Mexico manager Miguel Herrera established a quarterfinal berth as the objective for El Tri heading into the World Cup. Herrera thought he could steer a team that needed to navigate through an intercontinental playoff against New Zealand to qualify into the last eight in Brazil.
It appeared a lofty and somewhat foolish goal at the outset. Ambition is nice and all, but Mexico needed to meander through a group including Brazil, Cameroon and Croatia and overcome one of Chile, Netherlands and Spain to meet it.
Fantasy is one step away from reality now, though. The impending round of 16 tie against the Dutch is a testament to Herrera’s work over the past six months and the willingness of his players to conform to his philosophy and his system. This edition of Five Points starts with the latest step forward for El Tri in Recife.
Mexico turns the screws to dump Croatia out
Herrera and his players adjust their level of pressure and tailor their attacking approach to suit the situation. Balance — often an issue for this group — is now one of the strengths of the side. It showed once again in the impressive 3-1 victory over Croatia.
Mexico entrenched in the early stages to establish its footing against a Croatian side worthy of respect. Herrera did not want his team to concede early or permit the Croatians to establish its rhythm or play quickly through midfield. El Tri focused on its shape — it worked well enough to force Niko Kovac to add a third player to help the anonymous Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic in central midfield — and waited for the right time to take the initiative.
The plan evolved as Croatia showed its creative and physical limitations on the day. Mexico pressed higher up the field with the Croatian threat largely neutralized and started to ask more questions in the Croatian half. The interplay improved with Andrés Guardado and Héctor Herrera particularly impressive as the match progressed. The tempo increased to a point where the Croatians simply ran out of steam.
Once the Croatians started to flail after the interval, Mexico pinned them back and put them away. Rafa Márquez nodded home the first from a Herrera corner kick to break the deadlock. Guardado completed a tidy sequence for the second — Javier Hernández charged out of midfield and played intelligently to Oribe Peralta for the square pass to prompt the first-time finish — to show Mexico at its best. Chicharito added a third in the final 10 minutes to end his drought and secure the result beyond any doubt.
The final whistle confirmed a third excellent performance in succession. Mexico has proven relatively adaptable in its application, if not its overall structure. The impending date against the Netherlands on Sunday will prove the biggest test to date because Mexico will play against a side with a largely similar 5-3-2 shape. It is a fitting test for a side that has hurdled every obstacle so far at this World Cup.
Netherlands highlights its defensive core against Chile
The state of play in Group B allowed Netherlands to approach its final match with Chile with a fair bit of caution. Louis van Gaal’s side needed only a point to avoid Brazil in the round of 16. It gained all three points by nullifying an unimpressive Chile side and securing a 2-0 victory in Sao Paulo.
Van Gaal returned to his seemingly preferred 5-3-2 setup against a stronger opponent and watched his players submit a diligent defensive performance. They ceded control of the ball, coped with Chile’s intermittent pressure and established control over the cadence of the game. Nigel de Jong halted any attempts to combine through the middle of the park, while the excellent Ron Vlaar cut out service after service into the penalty area.
All of the defensive work once again paved the way for Netherlands to counter effectively. As the Chileans tired (and they did so noticeably after the break), the Dutch exploited the space allotted. The buildup to Leroy Fer’s opener included a nine-pass sequence to swing from a Arjen Robben throw on the right to a buildup on the left to a Memphis Depay shot to win the decisive corner. The second goal stemmed from a lovely de Jong service off a defensive corner kick, a Robben square and a Depay finish.
This counterattacking style ripped Spain apart and subdued Chile. It is exactly the sort of method often rewarded in the knockout stage of the World Cup. This team doesn’t need to keep the ball much or pass it particularly well as long as the shape remains firm. If the Dutch can cope with the Mexicans on the ball and the man-versus-man battles likely to ensue off of it, then they stand in good stead to reach the last eight.
Chile confronts the limitations of its ambitious approach
The absence of the active and influential Arturo Vidal hindered Chile in its quest to sidestep a date with Brazil, but the overall display raised questions about the suitability of this side against a resolute side.
Chile lacked its usual invention and struggled to break down Netherlands when granted license to do so. Alexis Sánchez floated around and through the lines a bid to alter the calculus, but he could only do so much against the organized Dutch with Vidal out and Jorge Valdivia limited to a cameo off the bench. His teammates fluttered around futilely to devise alternatives against a side unlikely to concede the ball in poor area.
Those forays and the declining pressure in the second half left Chile exposed. There is no aerial presence to cope with set pieces. There are no measures to protect the defense if the pressure breaks or drops. Unless Chile can match its usual energy levels and protect those frailties against another robust and organized opponent, it faces yet another Round of 16 exit.
Brazil must lean on its shape and its star to navigate through Chile
There are few tangible developments to take from the 4-1 victory against Cameroon in the Group A final. Brazil grasps how it wants to play and selects the familiar figures accustomed to delivering in its 4-2-3-1 shape. Fred’s goal might provide Luiz Felipe Scolari with some cover to continue selecting him (and he doesn’t have any alternatives anyways), but there are really few things to divine from this sort of exercise.
Brazil enters this knockout stage with a firm idea of what it needs to do to defeat Chile. It must cope with the pressure – both from Chile and from an expectant public – and play out of it. It must retain its diligent shape under scrutiny. And it must rely on Neymar to provide the inspiration to ensure those efforts yield the desired end product.
Italy and Uruguay take the stage in Group D
Uruguay must defeat Italy (12 p.m. ET) in order to reach the Round of 16. It places the Uruguayans in the rather unenviable situation of trying to chase the game. It isn’t their default preference, but the revamped deportment against England – particular the inclusion of the more ambitious Nicolas Lodeiro in central midfield and the roving menace of Luis Suarez — offers some encouragement for those efforts. Italy must keep its shape tight and lean on Andrea Pirlo to find space and supply Mario Balotelli in order to relieve the pressure. Costa Rica will hope to gain a point against a revamped England (12 p.m. ET) in the other match to guarantee top spot in the group.
Côte d’Ivoire faces the unenviable task of trying to break down Greece (4 p.m. ET) to guarantee a place in the round of 16 out of Group C. The lack of creativity within the Ivorian ranks could pose a concern or two in those endeavors. Expect Serge Aurier to join the attack to provide service and width on the right to stretch the shape. If the Ivorians can create a crack or two, then Gervinho (on the left) or Yaya Touré (through the middle) could slice through it.
Colombia needs only a point against Japan (4 p.m. ET) to claim top spot in Group C and dispatch the Japanese from the tournament. Japan can play at a high tempo in midfield to match the Colombians in that department, but the Colombian attack may prove too mobile and potent for them to handle with that rickety central defense.