Lessons of Mexico's summer: Patience with Osorio, lack of long-term depth
It has been a long summer for El Tri and one that ultimately ended in disappointment, with a fourth-place finish at the Confederations Cup in Russia followed by a semifinal defeat to Jamaica at the Gold Cup last Sunday.
Mexico played a match every 3.6 days over three countries, winning nine times, drawing three games and losing four. There were 25 goals scored by El Tri and 17 conceded. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio was able to see 49 players in World Cup qualifying, friendlies, the Confederations Cup and the Gold Cup, with 46 of them getting on the field.
Here are five observations from covering Mexico's long and eventful summer:
1. Osorio's starting XI is becoming clear
In a footballing sense, we got very valuable lessons. The main one was that despite all the noise surrounding Osorio's rotation policy, Mexico's starting XI for big games is largely set, and the 4-3-3 formation is the base.
However, that isn't a total positive. One of the major disappointments of the summer was the failure of the youngsters to stand out at the Gold Cup and make a serious claim that they are ready for the demands of international football. Perhaps it was hasty to ask as much from Rodolfo Pizarro, Orbelin Pineda and Erick Gutierrez, though the exception was Edson Alvarez, who looked a class act both on and off the field.
Mexico's team at the World Cup is likely to be this: Guillermo Ochoa in goal, Carlos Salcedo at right-back, Nestor Araujo (although Diego Reyes could step in) and Hector Moreno as the center-back pairing, and Miguel Layun the left-back. In front of them, Hector Herrera is set to play the holding role, with Jonathan dos Santos and Andres Guardado handed the more attacking positions on either side. Up front, it's set to be Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona.
Osorio might introduce a more robust holding midfielder instead of Herrera or might beef up the forward line by putting Raul Jimenez on the wing against certain opposition, but the above is basically the team. There will likely be changes if there is a weaker opponent in the group stage -- which involves an inherent risk -- but overall, it is a side capable of doing well at Russia 2018.
2. Short memories provoke excessive criticism
Oct. 15, 2013, should be a date tattooed in the mind of everyone involved in Mexican football. It was the day Mexico came very close to not making a World Cup. It was close to rock bottom for El Tri, and the collective mindset surrounding the national team should have changed. Maybe it would have been if Graham Zusi didn't score that famous goal in Panama. But this summer has shown that there is little appetite in Mexico for understanding or patience regarding a long-term process that will naturally involve growing pains. Osorio was even insulted by fans upon his return to Mexico after the Gold Cup defeat, causing a furore.
In short, the Mexican national team has been the same circus as ever. Worryingly, Osorio became part of it when he lost his head on the sideline against New Zealand and then versus Portugal in the Confederations Cup.
On the field, the notion that Mexico doesn't have a style -- something that's widely opined -- is incorrect. El Tri had 63 percent average possession over the 16 games, according to InStat, and a 58 percent average in the Confederations Cup. The team takes the game to the opposition (including Germany and Portugal), attacks principally down the wings and takes risks.
"The principal thing [Mauricio Pochettino, Louis van Gaal and Osorio] have in common is the intention to always take the initiative in the game and play attacking football, whoever the opponent is," Moreno, who has worked under all three, said while in Russia this summer.
Of course, there is valid criticism of the style, and Osorio's philosophy does have flaws. Can rotations work in a short tournament format at international level? Should Mexico be more cautious against elite teams, keeping in mind that the overall score in crucial knockout games vs. Chile and Germany the past two summers was 11-1?
Does Osorio's high press allow far too much space for teams to counter with longer balls on the transition, especially given that his team plays with only one holding midfielder? And why does the manager seem intent on overcompensating for a perceived lack of height by fielding players in different positions, with Oswaldo Alanis at left-back the prime example in the Confederations Cup semifinal against Germany?
Still, when fans greet you at Mexico City airport telling you to leave the country, it becomes glaringly obvious that the Mexico job is toxic and one few serious candidates would be willing to take on.
Mexico disappointed this summer but hasn't done much worse than expected in either tournament. El Tri was arguably poorer in the 2015 Gold Cup under Miguel Herrera, especially considering it had its full first team. And if Mexico is to fulfill its potential on the world stage over a sustained period, it'll be because a studious and long-term thinking manager -- one who is backed by the Mexican federation -- implements a plan to take El Tri there.
Whether Osorio is that person can and should be debated, but it should be done in the context that Oct. 15, 2013, was not very long ago.
3. The players are backing Osorio
The players have sounded like a broken record this summer. Time and time again, they have praised Osorio. The team's leaders, Rafa Marquez and Guardado, have been adamant that Osorio is the right person to take Mexico forward. Even the young Gold Cup players said the same.
But it was "Chicharito" who sent the strongest message, describing his "anger" and "sadness" at the way Osorio was received on return to Mexico.
This summer might have alienated Osorio from Mexico's fan base and domestic press, but the players are entrenched with the manager. They have gone above and beyond in supporting him.
4. Long-term development is a central concern
The Gold Cup was more disappointing than the Confederations Cup. At the latter tournament, there weren't too many surprises, but at the Gold Cup, Osorio needed to see younger players stepping up. Overall, they didn't, posing a genuine question about whether the next generation of Mexican players will be of the same quality as the current crop.
There is time for the likes of Pizarro, Pineda and the rest to develop, and they likely will. But the depth is a major concern, with Mexico's top two divisions increasingly populated by foreigners and therefore limited opportunities for Mexicans to develop.
For example, of the 18 goals in the first weekend of the Liga MX 2017 Apertura, only two were scored by Mexico-eligible players. Goal-scoring was a major problem at the Gold Cup, and besides a handful of strikers, there aren't many options for Osorio. It's the same thing for young Mexican goalkeepers, left-footed center-backs and creative midfielders. This is a problem any Mexican national team coach will suffer from, and unless more youngsters are given opportunities to establish themselves, El Tri is likely to struggle with increasing regularity.
There simply aren't enough clubs like Pachuca, Chivas and Santos Laguna, with good youth systems and that are handing young Mexico national team hopefuls a chance.
5. Mexico can't afford injuries
This is related to depth as well, but at next summer's World Cup, Mexico will need more luck with injuries than it has had the past couple of months. Injuries to Salcedo and Reyes during the Confederations Cup hampered the team selection for the crucial game against Germany. And Corona's absence meant he was sorely missed on the wing.
At the Gold Cup, the pre-tournament injury to Alan Pulido stripped Mexico of arguably its best player and a striker who surely would've netted goals against the types of teams El Tri came up against.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.