The CONCACAF champion had weaknesses exposed during the World Cup warm-up tournament in Russia but also took home some positive lessons
After winning the Confederations Cup, Germany manager Joachim Low said his team would “go down in history.”
Technically, that’s true. The first Germany team to win the tournament always will have their names in the record books, but it’s tough to believe we’ll be talking about Low’s group even a month from now much less at this time next year when we’ll be gathered around screens watching Round of 16 matches in the 2018 World Cup.
Still, the tournament was entertaining. It was a fun competition – one in which Mexico showed well at times and looked poor at others. We know that Mexico’s defense is a major area of concern once it meets teams outside the region and that while coach Juan Carlos Osorio said he learned a lot from a 7-0 defeat to Chile in the Copa America Centenario in 2016, it wasn’t enough to avoid another big loss in this year’s summer tournament.
Here are five thoughts from Mexico’s Confederations Cup, with a special focus on Sunday’s 2-1 loss to Portugal in the third-place game.
Where does this leave Mexico?
With Guillermo Ochoa and Carlos Vela both helping Mexico to a good start in Sunday’s third-place game against Portugal, it looked like El Tri would salvage something from the tournament and finish among the top three. Instead, Portugal mounted a comeback, aided by Miguel Layun’s forgettable moments in defense, and Mexico finished fourth.
That’s the middle of the pack, sitting behind Germany, Chile and Portugal but ahead of Australia, Cameroon and New Zealand. Is that acceptable for Mexico? Some fans say it isn’t – and even if we agree with them, would coming in third instead of fourth in a game neither team really was hoping to play in have been enough to sway opinions or make enough of a difference?
Ultimately, Mexico is in the same place we thought it was after losing to Germany. It’s a team that does some things well (finding scoring chances, stopping shots) and some things poorly (finishing off chances, playing defense). It’s a team that isn’t among the world’s best but can compete with them when the circumstances are right. It’s a team that entertains and frustrates. And it’s a team whose true challenge will come next summer in Russia, not this one.
Jona the revelation of the summer
If there was any doubt about Jonathan dos Santos’ importance to the Mexico national team going into this tournament, there is none now. The Villarreal midfielder was superb in each match he played, both helping to cover an uncertain Mexico defense and, more importantly, getting into the opposition half to put pressure on and win the ball back from the opposition’s midfielders.
From there, he started attacks and had the stamina to join in on some offensive forays on his own, making dangerous runs as the third man to join the attack. He also was effective on set pieces. Hector Moreno or Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez may be the first two names Osorio pencils in to his lineups in the biggest games, but Jona now can’t be far behind.
Top of the top causing problems
Mexico’s losses in the Juan Carlos Osorio era have come to the champion of the Americas, the champion of the world, the champions of Europe, and Croatia. Some of those losses have been lopsided, but it’s perfectly fair to frame Mexico’s defeats in that way.
There also have been concerning games that saw Mexico pull out a result. The away qualifier in San Salvador, the group game against New Zealand, maybe the road trip to Panama. But for the most part, Mexico is taking care of the teams it should beat and struggling (or not even getting into the game) when it’s playing the top teams. Even that might be a harsh evaluation. You’d have to say that over two games against Portugal, both of which ended level after 90 minutes, El Tri came away looking like they’re level with the Iberians.
Now there’s a year to figure things out, to try to become the team that gets to that fifth game and perhaps farther in a World Cup. Maybe the draw will be kind. More likely, Mexico will have to find the quality to beat the top of the top.
Marquez phase-out can continue as planned
Though he recovered from his back injury just in time to make the plane to Russia, Rafa Marquez played sparingly in the Confederations Cup. That’s good news for Mexico, which had grown dependent on a 38-year-old player who struggles to stay fit. Marquez started against Portugal and had he put in a master-class there would’ve been plenty of opportunity to suggest that Osorio had miscalculated when he said other players were seeing minutes instead of Marquez thanks to better performances in training sessions.
Marquez wasn’t horrendous Sunday but conceded a penalty in the first half that would’ve had Mexico on the back foot early were it not for Guillermo Ochoa’s heroics and generally showed why he can’t be a No. 1 choice for El Tri at the international level. While the central-midfield spot he sometimes plays is still an issue, Nestor Araujo has performed well as the right center back next to Hector Moreno, and Diego Reyes and Carlos Salcedo both continue to progress as options in a three-man back line, with their injuries in this tournament showing just how important the young defenders have become to El Tri.
The Kaiser of Michoacan still should be on the plane at this time next year, but as the veteran voice in the locker room and a player who can come on, take the captain’s armband and add a bit more defensive strength in the end of a game Mexico is trying to close out, not as a player El Tri need in the XI.
Osorio has to keep control
In the five matches Mexico played at Russia, coach Juan Carlos Osorio lost his temper in two of them. That’s 40 percent! The first time it happened, we applauded Osorio in this space. It wasn’t about losing control, something for which he later apologized, it was because he flew off the handle because of what he felt was a player safety issue. Carlos Salcedo was on the ground with an injury that later would see him leave the tournament, and Osorio was upset one of his guys got hurt.
There’s something noble in showing you have your players’ backs. And maybe you could make the argument he was doing the same Sunday, when it was a referee’s decision not to call a penalty on Hirving Lozano late in extra time. While no less understandable, Osorio’s anger here is less righteous and ended with him getting sent off. The team can deal with him being suspended for the opening game or two of the Gold Cup (Luis Pompilio Paez seems to be doing fine with that group right now), but the tactician has to be careful. After all, it wasn’t losses on the field but a loss of control off of it that cost Osorio’s predecessor Miguel Herrera his job as Mexico coach.