El Tri showed once again that it has glaring weaknesses at the back that must be improved if the next cycle will be a successful one
It has been easy enough for Mexico fans to shrug off anything that has happened since the World Cup. A 2-0 loss to Argentina on Friday is the fourth defeat of five matches overseen by interim manager Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti.
But Ferretti is the interim manager. He’s trying to bring in young players, giving chances to members of a new generation who may still be too green for the demands of international football but could excel. The loss in Cordoba, however, was another piece of evidence that not all will be well simply when Mexico starts playing matches that matter. When the new manager, who will be Gerardo “Tata” Martino unless something unexpected happens at the 11th hour, takes over the team he will inherit issues that have been exposed during Ferretti’s brief tenure.
“Today, our ceiling was very far. I expected better soccer from the players. I think we had a lot of mistakes that, how can I tell you, players on this level shouldn’t have,” Ferretti said in his post-match news conference. “I think that was one of the reasons why they started to dominate the play and the position on the field.”
“Maybe far is drastic, but we do have to work a lot,” the manager clarified. “A lot. We need a lot of work.”
The biggest problem continues to be El Tri’s defense, and once again it struggled to keep pace Friday. Mexico has conceded in every match since the World Cup. That can’t be shrugged off, especially when it’s not difficult at all to imagine the back line Ferretti utilized against Argentina being the one Martiino puts out at the Gold Cup. Nestor Araujo and Diego Reyes reasonably could be the center-back pairing of the future with Luis “Chaka” Rodriguez and Jesus Gallardo on either side of them.
They started well, as did most of Mexico’s players, but petered out as the first half went on. Changes in the second half led to a bit of improvement, but Mexico will need to improve by more than just a little if it’s going to get to the heights it wants to in the next World Cup cycle.
The defense wasn’t particularly strong under previous manager Juan Carlos Osorio, whose constant messaging about needing to improve the aerial game was ridiculed by many reporters in the Mexican press, many of whom saw it simply as height discrimination.
It hardly seems silly now. It was never about the number with Osorio but rather if the player could perform when a cross is whipped into the box or when he needs to win a second ball.
Clearly there are a lack of players that applies to in the Mexico player pool. Of the 10 goals that have been conceded in the first five matches since Russia, half of them have come from set pieces. Four out of the 10 were scored on headers.
Ramirio Funes Mori’s opener in the 44th minute was a perfect example of El Tri’s issue with both. Some players decided they were playing the offside trap. They weren’t, or if they were supposed to be it was ruined by other players who weren’t. It’s a gaffe that simply can’t happen if Mexico wants to win matches against the world’s top teams. With the Villarreal defender in, there was no one there to make him think about anything other than where he would place his header. He made the right decision and beat goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa to give Argentina the lead before the break.
“Nobody wants their players to make mistakes,” Ferretti said. “Tuesday, I expect the team, the players, each one individually play to their level and that after that as a collective they can integrate. It’s not that easy. With a national team you only have one or two day to come together, it really depends on the individual players, on their tactical understanding and I hope Tuesday we can improve on both aspects, the individual and the collective.”
Too often in the past, Mexico matches have turned into shooting galleries on the country’s top goalkeepers. Ochoa has passed those tests, and he was again superb Friday. He saw bright spots but ultimately seems ready for a new manager to take over and get to work on some of the issues.
“I think we have a lot of quality, a lot of talent. We showed we can compete and with work and with a direction, the team has a lot it can improve,” Ochoa said after the match.
But as we’ve seen time and time again, Ochoa and his fellow shot-stoppers can only stem the bleeding so much. They can only make so many saves. Mexico’s defense must improve from the center backs to the outside backs to the midfielders in front of the back line to the forwards working to win the ball back from the first moment.
There could be help. Carlos Salcedo was Mexico’s best defender at the World Cup and should be returning from injury prior to the March friendly matches. El Titan can’t be the only hope for Mexico, though. If he watched Friday, Martino has to be hoping Araujo can get minutes with Celta de Vigo, Reyes rediscovers what made him a good defender in the first place, Gallardo sees more time as a defender and ultimately that he can figure out a way to get his whole team defending well. As Ferretti says, there’s plenty of work to be done. How effective the new manager is at improving things at the back will be the difference between celebration or another frustration for Mexico fans four years from now.