Juan Carlos Osorio's Mexico deserves praise for Belgium performance
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- Fragile and flawed the side may be at times, but on Friday we saw a Mexico national team that deserves to be given a break from the waves of criticism that often accompanies it. This El Tri side under Juan Carlos Osorio should be enjoyed for what it is.
Mexico went up against Belgium, a team with superior individual talent, and was able to take the game to the hosts for significant periods of the game, coming away with a respectable 3-3 draw.
Let's be clear: Few teams would approach a road game in Brussels against the fifth-ranked team in the world and decide to play out from the back, try to dominate possession, pin three forwards to the opposition defenders and defend the opponent's corners by leaving three players up front. Most international sides that would dare to attempt it are in the top 10 in the world and possess players regularly featuring for top Champions League clubs.
By contrast, Mexico has 13 players in Europe (only five in a "top-five" league), no players in teams fighting to realistically win the UEFA Champions League and no players in the top 100 of the FIFA 2018 video game.
Instead, Mexico has a group of good players largely in their prime, a couple of exciting youngsters -- especially Friday's hero, Hirving Lozano -- and a brand of football that seeks to take the game to the opposition and is easy on the eye.
"The fact we talk about us fighting for possession shows that we aren't going to give up what we do well, our style and qualities," said captain Andres Guardado before the game. "We are a team whose strength isn't its direct, aerial game and dropping everyone back deep."
"We are players that like to have the ball, and that's why we're going to try to compete, to play to our qualities and impose our style," added the Real Betis player.
It was almost a manifesto of intent from the 31-year-old, and Osorio was happy with how the game played out. "We played against an opponent very well-positioned in the FIFA rankings using a very attractive, aggressive style. We planned to go toe to toe, and in moments we controlled the game," said the much-maligned manager.
Mexico was certainly open at the back even though Osorio fielded two holding midfielders. But El Tri could have also won the game late on through the outstanding Lozano, although a draw was a fair result over the 90 minutes.
"I knew [Mexico] were a good team, and they have a lot of individual talent," said Belgium striker Romelu Lukaku after the game. "I think that they are a really good team, and if they perform like that, they'll be very dangerous for a lot of teams at the World Cup."
Germany's Joachim Low praised Mexico highly during the Confederations Cup, Belgium's Roberto Martinez lauded the team this past week in interviews, and it's common for known figures in the game to highlight Mexico's strengths. Meanwhile, back in Mexico in the press and among pundits on sports TV shows, it's difficult to find people sticking up for Osorio's side.
The manager knows what he is doing, whether fans agree with his ideas or not. There is meticulous work when it comes to planning games and scouting players. Anyone who still believes that the rotations or positional adaptations are done off the cuff should ask Tottenham Hotspur's rising star Davinson Sanchez about Osorio and his coaching staff's role in converting him from a central midfielder to a center-back at Atletico Nacional in Colombia, for example.
Furthermore, the choice to play an attacking style based around a 4-3-3 with Mexico isn't just down to Osorio's preference -- it's the only way Mexico knows. Like Guardado stated, it's in the Mexican players' DNA. It is not a reckless strategy, although it obviously contains inherent risks that have been exposed in the past couple of years in big games against Chile and Germany.
The idea sometimes put forward that Mexico should sit back more and not play so openly is not in line with reality. It's rare to see a team that that plays a defensive, counter-attacking game in Liga MX. It almost wouldn't be accepted culturally even by smaller clubs, given the prevailing sentiment in Mexico that football is very much meant to entertain. Instead, the technical ability, possession and the intent to take the game to the opposition are things that should be cherished in Mexican football.
From now until Russia 2018, the underlying factors that must improve in Mexico if they're to start challenging for a World Cup -- better youth systems, more opportunities for youngsters, more players featuring regularly in top European clubs -- aren't going to change. But equally, it would be unwise to forget that four years ago, Mexico was scrambling through the intercontinental playoff against New Zealand to win its place at the World Cup. In this qualifying campaign, El Tri's great rival, the United States, didn't even get that far, and it won't be lost on the Mexican federation that Osorio's name has been mentioned as a possibility for the vacant head coach's position over the border.
A kind draw and perhaps even a little bit of luck will be required if Mexico is to reach that "fifth game" in Russia, but you can bet Mexico won't be boring or renounce its attacking style in trying. And that should be appreciated.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.