Juan Carlos Osorio and Javier Hernández on the movement that downed Costa Rica
The most popular football team in the United States is the Mexico men’s national team. El Tricolor, or El Tri, regularly fill NFL stadiums, even for meaningless friendlies. TV ratings for Mexican football on US Spanish-language channels are huge. The Mexican league, Liga MX, draws bigger audiences on US television than any other league in any language - more than the English Premier League, more than the Champions League, and certainly more than Major League Soccer. When Telemundo won the US Spanish-language World Cup television rights for the eight-year period from 2015 to 2022, it paid Fifa US$600 million, a full US$175 million more than Fox Sports paid for the US English-language TV rights. Thanks to El Tri, no country in the world pays Fifa more money for World Cup TV rights than the United States.
Mexican fútbol is big business in the States, owing to decades-long immigration patterns and the tendency of Mexican-Americans to identify with Mexican soccer as part of their cultural heritage. In fact, Mexico play more games in the United States than they do in Mexico, not least because most of their fans in the States have more disposable income than those south of the border.
And so I find myself in a Denver hotel for a rare hour-long audience with two men: the Mexican forward Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández, his national team’s all-time leading goal scorer, and El Tri’s manager, the Colombian Juan Carlos Osorio. Why Denver? Well, Osorio has decided to bring Mexico here for altitude training between friendlies in the Los Angeles and New York City areas. And why is this joint interview rare? For starters, national teams don’t get together very often; the club game takes up most of the annual calendar. Beyond that, Hernández and Osorio are almost never available for interviews at the same time and neither one particularly wants to spend time with most of the Mexican football media. “They talk about other things,” says Osorio, “like Javier’s romantic life, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.”
“Everything but football,” Hernández says with a laugh, shaking his head.
With his round face, deep-set eyes and a Roman haircut that he sometimes leavens with gel, Chicharito (‘Little Pea’ in Mexican Spanish) is the personification of the term ‘Mexican matinee idol’. It would not be folly to presume that as a goalscorer who has played in the satellite television era for Manchester United and Real Madrid - the two most popular clubs on the planet - Chicharito is known by more people on Earth than any other Mexican in recorded history.
Osorio has one thing he wants to talk about today. “This is football,” the manager says, pointing with both hands to the elaborate set-up he has constructed between us. “This is the
game.” We’re seated just outside Mexico’s hotel dining room around a knee-high wooden table, on which Osorio has laid out 22 circular tabs - 11 green, 11 red - that he carries in a Ziploc bag wherever he goes. Downstairs, fans in green Mexico jerseys are gathered outside the hotel entrance, waiting for the chance to nab autographs from their heroes. In the lobby, a few media members wait for a short group press event taking place later. But upstairs, away from the television cameras, class is in session with Profe Osorio (in Spanish-speaking countries, coaches are often called Profe, short for Profesor). “This is my own crazy idea of preparing my team to play in the last 25 metres,” says Osorio, who has been a coach with club teams in Colombia, Mexico, Brazil, England and the United States. “We need constant movement from our strikers. We try to create patterns. We’re taking movement to a new level and we call it synchronisation. The key words are doubt, movement and synchronisation.”
“Synchronisation!” says Hernández, chewing over the English word with satisfaction. “Exactly.”
“In the national team, we play with a front three and only one main striker,” Chicharito says. “The movements are different” than in the two-forward formations he has often been deployed in at club level with Manchester United, Bayer Leverkusen and, more recently, West Ham United.
In May 2017, Chicharito scored his 47th international goal to break Mexico’s all-time record, held by Jared Borgetti. A few days later, Hernández sits next to me in Denver with Osorio, who hopes to unleash Hernández even more as a goal-scoring force with his new system of player patterns and synchronisation in the Mexican attack.
Osorio wants one thing to be clear, however: he and Chicharito are going to show me Mexico’s secrets, but they can’t come out publicly until the book from which this is extracted is released in May 2018.
“Are you sure?” Osorio asks. “May, yes. Not now. You promise?”
“So you will not talk to anybody about this?”
“I will not only not print it now for Sports Illustrated. I won’t even speak about it to anyone privately.”
“OK,” Osorio says. “So we will show you today.”
Chicharito smiles and rubs his hands together. He loves this stuff.
In Mexico’s World Cup qualifier at home against Costa Rica on 24 March 2017, Osorio pulled a huge surprise on the Ticos, moving Hernández away from his customary centre-forward position and starting him instead on the left wing of Mexico’s front three, with the target man Oribe Peralta in the middle. Osorio trained his players in the new set-up every day in the week leading up to the game and Chicharito was encouraged by how many scoring chances they created for him in practice. But he had no idea the plan would work so well in the game, with the designed pattern setting up his eighth-minute goal, just as they had drawn it up on the tactical board. Hernández’s finish, a first-time shot from Carlos Vela’s pinpoint pass just a moment before the striker was cleaned out by the Costa Rica goalkeeper Keylor Navas, was a thing of beauty. But there was a richly choreographed process that led up to it.
Sitting at the table where the manager has laid out 11 green circular tabs (for Mexico) and 11 red tabs (for Costa Rica) in their teams’ respective formations - 4-3-3 for Mexico, 5-4-1 for Costa Rica - Osorio and Chicharito take turns moving the pieces and explaining how their team’s synchronisation patterns worked that night on the first goal of Mexico’s 2–0 victory.
