The end of international games for 2017 was satisfying for Mexico, with a 3-3 draw against Belgium in Brussels last Friday followed up by a 1-0 win over Poland in Gdansk on Monday.
Here’s what we learned from El Tri’s European trip:
1. Mexico can compete…
Andres Guardado said ahead of the Belgium game that while some might think he is crazy, Mexico’s mentality is fixed on winning next summer’s World Cup. There won’t be many who share Guardado’s optimism, but the Real Betis midfielder’s optimism could be seen in Mexico’s games in Europe.
There was no inferiority complex as El Tri took to the field against Belgium or Poland. Mexico averaged 59 percent possession over the two games and dominated the opening minutes of each. Rather than waiting for the opposition to pose problems, El Tri went out with the intention of causing damage.
It is something that should be lauded and the results should allow Juan Carlos Osorio and his coaching staff some space from criticism that accompany their every decision.
Finally, there is a narrative that suggests Osorio has got things wrong in knockout matches against high-quality opponents like Chile and Germany. The complaint is that Mexico can’t step up when it matters. These friendly results won’t disperse those doubts, but will serve as a boost of confidence for everyone involved with the national team.
The games weren’t a statement to suggest Mexico can win a World Cup, but El Tri appear to be on the right path and much better situated than four years ago. The days of constantly changing managers and relying on a playoff against New Zealand to make the World Cup — which was four years ago to the day of the Poland win — are a reminder that the positives outweigh the negatives right now for Mexico.
2. …but shouldn’t be overconfident
Extremes tend to dominate analysis when it comes to Mexico, but no-one within El Tri’s set-up should be under any illusion that the team is a complete package. Neither Belgium nor Poland had their strongest side out; Belgium lacked defenders Toby Alderweireld, Vincent Kompany and Jan Vertonghen, while Poland didn’t have at least five of their usual starters, including striker Robert Lewandowski.
At the back, El Tri continue to be very open and opponents can be confident of getting chances, with the holding midfield role (see below) still problematic.
Osorio doesn’t have long to correct the issues, but behind the scenes the Mexican federation (FMF) is working hard and is confident of securing quality opposition for the March friendlies in the United States and in the slots ahead of the World Cup. That would be a boost to Osorio.
3. Nestor Araujo adapting to international football
It would be easy to make a point here about Hirving Lozano’s rising importance to the national team — and it would be valid. But everyone knows about Lozano and how he has developed within the Mexico setup and at club level over the last couple of years.
Much less is said about Nestor Araujo. The Santos Laguna centre-back was the only Mexico-based player in the starting XI against Belgium and is another, along with Lozano and Jesus Gallardo, that Osorio has helped settle in the national team despite outside criticism.
The last two games showed the manager was right to back Araujo. The 26-year-old looked adept, meshing defensive blocks and tackles with a confidence in coming out with the ball.
Osorio wants that strong central defender who can defend high balls into the box and Araujo is proving to be the best answer. A January move to Europe, to a side in which he’ll play every week, would be a major boost to El Tri ahead of the World Cup.
4. Diego Reyes a limited answer in central midfield
Porto’s Diego Reyes took a lot of criticism when Eden Hazard turned him inside out for Belgium’s opener. To be fair, better players than Reyes have been made to look foolish by Hazard, but Reyes starting both games left more doubts about the position than solutions.
Osorio clearly wants physicality in central midfield, but there doesn’t seem to be a player that combines aerial presence with strong passing and decision-making skills on the ball. (Actually, there is 38-year-old Rafa Marquez, but his status with El Tri is at present unknown and time is catching up with him.)
It remains one of the central conundrums Osorio needs to sort before the World Cup, even if Reyes wasn’t as bad as is being suggested.
5. Players need to feature regularly at club sides
Important Mexico players aren’t getting regular minutes for their club sides in Europe and it showed to a degree over these matches.
Porto’s Miguel Layun actually had more touches than any other Mexican player but can be better than he showed over recent days. The same can be said of Roma’s Hector Moreno, who was below par against Belgium.
Reyes, Carlos Vela and Raul Jimenez are in the same boat, while MLS-based duo of Giovani dos Santos and Jonathan dos Santos have their own calendar issues between now and the World Cup. The results over the last few days have been good for El Tri, but the battle for a lot of the Europe-based players to get minutes is now on.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.