Image courtesy Mexsport Sports Agency
Raúl Jiménez’s stunning bicycle kick constituted just one spectacular moment in Mexico’s 2-1 victory over Panama on Friday night. But Mexico coach Victor Manuel Vucetich must process more than just the fallout from Jiménez’s stunning late winner. There is plenty of work still ahead for El Tri over the next few days. A place in the World Cup playoff against New Zealand isn’t assured just yet.
Only a result in Costa Rica on Tuesday will continue the salvage work — considerably aided by Jiménez’s moment of brilliance — and keep those hopes of a trip to Brazil next summer alive. In order to move forward in their quest, Vucetich and his players must address the positives and negatives from a night they will never forget.
1. Keep the ambition and the shape: Mexico faces a different challenge requiring a more modest deportment when it takes the field in San José, but its desperation-induced win was a refreshing change from the impotence displayed under José Manuel de la Torre. Vucetich underscored his tactical acumen by plumping for a 4-4-2 setup and tailoring it to the players at his disposal. The execution waned a bit in the second half, but the structure offers El Tri a foundation to build upon.
2. Herald the importance of overlapping fullbacks: Considerable space opened in midfield when Miguel Layún and Jorge Torres Nilo ventured into the attacking half. Layún and Torres Nilo supplied that additional dimension by creating room for Javier Aquino and Giovani dos Santos to cut toward the middle and providing good service from the wide areas. Vucetich can persist with the inverted wingers if he chooses, but his reliance on Layún and Torres Nilo appears compulsory at the moment. One caveat: both players must tend to their defensive duties more judiciously away from home.
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3. Reinforce the need to retain possession in midfield: Carlos Peña served as the primary offender in this department, though he certainly had some help along the way. Peña operates with the ambition and the fervor lacking in central midfield for much of this year, but his desire to stamp his imprint on the game often prompts him to concede possession in poor areas. Jesús Zavala covers for him well (more on that bit in a moment) without providing a permanent solution to this problem. Panama did not punish Mexico for this, but Costa Rica could do so on Tuesday.
4. Underscore the need to retain proper defensive shape: Zavala stood out as one of the top performers for El Tri because he adjusted to the demands of the game and played to the strengths of his teammates. Vucetich asked Zavala to operate from a deep-lying position in midfield and slide between centerbacks Hugo Ayala and Rafa Márquez in possession. By adding an auxiliary third center back into the mix, Mexico retained the proper numbers when Rafa Márquez stepped into midfield to distribute or the fullbacks meandered forward.
The calculus changes a bit away from home, though. Zavala will still drop from time to time, but the back four must retain its shape religiously. Rafa Márquez, in particular, must marshal his defense astutely in order to avoid the problems that led to Luis Tejada’s equalizer (primarily a poor clearing header from Ayala, but also poor adjustments to the quick change in possession) and submit the resolute display required to claim a point or three.
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5. Ponder where Chicharito fits into the mix: The clamor for Jiménez’s inclusion increased exponentially when he smashed home that bicycle kick. If he does feature from the start (a risky move that would reduce the problems he causes opponents with his speed late in games), then he would likely replace Javier Hernández in the starting XI. That decision, however, must be made carefully. Hernández functioned well enough with Oribe Peralta, played a neat one-two to arrange Mexico’s only goal from the run of play and posed a threat from time to time. His second half penalty miss betrayed his current dearth of confidence and match practice and counted against him, though.
Perhaps the best course of action for all involved parties – Hernández, Jiménez and Mexico – involves maintaining the newly established partnership and then bringing the young star off the bench. After all, that course of action produced that wonderful goal to win the match, didn’t it?