Copa America 2024 Group B guide: Mexico’s box-crashing, Ecuador’s frustrations and Jamaica’s tenacity


Why are Ecuador feeling frustrated? Who gives Mexico the edge on set pieces? And how have Venezuela become the unlikeliest of dark horses?

The 2024 Copa America is just around the corner, as six CONCACAF nations battle it out with 10 South American sides to win international football’s oldest prize.

Thom Harris looks at each team’s playing style, strengths, weaknesses, key players and highlights things to keep an eye on during the tournament.

Moving on to Group B, arguably the most open of them all.


Ecuador

  • Manager: Felix Sanchez
  • Captain: Enner Valencia
  • World Cup qualifying record: P6 W3 D2 L1 GF5 GA3
  • 2022 World Cup: Group stage
  • Most caps in squad: Enner Valencia (85)
  • Top scorer in squad: Enner Valencia (41)

How do they play?

Ecuador are perennial underachievers at the Copa America; one of only two CONMEBOL nations never to have won the competition along with Venezuela, having fallen at the group stages in seven of their past nine attempts. This, however, is their strongest-ever squad and expectations are justifiably high.

Looking at results alone would suggest that La Tri are ticking along nicely under Felix Sanchez, but this is far from a happy camp. His methods are polarising, craving possession and controlled build-up, to the extent that a 1-0 win over Chile in November sparked calls from the stands for the 48-year-old to resign.

While they grapple with their attacking identity, Ecuador’s defensive foundations remain strong, blessed with incredible depth across the back line. Both Willian Pacho and Piero Hincapie are just 22 and shining in the Bundesliga, the former combining impressive athleticism with a precise passing game, while the latter is a confident ball-carrier down the left.

Partnered with Felix Torres — a towering presence and aggressive ball-winner — in front of the experienced Alexander “Dida” Dominguez in the shot-stopping form of his career, their goal is guarded well.

Regardless of the system, Sanchez prefers three central defenders, even if that means moving one of the left-footed central defenders to full-back.

Against Venezuela, it was Hincapie who shifted over to the left, while Pacho and Torres tussled with Salomon Rondon in the middle. Venezuela’s hulking striker huffed and puffed but came away with very little up against two physically dominant opponents.

Going forward, Ecuador have looked threatening on the transition and capable in their high-press, a source of fan-led frustration towards their cagier style of play.

Against Chile, below, they pen their opponents in from a goal kick, four attacking players jumping up while centre-forward Kevin Rodriguez arcs his run across the front to direct the ball out wide. In frame two, we can see that Moises Caicedo and Junior Sornoza have charged forward from midfield to close down the passing options, forcing Chile to go long.

From there, Pacho wins the header and the space opens up for Ecuador to attack. Carlos Gruezo drives forward, Kendry Paez has his shot saved, and Angel Mena tucks in the rebound for the only goal of the game.

Ecuador high press

Rodriguez is a particular threat on the counter, a springy sprinter who can charge forward with long strides and quick feet.

Later in the same game, he receives a bouncing ball deep inside his own half, flicks the ball over an onrushing defender’s head and escapes three further challenges on his way to tearing into the penalty area and taking a shot.

Rodriguez run

There’s a feeling of the caged animal about Ecuador, seemingly stifled by tactics that do not suit the team.

Although, with seven wins from his opening 12, having conceded just three goals in six tough CONMEBOL qualifying games, no one can argue with Sanchez about the results.


What are their weaknesses?

Chance creation, particularly against a low block.

With Pervis Estupinan set to miss the tournament through injury, Sanchez seems to be erring towards a 4-2-3-1 attacking shape with Pacho or Hincapie at full-back. While it leaves a solid wall of three to defend counter-attacks, they can run into problems in build-up.

In the example below, Pacho is uncomfortable on the overlap and creative midfielder Sornoza is hesitant to drive forward, leaving Ecuador lacking vertical runners and Rodriguez cutting a lonely figure at the top of the team.

