Armchair Analyst: Mexico's Juan Carlos Osorio is not a genius

 
Three times in the past week, this site's editor-in-chief, Simon Borg, suggested I write a column on the genius of Juan Carlos Osorio, long-time notebook aficionado and current Mexico manager, as well as the only man who's ever coached the New York Red Bulls to an MLS Cup appearance. (It was 2008; I was there; Guillermo Barros Schelotto was brilliant).

Simon's contention is that Osorio is great. I suspect that he believes this because Osorio has not one, but two cool nicknames: El Recreacionista ("The Recreationist," because of his weirdo training routines); and "Professorio," which is just a silly play on words, but hey why not go with it.

My response is this: He is not great, and he will not be great, and the headline on the below screenshot from this very website explains why:

Have you watched Mexico this tournament? They've played 270 minutes so far, but only about 60 of them have been particularly good. They've used three vastly different XIs in three games, had a talent advantage in each contest (seriously folks, this Mexico roster is more talented top-to-bottom than the Uruguay team that showed up), and barely escaped against both Jamaica and Venezuela – two sides that don't even belong in the same conversation with Mexico.

"Wait," you're saying, "Mexico are unbeaten in 20 straight games. They're the hottest team in the world no matter who's managing them!"

And that's kind of the point – this 20-game streak is spread across three different managers. It started under Miguel Herrera, was continued for four crucial games under Tuca Ferretti, and is now in Osorio's hands. This means just about anybody could dip into El Tri's talent pool, pick out XI names at random and come up with a formidable squad. For all we know, that is actually Osorio's method.

I have no doubt that Osorio can run a hell of a training session, nor that he can diagram exactly how he wants his team to press. I've actually seen him do so. I also know that his players generally think quite highly of him as a human being, which is half the battle for a coach in any sport.

My criticism of Osorio centers around the fact that soccer is a holistic game in which familiarity, chemistry and continuity play significant (if still immeasurable) roles, and in constantly futzing with his lineup he reduces his team's chances of fostering all three. The greatest national team I've ever seen is the Spanish national team from 2007 through 2012, and their strength was that 1) they had great players, and 2) those great players played together a ton, which meant that their strengths resonated and they knew each other's tendencies down to the atom. Practice makes perfect, and each game of soccer isn't just one game; it's a chance for any group to practice solving on-field problems together.

That sort of accumulated knowledge is precious, and when nurtured is the kind of thing that can take a relatively "small" side like Costa Rica to the World Cup quarterfinals. That same Costa Rican team, now two years later, lost 4-0 to the US when manager Oscar Ramirez messed with his lineup and laid the groundwork for a hail of midfield turnovers. A game after that, using his usual XI (or close enough to it), Costa Rica beat Colombia 3-2.

On-field chemistry matters. If you don't have to think about what your teammates are going to do, then you're going to act more quickly and decisively, and that's almost always a good thing in our game.

Here is one of about a half-dozen breakaways Jamaica had vs. Mexico last week in a 2-0 El Tri win:

There is zero connection between the midfield and backline throughout – look at how open the penalty area is for the pull-back. These aren't lazy Mexico players, these are confused Mexico players scrambling for their lives because, for some reason, Diego Reyes wasn't available to shield the backline.

Here's another break-out, this one coming in the second half:

Clayton Donaldson is bad at diving and bad at finishing, but that one was a penalty. El Tri dodged that bullet, then dodged six more, and then dodged a bunch more on Monday night in a 1-1 draw against Venezuela. That result wasn't secured by any sort of tactical wizardry from JCO, but by Tecatito Corona going full Messi against a static and exhausted backline.

And by the way, Mexico still gave up a bunch of counterattacks against Venezuela. It's no more clear than it was three weeks ago what their best XI is, and the point of tournament play is to improve as the tournament goes along.

Now imagine it's Chile's Alexis Sanchez leading those breaks instead of the likes of Donaldson or Yonathan Del Valle. (Note: It will almost certainly be Alexis Sanchez leading those counterattacks in the quarterfinals). That is terrifying.

I have been a big proponent of Mexico's chances of winning this tournament simply because I think they have the second-most talent of any team in the field, and there's usually a pretty good correlation between "talent" and "winning" especially when adding a robust home-field advantage. But they've looked confused and vulnerable because the individual talent hasn't been learning how to play better together, and according to Osorio they will continue to not learn to play better together.

A couple other notes about Osorio:

  • His RBNY team was 2-16-4 when he resigned in late summer of 2009, then finished the year 3-3-2 under interim manager Richie Williams. In 2010, Hans Backe took the core of that team to the top of the Eastern Conference in the regular season.
  • At Sao Paulo, Osorio's team claimed exactly 50 percent of the available points. The previous manager took 60 percent. The managers (plural) who've succeeded Osorio have taken... exactly 50 percent.
  • At Atletico Nacional, his team took 57 percent of available points. His successor, Reinaldo Rueda, has taken 77 percent of available points – despite transferring out Edwin Cardona, Alexander Mejia, Stefan Medina and Fernando Uribe.

Someone please tell Simon that is not greatness.

Oh, one final note: What separated that run to MLS Cup from the rest of Osorio's tenure with RBNY was the lineup stability the team enjoyed. They played the same formation (4-1-3-2) and mostly the same players game-in and game-out during the postseason, and generally improved from round to round. Then they actually played pretty damn well in MLS Cup itself, but were simply beaten by a better team.

So it's not like Osorio is incapable of settling upon a best XI and rolling them out there – he's done it before. He just hasn't done it yet with Mexico.

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