In a game of many ‘firsts’ for both teams, the Netherlands played host to a strong Mexico squad at the Johan Cruyff Arena. This would be former Ajax and Barcelona defender Frank De Boer’s first game in charge after recently taking over Ronald Koeman. However, he is no stranger to the national set-up as De Boer spent over two years as assistant manager under Bert van Marwijk. Coincidently, it was also Frank De Boer who took over Mexico’s manager, Gerardo Martino, as head coach of MLS side Atlanta United.
For Mexico, this match will be Martino’s first game in charge against a European side. 2014 was the last time that these two teams clashed, with Mexico coming back from two goals down to emerge victorious. They will also come into this game in promising form having won 16 of 18 international matches since the Argentinian manager took over in 2019.
This tactical analysis will highlight the tactics used by both managers and how they adapted as the game progressed. This analysis will also shed light on the key moments that allowed Mexico to place significant amounts of pressure on the European heavyweights.
De Boer lined his side up in a 4-1-4-1 formation but shifted to a 4-3-3 shape throughout the game. Tim Krul started between the sticks whilst Virgil van Dijk and Inter Milan defender Stefan de Vrij stood in front as the two centre backs. Owen Wijndal and Hans Hateboer provided width as the two fullbacks, whilst EPL players Donny Van De Beek and Georginio Wijnaldum partnered Teun Koopermeiners in midfield. Finally, the front three consisted of wingers, Ryan Babel and Steven Berghuis with Lyon captain Memphis Depay acting as the striker.
Similarly, Martino also lined up in a 4-3-3 formation on paper. Starting in goal was Alfredo Talavera, with César Montes and Héctor Moreno as the centre back pairing. Jesús Gallardo and Luis Rodriguez positioned themselves as the high and wide fullbacks. Edson Alvarez, Andrés Guardado and Atletico Madrid midfielder, Héctor Herrera, made up the midfield three. Finally, Jesús Corona, Rodolfo Pizzaro and Raúl Jiménez provided the strike power as the front three.
Mexico’s defensive recognition
As we know, the Netherlands is a team with a strong history of possession-based football. They will look to use different combinations to unlock defences and progress the ball forward. Therefore, they start players who are able to maintain individual possession within tight areas and can comfortably pass the ball with both feet to split gaps in the defence. Mexico’s approach looked to take advantage of this and place pressure on the back four and Koopermeiners when looking to build up. However, Martino knows that his side can’t press high man for man the entire game, so Mexico’s first priority was to maintain defensive structural stability. From there they could wait for moments to push up and press.
Above is an example of the intensity of Mexico’s pressing. Because of the short distance between Van de Beek supporting Wijndal on the ball, Herrera pushed onto Van de Beek but does not engage just yet. Herrera made sure that the passing lane to the Babel and Depay was closed and then once the Athletico midfielder saw Van de Beek turn behind, that was the trigger for him to push up and engage. Leading the charge to the Liverpool centre half, Herrera’s supporting teammates push up to close down immediate supporting options. In a higher pressing situation, the left-winger, Pizzaro (seen at the bottom of the picture above) would pick up de Vrij. However, because of the long distance, he would have to travel to get to the Inter Milan defender, the Mexico side halt their pressing and shift to cover the space.
Now that de Vrij is comfortable in possession, Mexico need to organise their structure before they engage and try to win the ball back. As Herrera and Corona drop deeper, Jimenez covers the Dutch holding midfielder whilst Guardado shift and holds until everyone is set. If de Vrij continues on dribbling into the midfield, he can go and win the ball whilst covering the passing lane to Wijnaldum.
The next scenario is another example of Mexico waiting until they have a set defence before they go and press. At the moment, the only potential threat would be for Depay making the run in behind. Since he notices when Hateboer receives the ball that his body shape is facing back towards goal, there is no need to make that attacking run in behind.
Gallardo also picks up on Hateboer’s body shape and looks to go and press to prevent him from turning. Pizarro also displays intelligent defending by looking to prevent the pass to Depay but also track the run of Wijnaldum in behind. The moment he shifts momentum and looks to press is when Hateboer looks up after his first touch and notices de Vrij. This is the trigger for Pizzaro to turn defensive cover into defensive pressure.
Now that Mexico have the Dutch side on the retreat, they all push up with momentum and lock on man for man. The change of speed also forces De Vrij into playing a poor pass behind van Dijk, who as a result plays back to the keeper. When the ball gets back to Krul, Mexico know that they will try to keep possession, so they continue pushing up the field and closing down potential options. Against other teams, Mexico may hold their position in a mid-block in anticipation for the keeper to play long if pressured by an attacker. Their persistence pays off in the end with Jiménez forcing Krul to play a poor pass over the touchline (intended for van Dijk).
