SAN ANTONIO — Our favorite futile exercise has returned for 2018 — trying to guess what Mexico manager Juan Carlos Osorio is thinking.
The studious manager is never shy about pulling a big surprise in his lineups or trying something he's never tried before. In a game like Wednesday's match against Bosnia & Herzegovina — a friendly falling on a non-FIFA date, meaning Osorio has to work with Liga MX- and MLS-based players — you never know exactly what will happen.
Yet, we soldier on.
Osorio is willing to give hints. Look for Mexico to use three different setups throughout the contest, with El Tri taking full advantage of their allotment of substitutes in the friendly. In addition to three possible starting XIs, this also serves as a wager at the different alignments Osorio wants to play Wednesday:
The "Prove It" XI
This XI would include two players who can rest secure in their place at the World Cup, with Nestor Araujo and Carlos Vela in the team. Osorio could even hand a start to left-footed center back Oswaldo Alanis and take the number still lower.
This seems to be the most likely starting formation, with Osorio setting up in his favorite way to play and giving opportunities to a number of players he wants to see in the roles where he likes them. Jesus Gallardo isn't getting left-back minutes with his club but is the next closest to the Russia roster. Osorio is going to give him any chance he can to get minutes at the position.
Jonathan Gonzalez makes his debut in the slightly more advanced position where Osorio feels he profiles and, while this puts Giovani dos Santos in an unfamiliar position, it also allows Elias Hernandez and Vela to start on the wings. Perhaps he would use Dos Santos and Vela as the wide forwards around Club America forward Henry Martin, but it's also possible he puts Gio farther back and sees how he copes.
Trying a false 9
Osorio said in Tuesday's pre-match news conference that he likely would try out a false nine Wednesday. Is this what he's going to go with from the referee's first whistle? Maybe not, but this is what that could look like.
The formation requires a player who can suck in the center backs and get the ball wide to wingers making incisive runs or for those wide players to capture the defenders' attention and give the titular false nine a pocket of space to work in.
There's obviously no Lionel Messi in the Mexico team, but Giovani dos Santos does have the ability to drop deeper into the midfield to start attacking moves and bring the other attackers around him into play when he gets forward. So, while there's no clear point man in the false nine, perhaps it would fall to Gio to play the middle role. Vela and Jurgen Damm, with their speed, also seem to be strong candidates to join him in the trident, though this would require the Tigres winger to cut inside far more often than he has done at pretty much any point in his career.
The formation also requires the fullbacks to get forward quickly if a chance doesn't develop right away. Gallardo would excel at that on the left, but Edson Alvarez might not be the right man. Tigres right back Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez has good understanding with Damm and may be a more likely starter at right back.
Three at the back
There are a number of capable center backs on the roster. For this projection, we've gone with the triple-A center-back lineup of Alanis (who is left footed, something Osorio prizes in a left center back), Araujo and Hugo Ayala. Edson Alvarez has been playing right back at the club level in Paul Aguilar's absence but will be asked to get forward just a bit more frequently.
In the midfield, Jonathan dos Santos plays his familiar role with Orbelin Pineda getting a shot and Jonathan Gonzalez doing his best Andres Guardado impression on the other side. Up front, Vela partners with Martin, who might fit in here as he's less of a center forward and works well having someone to play off.