Honduras didn't get the victory in Wednesday night's Gold Cup semifinal, but it wasn’t for lack of preparation. Executing their game plan to perfection, Honduras forced Mexico to play 120 minutes before the match was finally decided. While Los Catrachos won’t reap any direct benefits from their effort, they did provide a perfect demonstration to others of how to slow down the vaunted Mexico attack.
It certainly wasn’t the Mexico team fans had grown accustomed to seeing. Instead of the team that scored sixteen goals in four Gold Cup matches, we saw a team that failed to score for the full 90 minutes of regulation time. This was brand new territory. Even when Mexico struggled a bit in previous matches (usually in the first half), they always appeared in complete control, and usually it could just be chalked up to a lack of finishing. In the other games it always seemed like an El Tri goal could happen at any time, no matter the situation. Not so against Honduras on Wednesday night.
Honduras rendered Mexico almost completely unrecognizable. The sleek, speedy sports car that was the El Tri attack through the group stages slowed a bit against Guatemala, before nearly suffering a fatal crash against Honduras. The car may still be running as it chugs on to the final, but it has taken on some serious and significant damage.
Los Catrachos came in with a clear game plan to slow down Mexico, and were able to stick with it throughout the match. The main components of the strategy included tough physical play, clogging the midfield, limiting Giovani Dos Santos's time on the ball, and relying on the counter attack when possible.
Muscle played a big role. The Honduras backline knew they carried a significant size and strength advantage over Mexico, and decided to use it to gain some leverage. Andres Guardado bore the brunt of this overly-physical (and sometimes dirty) style of play from Honduras. In the early moments of the match, Guardado was sent to the ground by Mauricio Sabillon and then by Victor Bernardez. More serious ended up being the sliding tackle from Roger Espinoza later in the half, which caused Guardado's ankle to turn awkwardly. Never able to fully recover, Guardado was subbed off shortly after the break and is now in some doubt for the final. The loss of Guardado was a huge blow to Mexico on Wednesday, and would be an even bigger blow against the United States. Guardado was by far the best player on the field in the first half against Honduras, and created most all of Mexico's limited action going forward.
It wasn't just brute force from Honduras, though. Tactics also played a big role, with Honduras taking shape for most of the match in a 4-5-1 formation. The twist was that all five midfielders held back, their defensive presence becoming the key to thwarting Mexico's attack. While the lone Honduras striker, Jerry Bengtson, was left all alone on an island up front, the linear midfield played five-wide and stayed back to aggressively defend. Keeping the midfielders home limited any chance of a Honduras offensive presence, but the team operated in their defensive roles to perfection. When a Mexico player reached the midfield line looking to move the ball forward, he found all of the passing lanes cut off. Mexico's usual short, crisp, possession-oriented passing game was rendered useless as the offense was left with no space to operate. The Honduras midfield became almost an impenetrable wall. As an opponent of Mexico, you know you’ve succeeded when El Tri’s best strategy forward becomes sending long balls over the top.
Adding to the trouble was the position of Giovani Dos Santos far up the field. Dos Santos spent much of the game alongside (and sometimes even in front) of Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez. This gave Mexico a second striker, but left them with a numerical disadvantage in the midfield. The strength of Dos Santos is as a creator, a playmaker. His best position is slightly behind Chicharito, at the center of the band of three attacking midfielders -- with Guardado to his left and Barrera to his right. Having Dos Santos up front alongside Chicharito neutralizes much of his skill set.
From a purely defensive standpoint, the Honduras plan worked nearly to perfection. Mexico were outnumbered in the midfield, and struggled to find open passing lanes in the overly congested area between the center line and the penalty box. Up front, Chicharito and Dos Santos were left completely cut off from the action. Adding to the misery was the fact that Mexico’s best player in the first half was knocked to the ground whenever he found a bit of daylight on the left side. Overall, El Tri looked entirely out of sync. It’s a testament to the Honduras defensive performance that even with a complete lack of action going forward, it still looked to be anybody’s game through 90 minutes.
Honduras’s downfall ended up being a failure to properly cover Aldo De Nigris on set pieces. It was the head of De Nigris that directly led to the two Mexico goals, both coming off corner kicks in extra time.
The big question now is what can the U.S. learn from the Mexico vs. Honduras match? What pieces of the Honduras game plan will the U.S. adopt to slow down Mexico? They certainly have the talent to get a win against Mexico, and if the U.S. come in with sound tactics and a solid strategy, don’t be surprised to see them lifting the Gold Cup trophy on Saturday night.