FIFA World Cup 2022: Mexico’s high attacking presence held by Poland’s defensive set up – tactical analysis
We are now on day four of the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and we have already had a fair share of controversy and shock, both on and off the pitch. Whether it’s England’s dazzling performance in their 6-2 win over Iran on Monday, Gareth Bale scoring Wales’ first World Cup goal since 1958 (Terry Medwin vs Hungary) to clinch a draw against the USA or Saudi Arabia’s stunning win over Argentina, there have already been some memorable moments.
In that group along with Argentina and Saudi Arabia are Mexico and Poland, who battled to a 0-0 draw in Tuesday’s third game of the day. This tactical analysis will take a look at how the game unfolded. This will include an analysis of the attacking tactics of Mexico as they looked to put their stamp on the game – particularly in wide areas, as well as an analysis of Poland’s defensive tactics and how they looked to hit their opponents on the break.
Mexico boss Gerardo Martino, who recently claimed he is public enemy number one after a run of poor results prior to this competition, selected his side based on a 4-3-3 shape that was designed to encourage aggressive, attacking tactics. World Cup veteran and cult hero for the neutral fan Guillermo Ochoa started between the sticks whilst wearing the captain’s armband, with former Espanyol and Roma man Héctor Moreno being a leader from the back.
Familiar names lined up in midfield with the likes of Héctor Herrera and Ajax’s Edson Álvarez took to the field, with Napoli winger Hirving Lozano offering support from the right flank. Henry Martín led the line for the first 71 minutes before being replaced by Premier League striker Raúl Jiménez as Mexico looked to take advantage of their strong grip on the game.
Given the number of high-quality players at Poland manager Czesław Michniewicz’s disposal, it may be a surprise to some that they weren’t able to take control of the game. They lined up in a 4-5-1 shape which included Aston Villa man Matty Cash at the back. The midfield was in good stead too – Piotr Zieliński was arguably the man they would’ve looked to for midfield influence. Legendary striker Robert Lewandowski was the lone striker and did not have a day to remember as he saw his penalty saved by Ochoa.
Mexico’s high attacking presence and wide overloads
On paper, there isn’t a great deal separating the two teams. Each side has its star players in Lozano and Lewandowski (even if one is a level above the other), so it came as a surprise to some people that Mexico took control of the game in terms of possession and pitch depth. Interestingly, they looked to pin Poland back whilst stretching them – the analysis below looks to understand how they set about this.
Mexico’s intentions were clear early on, and Poland seemed to have anticipated it as they had a high defensive presence. A key feature of the Mexicans’ tactics was playing in wide areas – overloading and keeping a player near the touchline on both flanks in an attempt to stretch the Polish low block which would create space elsewhere.
Breaking down the actual positional approach from Martino’s side, we would often see the full-backs, Gallardo and Sánchez, join the attack to add some real emphasis to the attack. The shape in the image above is what Mexico would often look to replicate in times of controlled possession, with two of the midfielders (highlighted blue) staying slightly deeper to offer themselves as passing options. This also gave the Polish midfield unit to consider as they had to position themselves accordingly or risk freeing up too much space.
An interesting element of this approach on an individual basis is that Sanchez would join the attack from right-back but would sometimes drift as the inside wide player rather than overlapping. This allowed Lozano to stay wide, which is where he is often most effective.
Here, we take another dive into the wide-play tactics deployed by Mexico. This time, we see more of a mid-block from Poland, forcing Mexico to be slightly more cautious in their approach play, but the focus on playing through wide areas remained.
The image above shows an example of this as Mexico continued to push on in the second half, not long after Poland’s penalty miss. Possession is only at the halfway line and Poland’s defensive shape is not a deep one, giving Mexico less space to work in, yet they still had three players on that left flank as they looked to pick the opposition off by exploiting unmarked spaces.
The two images above are the steps that followed in Mexico’s attempt to unlock Poland’s defence via wide play. Through a combination of poor positioning & marking from the Polish and creativity & good movement from Mexico, Martino’s men find opportunities to get the ball through the thirds quickly, as they did in the image above.
A key factor in this specific move (and one which was present in a few other moves) was the fluidity of it – the movement off the ball and the vision & anticipation to know where the next pass needs to go. Often, Mexico were too quick for Poland in these areas but lacked that clinical edge in the final third to make it count.