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He will often drop deeper or into wide areas to get involved, but the midfield is packed with ball-retainers to play the possession-based system and the opposition last line remains too often untested.

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Such difficulty in moving the ball forward is reflected in the data, with just 19 per cent of their touches in CONMEBOL World Cup qualifying coming in the final third, while only Bolivia and Peru have accumulated fewer expected goals (xG).

Even if record goalscorer Enner Valencia manages to shake off a foot injury, La Tri need to find more ways to get the opposition defence on the back foot.


Who are the key players?

Caicedo is the ninth-most expensive footballer of all time and while his first season at Chelsea peaked and troughed with the inconsistencies of the team, he rarely fails to perform for his country. 

Usually one of two deeper midfielders, Caicedo’s defensive tenacity, technical skill and eye for a pass means that most of Ecuador’s play goes through the 22-year-old, an important cog to turn defence into attack.

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Caicedo rarely fails to show up for Ecuador (Jewel Samad/AFP via Getty Images)

Look out for…

The age-defying fearlessness of Paez.

He will be 17 years and 50 days old when Ecuador’s Copa campaign gets underway, but he is probably the first name on the teamsheet. His forward drive and ability to manipulate the ball in tight spaces should provide some much-needed spark against deeper defensive blocks.

At Independiente del Valle, he drifts out to the right, where he is an effective playmaker in the half-space and extremely dangerous from distance when he can cut onto his left foot.

Most games, Paez will take three or four shots from distance, including this curling finish against Brazilian champions Palmeiras after an adventurous dribble and successive one-twos.

Having already scored and assisted for his country in World Cup qualifying, he does not lack confidence and will be the tournament’s youngest talisman.


Mexico

  • Manager: Jaime Lozano
  • Captain: Edson Alvarez
  • Post World-Cup record: P14 W9 D1 L4 GF23 GA11
  • 2022 World Cup: Group stage
  • Most caps in squad: Edson Alvarez (78)
  • Top scorer in squad: Uriel Antuna (13)

How do they play?

From the start, Mexico’s new manager Jaime Lozano said he wants to do things differently. His first tournament roster suggests that he will stick to his word.

No Guillermo Ochoa, no Hirving Lozano, not even Jesus Gallardo, Raul Jimenez, or his trusty centre-forward Henry Martin. The average number of caps in Mexico’s preliminary Copa America squad has plummeted from 51 to 21 since the World Cup in 2022, while the mean age has decreased by more than three years.

“For me, it’s the ideal tournament to have a look at the players who are stepping up at their clubs,” said Lozano, keen to introduce fresh faces to the national team. He managed the under-23 side between 2018 and 2021 and has been entrusted to build towards the future, his job secure regardless of results this summer.

An admirer of Pep Guardiola, the 45-year-old is keen for his Mexico side to dominate possession and progress carefully through the thirds. Against more adventurous sides, they will look to lure the opposition press, before hitting their talented wide players and looking to isolate them one-on-one with more direct passes in behind.

Facing Panama, for example, they took few risks in build-up, dropping their full-backs deep and ensuring a midfield receiver — West Ham’s Edson Alvarez — was always close by. Further ahead, two No 8s push on, creating triangles on either side, while the front three are poised to dart in behind if the opportunity arises.

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Twenty-three seconds later and Mexico still have the ball in defence but have tempted pressure from the first line of the Panamanian defence. Full-back Julian Araujo is on hand to receive and has time and space to pick out the clipped ball down the wing.

Uriel Antuna latches onto the pass and has three targets to aim for — the striker, opposite winger, and an onrushing midfielder in Erick Sanchez.

Mexico build up

Against lower-block sides, Mexico need their talented No 8s to pick up the ball between the lines and carve a way through.

Sanchez has been prolific for Pachuca this season, a small-but-stocky dribbler who can strike the ball well from distance, while the mercurial Luis Chavez possesses one of the best lock-picking left boots in Latin American football, at his best when he is looking to thread a pass into the box.

