As El Tri prepares for its first match since its World Cup exit, Tom Marshall examines the questions the team could answer against Chile.
The penalty was given. The Netherlands advanced. Mexico fell out of the World Cup at the Round of 16 stage … again.
But while the memories, lessons learned and wounds are still raw, the Mexico national team bandwagon - led by the now world famous Miguel Herrera – needs to pick itself up, dust itself off and renew a process that should, at least on paper, give El Tri its best chance ever to reach the quarterfinal stage at the next World Cup.
The first stop on that long road to Russia 2018 is Saturday against Chile in the San Francisco 49ers new Levi’s Stadium in what promises to be a tough task against one of the Brazil 2014’s most praised sides.
1) Is Guardado the long-term captain?
With more than 100 caps, experience in four different leagues and three World Cups under his belt, Andres Guardado has the attributes to be Mexico’s captain, as Herrera has stated in the build-up to Saturday’s game.
At 27, he’s also at the right age to potentially lead the team toward Russia 2018, with Francisco “Maza” Rodriguez, Rafa Marquez and the rest of the older generation unlikely to be there.
But there is something about Guardado that doesn’t necessarily strike you as captain material. Yes, he comes out and gives forthright interviews and appears to be well-liked in the squad, but he only won his starting place at Brazil 2014 in the games leading up to the tournament and was one of the experienced players that went missing in Mexico’s qualification fiasco.
Herrera likely has doubts about who should be captain. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Giovani Dos Santos, Guillermo Ochoa and Hector Moreno could all make decent cases, but the truth is none of them stand out.
Saturday is a chance for Guardado to begin making the armband his own and prove the doubters wrong.
2) Will Herrera spring any tactical surprises?
Louis van Gaal’s tactical tweaks against Mexico were one of the reasons El Tri crashed out of the World Cup.
The Dutchman only switched to the line of three center backs just ahead of the big event and proved flexible during the tournament in the run to the semifinals.
On the other hand, Mexico’s Herrera had little time with his squad before the World Cup and stuck with his 5-3-2 formation and as close to what he believed was his starting team as possible to the bitter end.
Now Herrera has time to play, what about some experimentation? Perhaps Jose Juan Vazquez and Hector Herrera as holding midfielders, with Giovani Dos Santos or Marco Fabian given a free role behind the two strikers? Or a 5-2-3 with two attacking wingers like Fabian and Javier Aquino and just one central striker? It’d also be nice to see how a flat back four works at some point in the near future, especially with Mexico’s problem selecting a left-footed center back now that Moreno is out with an injury and considering the fact the vast majority of the squad don’t play a similar style to Herrera’s 5-3-2 set-up at club level.
3) How will defense cope with losses of Rafa Marquez and Hector Moreno?
Mexico has a problem in the center back department. Marquez is on his way out of the national team, Moreno is injured, Diego Reyes isn’t playing for Porto and veteran Carlos Salcido just bowed out.
Hugo Ayala is a strong option, while Luis Venegas is getting his first call-up at age 30 and Oswaldo Alanis hasn’t been a starter long at Santos Laguna.
The player Mexico could really do with taking the opportunity on Saturday is Monterrey’s Hiram Mier, who proved himself a class act in the Olympics and has all the attributes to play on the right side or at the center of a back three.
4) Can Mexico match Chile’s intensity?
The test the South American team poses should not be underestimated. This game is as difficult as it gets in terms of international friendlies.
Jorge Sampaoli’s pressing game brought Chile a famous – and entirely deserved – 2-0 win against Spain at the World Cup and came close to knocking out Brazil.
Chile’s defense works from the forwards back, with the attacking element pinned together by the dangerous Alexis Sanchez.
It is a difficult task for El Tri, who also impressed in Brazil, but perhaps didn’t win quite as many plaudits as Chile.
5) Can Hector Herrera start to make Mexico his team?
There was no doubt which Mexican player impressed most at the World Cup.
Guillermo Ochoa won the headlines, but Porto’s Hector Herrera was a cut above the others. A consistent performer who meshed natural talent, work ethic and flair, Herrera oozed class.
Moving forward, he bears much of the responsibility for being the primary creative force in Mexico’s team and especially under Herrera’s system without a number 10 and with two out-and-out strikers.
Herrera needs to make this team his own and vice versa.