It was when Rafa Márquez scored that header that I felt my soul leave my body. It went about as you'd expect.
Mexico are through to the group stage after a pretty commanding 3-1 win over Croatia on Monday. For my own well-being, I'm going to think of this less as a Mexican triumph and more as another bullet point in the "Don't mess with CONCACAF narrative" that's been so fun for the past week-and-a-half.
Now to the game:
1. Rafa gets the glory, but Hector is the key
Héctor Moreno has become for El Tri what Matt Besler is for the US – steady and underrated and so, so smart. While Rafa does a ton of organizing (as much as I loathe him, I can admit that he's a wonderful player, right?), you can see that Moreno does a ton of what I call "active" organizing. He responds to in-game situations rapidly, and is a problem-solver by nature. He's really, really good, and one of the biggest reasons Mexico have conceded only once in three games here:
Espanyol should make a tidy profit from Hector Moreno after this tournament— Lee Roden (@LeeRoden89) June 23, 2014
There are two things at play here. First is that Rafa is gonna Rafa – you can't ask him to dial himself back. Even if he's not the best player on the team, he's going to keep playing like he's been playing forever. So then it become incumbent upon the other guys along the backline to buy into what he's doing and play to his rhythm and movement.
In other words: Moreno should be the alpha dog for Mexico. But he's such a smart, selfless player that he's willing to play the sidekick for the good of the team.
And then there's the extra dimension he brings, which comes from the fact that he pushes forward into the attack in random spots when he knows Rafa's staying. That's unbalanced each of the three teams Mexico have faced so far, and Croatia were particularly flummoxed by this. They controlled possession, but Mexico were dangerous every time Moreno got forward.
2. How to deal with the wingbacks?
El Tri don’t have a true creator – which is nuts when you think about the playmakers in Liga MX – so they float Giovani dos Santos into space in the attacking third, keep Oribe Peralta high to get the central defenders way back, and hope that the fullbacks get a little bit lost. Then they push the wingbacks up and turn the 5-3-2 into a 3-5-2, repeatedly finding that space between the opposing fullback and winger.
This is not a money spot unique to any one position – Fabian Johnson worked the hell out of Portugal there, and had he been more interested in crossing than in driving to the endline, he could have created plenty of danger. The difference, however, is that when you play a team with wingbacks, THAT IS THE DEFAULT AVENUE OF ATTACK. That is where the money is made. You have to defend it.
For 4-3-3 (and 4-2-3-1) teams, that’s proving to be something of a problem. The 3-5-2 was created in the first place to punish wingers, and now that wingers are more inverted than ever and as attack-minded as they’ve been in 50 years, it’s not a surprise to see the wingback return.
Johan Cruyff, of course, won’t be pleased. He once called the wingback “the death of soccer,” and while that’s a bit overdramatic it’s worth noting that the 3-5-2 has never really lent itself to the beautiful game.
But I doubt that teams who are winning give much of a fig about that.
3. It's a different contest vs. the Netherlands
The Dutch have been right there with Mexico in this wingback re-revolution we've seen throughout. And they've been arguably the two best teams in the tournament.
Mexico have played only against sides that go four at the back so far; the Netherlands, on Monday morning, beat a Chilean side playing a 3-4-1-2 that looks very similar to Mexico's lineup, even if they have a very different defensive scheme. Add in the fact that El Tri will be without d-mid José Juan Vázquez on yellow-card accumulation, and suddenly this dream run looks like the recurring "Death in the Round of 16" nightmare that's plagued an entire nation for the past 20 years.
But the breakthrough has to come sometime. I honestly feel like the time for Mexico is now – particularly because they have their very own saint watching over them from on high:
Never forget who got you there.