Welcome to the latest in a new series where we will take a tactical dive and explore each and every one of the 32 qualified World Cup teams.
Next up is Mexico, a team which scraped into the tournament by virtue of a playoff victory over lowly New Zealand. They changed managers three times during the qualification period, finally settling on Miguel Herrera for the tournament this summer.
Mexico, a traditional powerhouse of the CONCACAF region, made qualification extremely difficult for themselves.
They started just fine, winning all six games during the third qualifying round, scoring 15 goals and conceding just two. From there, they moved into the Hexagonal (fourth) stage to seal their passage, and a group containing Panama, Jamaica, Honduras and Costa Rica wasn't expected to cause many issues.
But El Tri essentially stopped finding the back of the net often enough, with Oribe Peralta (three) the top scorer of a dramatically poor qualification period. That, combined with the U.S.'s rise under Jurgen Klinsmann and Costa Rica's adoption of a strict "no goals allowed" policy, made winning games a serious test.
They finished fourth in the Hexagonal table and qualified for the World Cup via a cross-continent playoff vs. New Zealand—the penultimate spot left in the competition.
They started the qualifying period with Jose Manuel de la Torre in charge, dispensed with Luis Fernando Tena and Victor Manuel Vucetich along the way, and ended up in Herrera's arms.
Formation and Style
Herrera's signature formation is his 3-5-2/5-3-2.
He used it with Club America to help the team reach the Liga MX finals in 2013, then he transferred it straight to the international level and utilised a lot of Las Aguilas' players in the short term to make it work.
An emphasis is placed on ball possession, with his teams always looking very offensive and direct despite boasting three central defenders at all times.
The flanks are continually bombarded by marauding wing-backs, and their linkup play and ability remains crucial in freeing up chances for the strikers. It's not a regular system, and the importance of the wing-backs' progress up the pitch cannot be understated.
Mexico cannot boast any complete forwards worth writing home about, so it was important for the federation to hire a coach who can craft a game plan without the use of an all-encompassing target man.
The midfield trio of Juan Carlos Medina, Carlos Pena and Luis Montes looked fantastic during the closing stages of qualification, but how will they stack up against the finest in the business?
Overall, it remains difficult to analyse Mexico due to the fact that the current manager has only been in charge for three games. He has three wins, which is great, but two came against New Zealand and one came in a friendly against a weak Finland side.
There's a definite element of "wait and see" attached to El Tri as we head toward June.
Reasons for Hope
The 3-5-2 formation will remain, so although we can't be quite sure of the personnel involved, we can be certain that this system is Herrera's chosen poison.
The former Club America man boasts a 100 percent win ratio as El Tri's manager thus far, but matches against New Zealand and Finland are not strong barometers. His system is widely used in Serie A, though, and he's been loyal to it for 13 years—tried and trusted.
It's the same system Italy is likely to use at some point (or have used in the recent past), so its pedigree and applicability cannot be questioned.
The system's most important positions—central midfield, wing-back and goalscorer—are also oozing with quality, and Herrera has a deep talent pool to pick from.
Miguel Layun is a strong presence going forward, Paul Aguilar is solid, Peralta is a goalscorer and there are other resources to tap.
Many of Mexico's international stars are sitting on the bench for their European clubs, and while Herrera opted to go for the fresh, fit players based domestically against New Zealand, he will need to work others into the side.
Giovani dos Santos looks like an ideal support striker, while Carlos Vela's exile—now spanning two years—is looking more and more foolish.
Reasons for Concern
Offensively, Mexico looks sound, but what about going the other way?
Aguilar and Layun are aggressive wing-backs—the system, lacking wingers, requires them to be so—and that places an inevitable strain on the three central defenders.
If they were all world-class options, this wouldn't be much of an issue, but despite the numerical advantage Herrera's system creates for them, the area is still a question mark.
We thought the 2010 World Cup would be Rafa Marquez's last, but he's still here running the line. Francisco Rodriguez is also remarkably slow, and Juan Carlos Valenzuela has very little experience.
That we're not sure who lies in Herrera's plans yet is both a positive and negative, as while El Tri certainly seem set to beckon superior talent back into the fold and make themselves stronger on paper, how will the new additions gel with the set already present?
If Herrera is to lead Mexico out of Group A and avoid embarrassment, his task will quickly unravel into a careful balancing act.
His Club America protegees are fit and ready to go in a system that suits them, but how will he incorporate Javier Hernandez, dos Santos and Vela (should he return)?
Dos Santos is in the form of his life for Villarreal but has been used largely as a winger for El Tri. Chicharito is no longer the main man due to the reliability of Peralta, and what about the other absent names such as Andres Guardado?
They're not in bad shape, and it seems Herrera is the right man for the job. With Cameroon looking decidedly poor and Croatia missing two key players (one of whom is Mario Mandzukic, who is out for the opening match against Brazil), Mexico have as good a chance as any of reaching the latter stages.
That's enough to constitute success.
Prediction: Round of 16
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