While many are still celebrating El Tri‘s eighth Gold Cup title, there are realities that may give many El Tri supporters a hangover. Gerardo Martino really did the impossible and something we had wanted to see an El Tri manager do for cycles–win titles without fielding their “select few Europeos.”
In a way, this appears to be a really good thing because it allows El Tri to think about national team competition and international windows as they are–short bursts of international play interspersed between longer periods of club football. A lot that is learned in an international window may be lost, and coaches often don’t have the window to ingrain a style of play to the point where it is muscle memory for the players and shows for full 90 minute games against sides which are the closest to Mexico in terms of their quality.
Gerardo Martino’s preparation for the matches El Tri has played and will play and the decisions by which he has gotten a wider collection of Mexican players to think about the game to use their vision, ball-circulation (and off the ball movements), pressure, guile, and positional understanding to be able to win El Tri games, even against teams in phases where they are being pressured.
El Tri got lucky to survive a barrage of United States pressure, with the region’s most expensive player and several other England and Germany-based players (including goalkeeper Zack Steffen, who was already ticketed to move to Manchester City this week but be starting at Fortuna Dusseldorf in August), to get to the point where Gregg Berhalter’s history of poor man-management and dependence on connections for gigs and likely lack of accountability until after the 2026 World Cup, could open up the space for El Tri to play how they wanted to play.
Under that pressure showed where Gerardo Martino’s and the team’s approach seemed to be forgotten and the team resorted to building through wide areas and overlaps and throughballs, and quick pressures and transitions from the flanks, rather than pulling defenders out of position and through lines, diagonal balls, and the middle of the pitch (and sometimes over the top)–ways the best goalscoring chances elsewhere in the world are created. It took Gregg Berhalter’s bad man-management in defense and his lack of adjustment to El Tri‘s circulation for the lanes to open up. And with the United States hosting the 2026 World Cup, there is no reason that Gregg Berhalter or anyone else in Mexico’s nearest challenger will be held accountable for the results on the pitch.
Who else could challenge El Tri this cycle? Costa Rica looked like they could, but their golden generation is aging out of the selection. Honduras, Panama, Trinidad and Tobago, El Salvador and some others are also dealing with generational change. Haiti looked like it could challenge El Tri. So could Martinique, and Jamaica (and Jamaica managed to finally convince Bayer Leverkeusen winger Leon Bailey to put on the Reggae Boyz‘ shirt for an international tournament).
There likely will not be a Copa America for El Tri this cycle and much of El Tri‘s fixture list for the rest of 2019 into 2020 will be for the Nations League. After that, barring disaster, is a World Cup qualification cycle where El Tri is obligated to easily qualify for the World Cup in Qatar. Given that a team with Uriel Antuna, whom is of a skill and footballing intelligence level that he’d be far off the national team picture with El Tri‘s “A team”–spots that many would assume “Chicharito”, Hector Herrera, Diego Lainez, Jesus Manuel Corona, Miguel Layun, and Hirving Lozano still occupy.
So with a tactician in charge who has successfully engineer to play as an effective collective without its best components, El Tri can simply let its most elite Europeos conduct their club business. There is nothing in CONCACAF at this point that will punish those Europeos in the way that getting injured or unlearning a pattern with their club teams could. Every decision and touch matters when there is automatic relegation and promotion on the line at those clubs in their ecosystem. Right now, nothing in Mexico (and even less in CONCACAF) can provide that unless it’s the ability to handle poor pitch conditions and more overtly hostile fan support (and vuvuzela buzzing) that they would not find in the United States or Mexico.
Well, maybe the Nations League, where every match is either a true home game played in Mexico or a true away match in a stadium beyond the United States, could change that conjecture. But if El Tri manage to cross that hurdle then the Gold Cup could be the start of a disappointment for people who want to see their galacticos (and possibly FIFA and CONCACAF, who could start to complain about El Tri doing this for “A-level” international matches).
The need to see all of Mexico’s biggest stars is likely over this cycle until at least the World Cup qualifiers. The results from this Gold Cup demonstrate that the galacticos are not required all the time. When Mexico qualifies for 2022, falls into the danger field of not qualifying, or relegation from the A Level of the CONCACAF Nations League, maybe they will have to call in all the familiar galacticos.
But otherwise, Gerardo Martino has achieved something Juan Carlos Osorio and many others could not. That should mean a World Cup cycle with less stress over every injury, formation, position, or moment of inactivity or dip in form with a set of key players. There would be less worry about the gossip column as to “what their player got in trouble with” or “how committed is our star? We need this star to be more committed to the national team than he’s ever going to be.”
That’s a major achievement that only the idealist with the credentialed pragmatics of ‘Tata’, with his history of engineering results out of sides without the stability, skill, or perfectly generous players with each other. El Tri fans for the rest of the cycle can do something they rarely have done since the 1990s–trust that the manager will get the best out of this team.