What will México’s squad look like at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar? The qualifying process is yet to get underway in the CONCACAF region, but we can probably say with some degree of confidence that Mexico will make it. So we sat down with ESPN columnist and expert on all things Mexican football Tom Marshall to discuss the players likely to be on the plane in two years time.
Nick Dorrington (ND), Content Manager at StatsBomb: Hi Tom. Thanks for giving up your time to join us. Before we get to the players, how have Mexico generally lined up under Gerardo Martino in terms of formation and play style?
Tom Marshall (TM): Hello Nick. Thanks for the invite! So far, it’s largely been a 4-3-3 with one holding midfielder, although Martino experimented with a back three against Algeria in October and used more of a 4-2-3-1 in the second half against Japan in November. In terms of playing style, Mexico have employed the traditional hallmarks of a Martino team: usually a high press, trying to play the game in the opposition’s half, dominating possession while trying to be as vertical as possible, full-backs pushing high up, playing out from the back and trying to win the ball back as quickly as possible on the attack-defense transitions.
ND: So between the sticks, Guillermo Ochoa seems the obvious pick as first choice. Who else do you think will join him in the squad? Hugo González and Jonathan Orozco were the other two goalkeepers at the Gold Cup last year, so are they the most likely candidates?
TM: Ochoa is definitely the first choice right now. He has said he believes that González will be his eventual replacement and that’s probably the projection as of now. Alfredo Talavera has been in form this season for Pumas and should be in the conversation, although he is now 38 years old.
ND: As you say, Talavera has had an excellent season, outperforming expectation in relation to our Post-Shot xG model.
But he’ll be 40 by the time the World Cup comes around, and in 2019-20 his numbers were less impressive.
TM: As for Jonathan Orozco, he’s arguably the most suited to Martino’s style, but had a really poor season at Club Tijuana.
ND: What are the skills that Martino’s style requires of a goalkeeper?
TM: Martino is looking for a goalkeeper who is adept at playing out from the back to start attacks. It feels like right now he doesn’t have a perfect fit. Ochoa is a very good shot-stopper and high-level performer in big games, but not the most adventurous with the ball at his feet.
ND: Orozco does look to have had a poor season. By our numbers, only Gil Alcalá had a worse tournament among Liga MX goalkeepers in terms of shot stopping. But he really does stand out with the ball at his feet, particularly in terms of his calmness under pressure. Orozco was actually the only goalkeeper during the Torneo Guard1anes 2020 to improve on his overall passing completion rate when pressured. Ochoa went longer when pressed; Orozco went shorter.
(Yellow = successful pass; Red = incomplete pass)
But even with a skillset that seems well-suited to Martino’s approach, you don’t necessarily think that Orozco will make the squad?
TM: It’s a tough one. I don’t think it is guaranteed based on Orozco not featuring for Mexico in 2020. Of the younger generation, I particularly like Luis Malagón (Necaxa) due to his comfort playing under pressure, while Carlos Acevedo (Santos Laguna) will likely get a shot and has been impressive this past season.
ND: Let’s move on to the defence. At full-back, Luis Rodríguez and Jesús Gallardo were the starters at last year’s Gold Cup. But Rodriguez will be going on for 32 by the time the World Cup comes around. Do you think his starting berth could come under threat? Who is most likely to edge him aside?
TM: Rodríguez is a good quality Liga MX player, but his starting role is by no means guaranteed for the national team. This is one of the more concerning positions for Martino. Jorge Sánchez is physical, has the stamina to get up and down as Martino likes, but tends to switch off too often defensively. Alan Mozo at Pumas has shown some potential, although I’m personally a bigger fan of Pachuca’s Kevin Álvarez, even if he hasn’t played too many Liga MX games. The other interesting option is Julian Araujo at LA Galaxy. He’s done well in MLS, but the caveat is that he hasn’t yet been persuaded to choose Mexico over the United States.