Koopermeiner’s impressive debut
Arguably, one of the best players for the Netherlands was AZ Alkmaar defensive midfielder, Teun Koopermeiners. The 22-year old was the focal point when his team were looking to build out from the back, always operating in pockets of space to get himself in a position to play forward. According to the data set, out of the 16 progressive passes Koopermeiners played, 88% of those passes were accurate (progressive passes require the ball to go at least 30 metres if the start point is in own half and finishing point is in opposition half). To complement this, the 22-year old played the most forward passes in the team (31 forward passes) and had a 74% success rate in total. Despite this being his debut match for the Netherlands, being positive and always looking for a progressive pass is a habit that he has developed at club level with AZ.
Above, we can see that Mexico are pressing high, placing pressure on Krul and de Vrij. Looking at Koopermeiners, as the ball is travelling to the Inter Milan defender, he is scanning for the next available option. He also picks up on the large amount of space in front of him. This space comes about due to the positioning of Wijnaldum pinning Guardado higher up the field.
Already knowing where he is going to play before he receives the ball, by the time the ball gets to de Vrij, Teun is using his right hand to show for the ball. What is interesting is the information that is presented to the centre half by using the right hand to show. Typically, when a midfielder has space in front of them, you use the opposite hand to point out in front. This is so the defender can play the receivers back foot to progress forward.
Again, knowing he is going to make the pass out wide to Hateboer (not in the picture), Koopermeiners requires a more delicate pass. By using his closest hand to show for the ball, he is signalling for a shorter pass that goes out in front of him. Recognising the information presented, de Vrij plays a slower pass in front of the holding midfielder so the ball can be hit first time with ease. As the game progressed, due to the influence the AZ midfielder had in progressing the ball forward, Mexico would act early and mark him tightly so that it would deter his teammates from playing to him. Picking up on this change in defensive planning, Koopermeiners used this to his advantage by dragging away his markers to create passing lanes for his teammates higher up the field. After this promising performance, Frank De Boer will be looking to keep the young 22-year old in the squad for future fixtures in the Nations Cup.
Finding the highest player
During build-up phases in central areas of the middle third, Mexico were comfortable shifting the ball around the back until they were able to find a pass to break lines. Typically, Moreno and Montes would push out wide so that they were able to shorten the distance between themselves and the fullbacks, wingers and closest midfielder. In order to maintain structural balance and prevent them from being caught out in counter-attacks, Alvarez (and occasionally Herrera) would drop in between the two centre-halves.
Above we can see that Moreno is comfortable in possession as Berghuis is protecting the passing lane to prevent Gallardo from getting on the ball. As the highest player, Jiménez recognises that by dropping he can bring his marker out of position and create a third man combination with two potential receivers.
What is interesting about this moment is the decision making of de Vrij. As the ball travels to Jiménez, de Vrij is still tracking the striker. The moment Gallardo changes his pace and accelerates to run in behind, the Inter Milan centre back shifts momentum and picks up the fullback. In a matter of seconds, Jiménez recognises the change in the defender’s momentum which has afforded him the necessary space to turn and run. What is startling is the positioning of Hateboer and his lack of perceived awareness for the threat. In this moment, he is marking Pizzaro (not seen in the picture). However, he should be able to recognise Moreno’s intention to play Jimenez centrally. This is the moment where he has to forget about Pizzaro and protect the space behind de Vrij so he doesn’t have to pick up the speedy midfielder.
Knowing that Gallardo has him beaten for pace, the centre half attempts to commit a foul and slow him down. However, he is too quick and breaks away with no marker around and creates a goal-scoring opportunity
This tactical analysis highlighted that Mexico was able to place a significant amount of pressure on the Dutch side’s build-up and as a result were able to recover and control possession for large periods of the game.
Although it was his first game in charge, Frank De Boer cannot be happy with his side’s performance. After relentless pressure from Mexico, a controversial penalty was awarded to Mexico for a foul on Jiménez by Ake from a set-piece. The conversion of the penalty lead to Mexico beating the Dutch side 1-0. Although the penalty could’ve been argued either way, Mexico would feel like they deserved at least one goal with the number of chances that they created and the pressure they put on the Netherlands.
The Netherlands must bounce back however as they face a quick turnaround with the Nations Cup fixtures in sight. They will play both Bosnia and Italy in their matches and fans are rallying to see a change in performance compared to what they had just witnessed.