Questions loom for Miguel Herrera, Mexico ahead of Nigeria friendly
MAR 03, 2014 7:55p ET
Leaving the process of integrating the European-based players into the Mexico squad until the last minute always represented a substantial risk. The buildup to one friendly in the first week of March hardly reveals how players will come together or function as a unit. It barely supplies enough time for thorough introductions before Miguel Herrera must render decisions about his squad for the World Cup.
By limiting the timeframe to survey the scene, Herrera and Mexico increased the potential exposure to adverse developments. It isn't just about timing -- and, after all, these players will have ample opportunity to bond and develop chemistry during the pre-World Cup camp -- and training, after all. It is about making sure everyone shows up to provide an accurate picture of the available options and sketch out how the pieces might all come together.
The calf injury suffered by Villarreal schemer Giovani dos Santos over the weekend highlights the vulnerability of the entire process. Dos Santos pulled out of the squad to face Nigeria in Atlanta (live, Wednesday, 8:30 p.m. ET) after picking up a knock in the 1-1 draw against Real Betis on Sunday. The extent of the injury remains unknown, but Mexico sporting director Ricardo Peláez told reporters on Monday the setback could impact Dos Santos' chances of playing at the World Cup.
It certainly constitutes a blow to Herrera's planning process. Herrera spent much of the past few months goading his European players into better, more consistent performers at club level. This match represents the payoff to those overtures, a chance to gauge their potential contributions within the unique demands of his 5-3-2 setup.
Dos Santos' absence strips away perhaps the most important component in those calculations. Herrera's system offers no natural place for a playmaker like dos Santos. He isn't a pure forward, nor is he an industrious sort designed to shuttle through the midfield. His presence would require Herrera to alter the overall approach to account for his particular traits.
Instead of tinkering with potential options against a capable Nigeria team, Herrera must now rely solely on his knowledge of the player and his tactical renderings on the chalkboard. Everything is now hypothetical. Dos Santos -- talented and worthy of inclusion as he is when fit and in form -- now constitutes an unknown. And now Herrera must weigh whether to include him solely upon his talent, if he recovers in time to feature, or omit him to the inevitable howl of an already developing group of critics at home and abroad.
At least Herrera can rely on meager evidence to make decisions about the other foreign-based players now at his disposal for the first time. Héctor Moreno must bolster the central defensive trio to ensure its viability in Brazil. Andrés Guardado (back from a lengthy spell out of the team), Javier Hernández (a mandatory inclusion despite his lack of match practice, if only for his ability to change the proceedings off the bench) and Guillermo Ochoa (charged with claiming the number one shirt or serving as an amenable reserve) must prove their worth all over again.
Blossoming talents like Javier Aquino (a true winger without a comfortable place in this setup), Héctor Herrera (the sort of central midfield player capable of augmenting the options already in the squad) and Diego Reyes (under pressure to show his sharpness due to a lack of match practice) face a fight to justify their credentials.
Those players join a domestic contingent culled from the early days of the Herrera reign and stocked with its own inquiries to answer. The concerns in defense (Are Rafa Márquez and Maza Rodríguez viable options at this stage of their careers?), central midfield (Who will play in the trio alongside Carlos Peña?) and the identity of Oribe Peralta's partner up front (Where do Raúl Jiménez and Alan Pulido fit into the mix?) still linger.
At this stage of the proceedings, every piece of information to solve those quandaries matters to Herrera. This match against Nigeria -- a fellow World Cup outfit and a perfectly suitable opponent for this sort of friendly -- offers a chance to gather as much intelligence as possible ahead of the next few months. It is not a chance El Tri can afford to squander given the ignorance of the foreign-based players to date and the integration efforts required in the buildup to the World Cup.
Dos Santos' withdrawal reinforces the fraught road ahead. Herrera made this process more difficult by adopting an insular approach at the outset. He must now hope his gamble pays off with a fruitful and informative outing in midweek and provides him with the substance required to move forward with his team over the next few months.