Jonathan Gonzalez's debut confirms Mexico's enviable midfield depth
MEXICO CITY -- Heading into Wednesday night's game in San Antonio, Tex., the idea that dominated chat among fans was that the friendly against Bosnia & Herzegovina would be the last chance to impress Juan Carlos Osorio. The first half against Bosnia had few details of note other than observing Orbelin Pineda playing on the left flank. Elias Hernandez played more centrally as one of the midfielders in the 4-3-3 formation, rarely venturing down the right flank where he's had a lot of success with Leon in recent seasons.
The second half was more dynamic and it might have been due to the fact that the XI on the field included more players in top shape. Jonathan dos Santos and Carlos Vela, who are still in preseason form, exceeded expectations in fine fashion but the night will be remembered as one that included Jonathan Gonzalez's debut with El Tri and Rodolfo Pizarro's 20 minutes cameo to close out the game.
At 18, Gonzalez is now part of Mexico's future generation, one that boasts an impressive number of midfielders. The list includes Pineda (21 years old), Pizarro (23), Victor Guzman (22), Erick Gutierrez (22), Michael Perez (24), Edson Alvarez (20), Jesus Gallardo (23) and Omar Govea (22). The youngest of the bunch is Gonzalez but his mature character and fierce determination are obvious as he fights for every ball or decides to play it into open space, provoking a rush of excitement through the Mexico crowd.
On Wednesday night, it didn't take long for Gonzalez to escape two Bosnia players with a subtle step on the ball to easily turn and run away with it. The move was so diligent and smooth that Dino Besirevic came at him with a ferocious tackle that should have been enough to get him sent off but only got a yellow card.
In the few minutes he was on the field, Gonzalez showed that he's capable of serving as a more attack-minded midfielder, but it's also true that he needs more minutes in that position in order to master it. The same isn't true of defensive midfielder as he's already played enough there to develop a knack of when to release the ball. If Gonzalez admires Andres Iniesta's playing style, there's reason to believe that in the near future he will produce in either role.
Gonzalez should see Guzman and Pizarro as examples to follow because both have become capable of slotting into any midfield position. When looking at all of Mexico's midfield options there's reason to feel excited, but fans must be extremely patient. If almost all the above names are able to take their football to Europe, Mexico's national team will also have a strong midfield for the 2022 World Cup as well.
That said, it's not as if Mexico's current midfield crop lacks talent. In reality, it's a dynamic group led by Andres Guardado and Hector Herrera. The youngest of the dos Santos brothers has been equally as impressive as them too. With those three, Osorio has a trio blessed with an exquisite touch on the ball. The dilemma, though, arises when thinking about which one will sit deep and shield the defense.
Defensive midfield is a role that many midfielders have owned at least once in the Osorio era. With Rafael Marquez's presence at this summer's main event still very much in jeopardy, someone else will have to step up; it wouldn't be surprising for either Jesus Molina or Jorge "Burrito" Hernandez to get called up for the March friendlies, which would be a strong indicator that a spot on the World Cup squad is possible.
From the list of Mexico's future midfielders, Gallardo has a good chance of making the final roster. Ironically, his main role in Osorio's El Tri sides has been that of left-back (or "left-marker," as Osorio says). Footballers like Pizarro and Alvarez still have a shot at earning a World Cup spot but a series of things would have to go their way in order to ultimately win a place.
Alvarez's current situation is complicated because he's not a starter for Miguel "Piojo" Herrera's America. Herrera sees players like Guido Rodriguez, Paul Aguilar and Emanuel Aguilera as currently playing at a higher level. Nevertheless, knowing Alvarez's tenacity, it wouldn't be surprising in the coming weeks for him to convince Herrera that he should be included.
Pizarro has been Chivas' main positive at the start of the season and his versatility further forward is impressive. Few Mexican footballers can match Pizarro's ability to easily win one-on-ones; it's as if the ball is glued to his right boot.
For Gonzalez, his integration process has just started but it's an exciting one. For the next round of call-ups, a player like Govea might have a higher chance than Gonzalez of being chosen, mainly because Govea is playing in Europe. Osorio understands that Govea is one of the few Mexican footballers to currently have more than 1000 minutes played in Europe, which could earn him one last shot to impress in March.
Right now, Mexico has a finishing problem and it looks like that problem isn't any closer to being solved. Fortunately, there's no danger of a drought of talented midfielders in the foreseeable future.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.