Once again, Mexico is back in the same place it always seems to find itself - out after the first round of a knockout tournament. The pain and frustration for El Tri supporters is intensified by the fact that it's the second time in coach Juan Carlos Osorio's tenure the team has been bounced from a competition in a lopsided fashion.
While Osorio's quirky methods will come under scrutiny, and the first-time national team coach will once again wonder where he's gone wrong in his own ideas that he holds closely, he's built up enough cachet to feel that his job is safe (or as safe as it can ever be for a Mexico coach).
Let's look back at Thursday's loss and the tournament overall as Mexico prepares for a third-place game against Portugal on Sunday that neither will be too excited about.
Mexico not among elite
This may be a difficult truth to swallow, but not wanting to hear something doesn't make it not true. Mexico is not among the elite. It wouldn't be among the elite if Miguel Herrera or Tuca Ferretti or Pep Guardiola or Marcelo Bielsa or you or I were the coach. Mexico is a very good team, the best in CONCACAF and able to get results like the 2-2 draw against European champion Portugal to open the tournament. It is not in the top echelon of teams, teams that win FIFA tournaments.
There was an elite team on the field Thursday, even though the young Germans are not their country's finest. The depth of the process that Germany undertook after embarrassment at the 2000 Euros was immense, with the country re-evaluating nearly everything about its footballing culture. It took 14 years for that process to result in a world championship. But now that the process is complete, Germany's teams - seemingly no matter the level - are ruthless as a collective. Along the way, there were several coaches who ended up leading Germany back to greatness that were derided for being too egg-headed, too professorial in their approach, too radical in their tactics. Is Osorio the next Ralf Rangnick or Thomas Tuchel? It doesn't look like it now, but reworking an entire setup takes time.
There's hope that Mexico will start to see its own mini-revolution with Mexican coaches like Paco Palencia at Pumas and Jimmy Lozano at Queretaro attempting to use young Mexican players in inventive systems, but if the Mexican federation again pulls the emergency break on the project Osorio is trying to implement and have trickle down it will find itself back at the start line - still losing knockout games, still trying to claw its way into the world's elite.
Attackers must be more effective
Mexico's defense was poor in the tournament and it only got worse as Carlos Salcedo and Diego Reyes succumbed to injuries. And, to be fair, it had to be demoralizing to be playing from behind in each match, knowing at least two goals would be required to find a victory. Still, Mexico's strength is in its attacking depth, specifically in the wide attacking positions where Carlos Vela, Javier Aquino, Hirving Lozano, Giovani dos Santos and Raul Jimenez all spent time. The tournament exit isn't on the attack, far from it, but El Tri's finishing will need to get better before the team's Russia return for in order to reach its goals.
Despite creating chances - and sometimes finding the center forward in plenty of space, whether it was Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez or Jimenez - the team ultimately found three of its seven goals from set pieces and Hirving Lozano's header from outside the box to beat New Zealand wasn't exactly reminiscent of Barcelona's passing. Vela's omission from Osorio's lineup against Germany was puzzling, but the Real Sociedad forward will be right back in the mix if his teammates keep missing opportunities they should put away. Whether it's a question of form or mental fortitude, Mexico's attack must be a bit sharper - especially with the back line in its current, fragile state.
Dos Santos brothers on differing trajectories
LA Galaxy attacker Giovani dos Santos closed out the Confederations Cup with two disappointing games and could find himself out of future Mexico XIs (well, he will because of rotations but may lose his spot altogether), especially after Marco Fabian's gorgeous consolation goal helped boost the Frankfurt midfielder's case for more playing time. It seemed like a toss-up between those two players as to who Osorio would put into the starting XI with Andres Guardado out because of yellow card accumulation. Dos Santos won that battle, but if he puts in more performances like Thursday's he will lose the long-term fight against Fabian. True, he was able to find Chicharito for a decent scoring chance the forward put over the bar, but otherwise he looked uncomfortable outside his normal position.
On the other hand, his brother's place in the national team never has looked so secure. Jonathan didn't play as well against Germany as he did against Portugal, when he broke up counterattack after counterattack and won back the ball with his pressure from the right midfield spot in the three-man middle. Yet he still turned in a quality performance and even gave a bit extra going forward.
The rumors on Jona joining up with Gio in MLS have cooled, but the elder Dos Santos' issue seems to be the same one he had before he came to MLS in that he doesn't quite fit into any position the team needs on the field and isn't complete enough to build the formation around him.
Early goals a nasty habit
Germany's two goals in the first 10 minutes put Mexico on the back foot and completely changed the game, with El Tri continuing to search for a goal as the match wore on but struggling to get anything going to cut into the lead. It was the fifth consecutive time Mexico had conceded first but the first time in that stretch the team had followed up by conceding a second before scoring at least one of its own.
No manager puts falling behind in his game plan, and Mexico deserves credit for avoiding defeat in the first four games of that stretch. But obviously it can't continue. The defense has to be more aware from the moment the whistle blows, and Osorio has to think about his rotation policy and the lack of cohesion it can create at the back if players don't work closely enough together in training.
Osorio brought Spanish coach Imanol Ibarrondo in to work with his team before going to Columbus, Ohio, where Mexico was able to beat the United States in a qualifier on American soil for the first time in decades. The Colombian coach at that time said the streak was more about the team's mental strength than anything happening on the field. Ibarrondo was in Russia as well, but he may need to work with players more closely to make sure they can avoid again falling victim to early goals that create hardship.
Confederations Cup disappointing, but served its purpose
This tournament is the dress rehearsal. Teams want to be in it (ostensibly) to get comfortable, to figure out logistics and to play some decent competition. In that respect, Mexico did what it needed to do at the Confederations Cup. It got out of the group stage, improving on the 2013 tournament when it was eliminated before the final group match against Japan, and got a taste of Russia before many of its rivals.
The team found a base in Kazan, where, if the draw allows it, Mexico might return to set up shop during the World Cup, and has had a chance to eat the food, see the hotels, train on some of the same fields they may be on during the showcase event in 2018.
Osorio and his team also saw exactly where its weaknesses are and will have a year to work on fine-tuning or overhauling things. With qualification all but secure and no other major competition approaching, Osorio can search high and low for an answer to his issues at outside back and in central midfield. More regulars than ever are expected to see minutes with their European teams this season. The loss to Germany hurt the team and the fan base because of its lopsided nature, but there's plenty to build on from this exercise.