Mexico faces midfield holes in the wake of Luis Montes' injury
MAY 31, 2014 7:10p ET
Mexico reeled in the wake of the gruesome injury destined to keep influential midfielder Luis Montes out of the World Cup.
Several teammates appeared close to tears as Montes received treatment on the field for a fractured right fibula and tibia sustained in the first half of the Pyrrhic 3-1 victory over Ecuador on Saturday afternoon. Mexico manager Miguel Herrera left the field at halftime with his hand on his forehead. He then spoke in somber tones after the match as he processed the loss and started to ponder a way forward without the Club León midfielder.
“He will be with us in our hearts and our heads,” Herrera said during his post-match press conference. “He is a part of this group.”
Montes is no longer a part of the 23-man roster, though. His impending absence for the World Cup presents a series of issues for Herrera to contemplate in the buildup to the Group A opener against Cameroon. He must now grapple with the loss of an expected starter and manage the vacancy created in his wake.
From a practical standpoint, Herrera must first decide how to replace Montes in the squad. Villarreal winger Javier Áquino stands out as the most likely replacement among the six remaining players on the standby list. Herrera highlighted Áquino as a potential option, but he declined to make an official announcement immediately after the match.
“Aquino is the first option in my mind,” Herrera said. “He is a natural replacement, but we’ll see.”
If Áquino is eventually included as expected, then he will join a robust list of potential replacements in the midfield trio. Montes loomed as a likely starter for the date against the Cameroonians given his comfort in the system and his recent displays. His injury will create a mad dash for that place in the team, but any potential replacement will likely require some adjustment to the balance in order to retain the necessary shape.
Montes thrived in Herrera’s 5-3-2 setup because he grasped how to move within it and make the best use of his strengths. The natural winger bustled appropriately to maintain the structure, combined well with León teammate Carlos Peña in advance of the nominal holding player, drifted into the right areas to link up with others and floated into the proper spaces to make the best use of his ability to shoot from distance. Those qualities are not easily replaced in this squad by one player.
The primary options to fill the void -- Áquino if he joins the group, Marco Fabián and Héctor Herrera -- all boast the attacking qualities expected in that position, but they each act upon those strengths in different ways.
Fabián may receive the first crack at the shift given Herrera’s emerging presence in a deep-lying role and his own performances against Ecuador and Israel. The Cruz Azul playmaker offers a reasonable approximation for Montes, though he isn’t an identical replacement. He conjures perhaps a bit more creativity than Montes usually shows and possesses the tools to combine deftly with others. His strike for the second goal -- a sumptuous half-volley on the bounce -- against Ecuador highlights his ability to strike from distance, too. Those characteristics might enhance the dexterity in the attacking half, but they do not address the concerns about his tendency to drift out of matches and his willingness to track defensively.
Áquino supplies more directness with his potential inclusion. He missed out on a place in the 23-man squad because he doesn’t quite fit Herrera’s narrow tactical approach. He is a pure winger, the sort of player best deployed near the touchline to use his pace against opposing fullbacks. He can feature in the midfield trio from the outset as a player looking to spur vertical movement more often than not, but it is more likely that he would offer a change of approach off the bench -- at least initially -- as a substitute.
If the Mexico boss opts for a more conservative course, then he can push Herrera out of his role at the base of the midfield three into Montes’ spot (or the bench, if Fabián claims the shirt) and slot José Juan Vázquez into the holding role. Vázquez’s insertion shores up the concerns about defensive balance because he scurries earnestly in front of the back four and tends to those duties with a fair amount of discipline. Herrera improved in the role against Ecuador after creating some balance concerns against Israel, but this team -- particularly with its fragile back three -- might require a more dedicated player in the middle of the park to maintain the necessary solidity.
Expect Herrera to contemplate those contingencies and weigh other possible options in the coming days. There is time to sort through this terrible blow, but El Tri cannot afford to waste any of it. This group must now find a way to cope with the emotional fallout from Montes’ injury first and foremost. Once this group finds its footing once more, it must then devise a sensible path forward to ensure this painful setback does not sidetrack their World Cup ambition.