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Mexico’s three most pressing problems ahead of the Gold Cup

Soccer: Equador at Mexico Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

It is never straightforward. Do you remember the last time Mexico won the Gold Cup? Yup, it was 2015 and Mexico needed some dodgy refereeing decisions to go their way to even make the final (sorry Panama).

On paper, it all looks relatively easy, but you’d be fooled into thinking it’s all going to be a walk in the park. Here are three problems El Tri will need to prepare for ahead of the start of the Gold Cup.

Adapting to “Chucky” Lozano’s absence

It is no mystery that Gerardo Martino is hampered by the fact that so many of his key players will be absent due to personal reasons and/or injury. In particular, the latter has severely limited Mexico’s depth on the attacking side of things, and the one player that El Tri will arguably miss the most is Hirving “Chucky” Lozano.

Think of it this way, a front three of Rodolfo Pizarro-Raul Jimenez-Hirving Lozano would have been the dream for most Mexico fans and a nightmare for opposing sides. In a system in which the exchanging of positions and the movement into open spaces is encouraged, it is exactly there where Lozano will be missed the most.

As oppose to Rodolfo Pizarro, whose tendency is to float more towards the middle, Lozano often puts himself in positions to receive the ball centrally and is also great at running into spaces. Pizarro’s greatest strength has always been to play the role of disruptor and take on defenders in 1 v 1 situations, but with Lozano out of the picture, opposing teams will be more willing to apply numbers in stopping Pizarro from being a destabilizing force in front of defenders.

It’s not just Pizarro who will be affected. You get the feeling that Raul Jimenez’s influence has started to take a hit. During El Tri’s last two friendlies, Jimenez was often seen having to track back just to get a touch of the ball. An added bonus from having Lozano adjust centrally in certain build ups is that Jimenez gets to shift into a wider position, giving the possessor of the ball an added option to go long to the tall striker if needed. None of the remaining players in Mexico’s squad have that ability, which severely limits one of Jimenez’s most underrated traits.

Set pieces, set pieces, set pieces

Raise your hand if you’ve heard this one before. Depending on your definition of what a set piece is, the bottom line is Mexico has never been good at defending those and are sure to be tested again in this Gold Cup. In the four matches under Gerardo Martino, El Tri has already conceded a goal following a throw-in, off a corner kick, and from a direct free kick.

Defending set pieces is something you really can’t work on too much in training (Juan Carlos Osorio seemed to have found the answer by just playing his tallest team possible). You can study up on your opponent and you can work on your organization, but at the end of the day, it’s not like a video game where all players are simultaneously pre-programmed to move exactly where they are supposed to move. Teams will, no doubt, prioritize their set pieces, and it will be up to Martino to get his players to show full effort and focus in these tricky situations.

Mexico can’t afford anther injury on defense

In theory, predicting Mexico’s starting defense is a difficult thing to do at the moment, but from Gerardo Martino’s first four games in charge of the Mexico National Team, we can see that he generally likes to have a more balance-minded center-back play alongside a ball-playing one (ex. Salcedo-Moreno, Reyes-Araujo, Montes-Moreno). He has deviated away from this only on two occasions, a late-game situation against Paraguay where he opted for Cesar Montes’ height and against Venezuela following Hector Moreno’s injury.

It could be that Martino starts both Araujo and Moreno in the Gold Cup, assuming Moreno recovers in time, but it’s not a partnership we have currently seen. This makes Moreno’s injury status that much more important because it directly ties his playing availability with his coach’s ability to rotate between his two best center backs, something that could force Martino to give increased minutes to his more fringe defenders.

Soccer: Chile at Mexico Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

It is quite evident by now that Diego Reyes is no Rafael Marquez, but he is one of the more complete center-backs in Mexico’s depth chart. This probably means whether Moreno is healthy or not, Reyes is going to see some sort of playing time (either as the permanent starter or in a “rotated” partnership in one of the group stage games). The problem with a possible Moreno absence is that under Martino’s current system, there really won’t be much room for flexibility. One of El Tri’s defining traits under Martino thus far has been the team’s ability to move in between lines, something that has always been facilitated by having a center back like Nestor Araujo or Moreno on the field. In fact, when Moreno left the game against Venezuela to be replaced by Carlos Salcedo, Mexico saw a noticeable dip in the way they moved the ball forward. If push comes to shove and Moreno doesn’t recover in time and somebody like Araujo were to get injured, Martino would have a real problem ahead.

To put it simply, it’s not that a Reyes-Salcedo partnership would be bad, it is just that so much of Martino’s system rests on the ability of having one of those center backs pushing the ball forward. While Reyes and Salcedo aren’t exactly the worst at doing that, they also aren’t the best. This would affect Mexico’s overall ability to move the ball around the field as efficiently, especially in the latter stages of the tournament when teams generally press higher and are better coached.

What do you think is Mexico’s most pressing problem ahead of the Gold Cup?