One of the most intriguing things to me about soccer is formations, and how teams utilize those formations on both offense and defense. "Style of play" is a phrase that gets thrown around a lot, and understanding how a team lines up goes a long way towards determining how they will play. Ahead of a vital Nations League final, let's take a look at how the U.S. and Mexico will attempt to play:
Against Honduras, the U.S. came out in an attacking 4-3-3. The midfield three saw Jackson Yueill line up as a holding midfielder, sitting just ahead of the two centerbacks. In front of Yueill was Weston McKennie and Sebastian Lleget, who played traditional box to box center midfield roles. The top three saw Josh Sargent as the primary striker, with Christian Pulisic and Gio Reyna on the two wings. Notably, Pulisic and Reyna switched sides of the field multiple times throughout the match.
The U.S. wanted most of the attack to go through their wings, with coach Gregg Berhalter saying after the game that they tried to get Pulisic isolated in wide positions as much as possible. This desire paid off as the majority of the team's chances came from wide positions. This was helped by Sergino Dest, the right back who spends his club days with Barcelona. Dest is an incredible attacker who contributes well in the attack, and he was involved in several promising moments for the U.S. on Thursday. The only danger with Dest pushing high is it can leave the U.S. exposed on the counter attack, but centerback John Brooks says this means either himself or the defensive midfielder (Yueill vs Honduras) has to be on their game to cover Dest's back.
The challenge for the Americans in the semifinal was that Honduras set deep in an attempt to bunker in and hinder the U.S. attack. This meant the Americans needed to rely more on the midfield trio of Yueill, Lleget, and McKennie to break open the Honduran defense. The issue was that all three struggled to find a rhythm in the game and were sloppy in possession, leading to a rather boring second half devoid of chances after Honduras packed in their defense even more. The lone goal for the U.S. came after McKennie was finally able to make a run centrally through the Honduran backline.
So what does this all mean? It means the U.S. wants to be as wide as possible, pulling open the defense for runs and crosses into the box. Against Mexico, look for them to try and use their speed on the wings to get Pulisic and Reyna behind the backline, where they can then send crosses to Sargent and a crashing McKennie and Lleget. If Mexico takes away the wings like Honduras did, the midfield trio will have to break down the defense through possession and vertical runs in behind. In order for that to happen, they will need to be much better than they were against Honduras.
Figuring out what formation a team is in is usually fairly easy. Every guy has his spot, and he stays in that spot in order to fulfill his role. Mexico is the exception, and this is due to the way they play. On offense, Mexico is typically in a 4-3-3 that resembles the one the U.S. uses, or they are in a 4-4-2 with the outside midfields and outside backs playing high up the field. They play centrally to dominate possession in the midfield, and will play balls out wide once the defense has been opened up. The ensuing crosses are then always dangerous, as numerous runners crash the box on a scrambling defense. If they have really pulled the defense apart, the central midfielders can send balls in over the top of the backline for their two strikers.
On defense is where Mexico really poses a challenge. All eleven players press high on the ball, swarming it with up to five guys at a time in an attempt to cut off the passing lanes and win the ball back in dangerous areas. The defensive side of the ball is what makes Mexico so hard to read. Every player has a rough positional assignment, but they are all tasked with pressing and following the ball, which leads them to not have a distinguishable shape. AT times it looks like the 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 they use on offense, but at other times it can look like a 4-5-1 or even a 4-1-4-1.
Mexico's high pressing style frequently results in turnovers in dangerous spots, which they capitalize on with vertical passes past a defense that is out of shape and flustered, leading to free runs in on goal through the center of the pitch. Mexico is capable of killing teams in multiple ways, and they do so quickly to make sure defenses are always on the back foot.
So what does this all mean? Mexico will try to dominate possession through their midfield in order to find the gaps in the U.S. defense, especially as the Americans leave space on the wings. When the U.S. does have the ball, Mexico will try and win it back quickly in hopes of creating lethal counter-attacks. A young American midfield will have its work cut out for them, as Mexico will punish the mistakes the U.S. made against Honduras much better than the Hondurans could.
In his press conference Saturday, Brooks said the U.S. is going to focus on playing their game instead of worrying about Mexico, so expect more dangerous attacks created through the wings. Pulisic, Reyna, and Dest will have to have great games to carry the American offense. The U.S. will also need to avoid turnovers by their midfield so they do not get exposed on the counterattack. Dest playing higher up means there is already space to be used by Mexico's wingers, so limiting turnovers will decrease the opportunities for that space to be exploited.
Although Mexico did not score against Costa Rica, expect more of the same from them tactically in the final. Costa Rica was bunkered in with a 4-4-2 that often resembled a 4-5-1, a style that is hard to break down. The U.S. plays much more open, leaving space that fits well with Mexico's style. They will likely continue to be shifty with their formation so that they can take advantage of the space on the field.
The game will be won by the wingers, but it will be lost by the midfielders. The team who has crisper passing in the final third will create the chances needed to win, and the team who has more turnovers in the midfield will give away too many opportunities to come back from. Regardless of the result, it should be an interesting tactical battle and an exciting game. Kickoff is Sunday at 7 pm, pending the length of the third place match between Honduras and Costa Rica.