Mexico's defensive deficiencies could lead Osorio to revert to a five-man defence
MEXICO CITY -- There's a series of events that have to be recognized in the Juan Carlos Osorio era as Mexico's manager. El Tri's 2-1 win in Columbus, where Osorio decided to include Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, Carlos Vela, Giovani dos Santos and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez in the starting XI, is a memory that will be hard to beat. In retrospect, that decision is one which has characterized Osorio since he took over Mexico's managerial job in 2015. He's not scared of overloading the attack, with the hope that it will become an attack difficult to stop for the opponent's defense.
In the 4-1 loss against Germany in the Confederations Cup, Mexico finished the game with eight shots on target against Germany's seven and finished with 61 percent possession of the ball versus Germany's 39 percent. In the first of two games against Portugal in Russia, Mexico came back from behind twice to draw 2-2; Hector Moreno scored off a towering header in the 91st minute to deliver El Tri the point. On Friday in Brussels, El Tri completed 476 of its attempted 559 passes and had an 85 percent passing accuracy throughout the game. To put numbers into perspective, against Croatia in the 2014 World Cup, Miguel Herrera's Mexico completed 291 of its 390 attempted passes for a 75 percent passing accuracy. However, thanks to two well-executed corner kicks, Mexico took a 3-1 win.
With Osorio at the helm, it's clear that Mexico's attack has become more versatile and that Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado's evolution as midfielders has strengthened this possession-oriented side. It's impressive that against Belgium, El Tri finished with eye-opening possession numbers without Rafael Marquez involved.
But here's where El Tri's main worry ahead of the World Cup begins to take form. By looking at these numbers, it seems that Mexico has certain control over several aspects of the game, but it lags in others. More specifically, elite teams like Belgium or Germany don't need to develop too many scoring chances in order to score against Osorio's Mexico.
Roberto Martinez's side took seven shots on target and scored three times, while El Tri took five shots on target and also scored the same number of goals. It's an atypical stat because usually Mexico doesn't have that high percentage of effectiveness in front of goal. But in all three goals that Belgium put past Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico's defense showed very little confidence while marking. For the most part, it looked like Belgium's star attackers breezed through Mexico's defense. Moreno was exposed three times -- one time by Romelu Lukaku and the other two by Dries Mertens. In all cases, Belgium went on to score.
Of the four-man backline Osorio presented against Belgium, which included Carlos Salcedo, Miguel Layun, Nestor Araujo and Moreno, the one that brought his A-game was Araujo, who finished five for five with his defensive challenges. No one could get passed him, but then there were cases like that of Diego Reyes, who was one of two defensive midfielders Osorio selected for the match. Reyes attempted eight defensive challenges but only succeeded in two, while Edson Alvarez, who came onto the field for Reyes and played about 30 minutes, attempted three defensive challenges and succeeded in all of them.
No doubt that the lack of playing time Moreno, Reyes, Salcedo and Layun have had at the start of this 2017-18 season inevitably comes into play. Moreno has only disputed 227 Serie A minutes, Reyes 105 Liga NOS minutes, Layun 192 Liga NOS and 109 Champions League minutes, and Salcedo 368 Bundesliga minutes.
The cases of Layun and Salcedo differentiate to those of El Tri's center-back options because for Osorio, they're markers, not so much full-backs. However, in the match in Brussels, it was interesting to see those first 15 minutes, where Salcedo and Layun got a significant number of touches of the ball. Layun took a nice shot outside the box, but that ultimately became the markers' principal offensive contribution during the match. Layun attempted eight passes into the box and only succeeded once, while Salcedo attempted two and was unsuccessful with both. With Osorio, there's a tendency to see Mexico's two markers not give much to the attack.
But Belgium's last two goals came from Mexico's left-side of the defense, where Moreno had to move from the center to the left flank because Layun was too far forward. Seeing these type of plays, reignites the idea that maybe against elite teams, Mexico require a backline of five in order to have a more balanced defense.
It might not be the brightest of ideas, and it might go against Osorio's ideals, but the backline of five can make up for these situations where a defender like Layun might not be in his defensive slot in time. For example, in the two Lukaku goals, Moreno could have moved to the left flank, but one of the other two center-backs was going to take his slot in the center of the defense. Plus, having a smart defensive midfielder who knows how to interpret that role would be of great benefit, and at the moment the 20-year-old Alvarez looks like a better option than Reyes.
The Mexico team that will attend next year's World Cup is one that will be very similar to the one that participated in the 2014 World Cup. Players like Ochoa, Guardado, Herrera, Moreno and Layun, who are part of the backbone of Osorio's Mexico, were all starters in the last World Cup. The apparitions of Hirving "Chucky" Lozano and Corona have improved Mexico's offense, but Osorio still has to make improvements to the team's defense, and it wouldn't be surprising to see the return of a five-man backline, especially in matches against the world's elite.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.