ATLANTA — After all the head scratching and uncertainty that arose after Mexico’s biggest names dropped out of Gold Cup contention one by one in recent weeks, Wednesday’s 3-1 win over Venezuela provided some much-needed clarity.
The win blew away the thought that this depleted Mexico team would perhaps struggle to gel and find an identity, or that at least that it would take some time.
The last few months have been rocky for new Mexico coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino. If anyone needs reminding, Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, Carlos Vela, Hirving Lozano, Hector Herrera, Miguel Layun, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona and Marco Fabian are all not involved for El Tri this summer. And in the 30th minute against Venezuela, it looked like an injury to Edson Alvarez would overshadow the game from Mexico’s perspective, especially with El Tri 1-0 down at the time.
But even with Alvarez off the field and his Gold Cup place now up in the air — Martino said Uriel Antuna will be in if Alvarez doesn’t make it — Mexico came back with authority to take the victory, making it three from three against South American opposition in 2019.
The key here was how Mexico’s players fit into Martino’s system, which has been to set up as a classic 4-3-3, with many of the hallmarks of the traditional Dutch or Barcelona style. On Wednesday, the interaction between the full-backs and Mexico’s inverted wingers was crucial. Down the left, Jesus Gallardo — a winger converted to a defender by former El Tri coach Juan Carlos Osorio — charged down the outside, allowing winger Rodolfo Pizarro — his Monterrey teammate — to find space further infield, where he is more adept and can cause greater damage.
The same was reflected — albeit to a lesser degree — down the right via 30-year-old debutant defender Fernando Navarro and opening goal-scorer Roberto Alvarado. Both of Mexico’s full-backs against Venezuela ended with average positions inside the opposition half.
Those dynamics, in turn, permitted striker Raul Jimenez to drop deeper and, when required, offer a more direct option when playing out from the back, as well as tempting the center-backs to move out of position.
This is a system and style that Mexico’s players are adept at playing and could resolve the question over who will play out wide without Corona, Lozano and Vela — perhaps the greatest issue heading into the Gold Cup. Of particular concern was the absence of Lozano, who plays on the limit of the defense, stretches it and gets in behind the opposition by using his pace.
Neither Pizarro nor Alvarado is that type of rapid winger, but Martino has tentatively found the answer to not having Lozano by playing two creative inverted wingers, with full-backs that fly forward.
“The idea is to have the ball, to go forward, the full-backs upfield,” Gallardo told reporters after the game. “[Martino asks] me to attack a lot, to go upfield a lot, to not worry so much about marking and to try to finish plays off.”
This performance was especially encouraging because it came against a Venezuela side that set up like many of the teams will in the Gold Cup: the Vinotinto played a 4-5-1 in defense, sat relatively deep and attempted to stifle Mexico, while hitting on the counter.
But it’s not just the system that was positive. Individually, Pizarro and Alvarado both scored, handing them a boost of confidence as it became clearer that their roles in the Gold Cup will be important.
Further forward, Monterrey midfielder Carlos Rodriguez was once again impressive in a Mexico shirt, consolidating the idea that the 22-year-old can break out at national team level at the Gold Cup. His performance had Martino stressing that it’s time to focus on the younger players actually in the current squad, rather than those not here.
“We can choose between two paths: one would be to lament those missing players and the other is to find solutions,” said Martino. “Against Paraguay [in March] we played with an 18-year-old right winger and a 19-year-old left winger and we need to focus on and value that. Today, when you watch our No. 8 [Rodriguez] he plays like he is 30, not 22, and it’s only his second game with the national team.”
There is a nervous wait as 21-year-old Alvarez, who was arguably Mexico’s best player early on in the game, undergoes tests. The injury, which came from a late challenge from Venezuela’s Junior Moreno, was cruel on the Club America midfielder, who has been heavily linked with a move to Europe this summer.
“He’s a player that balances it all, who allows the midfielders to attack more and, when we can, we want our third defender to be the holding midfielder and not the full-backs,” said Martino of Alvarez’s importance.
Clearly, Alvarez is a crucial piece of the jigsaw, but there is confidence heading into Sunday’s friendly against Ecuador in Dallas and then the Gold Cup.
“Mexico is ready to be Gold Cup champion,” said a confident Gallardo. “We have the team and we are calm.”
There will surely be uncomfortable moments during the tournament, but even with the wave of absentees Martino has suffered, Mexico provided a reminder on Wednesday of why it is still the favorite to win it all.