ARLINGTON, Texas — That wasn't how Mexico wanted to end the international break.
El Tri took a 1-0 loss to Croatia on Tuesday night, a defeat manager Juan Carlos Osorio said he "could digest." Harder to stomach were the injuries. Nestor Araujo and Carlos Salcdeo are being tested Wednesday to determine the next step in their recovery processes.
All three of the Porto trio of Diego Reyes, Jesus Corona and Hector Herrera are nursing smaller knocks. Andres Guardado wasn't at 100 percent. That's before you even consider players like the Dos Santos brothers or Javier Aquino who missed out on the initial call-up or had to withdraw from the roster with an injury.
El Tri come out of the international break with the body and spirit bruised, and it will take some time to bounce back. We are exactly two months away from the next time Mexico will play a match. Those send-off games need to put smiles back on the faces of Mexico players or it could be a very short trip to Russia this summer.
Let's dive into a few themes from the game starting with the potential ramifications of Araujo's knee injury:
Araujo's rise could reach sad conclusion
Nestor Araujo is one of the players who has flourished the most under Juan Carlos Osorio. He seemed like a bit of a reach when Osorio called him up for the 2016 Copa America Centenario but hit the ground running with a great showing in the debut game against Uruguay. From there, he's become one of the most consistent defensive performers for El Tri, and when reports emerged in the winter that he was headed for the Bundesliga it seemed like a perfect fit.
The move didn't come to pass, but Araujo's stay with Santos Laguna was set to come to an end after the World Cup, with the 26-year-old sure to head to a bigger league after the tournament in Russia. Now his participation is in doubt, though initial reports from Mexico's medical staff say his knee injury might not be as serious as feared when he was stretchered off the field and taken straight to the hospital.
A right-footed defender who plays on the left side at the club level, Araujo's passing may be what seduced Osorio in the first place. He's become a more complete defender since his El Tri debut, improving his positional awareness with Osorio asking him to play in several different alignments.
Carlos Salcedo's injury may keep him out longer, and that also would be a big blow for Mexico. For one, Salcedo has been sliding over to play right back and profiled as the starter there for Mexico's best back line. Both defenders have had an impressive rise through the ranks to earn starting roles with El Tri. It's understandable why the main emotion in Juan Carlos Osorio's news conference and from players leaving the locker room was sadness.
"We’re going to get together and analyze everything this week, but it definitely changes and it changes based on the seriousness of the injures. I think unfortunately, we take this on, we analyze and have to be prepared for a scenario in which neither of them can be there," Osorio said of his plans for the summer. It's rough for the team and also for the two men on a personal level.
Burrito not up to the level needed
Jorge "Burrito" Hernandez was given a difficult task Tuesday. At the base of a diamond midfield in a 3-4-3, he was supposed to stop Croatia's midfielders from getting at the Mexico back line. Croatia's wide attackers commanded most of the attention from Mexico's defenders, leaving Hernandez on an island in the middle against Ivan Rakitic and Mateo Kovacic. It didn't go well.
He was supposed to be supported by Omar Govea and Andres Guardado, but they also were taken out wide most of the first half. At the break, Osorio put on Monterrey midfielder Jesus Molina to give Hernandez less to do, and he turned in a better performance with a midfield partner.
"We respect Croatia deeply, we really think that they have midfielders who are very, very capable," Osorio said. "Rakitic and Kovacic are top players. So, if we add that they have a central midfielder, we decided to play with a diamond figure so we have an extra player in the center channel, trying to control the game staring from there. I do think that in the first half nobody dominated the game but we were in control. They didn’t create too many chances but there’s one thing I’d criticize and that’s the fact that we didn’t create chances either.
"In general, I think it was a good opportunity for Jorge Herandnez, for Omar Govea and Rodolfo Pizarro but I do think it was a game that’s probably, at the moment, too much for them. That’s part of the developing of players and consolidating of players as well. We are OK with that."
