The real home team in the Copa America Centenario opened with a win in the tournament’s most exciting game thus far. Though each group’s anticipated leaders faced off in the opening round, this was the first big game to deliver: best not only in terms of excitement, but of tactical interest and of circus side-show entertainment (Chile’s anthem was played instead of Uruguay’s). At the time, even the questionable refereeing only added to the game, though later analysis suggested more similarities to Brazil – Ecuador’s wrongly disallowed goal than initially seemed the case.
Mexico dominated the first half, playing in a formation that looked like a variant of the 3-3-1-3 (or 3-1-3-3) that Marcelo Bielsa used with the Chilean national side in the 2010 World Cup. That system uses three center backs and three high forwards with what is now often described as a midfield diamond. Mexico did sometimes look just like that 3-3-1-3, with central defender Diego Reyes in the holding midfield role and Porto’s Héctor Herrera underneath the strikers. But the positioning of the other midfielders tended to constitute a square rather than a diamond, with Andrés Guardado pushing up to the left of Herrera and Miguel Layún tucking in to the right of Reyes. This formation is more reminiscent of Brendan Rodgers’s Liverpool midfield or Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich when Philipp Lahm joined Xabi Alonso inside. This latter example seems particularly relevant given that Layún traditionally plays full- or wing-back. In the second half, Layún made several forays up the middle and angling toward the left side of the attack that were reminiscent of David Alaba’s role as an “inside fullback” under Guardiola. Manager Juan Carlos Osorio deserves credit for successfully employing this flexible but complicated formation given the limited training opportunities in the modern international game.
Playing without the injured Luis Suárez, Uruguay manager Óscar Tabárez opted for a 4-2-3-1 that left his other striker, Edinson Cavani, largely isolated from the rest of the team while Mexico controlled the game and tested the Uruguayan defense and keeper Fernando Muslera. An excellent cross by Guardado into space opened up by an intelligent run from Javier “Chicharito” Hernández led to the fastest own goal in Copa America history (4′). Cavani did have a good chance one-on-one at 30′, but Alfredo Talavera saved it. When defensive midfielder Matías Vecino was justly sent off for a 2nd yellow immediately before halftime, Uruguay’s fate seemed sealed.
But at halftime, Tabárez moved Diego Rolán up from left wing to play alongside Cavani and restructured Uruguay’s midfield as a triangle to create a 4-3-2. The impact of the change was immediate, as Uruguay looked the more threatening side despite the man disadvantage, especially so once Hull City’s Abel Hernández replaced Rolán at 60′. At 71′, Cavani put the ball in the net off a free kick, but it was correctly called back for offsides (keeper Talavera was ahead of the ball, so that Cavani’s defender wasn’t playing him on). At 73′, Guardado received either a 2nd yellow or a straight red for 1) a relatively mild but tactical foul, 2) persistent infringement, much of it of a similarly tactical nature, 3) back talk following the foul, or 4) some mixture of the above. Mexico was still reeling when an unmarked Diego Godín (who else?) headed in a free kick from Carlos Sánchez to equalize.
Given Uruguay’s later issues with Paraguayan referee Enrique Cáceres, it’s worth noting that, at this point, it was Mexico that felt more victimized. Even before the somewhat mysterious sending off of Guardado, Mexico had had an assistant coach sent to the stands by the referee, presumably for criticism of his performance. While the exact reasoning behind both of these ejections is unclear (which is NOT to say that they weren’t justified, only that the justification wasn’t captured on camera or explicated by the referee’s actions), Mexico was clearly unhappy with the way in which decisions were going.
With the score and number of players equalized, Mexico shifted to a 3-3-3, Layún moving to the left and Herrera to the right of a midfield triangle. Pachuca’s Hirving Lozano had already come on at 54′, and at 83′ Benfica’s Raúl Jiménez replaced Chicharito. Both substitutions would prove critical (Jesús Dueñas was also brought on at 60′, giving Mexico a fully refreshed front line).
At 85′, Lozano received a relatively short corner from Layún and found Rafa Marquez on the right. The central defender mishandled the ball, only to have Raúl Jiménez chase it down and return it to set up a lovely finish by the 37 year-old Marquez. Uruguay were already furious with the referee for awarding the corner kick, Godín receiving a yellow before the set piece. Afterward, they again surrounded the referee even more vociferously. Something was clearly wrong.
Taylor Rockwell offers an excellent explanation of why Uruguay were angry and how that probably cost them the game (short version: they believed Marquez had fouled Godín and had a handball before the corner kick, and their complaints drew them out of defensive position). What Rockwell missed, but Fox Sports showed in their pre-game show earlier today, was a likely handball by Marquez’s off Lozano’s pass. This explains not only the increased furor of Uruguay after the goal, but their particular attention to the linesman, who was closest to Marquez and best positioned to make the call. In the end, the play was not unlike the disallowed Ecuadoran goal, which was also a linesman’s call that fundamentally changed the nature of the game.
Uruguay then sent Godín up front with Cavani, but the game was ended by a fantastic team goal from Mexico. Herrera scored off a spectacular Raúl Jiménez assist, Lozano again delivering the ball in from the left. While referee Cáceres definitely altered the game in retrospect, he did not ruin it for neutral viewers. Though Argentina-Chile offered an even better first half this evening, the dynamic nature of last night’s contest was more compelling over the full 90′ in my view. However you rate them, it was a strong end to the opening round of group games.
NOTE: I’m heading out with the American Outlaws and my buddy Kirk to the US-Costa Rica game in Chicago, so if I don’t get a post on Argentina-Chile out early tomorrow, it probably will have to wait until after Wednesday’s post on that game.
Credit to Clement Bucco-Lechat for the linking photo, modified and used under Creative Commons license.