It’s been twenty-eight years since Mexico’s National Team has advanced into the quarterfinals of FIFA’s soccer World Cup. El Tri, as they’re endearingly known to their fans, the best fans in all of world football, according to many European nations, has a history of being agonizingly close on several occasions. Their most recent loss to the Netherlands in the knockout stage of the 2014 World Cup was especially heartbreaking, mainly because Mexico was clinging to a 1-0, advantage well into the final and most taxing minutes of the game. After being nothing short of superb for fifty-plus minutes, and nursing this very small but precious lead deep into the game, Mexico, as they’ve done many times before, experienced a mental letdown just yards from the finish line. To all watching, they looked every bit of an eager team destined to win its first ever World Cup crown. In the end, however, they could not hold their 1-0, advantage, and the Dutch limped away with a 2-1 victory, as millions of Mexico fans shed tears mixed with green, white, and red face paint. What happened this time? What went wrong for Mexico? In simple terms, the Dutch came to play football—for ninety-minutes.
Ironically, the worse thing that could’ve happened for Mexico was scoring the first goal. The early lead prompted them to sit back defensively, surrendering the fruitful attacking play that had earned them the goal in the first place. Dutch tails were up at this point, as the final thirty-minutes of the game saw the Netherlands march into Mexico’s defensive third, time after time, earning a total of ten corner kicks in twenty-minutes.
Sitting back after a goal is nothing new. We often see it at the club level with teams like Chelsea and AC Milan “parking the bus” at the mouth of the goal to preserve their one-goal leads. But this is the World Cup, and coaches and players alike have to adjust their tactics and style of play to make room for changes that other teams will make when they are behind.
In simple terms, Mexico’s rookie coach was outdone by the Louis van Gaal, one of Holland’s most avid proponents of the Total Football playing style of Ajax and the Dutch national team of the 1970s. Miguel Herrera, having never coached in a game that had so much riding on it, and neither did his staff, did not have the experience and knowhow to preserve the win. Van Gal, on the other hand, was playing the violin on the sidelines, frantically, but still playing a recognizable tune.
Herrera’s first mistake took place in the 61st minute when he brought on Javier Aquino for Giovanni dos Santos, the Mexico forward that gave El Tri the 1-0, lead. It was a substitution that had Mexico fans scratching their collective scalps. Giovanni had done nothing wrong, certainly nothing that constituted a substitution, especially in the 61st minute when the game could’ve potentially gone into extra-time. He had been holding the ball well, waiting for his attacking players to join him. He had Holland’s defensive quartet on their heels, and if they were not physically guarding him, they were definitely mentally aware of his presence. In football, the mental aspect is key, and the longer you are on the minds of a defensive squad, the better.
Aquino brought none of this to the game, as he proved to be the first step back in Mexico’s demise. In fact, it was Aquino who stood idly on the top of the eighteen box, guarding nothing but shadows, as he watched Wesley Sneijder launch a rocket off his right foot and into the back of the net for the Dutch’s equalizer in the 88th minute. Point number one to Van Gaal.
It got worse for Mexico when Van Gaal decided to use his coaching expertise. Realizing that Sneijder was producing very little from the lone center midfield position, Van Gaal brought in left-winger Memphis Depay for Paul Verhaegh in the 56th minute. Verhaegh was playing in the attacking and holding midfield position for Holland, and he was lost. Depay is not a center midfielder. He plays on the left wing, but this position was already occupied by Dirk Kuyt, an intelligent attacking player with experience at the highest levels. Knowing that Kuyt is as versatile as they come, Van Gaal sent Kuyt to the center midfield position to accompany Sneijder. Memphis then filled Kuyt’s position. Now, this may have seemed like just another substitution, but to me, this was the move of the match.
All of a sudden, Sneijder was free of the responsibilities of running the center midfield position, a job that he could now pass onto Kuyt. He was now allowed the freedom to roam the field much in the way Messi does for Barcelona, and to find his space and give the Mexico defense fits. As it turned out, it was Sneijder who equalized for Holland, and it was Aquino who watched him score. Point number two to Van Gaal.
But even before Van Gaal made his move, Herrera made things easier for Holland. In the 75th minute, Herrera yanked Oribe Peralta in favor of Javier Hernandez. Now, normally this would’ve been an acceptable substitution. Afterall, Hernandez is a poacher that can score big goals and make things difficult for opposing defenses, although he had been on somewhat of a drought before the Croatia game. But Mexico did not need an attacking player at this time—not with a 1-0, lead with fifteen minutes to go! Herrera succumbed to Javier Hernandez’s incessant complaining about not being in the starting eleven. Herrera felt that he had to play Hernandez simply out of custom, because Chicharito is Chicharito. It made no sense, and Mexico paid dearly for this particular substitution.
Herrera is probably banging his head. He now knows that he should’ve substituted Peralta for another holding midfielder or a player with pace and physicality, like Marco Fabian, a player that could’ve accompanied Carlos Salcedo and sit right in front of Rafael Marquez and Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez as another defensive line of protection. Fabian could’ve also given Mexico the counter attacking threat they lacked in the last fifteen-minutes of the game. He went with Chicharito, instead.
Hernandez could not hold the ball, as he had limited touches due to Holland’s sustained attack, and nor did he have any chances at goal. In short, he brought nothing of value to the game, nothing that could’ve helped Mexico.
Van Gaal finalized his attack with another big switch. This proved to be the dagger that stopped Mexico’s heart. Van Gaal brought on seldom used attacker Klaas Huntelaar for Robin Van Persie. Van Persie was not himself, showing nothing of the flare he displayed against Spain. Nevertheless, he’s a player that you seldom replace because he can be deadly from one moment to the next. However, Van Gaal saw that Van Persie’s tank was dry and went with fresher, younger legs in the midst of stifling heat and humidity. In short, it was Huntelaar that scored the game-winning goal for Holland in the 94th minute. With no dynamic players on the field for Mexico, and all substitutes already used, Mexico was all but eliminated before the game had ended.
Another point worth noting is that Mexico was caught completely off guard by Holland’s refusal to settle for extra-time. We’ve seen it many times. Teams get a late equalizer and then sit back to wait for extra-time or to go into penalties. It’s almost like an unwritten agreement teams have with one another. “Ok, you tied us. There’s two-minutes left to play. Let’s agree to suspend our attacks and go into extra-time and maybe penalties. We’ll let our goalkeepers decide the outcome.” Holland looked at the clock and saw that the referees had awarded six-minutes of compensation time, mainly due to “cooling breaks” and injuries. They continued their attack. A fatigued Mexico team looked on in disbelief as Holland broke the unwritten agreement to let up their attack. Final point to Van Gaal.
You can’t blame Herrera for everything. He isn’t the one playing, but there are many things that should’ve been discussed during the days leading up to this game. Coaches, at this point, have to think outside the box and plan for the best and the worst. This wasn’t a group stage game. This was a knockout game, and Mexico was knocked out by an experienced coach and experienced players, players that are no strangers to crucial matches.
Herrera is new. There was no doubt that he was going to run into trouble. A team can only run on emotion for so long, and this is what Mexico was relying on. They have a fiery, passionate coach, and as a Mexico fan, I love this about him. He brings his emotion and passion to the game and it has infected his players. Teams need this, but in the end, the game is football, and teams have to play football. The Dutch played Total Football, and they took the total victory.