Osorio kept referring to Hernandez as one of the young players he wanted to give a chance. At 28, he's young for real life (at least this author hopes), but not for the game of soccer. Hernandez is one of those players who has had a nice Liga MX career. He's won the league. He may be able to play in a tournament like the Gold Cup again or take part in games in the upcoming CONCACAF Nations League. A World Cup may be beyond his limits.
Attackers can't do it alone
Check out this diagram. It's the actions of the front three Mexico started with Tuesday night. Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez is in black, Hirving Lozano is red and Carlos Vela is blue. We can see a few things from the graphic, which was plotted by Goal's Steve Han.
First, we see how Chicharito was drifting backward to try and get involved in the attack. This is a feature, not a bug, of the Mexico system and the 3-4-3 should've allowed Rodolfo Pizarro to push forward more often when the West Ham forward was finding space between the midfield and the defense to get the ball directly from the center backs.
More concerning is the lack of any significant action in the penalty area. There are five moments of danger from the entire front three. Some of that is on them, but a lot is on the rest of the team. Pizarro in particular was supposed to facilitate chances for the attacking trio, but couldn't provide.
"Our big difference was we were playing two central midfielders, Jorge [Hernandez] and Jesus [Molina]," Osorio said. "I think we controlled things and had chances but we weren’t efficient in the final third. I think it’s been a good exercise for them in their growth for Jorge, for Omar [Govea], for Rodolfo. We’re sad about what happened but I think it was a game played against a very good opponent. In the end, the difference was a dead ball, a penalty. I do think we have to defend much better and we can’t give an opponent of this level a penalty like that."
They also need to make sure their talented attackers have a chance to show that talent. Lozano and Vela can create chances, and we know Chicharito can finish, but they need the ball at their feet to be able to do what they do best.
Going to plan B?
Perhaps lost in the second section about Burrito Hernandez not being up to snuff was the fact that it was Osorio who put him in that position. The coach's hand was forced by injuries for most of his substitutions, but his initial plan, the 3-4-3 with a diamond midfield, did not work.
The team was more comfortable in the 4-3-3 that it has played in many times, which you'd expect. The friendly did provide the final chance for Osorio to tweak and try something out he's never done before, but now it's time to stop with experiments. This one didn't work. The three-man back line with the ambiguous midfield (I've seen it called a 3-2-3-2, but that doesn't seem quite right), did against Iceland. Now he knows, but there are questions to be asked about whether Mexico was best served using this tune-up in that way.
"t would’ve been really good to have everyone, but I think maybe those they were missing, Modric, Mandzukic and the other players would’ve given us the chance and them as well to put the best possible team out," he said. "Understanding and respecting and knowing they still had Kovacic and Rakitic and had players with a high level, our decision was to give a chance to three young players who are very important for the present and future of Mexican soccer, I’m talking about Omar, Rodolfo, and Jorge."
Injuries are going to happen, but Mexico is in control of its style of play and what it tries to do. El Tri going with the familiar lineup from the beginning might've avoided the defeat. Osorio's plan didn't work, and the time for trying out new things must come to an end.
Mexico now takes a two-month break from playing. There will be lots for Osorio and his coaching staff to analyze. They'll await word on how injured players are recovering, look at potential replacements and continue scouting the group opponents.
Sometimes coaches say there are no moral victories. Tuesday was a moral defeat. El Tri thought they would beat a Croatia side that didn't have some of its best players. They didn't. El Tri thought they would leave Texas feeling better about their chances in the World Cup than they did going in after beating two World Cup-bound teams. They didn't.
Worst of all, there now are questions about if Mexico will have its best players at the tournament. This happens all the time, but Osorio said it's different when it's happening to you.
"It’s very unfortunate. The guys in the locker room are really hurt, really sad because you often see it happening from afar and you think it happens to other national teams. When you have to live it in the flesh I think it’s devastating. It’s very sad," he said.
Imanol Ibarrondo, the Spanish coach who works with Mexican players on their mentality and psychology, may play a big part in getting Mexico back into the mindset it will have to be in to have a successful World Cup. Tuesday was a disappointment, but Mexico can overcome it with the right attitude.