Process mattered far more than outcome to Mexico in this edition of the Clasico. On that account, it proved a useful exercise indeed.
El Tri needed the acceptable 2-2 draw with the United States on Wednesday night to bolster the belief within the ranks and sustain the confidence in the overarching plan, but the contrast between the two wildly disparate halves will prove more helpful in the buildup to the World Cup.
"In the first half, we lacked cohesiveness and we didn’t play well," Mexico manager Miguel Herrera told reporters after the match. "With the changes we made in the second half, we had more control of the ball. We handled the game much better."
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This tale of two Mexicos started in the worst possible fashion for El Tri. The players showed up as belatedly as the bus charged with bringing the team to the stadium. They were overrun and tactically overmatched for much of the opening half by a rampant American side playing with cohesiveness, intent and vigor.
All of the worst fears about Herrera’s preferred 5-3-2 shape at the highest levels manifested in the opening stanza. United States coach Jurgen Klinsmann opted for a 4-4-2 formation with a diamond in midfield and told nominal wide players Brad Davis and Graham Zusi to pinch inside to provide support to Kyle Beckerman and Michael Bradley.
The American setup - fueled by the relentless Bradley as its driving force - created a four-versus-three advantage in the middle third more often than not and exposed the frailty of the structure when opposing teams account for it. The numerical deficit left El Tri’s midfield trio of Isaac Brizuela, Carlos Pena and especially Jesus Zavala chasing the Americans’ tidy two-touch combination work. The inability to play directly to two forwards - Marco Fabian served as Alan Pulido’s foil, but the schemer’s peripheral half only served to reinforce Herrera’s doubts about a more creative player in that spot - to relieve pressure compounded the issues.
By allowing the Americans to play neatly through the middle third without relieving the pressure adequately by playing over the top, the Mexicans heaped strain on a rearguard simply incapable of shouldering it. Bradley beat Zavala to the spot on a corner kick and tucking home at the back post. Chris Wondolowski doubled the deficit with an instinctual finish at the back post after wriggling free from Rogelio Chavez.
The entire scenario constituted a nightmare for some fringe players – and Zavala, in particular – looking to force their way into the reckoning for Brazil and forced Herrera to reassess his approach.
"At halftime, we talked," Herrera said. "We made some changes in the second half and we scored two goals."
Herrera returned to the fundamentals of his own structure to address the pervasive concerns. Fabian dropped into the midfield trio to make way for a second pure striker in Raul Jimenez. Juan Carlos Medina resumed his usual duties at the base of midfield to disrupt the American attacks. Pena and Zavala slinked off to complete the midfield transformation and prompt a substantial revival.
The second half carried the hallmarks of a Herrera-coached team, particularly after Luis Montes’ subsequent arrival: defenders causing a few worries with their suspect decisions and mental lapses, wingbacks hitting diagonals to switch the play intelligently and surging forward at every opportunity, midfielders combining neatly and forwards contracting to link with the midfield and then peeling away to stretch the defense.
By combining a more effective midfield trio with more vertical work going forward, Mexico disrupted the American rhythm and established control over the proceedings. Rafa Marquez benefited from a pick play to pull a goal back shortly after the interval. Miguel Layun hit a cross-field ball to allow substitutes Montes and Paul Aguilar to prompt Pulido’s tidy equalizer after 66 minutes.
The ensuing chaos after that point - end-to-end fare with Mexico essentially on top and a potential American winner ruled out by a dubious offside call - failed to yield a decisive result, but Herrera left Arizona satisfied enough with the stalemate.
"We will continue to watch players in Liga MX," Herrera said. "We got the draw, which leaves me calm."
The result only forms one component of the evening, though. Herrera must note the cautionary lessons from the first half and wonder how his midfield trio will hold up under scrutiny from Croatia and Brazil. Pena - vital to success or failure in midfield given his role in stitching things together - presents a particular concern given the cracks shown when asked to play at a higher tempo. The debate about the utility of a fit Giovani dos Santos – an imprecise fit in the midfield three or the front two given his proclivities - will rage onward based on the evidence gathered, too.
Yet the second-half improvement displayed the strengths of the system and the players capable of operating within it. Aguilar and Layun highlighted their importance. Fabian helped his cause with an effective and industrious display in that midfield trio. Medina and Montes reinforced their importance to the midfield trio. Jimenez and Pulido underscored their utility as possible reserves.
Most of all, the entire night provided the sort of information required to move forward in the preparations for the World Cup. The final result pales in importance to the meandering route toward it. And this engaging meeting with the bitter rivals to the north offered the sort of peaks and valleys necessary to evaluate the options as the road to Brazil continues.