unchecked. But a dogged second half display ensured the home side received no reprieve for its inability to turn its profitable work on the flanks into a tangible advantage at some stage along the way.
As the Americans trudged off the field with a point for their troubles, they supplied the answer to the conundrum poised to determine the outcome of this affair: like the final scoreline, the primary tactical battle ended in a stalemate.
Follow KYLE MCCARTHY on or shoot him an email