Attack-minded El Tri set to surprise or flame out
A good starting point for analyzing Miguel Herrera's Mexico team tactically is Ricardo La Volpe's 2006 World Cup side.
Herrera played under La Volpe at Atlante and names him -- along with Enrique Meza and Alberto Guerra -- as one of the three main influences on his coaching career.
Like La Volpe, Herrera's default setup is a 5-3-2 formation when the team doesn't have the ball, with players surging forward in possession. The mentality is to attack, take risks, push up and attempt to win the ball back high up the field.
Herrera has said he believes his team can surprise opponents such as Brazil through sheer hard work, and Mexico's work rate will be a key feature in the World Cup.
There is no patient buildup. Instead, Mexico seeks to move the ball quickly and vertically up the field, taking advantage of players' technical ability.
Mexico arrives at the World Cup after some positives in the four warm-up games, but generally the team is underprepared, with Herrera only having had his full squad at his disposal for four games during his spell in charge. Prior to Herrera, the team had played a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-2, meaning the coach's appointment necessitated a major shift in both tactics and playing personnel.
Ideally, players such as Hector Moreno, Giovani Dos Santos, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado -- all likely starters for Mexico -- would have much more time to get used to a system and style they aren't accustomed to. The lack of cohesion, especially at the back, could be Mexico's downfall.
Fortunately for Herrera, his success with Club America in 2013 meant he could simply plug in seven players from Las Aguilas for the playoff against New Zealand in his first two games in charge.
Now, only three players from Club America remain in Mexico's starting team for the World Cup, but wingbacks Miguel Layun and Paul Aguilar are vital to the balance of the side. Both are essentially attacking in nature and can be decidedly shaky in defense. It isn't uncommon to see both flying up the wing at the same time, thereby forcing the opposition onto the back foot but also opening Mexico to counterattacks.
Layun, in particular, is one of Mexico's most dangerous attacking weapons and has the potential to break out in a major way at the World Cup. The success of Leon under Uruguayan coach Gustavo Matosas has also been a blessing for Herrera.
La Fiera don't play in the same formation as El Tri, but the midfield triangle of Jose Juan Vazquez in the holding role with Luis Montes and Carlos Pena in front is similar to how Herrera wants to see his team. If not for Montes' injury and Pena's loss of form, that could've been the starting trio against Cameroon.
Vazquez is inexperienced at the top level, and Mexico would benefit from a player who is more physical and has a little more quality, but the 26-year-old knows what is required of him in his role and doesn't stop running.
Hector Herrera and Guardado will be in the attacking midfield roles, and part of their job on the defensive side is not to leave Vazquez too isolated and covering too much ground when Mexico doesn't have possession.
Then there is Leon defender Rafael Marquez, who captained Mexico under La Volpe in 2006 and played for the Argentine at Atlas as a youngster. "El Kaiser de Michoacan," as he's called, will become the first player to captain his country at four different World Cups and, arguably, he is more important to Mexico's chances this time around than any of the other three.
Marquez plays the libero role in the middle of the team's three center backs. The 35-year-old will provide cover for fellow center backs Francisco Rodriguez and Moreno but is also given license to step up into midfield when he feels it's necessary.
When Mexico has the ball, Marquez is the primary instigator of attacks. His range and quality of passing mean he plays the quarterback role, pinging passes to Aguilar or Layun on the wings or through to Oribe Peralta to hold it up.
In general, the players have to adapt to the system under Herrera -- not the other way around.
That helps explain the vagueness and mystery over Dos Santos' participation at Brazil 2014 and how the Villarreal forward seems to have displaced Javier Hernandez in the starting XI.
In the warm-up games, Dos Santos impressed with his tactical discipline by staying as a front-line striker and not dropping off Peralta too much.
Herrera seems to want two strikers who occupy the opposition's center backs, thereby providing the first line of defense and leaving room behind for attacking midfielders Herrera and Guardado to operate.
Set pieces remain a defensive problem for Mexico, only in part because Herrera hasn't had much time to work with the team.
El Tri's starting XI is relatively small in stature and strength, which helps explain why Rodriguez seems to have edged Diego Reyes out of the team. Marquez, Moreno, Peralta and Rodriguez are the only players who are considered to be good in the air defensively.
It is a risky, ambitious system Herrera operates. If it works, it will be aesthetically pleasing and will win many plaudits. At a minimum, Mexico's games at the World Cup should be entertaining.