Out wide, Lozano has ‘recruited’ some of Liga MX’s most direct dribblers; Julian Quinones recently completed his naturalisation process to become a Mexican citizen and made his international debut in November, while the relentless Cesar Huerta is fast, fearless, and certain to relish his big chance.

Along with Antuna, all three find themselves in the top five for touches in the opposition penalty area and overall goal contributions in Mexico this season — even without “Chucky” Lozano, pace and penetration out wide remains one of the national team’s great strengths.

Most excitement is reserved for Santiago Gimenez, however, finally given a clear shot at the striker’s spot with Martin left out of the squad. With 51 goals and 12 assists across two seasons at Dutch side Feyenoord, averaging close to four shots a game, the 23-year-old is an all-rounder up top — two-footed, elusive, and instinctive in the box.

Lozano is building for the future and three competitive games in Group B will tell him a lot about who he can trust with a home World Cup on the horizon.

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Santiago Gimenez is aiming to shine at the 2024 Copa America (Matthew Ashton – AMA/Getty Images)

What are their weaknesses?

Playing through an aggressive high press.

In a 2-0 Nations League final defeat to the U.S., their cautious build-up shape invited pressure and saw defenders panicking on the ball as their options were quickly closed down. The short pass into midfield to Alvarez was easily blocked, while Chavez and Sanchez were too high, leading to hurried, aimless passes down the line.

Particularly against Venezuela, a team with renewed intensity in the press, Lozano might need to tweak the shape if he wants to build through the thirds.


Who are the key players?

Alvarez is the anchor of this team, now their captain and most experienced player.

Defensively, he is a reliable sweeper, shuttling from flank to flank and crunching into challenges, also happy to drop into the last line and throw his body in the way. In possession, he is the crucial link between attack and defence, a solid distributor who can pick up the ball from the centre-backs and stride into midfield with the ball at his feet.

He chips in with big moments, too — none bigger than his equaliser against Honduras in the 11th minute of stoppage time to keep Mexico’s Copa America qualification hopes alive.

Alvarez carries a certain presence with the national team and their hopes rest squarely on his shoulders.


Look out for…

Set pieces. Chavez is extremely good at them, able to pack wicked dip and curl onto every delivery, while his free kick against Saudi Arabia at the 2022 World Cup was shortlisted for goal of the tournament.

Plenty of eyes will be on the goalkeeping position, too. Who will take the place of the iconic Ochoa after 17 years of undisputed dominance between the sticks? Luis Malagon seemed the natural successor, statistically the best shot-stopper in Mexico’s Liga MX last season according to post-shot xG data, but a last-minute injury also sees him miss out. It means Mexico’s three keepers have nine caps between them and will have big gloves to fill.


Venezuela

  • Manager: Fernando Batista
  • Captain: Tomas Rincon
  • World Cup qualifying: P6 W2 D3 L1 GF6 GA3
  • 2021 Copa America: Group Stage
  • Most caps in squad: Tomas Rincon (132)
  • Top scorer in squad: Salomon Rondon (41)

How do they play?

Not all South American nations are besotted with football and Venezuela’s preference for baseball is both a cause and a consequence of sustained underperformance on the international stage.

Exiting the 2021 Copa America without a win to their name, the Vinotinto have also finished rock bottom of each of the past two World Cup qualifying groups, extending their miserable record as the only CONMEBOL nation never to make it to the finals. A historical lack of public engagement, kept low by uninspiring results, has long left football lagging behind.

Performances have picked up under new head coach Fernando Batista, however, and enthusiasm is increasing with each encouraging display.

A 1-1 draw with Brazil last October showed they can compete without having much of the ball, while wins over Chile and Paraguay — in front of electric crowds at the Estadio Monumental de Maturin — provided glimpses of a motivated group looking to shake off a longstanding inferiority complex against their continental rivals.

Batista has been tactically flexible since taking over from Jose Pekerman just over a year ago, but a purposeful high press has been central to his confidence-boosting plans.

