Meet Nestor Araujo, Mexico's unsung defensive stalwart dreaming of Europe
Nestor Araujo has scored two goals for Santos Laguna so far in the 2017 Clausura, but before Friday night, he hadn't struck for the Mexico national team since the 2011 Copa America. Fast-forward to Friday, though, and his towering and hefty figure allowed him to connect a darting header that Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas simply couldn't stop to put El Tri up 2-0.
Just like his goal in the 2-0 victory over Costa Rica, Araujo's rise in the Juan Carlos Osorio era has been equally as surprising. But if there's one player who has been able to understand the manager's tactical instructions, it's Araujo.
The center-back's climb through the national team ranks started one year ago during the Copa America Centenario, when he was included in three of Osorio's four lineups. Upon the conclusion of the Copa, the manager even made a point of highlighting Araujo in a competition that left more doubts than certainties for El Tri as a whole.
"On a personal basis, I knew I had a lot of aspects of my game to improve during the Copa America Centenario; there's always a lot to learn," Araujo told ESPN FC after the Copa last November.
"I go day by day. Hopefully, we can see a Nestor with more confidence, with more craftiness and better tactically. I just want to keep improving in all aspects."
At Santos, coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre has also noticed Araujo's drive to keep improving and it's a huge reason why he's become a mainstay at the club.
"Araujo is an important player, not only in defense but for the whole team," De la Torre told ESPN FC via phone ahead of Santos' friendly against Leon in Frisco, Texas, last week. "On top of being a great defender who provides solidity in the backline, he's smart in taking the ball out from the back. He's also a great role model for all the youngsters in the squad who want to keep growing so they can consolidate their places in the club.
Before the match against Costa Rica, Osorio pinned Araujo as one of four Liga MX-based Mexico internationals who have what it takes to play in Europe during an interview with ESPN's Futbol Picante, along with Hirving Lozano, Orbelin Pineda and Jesus Molina.
"[These four] could be playing in Spain," said the Mexico manager. "They could play in mid-table teams or in teams below that level.
"They could also play in the Netherlands, in Portugal. I'm not saying that they could end up playing in Barcelona, but there's a process that could get you to that point. The only way we're going to find out if they'll succeed over there is by them going there in the first place," he added.
When talking to Araujo about tactical terminology and his job on the field as one of Osorio's center-backs, his voice has a palpable enthusiasm to it. "The center-back normally plays with two touches. With [Osorio], we are always trying to create superiority on the field with the central defenders," he told ESPN FC.
"We use three lines so that we can have 2-on-1s with the full-backs or the defensive midfielders; these are tactical details we're learning with him.
"He likes to play with a four-man back line, but he has a lot of alternatives and that's why he receives a lot of criticism. I always try to adapt to the instructions that I'm given."
Against Costa Rica, Araujo passed nearly all these tests -- 2-on-1s and starting plays with two touches -- with seemingly perfect scores. His desire to keep getting better was noticeable and it allowed players like Carlos Salcedo, Rafael Marquez and Hector Moreno to perform that much more effectively. Whenever trouble came in the area, Araujo was there, ready to have his teammates' backs; he's the quiet guardian in Osorio's defense.
Like Osorio, De la Torre sees Araujo playing in Europe in the near future. "I do believe that Nestor has the playing traits and the physical and athletic conditions that will allow him to play in any European league," said the Santos boss.
"He has good speed, great impulses and good control of the ball. All of these conditions are needed to succeed in any league in the world," he added.
In Araujo, Osorio has a player that he's building and molding into a center-back who can execute the various playing styles with which he's experimenting. Araujo does not hide his admiration toward the manager's tactics, either. "Osorio has given me a lot of tools to improve in all aspects. El Profe Juan Carlos is a coach who always wants us to dictate the game. He's offensive-minded and always pushing us to think attack.
"In fact, in the 7-0 loss against Chile, a scoreline nobody can overcome, [Osorio] said it; when it was still 2-0, he wanted to keep attacking so that we could get back into the game. Any other normal coach might have ordered us to hold back, to stay put in defense and play on the counter, but not El Profe.
"He's admitted that he had a lot of mistakes in that game, but so did we. But he's a coach who always wants to attack and take command in a game and I like that about him."
Araujo grew up watching Mexican defenders like Marquez and Moreno make names for themselves in Europe. Now, they're his teammates, joining him in celebration of a second-ever goal with El Tri and relishing in the stability he provides in defense. The trust that Osorio has put in Araujo is allowing him to think big, and his dream of playing in Europe could come his way sooner than he anticipates.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.