Juan Carlos Osorio's Mexico tenure a success despite World Cup 'failure'
The parameters for judging Juan Carlos Osorio's nearly three-year spell with the Mexican national team were set long before Russia 2018. A public inquest wasn't needed to decipher them.
For a team that made the round-of-16 stage at the past six World Cups, it was always going to be unforgivable for Osorio's Mexico to not get out of the group. A round-of-16 exit would have been a let-down, while making the quarterfinal would equate to instant adulation for the players and manager.
And so, with El Tri going out at the round-of-16 stage for the seventh consecutive tournament, the reaction was the collective rolling of the eyes: Same. Old. Mexico.
Ultimately, that's football. Pundits and even head coaches never tire of saying that this is a results-based industry, and Osorio's stint will be judged by many as no better than that of El Tri's managers at the past six World Cups. But the reality is more nuanced, especially in the international game, in which really competitive games are difficult to come by.
Reinventing Mexico's national team
Osorio brought a fresh and reinvigorating approach to a position that badly needed some credibility. It's easy to forget that when Osorio took over, citing 19th century Scottish poet George MacDonald in his opening news conference, the position had become a bit of a joke. Mexico's federation had gone from Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre to Luis Fernando Tena to Victor Manuel Vucetich to Miguel "Piojo" Herrera in less than a year before the 2014 World Cup.
After Herrera swung a punch at a commentator after the 2015 Gold Cup and was unceremoniously fired, Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti swept in temporarily before Osorio, a virtual unknown to the wider Mexican public, took the job on a permanent basis in Oct. 2015.
Osorio has experienced firsthand how hard the Mexican national team job can be. He called it one of the toughest in the footballing world. From scandalous stories about his personal life to fierce attacks on his style and even mockery of his personality in the media, his time in charge has taken its toll. Being a foreigner didn't help, but many homegrown managers have had equally tough treatment.
A results-based industry
Osorio's efforts -- his 63 percent winning percentage was almost identical to Javier Aguirre's and better than every other long-term Mexico manager's -- paint a picture of a successful reign. The victories in Columbus, Ohio, against the United States in World Cup qualifying and a group stage win over Germany in Moscow this summer will go down as some of the best in the history of the Mexican national team.
In World Cup qualifying, Mexico coasted their way to Russia 2018 in first position from the CONCACAF region for the first time since 1997. It's a feat that shouldn't be underestimated; in fact, it ranks as one of the highest achievements of Osorio's spell in charge. Those who question it need only look at what happened to Mexico four years previously or the fate of the United States this time around.
But Osorio couldn't take El Tri to another level with a standout final result at a major tournament. At the Copa America Centenario, the Confederations Cup and the World Cup, Mexico finished as expected and struggled in knockout games.
In terms of a true low, it was obviously the 7-0 loss to Chile in the 2016 Copa America Centenario. But while that seemed to be an event that ended many people's faith in Osorio, the manager accepted responsibility, and the result actually turned into the glue that brought the squad and coaching staff together.
Perhaps it was the loss to Sweden at the World Cup that will most disappoint Osorio. There was a heavy dose of irony in his decision to rotate all the way through his reign and then not rotate on the biggest stage in that third group stage game in Ekaterinburg. El Tri looked tired against Sweden in the 3-0 defeat and were dominated in the air. In previous games against such opponents, Osorio switched to a 3-3-1-3 formation and fielded a higher percentage of players who were good in the air.
The other effect of not rotating against Sweden was Mexico visibly running out of steam in the second half of the round-of-16 game against Brazil. But there was also some humor in watching critics not really know what to say when Osorio did as they had been asking and picked a consistent team at Russia 2018.
Forward-thinking changes off the field
The fact that Osorio was offered a new contract and more scope to influence the federation's youth national teams tells you all you need to know about what the likes of FMF general secretary Guillermo Cantu and director of national teams Dennis te Kloese think of the former Atletico Nacional coach.
Osorio's attention to detail has been unprecedented and an eye-opener in Mexico. Osorio might not have ever managed at the very highest level, but his education and contacts gave El Tri a coach who was openly trying to emulate the very best global practices with his squad. That isn't always the norm in a country that has tended to be insular when it comes to soccer.
The online preparation system, recovery program in Russia, scouting planning, analysis of players' positions, implementing tactical plans and spotting unlikely young talents were all impressive trademarks of his tenure.
Much of what Osorio stressed time and time again could be seen at the World Cup. Set pieces accounted for 43 percent of goals in Russia, something Osorio made sure to guard against, and France won the tournament with two full-backs who started their careers as center-backs. Also, so-called "lesser teams" made life difficult for the bigger sides, another topic Osorio has discussed.
However, Osorio isn't some kind of psychic or genius. He's simply a hard-working, intelligent coach who is obsessed with the game and was able to convince Mexico's players of the validity of his ideas. For those reasons, it's a great shame for Mexico that he won't be continuing as El Tri head coach to build upon the platform he has created.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.