ND: Álvarez has also had some minutes at left-back, we could be a useful attribute. He seems to offer a good mix of strong defensive output and decent ball progression, particularly off the dribble.
Do you think Martino will take four dedicated full-backs or will one of the backups be a player, like Álvarez, capable of filling different roles?
TM: There are definitely a lot of options if he wants to cut a full-back. I like Érick Aguirre’s chances of making the squad for this exact reason. He can play in either full-back position, a number of roles in central midfield and even on either wing. Sánchez can and has played on the right and the left. And there’s the option of Jesús Corona as a wing-back as he’s played at times for Porto.
ND: In the centre of defence, Carlos Salcedo and Néstor Araujo look dead certs to make the squad. Who else do you think Martino will take?
TM: I’d assume Monterrey’s César Montes will be a certainty by then. He looks like he’ll be challenging for the start in the lead-up to Qatar 2022.
ND: Montes profiles like a solid, stand-off central defender with a decent passing range. Is that a fair assessment?
TM: I think that’s fair. It’s his physical attributes that also stand out. There aren’t too many Mexican center-backs with his size and strength. European clubs are certainly watching and the hope is that he’ll be playing in one of the top leagues by the World Cup.
ND: Who are the other options at centre-back? Will Héctor Moreno still be in the picture?
TM: Edson Álvarez is an option, while the two younger centre-backs that have stood out are Johan Vásquez and Gilberto Sepúlveda.
As for Moreno, he’s got a good chance of being in the squad because he is experienced and gets what Martino is looking for, especially in possession. The question is how much his level will drop between now and the World Cup given he’s an aging defender playing in Qatar.
ND: Moving forward, and presuming the 4-3-3 shape persists, who looks the likely starter at the base of the midfield? Am I right in thinking this has been somewhat of a problem position for Martino?
TM: Álvarez without any doubt. The truth is there aren’t many options. In an ideal world, Martino would have someone who could distribute the ball and be technically better than Álvarez, but I wouldn’t say it is a problem position necessarily. Álvarez is a leader, protects the defense well and already has World Cup experience. The issue for me is if he isn’t available.
ND: Is his relative lack of playing time at Ajax a concern? He’s been decent when he’s got on the pitch, but hasn’t done so a great deal since moving there from América in 2019.
TM: Yes, Álvarez has a battle on his hands at present. He’s perhaps too defence-minded for a side that dominates games in their domestic league. That said, I’d be confident that if he left Ajax, he’d be able to resurrect his career in a different European league. I’d love to see him in the Premier League and think he’d be successful at a mid-table team.
ND: Who are the other options for that defensive midfield position?
TM: Perhaps Luis Romo is next in line, but he’s arguably better further forward. Hector Herrera may be dropped back into a role he’s played before, although he doesn’t necessarily have the defensive capabilities. It's worth throwing out the name of 20-year-old Erik Lira, although he’s only really broken into the first team at Pumas this season.
ND: There seems to be a good crop of players in their early-to-mid twenties competing for the two interior positions ahead of the holding midfielder. We know that Mexico aren’t afraid of including older players in their World Cup squads -- Rafael Márquez in 2018; Cuauhtémoc Blanco in 2010 -- but will there still be a place for Andrés Guardado at 36? It could easily just have been a system thing, but there was a pretty clear drop off in his output at Real Betis from 2018-19 to last season.
TM: It’s going to take something big for Guardado not to be in the squad. He’s the leader of the team, the captain and commands respect. The experience he’s got at World Cups and playing in Europe should mean he is at least useful off the bench. Martino will be hoping that one of Carlos Rodríguez, Sebastián Córdova, Orbelín Pineda, Víctor Guzmán, Marcel Ruiz, Eugenio Pizzuto or Érick Gutiérrez will step up and earn that starting spot. As mentioned in the question, there are plenty of potential options and no shortage of talent, but those names are either still developing or have been too inconsistent to be able to confidently predict they’ll be in the XI at the World Cup.
ND: Is there a certain profile of player you think Martino will be looking for to fill those interior positions?
