Two comprehensive victories cast aside the wreckage of Mexico’s tumultuous year and turned chaos into certainty. El Tri flourished under Miguel Herrera last month and reaped the corresponding dividends. Herrera collected his deserved and inherently perilous reward for the World Cup playoff success against New Zealand on Monday.
Herrera will assume permanent control of the Mexican national team once he concludes his duties with Club América this month, the FMF announced after a meeting of the Liga MX owners in Mexico City. The former Mexico defender will lead his country to next summer’s World Cup in Brazil, but the strides made under his direction fostered immediate hope of a more prolonged partnership for a federation desperate for stability in the dugout.
“The plan is that Miguel Herrera will be in Brazil and will continue for Russia 2018,” national team director Héctor González Iñárritu said during a press conference to announce the decision.
Those aspirations appear well and truly misplaced given the upheaval during the past few months, but Herrera can at least plan for a future in his position through the end of the World Cup. His rescue mission after a poor Hexagonal campaign earned him this complex and fraught opportunity. He must adjust to a revised brief quickly to fulfill the revamped expectations and navigate Mexico to a sixth consecutive appearance in the final 16.
Herrera implemented remedial, short-term measures to carry El Tri through the two-legged tie against the All Whites. He omitted his European-based stars to foster cohesiveness over several weeks and tasked a group of familiar, proven performers in Liga MX to dispatch inferior opposition. The results vindicated his decision in that particular instance. They do not, however, translate well to the assignment ahead in Brazil.
Mexico will learn the identity of its group stage opponents on Friday, but it is already certain they will pose more problems than New Zealand did last month. The basic approach employed to clinch a berth against the Oceania Football Confederation (OFC) representatives isn’t the same tactic required to thrive at a significantly higher standard. Herrera understands the difference between securing qualification and sparkling on the grand stage. He knows he must alter his methods accordingly and welcome back his stars from abroad to bolster the ranks.
It is down to Herrera to wade through the complex task of integrating his best players into his preferred 5-3-2 setup over the next few months. He will not possess the luxury of familiarity, repetition and time as he did with his domestic-based group in the buildup to the playoff tie. He must implement his ideas efficiently and thoroughly to cultivate the direct, quick work through midfield required for Mexico to hit stronger opponents on the counter and protect its suspect defensive shape.
Herrera needs more quality in his side to aid those efforts. The first step must include reaching some sort of accord with the exiled Carlos Vela to bring him back into the group. Once Vela returns to the fold or spurns those advances, then the focus can shift toward smoothing over any lingering issues with the remainder of the European-based contingent. Giovani dos Santos, Javier Hernández and Héctor Moreno must feature prominently in Herrera’s thoughts as he attempts to address concerns about his defensive structure and the inherent incisiveness in the middle third.
The outcome of those discussions will leave Herrera with a foundation to build upon. A handful of players from the playoff excursion — emerging fixtures Carlos Peña and Oribe Peralta, in particular — will keep their places on merit and talent. A handful of América standouts will likely join them, though Herrera must cull judiciously from that group in order to make room for the returning stars from abroad without sacrificing the collective spirit fostered during his interim tenure.
All of those calculations must occur under the withering spotlight of an expectant public. Mexico emerged from its doldrums to claim a World Cup berth at the last possible moment. These players and their new coach are now expected to produce in a manner befitting the dramatic nature of their reprieve and their esteemed lineage. It remains uncertain whether this group possesses the overall quality to meet those objectives. Anything less than a spirited run into the knockout round will inspire further sniping about the failures of this potential golden generation and render Iñárritu’s fungible outline for 2018 essentially irrelevant.
The new man in charge cannot afford to think in those terms anyways. Herrera’s permanent installation does not guarantee a protracted tenure in charge. It merely affords him the chance to make a host of difficult decisions with no guarantee of success and prepare his side for a challenge dictated by a few ping-pong balls in Bahia on Friday. It is enough to wonder whether this prize represents just compensation for a job well done last month or an unintended punishment given the rigorous examination ahead next summer.