Why Juan Carlos Osorio is the least of Mexico’s problems in becoming a superpower

Why Juan Carlos Osorio is the least of Mexico’s problems in becoming a superpower

FOOTBALL IS A FLUID GAME. At times at the highest level, it’s a game where fixed positions aren’t all that relevant. It’s a game of problem-solving that challenges players on an individualistic and collective level, and requires both skill sets when the situation call for it.

Some of the foremost innovators in the game, like Pep Guardiola and Marcelo Bielsa, have their quirks, as does the Colombian-born técnico in charge of Mexico. In fact, Juan Carlos Osorio is not the only manager with strange idiosyncrasies, including incessant note-taking on the pitch and quoting British managers in press conferences and interviews.

Reinaldo Rueda, who recently resigned from Atlético Nacional after winning his sixth title, Jorge Luis Pinto, and Luis Fernando Suárez also come to mind when considering Colombian managers with their own unique eccentricities. Healthy football cultures will produce a lot of coaches with those quirks, as well as being – or being forced to be – relatively successful in their job.

But there are also quirks which prevent their managers from being able to do their jobs to the best of their ability. For instance, Pinto’s speeches about referees being against his team may serve well in some instances to help his team find fighting motivation, but with sides who struggle more with their collective play and defensive responsibilities, blaming referees and accusing them of conspiracy seem like ready-made excuses, as they have with Los Catrachos, who very much look like a side in decline.

For Osorio, his quirks not only include an attention to detail, but his seemingly overemphasis on rotating players, ensuring that they do not play too many games. It also extends to the implementation of the tactics and approaches he wants all his players to play with. It’s something that has been with Osorio since he first worked with the MetroStars and Manchester City, and studied European methods from his coaching courses in both England and the Netherlands.

It’s easy to see how Osorio’s collective approach and note-taking help the teams he manages. While it would be easy to discount them as ones that would work in the relatively pressure-free Major League Soccer environment, these approaches worked well to transform a relegation-threatened Once Caldas into a championship-winning side, claiming the then-Liga Postobón title in 2010.

Later, he navigated Nacional to four trophies and São Paulo to a fourth-place finish in Série A of the Brasileirão, and laid the foundations for the team’s run to the semi-finals before leaving for the Mexico job.

Rotating players and tinkering with the side is a rational approach to take with a club team, especially when they play upwards of 60 games per season across multiple tournaments. Brazilian teams, for example, play a state league season and then a national league season if they are in the top four divisions, as well as the Copa do Brasil. Teams can also take part in either the Copa Libertadores or Copa Sudamericana.

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But international football is different from club football. Players only sporadically come together, and in that short time have to somehow work together as a collective and win.

The longest that international teams have working together as a whole are the couple weeks or more that they play in an international tournament. While there are also training camps, most nations prefer not to risk almost all but their fringe players from getting injured while away from their club. There often isn’t enough time to genuinely lay down a system or a new style of play, or to give players new tools in their arsenal, unless some of the foundations are already there and have been reinforced in their muscle memory for years, not just with their club teams.

Thus any talk of implementing a new style of play is very much, in actual terms, something that a vendehumo – a man of smoke and mirrors – could easily say to try and convince people in press conferences. The tactical work that is often done is simply to try to get the extensive cast of characters to play together, and to try to form a collective unit that can handle their opponents. Teams may organise friendlies to try to get to grips with how certain players handle their duties without the pressure of a game that matters, but it often comes with a few costs.

Firstly, friendlies carry the smallest weight in the FIFA rankings. If a team as high up in the rankings as Mexico wants to take them on, there’s little room to improve its chances of a top seven or eight ranking by the time of the World Cup and get the benefits of being a seeded team for the tournament. However, only UEFA and CONMEBOL will automatically send more than 10 percent of their FIFA-affiliated contingent to the World Cup.

And so, with the limited FIFA international fixture dates available, most confederations, including CONCACAF, have to feature a knockout phase in the tournament to ensure that the better-ranked teams will have to play games in which they are likely to send their first-choice team. This is why World Cup qualifiers carry a stronger weight in the rankings than friendlies. El Tri is one of those national teams whose appeal is only regional, which is why they stage so many friendlies in the United States when they do play away from Mexico.