This tie saw Mexico finish the match with 61% possession, making 166 more passes than their counterparts along the way. This would come as little surprise given that they often looked to pin Poland back with a high attacking presence, as touched upon previously. As the game drew closer to its end, Mexico’s overall play lost its intensity and sometimes its fluidity, but fundamentally the principles remained.
Doubling up in terms of presence on the flank of possession was still an issue that Poland had to deal with – in this particular case is drew midfielders out which created space for Mexico’s central unit, they were just unable to find the quality in exploiting this.
In the spirit of looking to stretch the Poland back line, players would drift across to the far side of proceedings, giving Mexico space both on the ball and off it. This also gave the additional element of crossing possibilities, although this option was not explored in great depth.
Poland’s low & mid blocks and counterattacking
It almost looked as though Poland were looking to simply avoid defeat in their opening group stage game. This a common strategy that has been present at countless group-based competitions, but one that doesn’t necessarily fill the fans with optimism. While Poland did have spells of possession with some attacking intent, the basis of their game was their defensive set-up – utilising both a mid-block and a low-block at different points in the game, depending on the scenario.
It would be unfair and inaccurate to say that Poland spent most of the game camped deep in their own half, as this was not the case. However, they were hardly pressing with great intensity, particularly when Mexico had the ball in areas such as above.
Poland’s mid-block had a more rigid look to it compared to the average set-up you may see, but it looked to protect their defensive unit and central areas. For example, where Mexico have the ball in the analysis above, rarely would we see one of Poland’s central players rushing out to press the Mexico man. Instead, they would invite the next pass, which was usually to the full-back. From there, the wide man would apply the press for Poland – the ball would often be in the midfield third by this point, so the wide man pressing had the backing of his midfield comrades.
A downfall in this approach from Poland was individual awareness and positioning. On more than one occasion, whether it was a slow press or a lack of marking, Mexico found some success in playing through the Polish mid-block.
The image above summarises how Poland looked to hurt Mexico. Whether it was from a turnover in a mid-block or a low-block, Mexico had many players forward in the event of a transition, which is where Poland found moderate success.
Lewandowski would sometimes drop just inside his own half to act as the next piece of the counterattacking puzzle, while runners on either flank would burst forward – don’t forget that Mexico’s full-backs were often far up the pitch, so Poland had a real chance of striking through these areas.
In a game that lacked true quality when it mattered, we saw just that in an otherwise brilliantly executed counterattack from Poland. Now, in terms of Mexico’s defensive reaction, it was one of panic for the most part. Players rushing back to get into some sort of position was a common theme amidst a Polish break, but in the example above, the positioning of one defender highlighted the risk of committing a high number of players forward. Mexico’s RCB, César Montes, showed great composure and positioning in this moment.
While he was unable to do a great deal in terms of direct defending, he was fully aware that Poland had a runner bursting down the left flank and that he had to remain in a position that blocks the pass to him while Lewandowski was still in possession. As soon as that pass from the striker was released down the right flank, this was the green light for Montes to shift across.
This is where we come back to the lack of quality in key moments. Lewandowski’s ball into the right flank for Jakub Kamiński looked simple enough, but he got the weight of it all wrong. The pass sent the Wolfsburg winger wide, giving Poland a brief second to regroup more effectively since the attack lost a little momentum.
We wrap things up by providing an analysis of Poland’s low block. We saw this on multiple occasions in this fixture, and while Poland still refused to be forced extremely deep, they still had most of their team behind the ball deep into their midfield third.
At times, the back four transformed into a makeshift back five. The back five remained compact and the extra man seemed to give Poland a boost when it came to marking. As you can see from the image above, Mexico insisted on attacking the flanks, with very little presence in the middle. Still, the Polish stood firm and kept three midfielders in the centre. Perhaps, though, this is an area where they could’ve picked Mexico off – if they reacted slightly quicker, they could’ve applied pressure to the man on the ball or even just send an additional body from the middle to defend the flank. This would have also given Poland more counterattacking opportunities, but they remained adamant of defending the way they did. In hindsight, who can complain really – it worked after all!
A draw was a fair result in this group-stage game. While both teams showed some quality in their respective build-up tactics, it was the performance in key moments that let both sides down. Poor crossing, poor final passes into important attacking areas, lacklustre decision-making – these were all present at some point during the game, in moments where just a spark of quality could have been the difference.