Tata Martino and the Aging Aztecs
Argentine coach, Tata Martino, has been brought in to manage a transitional Mexican team with a mix of relatively successful veterans who nevertheless have not gotten beyond the fifth game at a World Cup despite good performances at many other international tourneys, and several untried young guns hungry to make their mark. At Qatar’s 2022 World Cup Mexico’s team age will average just over 25 years and make them the sixth youngest in the cup.
On the positive side, the team has a number of Mexican youth players who garnered the Football Bronze Medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but on the other hand, fewer of the veterans play in Europe—only nine on the roster, and of those only two play in one of the top five leagues. Iraq and Sweden are the two remaining pre-cup friendlies, and they will serve to mimic Saudi Arabia and Poland as the coach and veteran team members already know Argentina well.
But the recent results, dating to last summer’s double debacle at the hands of the Yanks in the CONCACAF Nations League and Gold Cup and reaching to September’s 2-3 result against Colombia after eking out a 1-0 win over Peru were not encouraging. The scoring is there but the defense and overall focus are not.
Compounding Martino’s work are key injuries to irreplaceable players and the coach’s own ego which has seen him alienate two of the best Mexican players Carlos Vela and Havier Hernandez, neither of which will be participating in Qatar. It is a shame because they are doing well at the club level and as a foursome, those two plus Jesus “Tecatito” Corona and Hirving Lozano would have been a formidable offensive force. That force, now reduced by three-quarters, leaves Lozano becoming line-mates with the talented but inconsistent Alexis Vega and Raul Jimenez—he of the head injury and protective cap. A huge comedown in class and experience.
But in the end, Martino trusts his stalwarts, and it will be the veterans among the squad that carries the day for the Aztecs since the coach thinks there are few among his younger players who are ready for prime time. So, now what does Martino have to do to optimize this World Cup for Mexico?
Mexico’s foundation under Martino has been built upon veterans Guillermo Ochoa in goal, Hector Moreno and Jesus Gallardo in defense, Hector Herrera and Andres Guardado in midfield, and a resurgent Orbelin Pineda, joint-top goal scorer at the 2021 Gold Cup, in attack. Assuming Martino uses those six as the skeleton and adds the mentioned trio on offense, that leaves one or two defenders and midfielders to choose from for a 3-5-3 or a 4-3-3 formation.
Center-mid Edson Alvarez, who is peaking in time for the cup, and if he performs well a move from Ajax to a team in one of the top five European leagues, is the top choice at the center circle. The right side of defense will likely include Cesar Montes and/or Jorge Sanchez. This is not a bad team—whichever formation Martino uses. If they jell in time, they could be tough to break down and tough to defend against. But they only have a couple of weeks and two pre-cup games to settle a core lineup roster and reach that cohesiveness and team rhythm.
What Mexico has going for them in that interim is the history of a nation that always punches at or above their weight at the World Cup. Something transforms the Tri and they become a better team at the quadrennial event than in the qualifiers and/or the other international tourneys previous to the cup. For their sake, their fans should hope the veterans school their young guns on the Aztec way at the World Cup.
Ironically, if Martino is to leave a positive legacy, it will come more from his actions during this reduced window than whatever he has succeeded in doing since arriving to take the reins in 2019. If he does not succeed, having unnecessarily left key players out of the squad and proving to be unable to meld the Olympic Bronze Medalists with the remaining quality veterans, he will leave in disgrace. The shame is that the Mexican Football Federation has entrusted its team’s present to a coach who will have strongly affected its future and then likely gets fired. Let’s hope he makes the short-term turnaround needed to give Mexico a shot.
After the cup, several veterans will likely retire, and Mexico will use some of the players from this campaign to build the next national team foundation for the upcoming cup. But if this 2022 campaign is not successful—assuming success is considered reaching the Round of 16—then the one they host in 2026 will be contested with an experimental squad and likely obtain fewer good results when they play in front of their home fans.
Photo: Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Shutterstock ID: 173545415, by Natursports.