Mexico's lineup to face Panama and Costa Rica in a pair of World Cup qualifiers that should see El Tri sew up a spot in Russia didn't contain many surprises. Coach Juan Carlos Osorio is calling his best available team, with Jesus "Tecatito" Corona back after personal issues kept him out of the Confederations Cup.
There are the typical injury absences, with forward Oribe Peralta and defender Carlos Salcedo missing out because of physical issues. There's the atypical absence, with Rafa Marquez missing out after the U.S. Department of Treasury accused him of being a front man for a cartel kingpin. And there's Miguel Layun, who apparently is being held out at least in part by his own choice, likely as he tries to find a move away from Porto where playing time has decreased sharply.
Without Layun on the roster, Mexico has brought in 25 players and a grand total of zero are natural fullbacks. This roster to face Central America's two strongest teams brings into sharp focus just how shallow the position is for Mexico.
Osorio and his coaching staff aren't locked in to using three at the back. First off, he regularly plays four center backs across the back in a strategy that rarely works but continues returning. But, as Osorio was eager to point out, there are players who can fill in.
"Well, in this selection, in the seven very good defenders we have, to play on the left side we have two great options: Jesus Gallardo, who does it often at his club, Pumas, and Hector Moreno, who recently did it at his new club and has done it before, so not only with PSV but also with Roma he’s played there," Osorio said at Thursday's news conference, glancing at his notes. "To play on the right side, we have three really good choices. One, Edson (Alvarez) in Gold Cup he played maybe the most in the Mexican team and if you remember he played every game from the start except one, and that one he came in and scored a goal, in this position. We were really impressed.
"We also have Diego Reyes who did it in the Confederations Cup. He has good aerial football, he’s good at marking, he can defend balls to the back post like any center back, something that hurt us in the game against Portugal in the third/fourth-place game. Something we think is important and very much keep in mind in this position.
"Diego can change from a back four into a back three with his movement. Edson has the great quality of being able to play inside because he’s played in the middle. And as a third option is Jesus Duenas, who has done it a lot with his club. So, from our point of view - and we understand that there are other great outside backs in Mexican soccer - we think that in this call-up there are four or five very good defenders."
All of that is fair. Mexico has options, Reyes put in a decent showing at right back during the Confederations Cup and Alvarez was quality there when called upon in the Gold Cup. Yet, when players like Salcedo or Reyes or even Alvarez have been put into that position, their limitations have come through.
The players who profile as center backs generally don't get forward enough to help the attackers, staying back to avoid hanging the right center back out to dry. It's the same with Gallardo on the other side. Despite his promise, he's a winger, used to getting forward and trying to create chances for himself or for center forward Nicolas Castillo at Pumas. He's not used to dealing with Cristian Gamboa on an overlapping run or Valentín Pimentel surging forward in the 85th minute. He may be able to do that, but when the example becomes Dani Alves on the overlap or Lionel Messi from the attack, can he really be expected to hold up against that top-level quality?
That is the fundamental problem with Mexico's current state of outside backs. It's good enough to get by in CONCACAF but, as demonstrated in Russia at the Confederations Cup, not good enough for the top level. That's Mexico's issue at the moment and what El Tri need to be working on. If they can't make that jump in level now, suddenly doing so in Russia and getting to the elusive fifth game becomes a much tougher proposition.
The qualification should come, even if Mexico uses alternates to defend out wide. Osorio would be wise, however, to develop a more long-term plan than putting a center back or winger in that place and hoping for the best.