Juan Carlos Osorio adds steel to Mexico's flair but is still being criticised
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- How much emphasis should a team put on attempting to blunt or reduce specific threats that an opposition side poses? And at what point does doing so stifle your own strengths and chances of victory?
These are questions that football managers have to balance, but to which there are no absolute answers.
Arch pragmatist Jose Mourinho can change his Manchester United team's outlook from game to game, sending out a side that dominates possession and attacks with relative freedom against weaker opposition one week and then converts them into one that sits back the next. That approach is criticised by many, but so is the perceived inflexible nature of a manager like Arsenal's Arsene Wenger, who prioritises his own team's strengths and worries less about those of the opposition.
In Marti Perarnau's book "Pep Guardiola: The Evolution" there is an anecdote from Spanish coach Juan Manuel Lillo that says managing a football team is like conducting an orchestra, fine-tuning each individual and section to create a harmonious sound. The difference in football, according to Lillo, is that there is another side competing, which also has a conductor and is also trying to make its melody heard.
So do you concentrate on your own sound and hope it's loud enough to drown out the opposition?
It's a debate that has been going round and round in Mexico. El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio has been attempting to find the balance between his best team on paper and the most adequate players to win a particular game. And that search was once again evident in Friday's 3-0 victory over Iceland in Levi's Stadium.
In combating Iceland's direct football, Osorio decided to play a 3-3-1-3 formation with Diego Reyes -- best known as a centre-back -- placed in front of the three defenders, plus striker Raul Jimenez and winger Jesus Gallardo given the nod at least partially because they are better than most Mexican players in the air.
There were nervy moments when Iceland played the ball into Mexico's area at every opportunity, but El Tri did relatively well in reducing that aerial threat, given they are a side not known for being good in the air.
"With humility, you have to respect the way they play and try to counteract [it] and try to control the restarts, the long throws, the long kicks, the rebounds, the balls down the flanks, etc, and I think Mexico showed that," Osorio told a news conference after the game.
A first half free kick from Marco Fabian and two second half goals from Miguel Layun earned Mexico what turned into a fairly comfortable victory. But it wasn't a particularly pretty game and Osorio's team were again criticised in the Mexican press.
The prevailing sentiment in Mexico seems to be that El Tri should have a set formation and playing style. And they should stick to them.
The criticism of Osorio and debate about choosing players to counter opposition threats therefore appears to centre around whether Mexico would have overcome a team like Iceland without the manager prioritising players who are good in the air. Again, there is no definitive answer and the topic is set to continue.
But after El Tri racked up the 30th victory from 45 games since Osorio took over, the Colombian seems to have earned the right to at least be given the benefit of the doubt, especially after a 3-0 win. And it is not like this formation came out of nowhere.
Osorio has both played a 3-3-1-3 formation before and fielded a starting team designed to counter an opposition's aerial threat. The results in doing the latter have included the 2-1 victory against the United States in Columbus in 2016.
And El Tri will be facing a similar test in the third Group F game against Sweden in Russia.
"We believe that Iceland has a structure that is similar to Sweden; they frequently use a 4-4-2 with two strikers that the defenders and goalkeeper always look for," said Osorio. "Then they go for the first, second or third ball and it's complicated.
"There are things and details within the way [Iceland and Sweden] play that, above all for Latin Americans, are difficult to understand, respect and play against."
Osorio made it clear with both his words and his team selection that he admires Iceland's style and he's said in interviews that he thinks Sweden will offer a stern test, even more than South Korea, who are also in Mexico's World Cup group.
Despite the criticism, there is a strong argument that says the tactical flexibility that Mexico possess under Osorio offers a deeper dimension to the team's play and, by extension, a better chance of success heading into a World Cup.
And even if you don't buy into that theory, it's not as if Osorio is suddenly going to change anyway. He made that clear by saying: "We will continue to consider the strengths of each opponent, which are our best players and those which will give us the best chance to win a game."
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.