Failure by Design: The Chepo Qualifying Campaign

When problems arise with the results of a team, when expectations aren't met, theories pour in from all corners. Multiple targets for blame will be found, deserved or not.  Everyone will have a shot at pinpointing the problems. Someone will eventually get it right, or more than likely, everyone will have piece of the problem identified. It's a normally a mixture of factors that leads to a team falling short of their potential. So, we guess and get some things right. But it's always a little mysterious. That's sport. We don't always know the answers.

Thus, when the answer is so obvious, it's hard to believe there isn't something more complex at work. If the problem is so easily identifiable, the manager would surely have just as easily identified the issue. It must go deeper than what is abundantly clear. With Mexico, there may be more to the issue than what is painfully obvious to anyone watching the match, but I doubt it. El Tri aren't scoring goals because they are barely trying to do so. The problem does not reside in the formation on the field but the players in that formation and the tactical approach (if it can be considered one) that they are executing.  

This team is set up to fail. Well, that's not entirely accurate. They are set up to play dull, low-scoring soccer that will lead to plenty of draws. With results that match the planning, it's hard to argue for 'Chepo' de la Torre to remain as manager of the Mexican national team. Other than a (well founded) desire to avoid a change in leadership at this stage of qualifying, there isn't much left proving that Chepo is the right man for the job.

Plenty has been made of Chepo's decisions in relation to the formation he uses. While, a case can be made that Mexico (and its star forward) is better suited to play a 4-2-3-1 rather than the 4-4-2, this decision is largely irrelevant as it relates to the failures of this team. This team just can't score and when you look at the line-up that Chepo is using, it's not hard to see why.

Mexico just finished two of its June World Cup qualifiers and has another coming tomorrow night. Four points from two away matches might normally be viewed as success. However, when those two matches were in Jamaica and Panama (not the strongest Concacaf competition) and the method by which those four points were attained left such a profound stink in the nose ... there is little to leave the Mexico supporters feeling content.

The lineup that Chepo had taking the field in  Kingston was expected. The only significant change from earlier matches was the moving of Carlos Salcido from defensive midfield to left back. Salcido was joined by Diego Reyes, 'Maza' Rodriguez, and Severo Meza along the back line. Jesus Zavala and Gerardo Torrado were used in the midfield with Pablo Barrera and Andres Guardado joining them on the wings. Chicharito and Aldo de Nigris started up front. This collection of players proceeded to nearly equal the stink bomb that was left behind the last time El Tri faced Jamaica, back in February. Mexico came out with a 1-0 win and were very lucky to do so.

Mexico got their one goal from Aldo de Nigris. Angel Reyna made a simple pass out to Carlos Salcido who found himself alone on the left wing. Salcido sent a cross in that de Nigris was able to head home. This goal was more about a defensive lapse than anything indicative of Mexico's play. There was nothing special about Reyna's ball except that Salcido was finally moving forward. Perhaps, the defenders were lulled to sleep by Salcido prior to that move, but he was left alone. The marking in front of goal was equally as bad as de Nigris had time to line up the ball and head it in comfortably. It was great execution when needed from these players. This goal remained a solitary event, though. There was only so many errors Jamaica was going to concede.

The lineup for the match in Panama was similar, with a few minor tweaks. Hector Moreno was healthy again and thus took Diego Reyes's place at center-back. Javier Aquino was swapped in for Pablo Barrera and Giovani Dos Santos started instead of Aldo de Nigris. The result was supposed to be much different this time around. Dos Santos is seen as an integral component of the team and Aquino was thought to be a step up from Barrera, who struggled against Jamaica. But nothing changed. Mexico controlled the ball with little to show for it. They failed to create meaningful chances on goal and were seemingly only able to score from defensive error. The match finished on a scoreless draw that would have probably held, had these two teams played an extra 180 minutes.

Mexico supporters should lament the absence of Carlos Vela. He could definitely help this team. However, his presence would not fix the glaring problem. Vela being on the field would only further highlight the issues at hand. The issues with Mexico's lineup start in the back.

The move of Carlos Salcido from defensive midfield to left back was lauded by many. Left back is Salcido's natural position and the one he was most accustomed to playing before moving to Tigres. I can't begin to dive in to the head of Tigres manager, Ricardo 'Tuca' Ferretti. It would likely be a somewhat scary place. But I have to imagine that one of Tuca's primary motivations for moving Salcido to the defensive midfield role was to keep him on the field while playing the superior left back, Jorge Torres Nilo. Torres Nilo is the stronger left back of the two in every way possible. He's younger, taller, and faster. He is the more accurate passer and can cover more ground than Salcido. Torres Nilo should be the starting left back for the national team. Yet, somehow the same dynamic that plays out at the club level has reversed itself on the national team.  

Mexico is facing opponents in this Concacaf-qualifying campaign that are simply not as strong. Mexico has superior talent and should be getting the wins to match. Their opponents justifiably respond with cautious play in the back. They don't want to give anything away easily to such a strong team. Hence, Mexico needs to use more than just natural offensive positions to contribute in putting goals together. Left back and right back should be able to add to offensive capabilities when playing a team that sits back defensively. Salcido has either been unable to do this or is failing from the tactical approach he is carrying out. Severo Meza, the starting right back for these two matches, is unable to contribute. Meza is a fine defender. He strikes me as a leader on the field and an incredibly smart player. He is not, however, offensively gifted. His forays forward have amounted to little. He's the man that's left with space after the more dangerous players are swarmed with defenders. Meza just can't capitalize on that. I don't blame Meza. If Mexico was playing Brazil or Italy in these matches, I'd want him out there. When playing Jamaica and Panama, a right back who can contribute more toward scoring would make more sense.

