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Analysing Mexico’s Attacking Approach at the World Cup

By: Andy Cooper

Following the elimination of Costa Rica and Panama, Mexico are the last CONCACAF team left standing at the 2018 World Cup. 

Unlike many teams, Mexico have fielded an almost unchanged team throughout the competition, with only 12 players starting games. Using the Opta sequence framework and advanced metrics, we analyse Mexico’s performances and what their next opponents Brazil could expect.

Despite there only being a small sample which can limit firm conclusions, their performances so far still warrant further analysis.

Where do Mexico win the ball back? 

Mexico are not a team that will win possession high up the pitch. Across their three games, they have won only four tackles in the attacking third. This is in stark contrast to the likes of England, Spain and France, who have double the number.

This deep approach was perhaps obvious in their opening victory over Germany, when it acted as a springboard to set off counter attacks.

Mexico tackles: World Cup group stage

How have they retained the ball and how quickly have they moved it forward?

During their three games, Mexico have had a contrasting amount of possession and completed passes, as illustrated here:


Mexico World Cup opponent possession stats

Opponent Possession % Completed Passes
Germany 33.61 304
South Korea 58.22 476
Sweden 66.53 472


Mexico adopted a more direct approach to their attacking play against Germany. Whilst the game was 0-0, they were averaging 3.1 passes per sequence at a speed of 1.9 metres per second, which increased to 2.1 after they took the lead. This would suggest that after scoring, they looked to catch out an exposed Germany on the counter attack – something Brazil will need to be weary of, especially with their attacking full backs. Casemiro’s anchoring role could prove vital for Brazil today.

It is also worth noting that over 22% of Mexico’s passes were long, which is double the proportion compared to their other games. The side clearly are not afraid to play a more direct game, and this may be the case again against a possession-dominant Brazil.

Against South Korea, Mexico saw more of the ball but were unable to attack that quickly, making 5.9 passes per sequence – their highest at any game state in any game – and a direct speed of 1.3 m/s – their lowest of any game state. Once South Korea scored though, the game opened up and they were attempting fewer passes per sequence (3.3) and moving the ball at a much higher speed (1.7 m/s). Again, reinforcing their counter-attacking style.

One of Mexico’s key offensive players is Hector Herrera in central midfield. During the group stage, he attempted more forward passes into the attacking third than any other player (28), with Javier Hernandez being the most frequent recipient of these passes.


Total forward passes into attacking third

Name Position Forward Passes into attacking third
Hector Herrera Central Midfield 28
Miguel Layun Right Attacking Midfielder 21
Carlos Vela Central Attacking Midfielder 17
Hector Moreno Left Central Defender 14
Edson Alvarez Right Back 13


Where are they creating their chances?

From the group stage, Mexico sit fourth for chances in open play (29) and joint sixth for chances from set pieces (8).

Most of their chances have been created by Carlos Vela (7). He is followed by the other attacking players Lozano (5), Hernandez and Layun (both 4). The full backs have only created three chances in the attacking third between them and only Gallardo on the left has attempted crosses (7 in total), with not a single cross delivered by either Álvarez or Salcedo at right back.

In terms of where they’re shooting, we can see that over half of their attempts, 52.2%, are from outside the box. However, against Germany Mexico frequently moved the ball into dangerous positions, but a poor final pass or decision cost them a goalscoring opportunity.


Mexico shot map

Green = goal scored. Size of circle indicates quality of chance.

How will they approach the game with Brazil? 

The Brazilians have not lost a competitive fixture since June 2016 and have dominated possession in their matches so far.  The majority of their attacking play in the final third has come down the left hand side with Marcelo, Coutinho and Neymar at the heart of it.

In their first two games they played at a higher tempo when the score was level, then when they scored their average passes per sequence increased. At the same time their speed forward slowed dramatically, as illustrated by the table below.


Brazil sequences based on game state

Opponent Game State Average Passes Per Sequence Direct Speed (metres/second)
Cosa Rica Drawing 5.1 1.7
Switzerland Drawing 3.4 2.2
Serbia Drawing 4.1 0.6
Cosa Rica* Winning 7.9 0.6
Switzerland Winning 5.1 1.7
Serbia Winning 4.6 1.2

*= note Brazil only had 4 sequences when winning


In their final group game their average passes per sequence increased after scoring as well, so their strategy is clear – get the goal and then keep the ball.

Defensively, they have conceded the fewest chances (14) and shots (19) of any team in the competition, with only 10 goal attempts conceded in the box.

From this heat map, we can see that Brazil’s opponents have tried to penetrate in wide positions. This is understandable, given the high average position of both full-backs, however they have only conceded two chances from crosses in the tournament so far, and with Miranda and Thiago Silva dominant in the air, will be comfortable with teams attacking them this way.

Heat Map: Location of passes received by Brazil’s group opponents

Brazil have not been tested by a team looking to play through central areas – they have not conceded a single through ball in the competition so far – which could be something for the Herrera and Hernandez combination to exploit.

How Mexico will look to win this game 

It may be a case of Mexico conceding possession to Brazil and looking to catch them on the counter attack quickly, exploiting the areas in behind the full backs when play breaks down. If Mexico can win the ball back in the middle third and get numbers forward quickly as they have done all tournament, there could be real opportunities to create overload situations when opposition players have pushed up.

Although this approach proved successful against Germany, Mexico will unlikely keep a clean sheet if they concede 26 chances again.

Germany goal attempts vs Mexico

While teams are often happy to let an opponent shoot from range, this perhaps shouldn’t be advised against Brazil, who have one of the strongest shooters from these positions in Philippe Coutinho. The pocket of shots on the left hand side of the pitch just outside the area are likely to entice the Barcelona playmaker.

Mexico have shown strength on the counter during this tournament, and making the right decisions when they get these opportunities is likely to play a significant role in whether this is their last game at the tournament or not.