Mexico shows early grasp of Martino's concepts in joyous debut for manager

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FREDERIC J. BROWN
El Tri topped Chile in the coach's first match in charge and gave a hint of how the team could play in the future

When Tata Martino's name was read out at SDCCU Stadium on Friday, it was met with polite applause. Such is the life for the new manager of a team where expectations are almost always set higher than any man can deliver.  

El Tri fans might not be booing you - yet - but they're sure not applauding you until you've given them a reason to. 

The reason came in the second half of El Tri's 3-1 victory over Chile as Martino's players started to display some of the concepts he'll look to instill.  

Before the match, Martino said the most important thing about his first games at the helm was establishing a style of play. The first half showed where some of the growing pains might be for Mexico.  

While the 4-3-3 with a high press should suit the talent on the field, there are a few gaps. Edson Alvarez didn't look comfortable as the center of the midfield trio, and even the team's talented wingers struggled to find space against an experience Chile back line. 

If the first half showed the potential problems, though, the second showed the potential reward.  

Mexico looks like it could turn a weakness into a strength, with the first two goals coming off set pieces. The first was Raul Jimenez's penalty won by Carlos Salcedo when he was hauled down in the box on a corner kick. The second was more direct with Hector Moreno nodding in an Andres Guardado corner to put space between El Tri and a team that has stymied them and Martino in the past. 

The third goal is the one that will really have Mexico fans dreaming, though. While running to apply pressure on a player in possession, Rodolfo Pizarro intercepted a pass. He played a one-two with Jimenez and was free to charge forward and get his head up. He found Hirving Lozano free down the right side and played him in. The PSV winger chipped his effort over the goalkeeper for Mexico's third, and the second in two minutes. 

Those are the things Mexico fans want to see from Martino's teams. The high pressure forcing turnovers, the player getting possession creating in space and the star wide men bearing down on the opposing goalkeeper in one-on-one situations. 

"It was one of the things the manager was asking for the most, to press them up top and always be up there looking to squeeze them," Pizarro told Goal after the contest. "You can see (Tata's influence) in a lot of aspects, with the high pressure, having the ball a lot more, you’re really seeing it in a lot of different ways,"

It's simply the first game of what should be many for Martino. If all goes to plan, he'll be coaching the team in the winter of 2022 at the World Cup in Qatar. But it was a joyous debut for the manager, with the 49,617 fans in attendance cheering each goal louder than the last.  

The manager said the result doesn't change how he feels about his team. He said before the game he was hopeful with the progress the players had shown during the week and even a loss wouldn't have taken that feeling away.

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"I’m hopeful, hopeful for what I see in the field. As coaches, we have two or three trainings before playing a match. When you see the training sessions and have that go into what you’re doing that weekend, or FIFA date, it makes me hopeful. I can’t take away what I said yesterday if things had gone poorly," he said after the win.

But just because it was a simple friendly didn't mean the veteran manager wasn’t taking things seriously. It wasn't until the 74th minute when the manager sent the first substitutes of the match over to check in (they finally got on the field a minute later). He could've made wholesale switches but instead played it almost like he would a competitive match. 

Until his squad is able to produce the same kind of results in a game that matters, the tepid responses for the coach will continue. He's a foreign coach, one who has won nothing yet beyond Friday's friendly. He has not hesitated to call out players or groups around Mexican soccer who may be fan favorites. Yet if Mexico can produce soccer like it did in the second half in major tournaments for sustained periods of time, it won't be long before the El Tri faithful are singing his name. 

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