Secondly, teams risk losing key players to injuries in matches that don’t do much for their ranking or qualification for a major tournament. That becomes a particularly touchy issue with clubs, who have a lot to lose on a player getting injured on their watch – whether it’s through television revenue, prize money or a transfer fee for the player.

It also becomes an issue for teams who might not be particularly deep with players blessed with the talent that’s required for elite level success. That’s one reason why the core of the national team remains the same from the Piojo era and earlier, with only a few exceptions, and why many of the stars keep getting called back into their national side, regardless of form or activity with their club, including Chicharito. This also creates a sense of entitlement among the first-teamers that there is nothing they can do that would rob them of their place with the national team.

Osorio was asked about why he had selected Raúl Jiménez to start, and he replied by saying that he offered the team “good aerial ability”, relying on a measure of Jiménez’s fitness and physical traits. Osorio’s reliance on physical indicators like height rightfully make many people worry. During the Confederations Cup, Osorio’s team might have been able to string passes together, but the better teams they have faced have all managed to make dangerous chances and finish them where Mexico could not.

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On the psychological and mental side, the addition of expensive sport psychologists might convince players they are in a good state, but they cannot do what culture, particularly street football, does. As one-time boxing legend Mike Tyson once noted in an interview, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

Despite the psychological coaching, it was clear that the awful antics Mexican players threw at their opponents – Chicharito’s racist taunting of Antonio Rüdiger comes to mind – their opponents were also much better at putting El Tri at a disadvantage because of them. It’s a level of streetwise nous that Osorio’s selections do not have now, which must define the mentality necessary to carry out whatever tactics Osorio asks from his team.

Some of this may be a carry-over from Osorio’s Copa América Centenario foibles. Some of these are resultant from problems that other coaches at other levels, even in Liga MX with a reportedly cashstrapped representative in the 2014 and 2015 Club World Cups, have had. The problems have shown up when facing the United States in World Cup qualifying; Mexico has now failed to beat the Stars and Stripes at the once-hallowed Estadio Azteca in two straight World Cup qualification cycles.

Did Osorio cause these other problems? No. Is he not necessarily the miracle worker that some legends in Mexico’s football media expected? Certainly.

Both arguments are either side of the same footballing coin. When you consider Miguel Herrera’s result against a Croatia side without its captain – who had been banned before the World Cup had started for leading its fans in a Nazi-era national song – and an underachieving Seleção, luck, particular motivational strategies and the right system, seemed to factor more significantly into Mexico’s successes at the last World Cup than many would admit. When they would not only face the Oranje, but be broken in sequences that led to No Era Penal against a team with a history that suggested it was obligated to beat El Tri, it was a return to reality.

Both Herrera and Osorio are solid coaches, with their strengths and demonstrated abilities to help struggling teams that lack the necessary talent to achieve required results to obtain them. Most nations that are developmentally and culturally in a position where their players and teams are obligated and favoured to win major international and club trophies can survive a middling coach, a bad system, or simply bad luck. That is something, however, that El Tri can’t manage right now.

This ‘elite national team’ description only fits Mexico in the CONCACAF realm. Outside of the United States, who also sent a second team to this summer’s Gold Cup, and maybe Costa Rica, no nation from the region can truly provide Mexico with a challenge. The struggles José Manuel de la Torre and others had with getting El Tri to qualify for the 2014 World Cup out of a final phase where 50 percent of the teams automatically go through really represent a failure to meet minimum standards.

While Osorio has not had a Gold Cup win, the Colombian has met the minimum standard. He’s got El Tri to the 2018 World Cup, barring any major disaster in the team’s last four games, and got them out of the group stage of the Confederations Cup. In other words, he’s probably done more in a longer qualifying cycle than many recent permanent coaches, other than Herrera, have done since the La Volpe era.

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Many other good coaches in Mexico, such as Ricardo Ferretti, who took the reigns of El Tri as a caretaker for four matches, and Manuel Lapuente, who led Mexico to its only Confederations Cup victory, do not want to have to face the wrath of the Federación Mexicana de Fútbol (FMF) in a long term situation.

Even still, Osorio is a vendehumo because people are worrying about the collective timidity his players have shown at times, and the players’ unease about taking the initiative on their own shows it. However, many know he won’t get sacked – not at least until 2018 – no matter what certain writers and pundits might want.