He has tapped into the defensive appetite of both Yangel Herrera and Jose Martinez in midfield. The latter, nicknamed El Brujo, or The Wizard, is one of only two players in MLS to average more than 9.0 ball recoveries per game since the start of last season.

That desire was on show throughout a recent friendly defeat to Italy, as Venezuela equalised after a coordinated squeeze on the defence. First, it is Martinez hassling and harrying in the midfield, jumping from man to man before forcing a series of backwards passes.

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The ball makes its way back to Gianluigi Donnarumma in goal and the trap is sprung.

Salomon Rondon tears his way down the pitch to close down the goalkeeper, curving his run to close off the passing option behind him. In frame two, Martinez has once again provided tireless pressure, while Darwin Machis anticipates the next pass and sets off to intercept.

Giacomo Bonaventura obliges with a bobbled pass and the winger is there to side-foot into a half-open goal.

Venezuela high press gif

The March international break gave Batista an opportunity to experiment and a strong performance in a new 3-4-3 shape against Italy will give the manager food for thought.

Out of possession, combative wing-backs Jon Aramburu and Miguel Navarro were strong either side of a back five in a low-block, the former making seven tackles up against Destiny Udogie and Federico Chiesa on the right. Both are happy to engage further up the pitch, too, with Navarro averaging more than 2.0 interceptions per game for Chicago Fire last season.

Equally encouraging were a number of confident, high-tempo patterns that Venezuela strung together against quality opposition, including a 15-pass move midway through the second half.

Building out from a 3-2-5 below, play was switched three times, recycled patiently by a constantly revolving midfield, with all but one outfield player touching the ball, leading to a big chance that Rondon poked agonisingly wide.

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They could equally opt for the more traditional 4-3-3 at the Copa America, where the hulking figure of Rondon remains as dependable as ever; Venezuela’s all-time leading goalscorer, permanent out-ball, and magnet for opposition central defenders.

If he isn’t planting his forehead onto crosses, he is opening up space for tricky wingers to exploit. Machis is capable of the spectacular, while the diminutive Yeferson Soteldo attempted more than seven take-ons per game last season.

Despite their improvement, Venezuela are not prolific chance creators, so they might need a moment of magic or two from their speedy dribblers out wide.


What are their weaknesses?

Conceding transitions.

Especially when they build up from their more adventurous shape, they are prone to a few moments of untidiness on the ball, leaving their three-man defensive structure exposed none of whom are particularly quick.

Luis Diaz was able to get at Jordan Osorio time and again when they faced Colombia, while Peru’s opening goal in matchday six came as Joao Grimaldo burst past the same central defender forced into an uncomfortable wide position.


Who are the key players?

Whatever the system, Venezuela’s energetic duo in midfield hold things together. Martinez is the destroyer and so is Herrera, but with a bit more forward drive.

Flourishing at high-flying Girona, the latter has developed a reputation for his late runs into the box, scoring five goals and averaging 2.2 shots per game in La Liga last season, despite his defensive midfield role.

As the below shot evolution map shows, his efforts are closer to goal and more dangerous than ever.

yangel herrera girona shot evolution

From diving headers to sweeping finishes from cutbacks, he can sneak into pockets of space while centre-backs battle with Rondon in the middle.


Look out for…

We said he was “diminutive” before and we really mean it.

Soteldo is a fascinating watch on the wing, standing short at just over 5ft 2ins (159cm), but he is quick, slippery, direct, and can jink his way around flailing legs and into the penalty area in a flash, where he loves a cutback or a cross stood up to the back post.

His zippiness brings the wildcard factor that every underdog needs.

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Soteldo is Venezuela’s pint-sized wildcard (Nelson Almeida-Pool/Getty Images)

  • Manager: Heimir Hallgrimsson
  • Captain: Andre Blake
  • CONCACAF Nations League record: P8 W5 D1 L2 GF16 GA12
  • Nations League: Third
  • Most caps in squad: Andre Blake (72)
  • Top scorer in squad: Shamar Nicholson (19)

How do they play?

