Juan Carlos Osorio's formation for Mexico's opener vs. Germany remains a mystery
MOSCOW -- Beware of second-guessing Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio, or reading too much into what the renowned tinkerer lets the media see in training sessions.
A back four and a consistent 4-3-3 in practices leading up to games can easily shift into a 3-3-1-3 when the match gets underway. Journalists, including this one, are left scratching their heads at just how and why all the signs they saw in training and the hints apparently dropped in news conferences were wrong.
Osorio lets the media members see what he wants them to.
But, at the obvious risk of falling right into that very trap, in every training session since the team arrived in Russia on Monday to prepare for Sunday's opener against Germany, Osorio has appeared to make one potentially important tweak.
The team is shaping up to be Guillermo Ochoa in goal, Carlos Salcedo at right-back, Hugo Ayala and Hector Moreno as the center-backs and Jesus Gallardo at left-back, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado in central midfield, Carlos Vela ahead of them centrally, Hirving Lozano on the left, Jesus "Tecatito" Corona on the right and Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez upfront.
The tweak is that instead of employing one holding midfielder, Osorio has been testing out a 4-2-1-3, with Herrera and Guardado sharing the responsibilities in the holding role and Vela playing behind the striker (Giovani dos Santos and Marco Fabian have also been tested there). The formation has similarities with how Mexico lined up against the United States in that famous win in Columbus, Ohio, in November 2016.
The presence of Herrera slightly further back damages the team offensively because the Porto midfielder won't have license to get forward enough. Herrera has provided more assists than anyone else under Osorio, but the message from the Mexico camp has been that Germany's attack must be respected and, asked whether he preferred El Tri playing with one of two holding midfielders, defender Ayala suggested that the latter could be a better option given the opponent.
"If you need to be well set-up, to block the through balls down the middle, it's easier with two [holding midfielders]," Ayala said on Tuesday. "If you want to have more going forward, [you use] one holding midfielder and two interior midfielders."
"Obviously you do it [utilize two holding mids] in order to counter the German onslaught," added Ayala, in a phrase that appeared to be a strong hint that what we've seen in training this week may actually be an accurate reflection of what the team on Sunday might look like.
Ayala talked about restricting Germany's players space, as well as Mexico being able to do damage at the other end of the pitch. Playing with Lozano and Corona as wingers pushed high up would certainly make Germany's full-backs think twice about charging forward, should the reigning champions play a 4-2-3-1 formation, as expected.
The doubts for Osorio will likely focus on whether Salcedo should play right-back, with Ayala at center-back, or if Salcedo should move to a more central position and 20-year-old Edson Alvarez is put on the right. The inexperience of Alvarez, however, means Ayala has to be the favorite to get the start.
In the left-sided full-back position, Osorio has seemed to shy away from Miguel Layun of late, opting for new Pumas man Gallardo in his place. Osorio thinks Gallardo is better in the air and at defending the far post, but what Layun lacks in height and the aerial game, he seems make up for in terms of experience.
The other main area of debate is the number 10 role. Vela appears to be the perfect fit, given that's where the 29-year-old has been excelling at LAFC.
But maybe the above take on what we've seen in training is the one Osorio wants to be out there. Could the former Atletico Nacional coach throw out a 3-3-1-3 like in the March friendlies and produce a surprise? Playing that formation would hand Mexico numeric superiority in the center of the pitch -- at least in theory -- and, given Osorio's tinkering, it shouldn't be completely ruled out.
The final friendly ahead of the World Cup was an opportunity for most sides to give their starting XIs a final run-through. But in Mexico's 2-0 loss against Denmark, the idea, contrastingly, was to not show El Tri's hand before the real games get underway.
The time for Osorio to lay his cards on the table is creeping up.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.