World Cup 2014

World Cup: Mexico save FIFA's blushes as Gio dos Santos becomes a star | Armchair Analyst

The refs – both in the middle and on the sidelines – have been the focal point of the first 180 minutes at the 2014 World Cup. It's a shame, but it's inevitable that there will be bad calls here and there.

What's not inevitable is two blown offside calls denying two good goals from the same player. And in between, a fairly clear penalty denied for the other team.

It was a bizarre first half for the officials in Mexico's 1-0 win over Cameroon, a win that puts El Tri in good stead going forward in Group A. Three points are always great, but what made the win especially satisfying for Mexican fans is that their most talented player finally became a star:


1. Gio dos Santos lived up to his talent

For a good, long time it looked like dos Santos would be the Freddy Adu of Mexican soccer – the overhyped, technically gifted but motivationally challenged attacker who dazzles in flashes but can't match production to potential. And just like Freddy, Gio's best moments as a pro came way back in the 2011 Gold Cup – when he eviscerated the US in the final.

Given his Barcelona roots and his championship pedigree with Mexico's youth team, it seemed like only a matter of time before dos Santos put it all together and became a star. He came close this season for Villarreal in La Liga, scoring 12 goals and adding eight assists across all competitions. But the criticism remained that, too often he would drift out of big games. He didn't really impose himself in the final third in the way his talent should dictate, and he wasn't even a clear starting XI choice heading into this tournament.

You couldn't get him out of Miguel Herrera's lineup with a prybar now. Gio was brilliant.

In addition to the two denied goals, he also set up what would have been a third if not for a fantastic save from Charles Itandje. Watch this flick:

He also exerted a serious gravitational pull on Mexico's patient, build-from-the-back style. Rafa Márquez – who was disappointingly excellent – went right much more than he went left because dos Santos is more dangerous operating in the right-center channel:

Gio isn't a "world elite" player yet, and may never be because his finishing just isn't as good as the attackers who occupy that realm. You can see as much in the day's one goal that wasn't denied, when Oribe Peralta banged home a rebound after a Dos Santos shot.

But he's – finally – Mexico's best player. And any game plan going forward should account for him first and foremost.


2. Piojo's 5-3-2 confuses Cameroon

Cameroon were bad, and it's because of their manager. Volker Finke didn't make a single adjustment to account for the Mexican wingbacks, and so every dangerous Mexican attack came from the same spot on the field.

Chicharito would have gotten to that one. This one below is the goal, and you can see both Gio's movement and the spot where it all originated (sorry for the whopper of a GIF, which is probably making your Internet connection scream for mercy, but you need to see the whole thing):

Cameroon never figured this out, and didn't really control the game until the last 10 minutes when Mexico went into a 5-4-1 shell – which they shouldn't do again.


3. So why doesn't everybody use the 5-3-2?

Because it asks a lot of the central defense. Here's the note I wrote to myself after Samuel Eto'o's only great chance of the game, which happened after Benoit Essou-Ekotto got past Paul Aguilar and then destroyed "Maza" Rodríguez 1-v-1:

"Mexico pressured to defend wide, center backs step over, forced to make desperate challenges around the 18. Risky, and why the 5-3-2/3-5-2 isn’t the world’s default setting. Putting more defenders out there actually gives you a more obvious, exploitable defensive flaw."

Central defenders are almost always better defending when the game is compact than when stepping into space. And smart attacking teams – ones that use their overlapping fullbacks to good effect, overwhelming the opposing wingback with numbers – will create that space.

Cameroon managed it only twice in this game. Croatia and Brazil will be much more aggressive attacking those areas – and that's when the real test will come for El Tri.

But they can worry about that another day. Today is for three points, a big, bright star and a bunch of FIFA executives being happy that the right team won despite the best efforts of the officiating crew.