The lack of offensive contribution doesn't end on the back line. If it did, perhaps Mexico would be scoring. Yet, Chepo has used the same central midfield for the past two matches, and that midfield won't be helping any goals go in anytime soon.  Jesus Zavala is a clear defensive midfielder and a good one. He is great at getting to the ball and creating havoc for the opposition. He's a ball winner and stopper. Zavala is a great player, but he won't be scoring or tallying assists. That would be fine if his running mate (read: walking mate) in the center wasn't Gerardo Torrado. There's been a great amount of outrage at Torrado's inclusion in the starting lineup for Mexico. The 34 year old is well past his prime. He is slower than he used to be, and he was never that fast. He fouls more than he used to, and he has always fouled plenty. Torrado was a great player. He's just not that any more. He can still have a great game or a few in a row on occasion (Cruz Azul's late season run is a testament to that), but he's not a national team starter any longer. His combined play over these two qualifying matches makes this abundantly clear. He was not quite a liability defensively, but wasn't a defensive stalwart that would justify getting nothing offensively from him. Getting nothing in the way of slicing passes, darting runs, or even simply advancing the ball forward from the central midfield certainly isn't helping Mexico score.

Thus, the scoring duties fall to four players. The two outside midfielders and two forwards need to contend with the host of defensive opponents that happily sit back and absorb the relatively small amount of pressure. No other position is contributing offensively. All other players are literally standing around and waiting for someone else to create the offensive spark. So outnumbered, these four players are either going to need incredible performances or defensive lapses to find a way to work out a goal.

When watching the play of Andres Guardado it quickly becomes clear that an incredible performance won't be coming any time soon. His play has been pretty dreadful for Mexico not only in the two recent matches but all year. He can normally go up the sideline and send in dangerous crosses, but any ventures inside have proved fruitless. His shot is as off as can be at the moment and his short passing game leaves a lot to be desired. Barrera and Aquino are in many ways cut from the same mold. They both have the speed to hurt opponents and can each deliver excellent play to their teammates. Barrera has a shot, but it's not his primary weapon, while Aquino has no shooting game. They can both work with their teammates to create open space and chances, if there are any other within shouting distance.

This gets back to the glaring problem. With so many players sitting back and unhelpful in advancing the ball in any way, everything is falling on the shoulders of the two wing midfielders. They must advance the ball and get in to scoring position. Then they can either lob in a cross to a heavily guarded forward or force an ill-advised shot. They aren't getting help from the men behind them and the central midfield is nowhere to be found.

I could go in to Chepo's use of Chicharito and the play of either Aldo de Nigris or Giovani Dos Santos, but it is largely irrelevant. With the team that is being run out there, I don't think any forwards could break through the wall of defenders that await them. Chicharito is a great player but needs to feed off of service. He's a finisher with nothing to finish. Aldo de Nigris is deadly off free kicks and corners, but Mexico isn't producing them. Dos Santos is a dynamic creator who isn't getting any of the ball or space to work with. Mexico is outnumbered in the front. Their line-up has ensured that opponents won't be scoring much; they just won't be finding the back of the net often either.

To further exacerbate the line-up situation, Chepo's use of substitutes has been downright appalling. In both matches, Chepo took off the right wing (first Barrera and then Aquino) for Gerardo Flores. It would be difficult to find a bigger Jerry Flores fan (outside of the Flores family) than myself. He was a real difference-maker for Cruz Azul this season. His play at right back was great and supplemented the attack well, coming up behind and working with the right wing (at first Aquino, then Barrera). He can play off midfield well to make great runs and decent passes. What he's not as good at is actually playing midfield. Chepo, in each game, took off one of the few players who can contribute toward a goal and put in a defender in his place. Flores at one time played in the midfield. He just did so poorly. Flores tends to get lost in the midfield, never being in the right spot. He fails to track back effectively and isn't gifted enough offensively to be in such a position. Again, Flores is a great player, but he's just not an El Tri midfielder. Taking off Severo Meza for Flores would have been a substitution with some reason. Flores then could have worked with Aquino or Barrera to create something on the right side; this is how he excelled with Cruz Azul.  That would have added a player to the attack. Apparently, that is not what this manager is looking for. It's also worth pointing out that Flores was the last player added to the roster after the loss of Oribe Peralta to injury. It seems a bit strange for an afterthought to be thrust in to so much action.

This wasn't the only bizarre substitution pattern. In both games, Chicharito was pulled for another forward. This would make sense if Chicharito was wearing down or getting constant action throughout the match. Perhaps, if looking to score adding a score threat would make more sense than replacing one. In the Panama match, Chepo's first replacement was Angel Reyna. On the surface this is fine. Reyna isn't the greatest player, but he can contribute on the offensive end. The fact that he replaced Giovani Dos Santos makes this substitution laughable. Reyna is, for lack of a better term, a poor man's Dos Santos. They work in the same role except Dos Santos is the significantly superior player. Perhaps Dos Santos was having a bad game. But it's more likely that Dos Santos was overrun with duties. Bringing in Reyna to add to the attack makes sense. Doing so for Dos Santos is a fallacy.  

The entirety of 2013 to this point has been a disappointment for El Tri. This was to be a year in which the Mexican national team took further steps in advancing their place in international soccer. Preparations and qualification for the World Cup were to be a breeze, with the Confederations Cup being the prize jewel that might have been attainable. Mexico's play of late speaks to something much more humble. The qualification campaign continues to be dicey and hopes of not getting embarrassed in Brazil have trumped any possible glories.

 What will happen in Brazil, both this year and next, remains a mystery. Mexico still has the talent to do something special. When Mexico will take the simple steps necessary to start looking like it, is even harder to decipher. 



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