Defense dictates Mexico's potential
Mexico's head man in charge: Jose Manuel de la Torre has the task of guiding Mexico to uncharted territories come Brazil 2014. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
There were no loud cheers or sustained applause as one of the most successful years in Mexican football history approached its conclusion. In lieu of the expected adulation, Mexico’s senior national team was showered with whistles and boos as they played out the second half of their final match of 2011.
While Mexico held a 1-0 lead over Serbia at the time, it wasn't enough for the Queretaro crowd. Unhappy with the home side's lack of urgency and anemic attack, the supposedly pro-Mexico crowd voiced its collective displeasure loudly. Mexico ultimately claimed a 2-0 victory, but the crowd's harsh treatment provided an unceremonious, unfair ending to a wildly successful year.
Mexico had won the Gold Cup. They’d lost just once in 16 matches this year. The Federacion produced a U-17 world title, a third place finish at the U-20 World Cup, and gold at the Pan American Games. Yet the lingering echoes of Estadio La Corregidora’s jeering whistles revealed an undercurrent of uneasiness - a trepidation that runs through a significant portion of El Tri’s fan base.
Fair or not, it's no secret that for all of Mexico's success in 2011, there’s still significant work left to be done. There’s less than three years left until the World Cup in Brazil, and manager Jose Manuel de la Torre must address a surprising number of lingering question marks. With the calendar set to turn to 2012, now is no time to rest on laurels. Following the most successful year any Mexico manager has experienced, ‘Chepo’ must move on to the bigger challenge: qualifying for the World Cup while simultaneously building the most competitive team for 2014.
The young Aztec warriors: Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez (L) and Pablo Barrera (R) look to terrorize defenders on the international stage for Mexico. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
The good news for de la Torre is that a large portion of the 2014 puzzle is already in place. The four young members of the attacking quartet up front - Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez, Giovanni dos Santos, Andres Guardado, and Pablo Barrera - have rightfully become fixtures in the starting XI, tattooing their names on the lineup sheet. While fans in Queretaro showed their momentary impatience with this group, they also showed how high expectations for the offense have risen.
Guardado certainly has to be more consistent on the left side (against Serbia he was completely outshined by left back Carlos Salcido), while dos Santos must recapture his creative spark in the middle. Guardado’s service into the box, once so accurate, has been wanting during the past month. Dos Santos, who normally oscillates maddeningly between brilliant and unassuming, has regressed to the point of near invisibility in recent appearances. It’s anticipated that the creative midfielder's illusory magnificence will return to focus once the nominal Tottenham Hotspur finds consistent playing time at the domestic level (something that could come as soon as the January transfer window). If Guardado can take leave of Deportivo La Coruña and the Spanish second division, he should also see a return to his summer form.
The 'Mexica' wildcard: Gio dos Santos' kid brother, Jonathan dos Santos, will garner much attention during Mexico's World Cup qualification campaign next year. (Photo by Francisco Estrada/Jam Media/LatinContent/Getty Images)
While Mexico has room for improvement going forward, attackers are the least of de la Torre’s worries, and the further from the final third we get, the bigger the questions become. Defensive midfield is an obvious area of concern due to the ages of de la Torre’s featured duo: Gerardo Torrado and Israel Castro, two players who will be 35 and 33 years old respectively by Brazil. Torrado, a national team mainstay for the better part of the last decade, needs to be phased out - a delicate process, but one necessary for the future development of the team. Jesus Zavala and Jesus Molina wait in the wings, with Zavala using his start (for the injured Torrado) against Serbia to highlight the benefits he brings defending balls sent into the box.
The big wild card in any discussion of the defensive midfield position is Jonathan dos Santos. An enticing talent who will make his return to the national team scene in 2012, the younger dos Santos carries immense expectations. The Barcelona talent must prove he can perform under the national stage’s pressure. If he does, de la Torre must find a way to use him soon. El Tri fans may riot if he doesn’t take the field in 2012.
The core of Mexico's backline is also battling against the clock. Rafael Marquez will be 35 years old in 2014 and has fallen out of favor, while Francisco Javier ‘Maza’ Rodriguez will be 32. Against Serbia, Mexico’s best young defender, Hector Moreno, got the start over the dropped Marquez. A player with significant international experience, Moreno is fully prepared to take the permanent starting role.
It’s also possible that , in the coming years, a further infusion of youth will occur in central defense in the form of Hiram Mier and Nestor Araujo, players currently on the fringes who could make an impact should de la Torre choose to experiment.
At right back, Efrain Juarez has a lock on the position for the time being, though left back is a bit more interesting. Salcido will be 34 at the time of the World Cup, but as the best attacking player on the field against Serbia, he shouldn’t be counted out as a long-term starter. The Fulham loanee demonstrated why he is an irreplaceable force on the left wing, but if change is needed, Jorge Torres Nilo is almost equally gifted.
So far, de la Torre has been resistant to turning over key roles to younger players, but as we enter 2012, he can no longer afford not to. Every decision made should be in preparation for 2014, and as the disappointed Queretaro crowd showed, expectations are exceptionally high. If the right decisions aren’t made - if the pieces don’t properly fit together - Mexico will take a deteriorating defensive unit to Brazil, one unlikely to meet demands for deep run in the tournament.
The ultimate success in 2014 rests on how quickly these changes take place. If the right moves aren’t made before June, more jeers await El Tri.