A little space was all it took for Leo Messi to make the difference in this one, with Enzo Fernández adding one more just minutes before stoppage time, giving Argentina its first points of the World Cup and setting them up for a key showdown against Poland on Wednesday to close out the group stage, ultimately deciding the two teams who will move on the knockout phase. Scaloni’s side finally broke through near midway through the second half after Mexico had worked their defensive scheme to perfection to that point, preventing Argentina from any good looks throughout.
I must admit I was surprised at how well Mexico handled Argentina’s attack. Acuña, Rodríguez, Montiel, Di María, Messi, and others passed the ball around constantly 15-20 yards outside the box where no damage could be done, failing to break down the orderly defensive lines in their 5-3-2 formation, at times looking like a 5-4-1. Credit to Mexico for sitting back effectively and waiting for Argentina to make a mistake in order to search for a goal of their own on the counter. And despite Mexico’s offense, or lack thereof, they managed to create a couple interesting looks for themselves, the best coming on Alexis Vega’s 45th minute free kick straight to Emiliano Martínez’s outstretched hands.
The first 18 minutes of the second half followed the exact structure of the first, with Argentina dominating ball possession, but not going further than that. Proof of that ‘Memo’ Ochoa going untested other than a free kick from the left flank that he deflected easily high in the air with his fists. That much held true until the 64th minute, when Di María took the ball on Mexico’s left flank, only to find an open Messi in the middle who’d quietly sneaked off Héctor Herrera’s radar and fired a perfectly placed ball to the bottom right corner, beating Herrera’s late slide as well as Ochoa’s dive. A super shot really, that only La Pulga and counted others can execute effectively from that distance and with such a small window.
But in this match, the defense was hardly to blame. The offense was the true culprit, failing to create any sort of planned approach on Martínez’s goal. As the game went on, Mexico’s offense withered away quicker each time and it became apparent there was no true scheme behind it other than having Lozano chase down long balls and hoping for a mistake from any of the Argentine defenders, which as I stated in the preview, was NEVER going to happen following their mistake that led to Saudi Arabia’s tying goal on Tuesday. You could tell they were extra cautious.
This strategy resulted in mission impossible for Lozano, playing alone for the entire second half, forced to not only recover possession of the ball on defense, but immediately look to break on his own, facing 3 to 5 Argentine defenders every time with no help whatsoever from other midfielders. Alexis Vega was nowhere to be found when ‘Chucky’ had the ball. In the end, the gassed Lozano was subbed off with 20 minutes left in favor of Roberto Alvarado who looked scared and nothing near what he’s shown he can do in Liga MX.
Raúl Jiménez came on in the 66th minute and after a few seconds, you forgot he was even in the game. He touched the ball meaningfully a couple times, but overall had zero impact on the match. Uriel Antuna replaced a steamed Alexis Vega and also barely left a mark. Instead of helping freshen up the Mexico attack, the subs helped Argentina die down the attack and cruise to victory. Martino’s refusal to play Funes Mori remains baffling to me.
In terms of the positives, the entire backline played a heck of a game. They were breathing down Argentina’s necks every time they got the ball until the goal happened, when we started to see more open lanes. They also weren’t beaten in the air. I have to mention that, considering Mexico’s aerial game has historically been a huge weakness. Guardado was also fantastic, covering ground and spreading the ball precisely, but couldn’t even go the full 45 minutes of the first half due to a muscle injury. Héctor Herrera was also up to the test and made all the necessary runs and coverages, except on the Messi goal.
Avoiding any sour grapes on my part, it’s important we all remember this was an expected outcome. We knew Mexico were fielding its worst World Cup team (especially offensive unit) in the last 3 to 4 decades. We knew Argentina losing this match would’ve been a complete shock to the world. We knew Mexico offer little (if anything) on offense and it’s proven true through these first two matches, where Mexico remain scoreless. In other words, things went down exactly the way we’d foreseen, and in all honesty, the best team won, even though they weren’t the best by much today.
The loss pretty much eliminates Mexico from the World Cup. They sit dead last in their group and must defeat Saudi Arabia in the final match to even stand a chance. Their best bet is for Poland to upset Argentina, and with that Mexico would move on directly, but Poland’s priority won’t be a win, as a draw is all they need to clinch. If Argentina win however, Mexico will need to start counting goal difference with Poland, a fight currently favoring the Europeans widely.