It’s unlikely that the Mexico attacking trident of Hirving “Chucky” Lozano, Jesus “Tecatito” Corona and Raul Jimenez will get a catchy nickname any time soon. “RaLoCo” just doesn’t have much of a ring. “JiCoLo” even less so.
But even without flashy branding, the prospect of Corona, Jimenez and Lozano becoming regulars for the Mexico men’s national team building up to the 2022 World Cup in Qatar is reassuring for El Tri. And this November international break, in which Mexico faces South Korea (Saturday) and Japan (next Tuesday) in Austria, sees all three in the squad for the first time since September 2019.
Lozano’s return is a substantial boost to Mexico, particularly given the form the 25-year-old is in for Napoli so far this season. In all the recent debates around the best players from the CONCACAF region, Lozano’s name has been largely absent, but the confidence is back and after a dire 2019-20 in Italy, there are signs that he could return to that conversation.
A significant amount of gratitude for Gerardo “Tata” Martino receiving a kind of “Lozano 2.0” can be attributed to Gennaro Gattuso’s criticism paying dividends. The Napoli manager can often be heard screaming “Chucky! Chucky!” on the sideline, coaxing the winger into improvements through some tough love. The Italian was vocal in indicating that Lozano had to stay off the ground more and be stronger. Lozano said after his assist in Napoli’s 1-0 win over Bologna last weekend that Gattuso would be “raging” when telling the Mexican what he demands, but that their relationship is now better.
“The situation has changed a lot for me, I’ve spoken to the coach and it’s going well,” Lozano told Sky Sports. “Hard work has given me a lot. I spoke to Gattuso and everything is good.”
To his credit, Lozano has taken on the challenge and his 0.82 goals per 90 minutes this season for Napoli, compared to 0.35 per games in 2019-20, is testament to that positive response. The raw pace, directness and ability to beat defenders have not gone anywhere, but the former Pachuca and PSV Eindhoven winger is now stronger physically, more aware defensively and a more rounded forward, although it is a process.
“I have to improve in the defensive part, I can do a little more, but that happens day by day, week by week,” added Lozano.
It’s likely Martino will field Lozano on the left with Corona on the right. The two wide attackers fit nicely into the mold of what Martino is looking for in terms of his wingers having pace, being able to beat defenders and possessing a goal threat.
Corona is in the form of his life, creating more chances per game than any other regular player in the Portuguese top division (2.89) so far this season with Porto. Corona showed what he’s capable of during the last international break, both with his goal and his work-rate when Mexico doesn’t have the ball, which Martino went out of his way to stress after his man of the match performance against the Netherlands last month.
Jimenez has perhaps not been at his best so far this season, but four goals in eight games for Wolverhampton Wanderers hasn’t been bad. And if he can strike up an understanding with Lozano and Corona beginning this break and extending into 2021, Jimenez won’t be short of chances.
The other major boost for Mexico coach Martino this month is the form of Hector Herrera, who looks to be winning over Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone after a season of transition and rumors that he could move on in the last transfer window.
“I wasn’t interested in leaving,” Herrera told ESPN about the transfer rumors. “I always said I wanted to be here. I’m where I want to be … [Simeone] said that I was a little more adapted to what the team needs and wants.”
Alvarez, defensive set-up at critical juncture
The areas Martino needs to strengthen, or at least start to find answers to, lie elsewhere.
Edson Alvarez is one of the only players in the depth chart who can play in a hybrid role as a holding midfielder dropping back in between defenders to create a back three when required. Due to the lack of options, Alvarez has become a critical player for Martino’s system, but it’s concerning that he’s not started a game for Ajax since the last international break, despite Erik ten Hag shifting around his starting team and the Dutch side having 11 players out for their last Champions League clash against FC Midtjylland due to COVID-19.
Cruz Azul’s Luis Romo is being groomed in that position by Martino, but Alvarez is a more natural fit and there will be eyes on him and especially his confidence this international break.
Further forward in Martino’s likely 4-3-3 formation, Andres Guardado‘s absence through injury — although he will be visiting the squad in Austria — leaves the door open in midfield for Club America‘s Sebastian Cordova to step up.
The main issues with Cordova are his consistency — which America coach Miguel Herrera pointed out in an interview with ESPN’s Ahora o Nunca — and which position Martino sees him occupying, with the 23-year-old able to play on the wing or inside as an attack-minded midfielder. If Martino sees him as an interior midfielder, which appears his most natural position, there could be an interesting battle developing there potentially between him, Carlos Rodriguez and the more experienced Jonathan dos Santos for a place replacing Guardado.
The games are another opportunity for Martino to look at the potential center-back partnerships, with the position still seemingly open. Hector Moreno impressed in October’s friendlies, but is 32 and playing in Qatar. Tigres’ Carlos Salcedo, a starter at the 2018 World Cup, is also back in the mix after finally finding form — he’ll be competing with Monterrey‘s Cesar Montes, Celta Vigo‘s Nestor Araujo and, potentially Chivas’ Gilberto Sepulveda, although the 21-year-old is likely more in the squad to gain experience training under Martino.
Finally, the full-back positions are an area that aren’t Mexico’s strongest, with Monterrey’s Jesus Gallardo likely on the left and Luis Rodriguez and Jorge Sanchez battling it out for the spot on the right. Pachuca’s Erick Aguirre didn’t travel after reportedly testing positive for COVID-19.
Rankings, not results, are priority this window
Saturday’s opponent South Korea hasn’t played with a full squad since Paulo Bento’s team lost to Brazil 3-0 and tied 0-0 with Lebanon in Nov. 2019. Players such as Hwang Hee-Chan (RB Leipzig), Lee Kang-In (Valencia) and Son Heung-Min (Tottenham Hotspur) have enough quality to give Mexico a test defensively, but El Tri will be favorite against the 38th-ranked men’s team in the world, according to the FIFA rankings.
Next Tuesday’s clash with Japan should provide a sterner test. The top-ranked Asian team beat Ivory Coast 1-0 and then drew 0-0 with Cameroon last month and boasts a squad entirely made up of Europe-based players, including Takefusa Kubo (Villarreal on loan from Real Madrid), Takumi Minamino (Liverpool) and Maya Yoshida (Sampdoria).
Martino’s priority right now is not primarily results. The former Atlanta United FC coach is very much still in the molding process ahead of Qatar 2022. But in the back of the mind of those in the Mexican federation is the fact that Mexico is 11th in the FIFA rankings and that the national team is nearer to seventh-placed Uruguay right now than 12th-placed Italy.
A couple of wins would extend Martino’s record to 19 victories from 22 games and likely move El Tri into the top ten, increasing the sense that a top-seed spot at Qatar isn’t beyond the realms of possibility.