On Tuesday night, Mexico met Bosnia and Herzegovina (in Chicago, of all places) for one of the final friendlies for both countries; after displaying much more commitment towards the fundamentals of its game – such as spacing, coming to the ball to receive passes, sharp ball movement, and assertiveness towards 50-50 balls – Bosnia edged El Tri 1-0.
A friendly such as this, however, can only be analyzed given a few caveats: first, coaches (especially Miguel Herrera of Mexico, in this case) often do not risk using the players they would use for meaningful games. Second, teams are not given the usual restriction of three substitutions, which allows more bench players to expend affective energy than we would regularly see. Finally (I’m leaving out the obvious fact that the results of these games is usually unimportant), and specifically for this game, the weather on a Chi-Town night will not quite match the sweltering conditions of an afternoon in Rio de Janeiro.
With that said, here are the epiphanies that came to me regarding each side:
In the first half, there were very few promising moments for El Tri, as its players had neither a sense of understanding each other’s actions nor any apparent motivation to overcome the early advantage Bosnia claimed by simply having more energy and discipline than Mexico.
On defense, Mexico constantly made unnecessary and risky passes that, more than a couple times, directly fed the Bosnian attack and allowed meaningful opportunities on goal. Also, as Bosnia brought its possession around Mexico’s 18-yard box, the defenders jumped into challenges they were late on, allowing the Bosnian midfielders to ease into more space and continue their attack.
Mexico did, however, manage to end the game having controlled 62% of the possession, a bright spot for Herrera and his players but an unfortunate fact for those of us having to witness it; they often looked uncomfortable with the ball, stalling for a few seconds before making a decision, and even upon making a move letting the ball get stuck under their feet. The spacing, while not half bad in the closing minutes against the more fatigued Bosnia, was embarrassing at other moments, with players running into each other. Yes, these internationals literally struggled to find any other space on the entire field to run to than where their teammates were standing with the ball.
Striker Javier Hernández and right back Miguel Layún were the only players who showed any potential of making a difference for Mexico in the first period; Hernández displayed the most energy on the team, winning the ball from Bosnia’s defense, hustling back to receive his midfield’s sloppy passes, and making effective runs that included him receiving a perfect lob from Layún and firing his subsequent shot off the post. As part of the defense Layún was guilty of giving too much room to Bosnian attackers in dangerous areas, yet Layún’s ability to beat the opposition on the right wing and deliver crosses was a refreshing dose of creativity in a mostly stagnant Mexican attack.
Here’s a reason to worry if you’re a Mexico fan: if your team brings the mess of a defense it brought Tuesday night to the World Cup, it will undoubtedly concede 6 goals to Brazil in the first ten minutes of their matchup. Here’s why not to worry, though: despite such dull play, Mexico had a few chances, most of which occurred in the final few minutes, where it’s attack completely caught Bosnia off guard – it wouldn’t have been at all surprising if the side came up with an equalizer, which may have altered the entire outlook of Mexico’s performance that night. Furthermore, Herrera’s lineup for the game largely did not resemble the team that will start for him in the World Cup; he played a backup goalkeeper, rested key players such as center back Rafael Márquez, forwards Oribe Peralta and Giovani dos Santos (for most of the game), and used only four defenders in his back line for about all of the contest as opposed to his usual five.
It’s harder to assess Bosnia’s performance given that the tournament in Brazil will mark the country’s first World Cup appearance, and I think the football world is unsure of what standards to hold this side to.
Apart from the obvious advantages the team had over Mexico in energy and focus, Bosnia was very impressive in its ball movement and surprising with its subtle creativity. Forward Edin Džeko was, from the very start, the focal point of the team’s offense, and – as surprising as it was that Mexico seemed to have no plan for covering him – he did not disappoint; he flaunted his nutmegging ability, he was unselfish while not shy, and his hard work pressuring the defense made the big fella look quick against the lackadaisical Mexican back line.
Bosnia’s midfielders also made noticeable impacts, specifically Muhamed Besic and Izet Hajrovic. Perhaps they just looked good against an unorganized Mexican midfield, but the two helped keep the ball swinging throughout Bosnia’s attack with Mexico’s defenders chasing after, which eventually created the goal from Hajrovic.
As disciplined and efficient as Bosnia appeared to be at every position, there were lapses in focus – from the defense especially – that were almost as awkward as Mexico’s, and nearly as costly as well.
Bosnia displayed much sharper ball movement, which is partially why they were the better team that night. But a lack of stamina almost got the best of B&H in the dying minutes, when Mexico dominated possession and very nearly scored an equalizer. As impressive as Bosnia was in that first half, it seemed uninterested at times in the second half in putting together an attack. Group F belongs to Argentina, but in the chase for second place between Bosnia, Nigeria and Iran (okay, probably not Iran), Bosnia has a good chance at seizing a spot in the round of 16 should it play as cohesively as it did Tuesday night.