But could this discussion be making Osorio the canary in the coal mine, an admission of larger issues that have limited Mexico’s advancements and have caused its players and managers, relative to the world standard, to regress?

In the past and present, Rafael Márquez and Andrés Guardado have both commented on how players need to be playing in pressure situations abroad. For all the CONCACAF Champions League titles Mexican teams have won, the combination of very limited promotion and relegation (if any happen at all), playoffs every six months involving nearly half the teams in the top two leagues, the relocation of franchises, suspensions and resurrections of others once preferred investors come in – as in the case of Atlético de San Luis – all create an environment where genuine greatness throughout the course of a long season is not rewarded and mediocrity and failure to evolve can go relatively unpunished.

Since Osorio took over the national team, El Tri has seen some players return from Europe and South America, while others moved abroad, although none have been targeted in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Chile and Colombia in the way that their South American teammates have in Liga MX.

The moves abroad of national team long-shots Carlos Peña, Eduardo Herrera and Antonio Briseno are the type made by players who have been squeezed out of first team football in Mexico. Not enough clubs have enough of the right kinds of pressure from their community and from their own financial constraints for their teams to necessarily need their scouting or academies to change the kinds of players they find or groom.

But this kind of player movement is entirely normal in club football. However, most other top nations have plenty of players who could fill in the roles left behind by ageing stars and still expect to win significant international silverware against genuinely world-class competition. Even Sweden, with Zlatan Ibrahimović’s retirement from international duty, have been able to move forward with another core of good, technical players. 

With the history of Mexican players being too comfortable and complacent, the environment is such that it is not only nearly impossible to control where they play, but that they get paid very favourably compared to their family and friends, while having their futures taken completely out of their hands thanks to the Pacto de Caballeros.

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It was something that Walter Gargano touched upon with his complaints regarding Antonio Mohamed’s efforts to try to serve as his ‘agent’ as well as coach, and while watching a teammate get transferred to Pachuca without his consent. It was also something that Alan Pulido fought against unsuccessfully when he tried to argue that the end of his under-20 contract with Tigres was the end of his professional contract when he went off to play in Greece with both Levadiakos and Olympiacos. Tigres ended up winning their appeal that Pulido was breaching his contract with the club, even though the reserve clause in Pulido’s contract certainly went against the spirit of the Bosman ruling.

It would be fine if there were new coaches with evolving methods coming into not only Liga MX, but also Ascenso MX. Unfortunately many of the new hires have come from previous coaches or long-time players. This apparent old boys network represents many of the new appointments in the top two divisions.

Pundits and FMF officials looked at Osorio as only a vendehumo because they saw Giovani dos Santos, a player whose skills and hunger have dissipated since joining LA Galaxy in 2015, demonstrate his ineffectiveness as an attacker during the Confederations Cup. But it was the same people, as Martin Del Palacio noted, that created the impossible demands and pressures to begin with.

To genuinely judge whether Osorio is a vendehumo with the national team, there has to be a collective effort to change the sport’s environment. That effort must include ordinary communities forming teams and trying to break into the upper reaches of Mexican football without bending to the demands of the oligopolies in charge of much of the game.

The reforms required may involve tearing up the Pacto de Caballeros and modifying the FMF pyramid and season so more teams are promoted and relegated between divisions based on their performance in that season alone, and scrapping the Liguillas. They also require a fundamental change in the approach of Mexican football from being entertainment focused and bringing customers to the stadium to one where communities genuinely find meaning through football and through the teams they maintain.

It also means, in the spirit of open competition between community entities, that every potential Mexican player gets technically and tactically more astute and retains more of the hardened street edge required at the highest levels of football.

Coaches, scouts, and directors – even aspirants to those careers – must bring in new innovations and approaches from outside and test them in real time, with the fans and the community needing a much sharper grasp of tactics and systems to keep the coaches accountable. More players and managers from other CONCACAF nations must improve in ways where they can genuinely present challenges to Mexico to not only qualify for World Cups, but also win continental titles. 

Only then can we really determine whether or not Juan Carlos Osorio is a vendehumo. Then the FMF can genuinely have an easy fix and hire someone else who can help Mexico become one of the world’s great footballing powers.

By Steve Graff  

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