Does Hirving Lozano's rise spell doom for Carlos Vela or Giovani dos Santos?
Mexico was something of a whim away from never finding out about Hirving Lozano. Marco Garces, Pachuca's sporting director, recently admitted Lozano was in danger of being cut from the team's youth academy only a few years ago. "He was too skinny, too small and he got flustered way too easily," Garces told MARCA Claro. "He would get on his coach's nerves and he was too inconsistent," he said.
Luckily, Lozano and Pachuca stayed together. Before moving to PSV Eindhoven, the Mexican starlet led Los Tuzos to a league title and a CONCACAF Champions' League crown before his European transfer this past summer. "Look at him now," Garces cooed about his former player's development.
Today, the 22-year-old is the darling of the Eredivisie and is pushing hard on the national team front to crack Juan Carlos Osorio's elusive starting XI for the Mexican national team. To that point, Lozano's form is undeniable. In just eight league games, he's bagged nine goals. He's also scored once in the Dutch Cup, for a remarkable average of one goal per 89.2 minutes in all competitions.
Lozano finally showed his scoring prowess in the national team this year, too. The Mexico City native scored three times in CONCACAF's Hexagonal round, including a crucial score against Panama at the Estadio Azteca to secure El Tri's passage to next year's World Cup. In El Tri's other high-profile tournament, he scored in this summer's Confederations Cup as well.
And that's where things get tricky for Lozano. Despite his good form, he's started just four of the 12 non-friendly matches he's appeared in for Mexico in 2017. Comparatively, Giovani dos Santos has started seven of eight games for Osorio, despite not scoring a single goal. Carlos Vela, another Osorio favorite, has started a whopping 10 of 13 matches in the same span despite scoring one less goal than Lozano in official play.
In fact, Chucky Lozano compares favorably even to Mexico's all-time goalscoring leader, Javier Hernandez. Lozano has scored four goals for Mexico in official non-friendly matches this year -- same as Chicharito, despite having fewer minutes than the West Ham United striker.
The situation poses an interesting problem for the pragmatic Osorio. Lozano's good form for club and country is unlikely to fade, but it's well-known that the manager loves bigger players who can compete physically when playing in the box. Thus, when Lozano has been needed for El Tri, he's usually been deployed as an out-and-out winger or attacking midfielder. Players like Vela and Dos Santos, however, have consistently been allowed more freedom to step into the box despite their middling numbers.
At PSV, Lozano has been allowed to play freely. Though he's still an electrifying option from the wing due to his speed and ability on the ball, he's usually finished plays deep in the box, finding his feet as a false nine or second striker along Jurgen Locadia. And while Locadia himself is a speedy player who fits well within PSV's explosive, counterattacking style, the reality is there are few players currently who could take up the role along with Lozano at the national team level.
Mexico often finds itself relying on playing for Hernandez (or alternatively, Oribe Peralta and Raul Jimenez) in the box or attempting to spread the pitch with Vela, Dos Santos or yes, Lozano. But restructuring El Tri's attack with Lozano as the central piece would likely mean either Chicharito, Vela or Dos Santos would have to take a seat on the bench.
Current form aside, both Vela and Dos Santos will be at a disadvantage as the World Cup rolls around, considering both play in MLS and will be out of action until early 2018. Vela is still playing for Real Sociedad but the Spanish club has started to life without him early, consistently pushing him to the bench in favor of other options. In 10 games this season for Real Sociedad across all competitions, the former Arsenal man has yet to score; it's a disappointing swan song and his worst semester in La Liga since moving to the Basque Country from North London. Dos Santos, on the other hand, followed up a solid 2016 with the LA Galaxy (in which he scored 15 goals) with a dismal showing, notching just six scores in 25 games for the California outfit.
If Osorio were so inclined, he could easily deploy a 4-4-1-1 with Lozano playing in the center behind Hernandez as a false nine. Otherwise, he could use a more traditional 4-4-2 with Chicharito and Chucky both making runs in the box. If Vela, Dos Santos or Jimenez (who is also struggling with Benfica this season) pick up the pace toward the tail end of World Cup preparations, even a 4-3-3 might work, though that likely means Lozano is once again pushed out to the wing.
Regardless of what formation or who bows out in favor of Lozano, the hard truth is the former Pachuca youth team also-ran is Mexico's hottest player. Barring injury, he's likely to be El Tri's focal point in Russia... unless Juan Carlos Osorio exercises one of his own famous whims and rotates him out of the spotlight.
Eric Gomez is an editor for ESPN's One Nación. You can follow him on Twitter: @EricGomez86.