English readers might recognise that Icelandic name.

Heimir Hallgrimson was one half of the coaching duo that took his country to the quarter-finals of Euro 2016, dispatching Roy Hodgson’s England along the way. He will need some of that tournament know-how to help Jamaica progress this summer.

This will be a third crack at the Copa America for the Reggae Boyz, facing teams outside of CONCACAF in competitive action for the first time in eight years. They are still without a win — or even a goal — in this competition, but recent performances in the Nations League point to steady progress under their new coach.

The plan is clear and well-drilled, happy to soak up pressure in a five-man defensive structure before pouncing on the counter-attack. Even with just 38 per cent of the ball against Panama and 22 per cent against the USA, both games were extremely competitive, with Jamaica only conceding deep into stoppage time and extra time in the latter.

Three centre-backs, flanked by combative wing-backs Greg Leigh and Dexter Lembikisa, cover the width of the pitch, while the midfield pivot is hard-working and destructive. The front three do not usually press too aggressively and Bobby De Cordova-Reid is happy to track a runner into midfield if required.

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Most of Jamaica’s offensive openings come from quick turnovers in that packed midfield, as they showed in their 1-0 win over Panama to secure third place at the Nations League. Three of their six shots against Los Canaleros came from interceptions in midfield, including the chance for Shamar Nicholson below.

Frame one shows what happens when the first line of pressure is bypassed — midfielder Damion Lowe and Leigh step forward to chase Panama out of their half.

After the next pass, it is centre-back Michael Hector who senses the chance to jump in, anticipating Anibal Godoy’s pass and making the interception, before striding forward with the ball and slipping Nicholson in on goal.

Jamaica counter

The system relies on concentration in the defensive shape and the data suggests Jamaica’s core players are well-suited; only one centre-back made more ball recoveries in League One last season than Charlton’s Hector, while midfielder Kasey Palmer ranked highly for blocked passes and tackle attempts in the Championship.

Hallgrimson has also moved Lowe into a defensive midfield role, describing him as a “warrior” after a tireless performance against the U.S. in which he contested 25 ground duels, made nine tackles and committed eight fouls.

Opponents will have to battle for a way through.


What are their weaknesses?

Such defensive commitment comes at a cost.

Jamaica struggle to keep the ball and relieve pressure, sorely lacking a ball-retaining midfielder who can dictate the tempo and help the team to control possession. Palmer lost the ball an average of 19 times per game at Coventry in the latest campaign, while Lowe’s passing accuracy of 43 per cent against the U.S. served as a reminder that he is a centre-back in a midfield role.

Joel Latibeaudiere has been trialled further forward, too, an elegant ball-playing centre-back from Manchester City’s academy, but the issue persists. Jamaica need to make the most of their transitional opportunities because their inability to control games with the ball at their feet means that they will invariably have a lot of defending to do.


Who are the key players?

Away from the midfield, Demarai Gray is probably the most consistent attacking outlet in the team. A quick, slick winger with the confidence to take on a man and cut inside, he can crack a game open with a moment of quality on the break.

Nicholson is a powerful runner through the middle, too, popping up with two thumping finishes against Canada to qualify Jamaica for the tournament, while wing-backs Leigh and Lembikisa can offer attacking threat when they are able to push forward, the scorers of their last two goals.

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Demarai Gray is a consistent attacking outlet for Jamaica (Bill Barrett/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Look out for…

The starting line-up.

Jamaica are not the only team with off-field issues at this summer’s Copa America, but their federative disputes might well have the biggest impact on it.

Star player Leon Bailey has spoken out against his negative experiences with Jamaica — told to book his own flights at the last moment and made to wear poor-fitting jerseys — while disagreements between Craig Butler and Rudolph Speid within the Jamaica Football Federation mean that player call-ups are often at the mercy of political quibbles.

If Bailey makes it to the Copa, it will not be without tension, especially after his father said that the player would not be joining up with the squad.

(Top photos: Getty Images; design: Eamonn Dalton)





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