Jesus Gallardo is loving life with the Mexico national team.
The Monterrey man was converted from winger to left back by Juan Carlos Osorio two years ago at the Gold Cup. At the same tournament two years later, the 24-year-old has World Cup experience as a left back under his belt, can comfortably play as a winger and as the left back and is putting up such good performances that a link in the Spanish press to Atletico Madrid didn't seem at all absurd.
He can thank Osorio for putting him in a position to add that versatility to his game. He can thank current Mexico manager Tata Martino for letting him show it off.
In Martino's 4-3-3, the fullbacks often can be seen pushed level with the interior midfielders even as the central defenders are only starting to build the play. From there, they generally run up the line to allow the wingers to come inside and potentially create one-on-one situations against defenders or bring the fullbacks into the play. For that to happen, it's critical for either the play to move quickly from defense to attack or for Mexico's defensive midfielder to drop in and play the ball with the center backs to allow the fullbacks time to move up the field.
With Gallardo on one side and Tigres right back Luis "Chaka" Rodriguez on the other, Martino has found a pair of defenders - both converted wingers - who are ideal for the system he wants his team to play.
"Honestly, it’s really good. I think we have to get into the attack a lot, which is good for me," Gallardo said. "I like to play as a winger and as a fullback and arrive from the back by surprise. We do the movements needed for the fullbacks to be free and be able to attack more easily."
Few opponents will be surprised to see Gallardo popping up in the attack at this point. In three of Martino's matches coached so far a fullback has scored a goal, with Gallardo also setting up an assist for Rodolfo Pizarro in the friendly against Venezuela.
For a spot so critical to Martino's plans, there isn't much depth at the position. While Fernando Navarro came into the lineup to replace Rodriguez and scored in Mexico's 3-2 win over Martinique, Gallardo had to press on as the one player on the Gold Cup roster without any sort of obvious replacement.
Still, each player seems to be thriving on the chances they're getting and the opportunities not only to play for Martino but to do so in a scheme in which they're so vital.
"I feel really comfortable. I think all of us who are playing are enjoying it right now," Rodriguez said. "Tata is a smart manager who knows how to get the potential out of every player and you’re seeing that on the field."
In Saturday's quarterfinal a Costa Rica team that wants to attack at nearly every opportunity, the fullbacks could have a long day ahead of them. Even if Costa Rica's wide attackers are able to hold back Gallardo and Rodriguez at times, the Liga MX rivals will need to work to get up the field and into the attack too.
Their fitness may be tested, with transitions key. Both Canada and Martinique have looked to punish Mexico's fullbacks for leaving space behind when they're pushed up the field and El Tri lose possession.
It's a match that will push Gallardo and Rodriguez physically, but don't expect either to complain afterward. If Mexico gets the win, they'll move on to the semifinals and they'll be ready for another match in which they get to come forward as often as they like and put their attacking instincts from previous lives to use. Life is good.