TM: The interior midfielders are prominent in Mexico’s press and Martino also likes technically gifted players there, often ones which would be number 10s on other teams.
ND: If we look at some of those names you mentioned, Pineda and Rodríguez look like talented players but both provide almost nothing defensively. Ruiz is a more conservative player, with solid defensive output and a safer passing profile. Cordóva and Guzmán look to have a better balance between defensive and offensive output, particularly Guzmán.
He also played on a Pachuca side who were one of the most active pressing teams in opposition territory during the Torneo Guard1anes 2020. Gutiérrez will also be playing on an aggressive pressing side under Roger Schmidt at PSV Eindhoven as and when he returns from injury. Now we’ll move on to the forward line, where there would seem to be a clear first-choice front three?
TM: Definitely. There is a lot of excitement in Mexico about Raúl Jiménez (fingers crossed everything goes well with his recovery), Jesús Corona and Hirving Lozano.
ND: They seem to have a pretty good mix of attributes. Lozano is a high-volume shooter, Corona creates more shots than he takes, while Jiménez combines solid shot volume with a good all-round game.
How has that worked out when they’ve played together for the national team?
TM: Not well! The first time Mexico lost 4-0 to Argentina and on the second occasion they were down 1-0 to South Korea when Lozano was taken off. Mexico went on to win 3-2. Martino criticized the trio for being static in that game against Argentina, indicating that they were too predictable. There was more fluidity though against South Korea and it feels more a case of them needing to play more regularly together to get used to each other's movements than the right mix not being present.
ND: Who do you think will fill the other two or three forward positions in the squad?
TM: Martino is a huge fan of the way Rodolfo Pizarro finds space and uses the ball between the lines. In fact, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Martino could field Corona as a wing-back to allow Pizarro a starting spot. If Mexico use a 4-2-3-1, all four could also play.
ND: Pizarro is certainly someone who receives the ball all across the attacking midfield line.
He doesn’t really stand out as a creative passer, but he can knit things together and make inroads off the dribble.
TM: Let’s not forget Diego Lainez. He may not be starting much for Real Betis, but he’s still highly regarded as a potential difference-maker.
ND: Is there an obvious backup to Jiménez as the central reference point?
TM: José Juan Macías should develop into that role by Qatar 2022. He’s got the ambition and professionalism to be an important player for Mexico, although he’s a different type of center forward than Jimenez.
ND: It will be interesting to see if he can reach that level. He looked very good in a small sample size when he returned to Chivas from his loan at León in January, but he didn’t have a great Torneo Guard1anes 2020. In fact, the young forward who really stood out was Cruz Azul’s Santiago Giménez. While he is more penalty area centric, Giménez also has a pretty similar statistical profile to Jiménez.
If he can add some other elements to his game, is he in with a shot of making the squad?
TM: 100 percent. He’s certainly part of a group of players who could be in the mix, including Rogelio Funes Mori, who is in the process of becoming a Mexican citizen, Javier Hernández, Alan Pulido and Henry Martín.
ND: The forward positions are often the ones in which younger players can suddenly emerge in the year or two leading up to the World Cup. Are there any guys not yet in contention who might make a leap forward in the intervening couple of years?
TM: Perhaps Marcelo Flores, who has impressed for Arsenal’s Under-18s. LA Galaxy’s Efraín Álvarez certainly has the talent to explode between now and then.
ND: One last question: with the squad that we’ve talked through here, can Mexico finally progress beyond the round of 16 at Qatar 2022?
TM: Yes! In all seriousness, Mexico will have a solid squad and I think will go into the tournament as one of the team’s to watch in terms of being aggressive and entertaining. Martino’s team won’t take a step back, even against the top teams. El Tri will need a little bit of luck and going into Qatar 2022 as a seeded team, which isn’t impossible with the new rankings system, would be a significant bonus.
ND: That’s great. Thanks again for providing us with your time and insight Tom.
TM: No problem at all. Thanks for having me.