Every World Cup sees the emergence of new stars. In 2014, for instance, James Rodríguez went from talented prospect to global brand. Each tournament also sees surprise teams take centre stage. James’ Colombia thrilled with their exciting football and equally exciting dancing last time out in Brazil, while Costa Rica also stunned the world with wins over Uruguay and Italy on their way to the quarter-finals.
At this summer’s tournament in Russia, Mexico could be the team that gains respect from the neutrals. Their play is interesting and often aesthetically pleasing, while they also have an array of talented individuals, including Chicharito, Carlos Vela and Andrés Guardado. But the key to their chances of success, and plaudits is their manager, Juan Carlos Osorio.
Osorio took charge of ‘El Tri’ in 2015, leading them to the quarter-finals and semi-finals of the Copa América Centenario and Confederations Cup respectively in his first two years at the helm. Unfortunately, the team’s runs in both of those competitions ended in humiliation: Chile overwhelmed them 7-0 in the former, and Germany beat them 4-1 in the latter.
However, in spite of those two humbling defeats at major international competitions, Osorio remains in charge going into this summer’s finals. This is mainly down to his side’s impressive form in qualifying, where they finished top of the CONCACAF section with just one defeat in 10 games to seal an automatic route through to the World Cup.
Long before the Mexico job became his, the 57-year-old lived and studied in England. He obtained a diploma in Science and Football during his time at Liverpool John Moores University, while also gaining his UEFA A License from the English FA. He also found a way to watch the local team’s training sessions in a desperate attempt to learn from some of the best coaches at the time.
“When I arrived [in England] I tried several times to watch Liverpool training sessions, but they wouldn’t let me in,” he told the Guardian in 2014. “I saw there was a crack in the brick wall so I walked up to the house opposite and demanded to live there. I explained what I wanted to do and the owners…allowed me to stop there. I spent almost two years in that house, and was very happy.”
Osorio’s dedication to the craft was evident back then, and he reaped the rewards in the following years. After several seasons on the coaching staff at Manchester City, he returned to his native Colombia in 2006 to coach Millonarios. From there he managed in the USA, with Chicago Fire and the New York Red Bulls, in Mexico with Puebla and in Brazil with Sao Paulo. His greatest successes, however, came in his homeland with Atletico Nacional, where he won multiple league titles and reached the final of the Copa Sudamericana.
Having journeyed across much of Latin America, Osorio’s club record as a manager is generally quite mixed. Yet, going into the World Cup in Russia, there is a great deal of excitement over his style of play. His Mexico side are flexible, attack-minded, and have a player in reported Everton target Hirving Lozano who could be set to make a statement this summer.
In recent friendlies, they have struggled to break down defensive opposition. Capable of dominating the ball, but less capable of opening up back lines, there has been some criticism of Osorio’s approach from some sections of the Mexican support. He isn’t overly concerned about such criticism, though, and has used group stage opponents Germany as an example for El Tri to follow. “Over there they appreciate processes and they aren't uncomfortable with giving opportunities to youngsters or other systems,” he said.
The exact system he will choose for Mexico’s opener against the Germans is not clear, though the principles underpinning his side’s play should remain constant. They will press assertively with the intention of winning the ball back as high up the pitch as possible, or at least disrupting the opposition’s build-up. In addition, their wide players won’t stay wide, coming infield to attack in more central areas, and they will look to build possession from the back, only going long if there is an obvious run into space being made by the attackers.
In terms of the personnel to watch out for, Lozano will be an obvious candidate; his ambitious dribbles and pace fit Osorio’s style nicely. Elsewhere, the non-stop running of Héctor Herrera, the positional intelligence of Guardado, and the imagination and finishing of Vela will all be vital if Mexico are to progress from a group that also contains Sweden and South Korea.
That, usually, is the extent of Mexico’s progress – they have reached the second round of the World Cup in each of the last six tournaments. But Osorio believes his ‘processes’ can take them well beyond that. “To reach the semi-finals is a very tough objective but I think we have the same right that everyone has to dream,” he told World Soccer recently. “It’s an objective that can be achieved.”