The keys to the goal lay in several elements: surprise, numerical advantage, the synchronisation of the Mexican attackers and the creation of doubt in opposing defenders. The surprise comes from deploying Chicharito on the left wing and a centre-forward of a completely different profile – the imposing Peralta. As Osorio notes: “These three guys [the Costa Rican centre-backs] were waiting for Javier to be here [in the box as a centre-forward]. Once they saw him here [on the left wing] they are thinking, ‘Who’s going to take him?’” Osorio compounds Costa Rica’s problems by creating a numerical advantage in central midfield, where Mexico has three players to the Ticos’ two. In cases of numerical advantage, one attacker is always going to be open and defenders will be forced to engage with one or back off and be caught in the middle, neither of which is an optimal defensive situation.
Osorio designs a synchronised movement by his players to maximise the leverage of these advantages. When Mexico advance toward midfield with the ball, Peralta retreats from his
centre-forward position toward midfield, dragging his defender with him and creating open space for Chicharito to run into from the left wing. Due to Mexico’s numerical advantage, the Costa Rican right centre-back Johnny Acosta is forced to decide whether to mark Chicharito, on the left wing, or Jonathan dos Santos, advancing from the left of Mexico’s three-man midfield. “We wanted to create doubts - with me especially,” Hernández says, “because that was the idea of the movement. [Acosta] has a doubt with Jonathan. And that’s what happened. It was the thing that we practised in training.”
“Javier wisely used the proper word - doubt,” Osorio says. “That’s what we try to create.” The presence of Dos Santos moving forward from midfield draws Acosta, who thinks he can intercept a potential pass to Dos Santos, but that leaves Chicharito open. “So the ball [will end up with] Javier,” Osorio says.
Hernández flashes a grin. “Synchronisation!”
Watching the passing sequence that leads to Chicharito’s goal on video, you marvel at the fluid movements within the structure that Osorio has laid out. Deep in Mexico’s defensive half, their left centre-back, Moreno, starts everything with a short diagonal pass forward to the right centre-back Néstor Araujo, who approaches the edge of the centre circle unmarked. Costa Rica are applying no defensive pressure in that part of the field. Araujo could pass the ball centrally to the defensive midfielder Rafa Márquez, but the lone Costa Rican forward Johan Venegas has dropped back to cover Márquez, who’s looking at Araujo and pointing at the open passing lane farther up the middle of the field. Araujo sees it. Per Osorio’s instructions, the centre-forward, Peralta, has dropped deep, dragging the middle centre-back Giancarlo González with him and leaving all sorts of open space upfield in the middle of the penalty box. That’s critical in the design of the play. Araujo rifles a right-footed pass 25 yards on the ground to Peralta, bypassing Mexico’s three central midfielders and breaking Costa Rica’s defensive lines. González is in tight on Peralta, whose back is to the goal 45 yards away. Peralta’s first touch on the strong pass isn’t perfect - he pops it up a couple feet above his head - but the target man uses his body to keep González at bay, then turns to his left (Mexico’s right wing) and hits a pass to the right-winger Carlos Vela, running beyond him in the channel between Francisco Calvo (the left centre-back) and Ronald Matarrita (the left wing-back).
At this point, Chicharito is simply watching the play unfold, standing on the left wing, two yards offside. Costa Rica’s right wing-back, Cristian Gamboa, is a couple of yards away, while the Tico right centre-back Johnny Acosta is in no-man’s land, marking neither Chicharito (open five yards behind him) nor midfielder Jonathan dos Santos (open 10 yards away in front of him). This is the exact doubt that Osorio wanted to create in Acosta: “Which player do I mark?” Six minutes into the game, Mexico have already surprised Costa Rica by putting Chicharito on the left side and a retreating target man as the centre-forward, and now El Tri are compounding the uncertainty for Acosta. The advantage that Mexico have created is even more impressive considering that Costa Rica — a World Cup 2014 quarter-finalist that advanced from a group that included Italy, England, and Uruguay — are parking the bus and deploying their tried-and-true, deeply conservative five-man back line.
Let’s shift our focus back to Vela and the ball. Osorio likes to use Vela as an inverted winger, a player whose dominant foot is the opposite of the side he’s playing on. As a left-footed attacker on the right wing, Vela rarely stays wide and hits crosses with his weaker right foot, but he often cuts inside to create danger centrally. Vela takes his first touch with his trusty left foot and stops on a dime. The move creates a pocket of space between Vela and his two defenders, who have retreated at speed - conveniently rendering Chicharito onside on the left, 20 yards away.
Chicharito has just started his run and there is nothing but wide-open green grass between him and the goalkeeper, Navas. Of the three Costa Rica centre-backs, Vela has one directly in front of him, whom he can take out with a pass. The central of the three, González, has followed the Mexico target man Peralta into midfield and is now behind the play, while the third has been teased away by the threat of the advancing Jonathan dos Santos in midfield.
Vela jabs a left-footed pass on the ground into the penalty box, right in the path of Chicharito’s run. The only question now is whether goalkeeper Navas, who has taken off from his six-yard box the moment after Vela released the pass, will get to the ball before the striker. Navas fails. Chicharito meets the ball 13 yards out and chips a right-footed shot over Navas. By the time the ball hits the back of the net, Hernández’s momentum has carried him eight more yards ahead and he’s flat on his stomach inside the six-yard box. The look on Chicharito’s face as he celebrates with his teammates - and as the old Thunder Dome stadium erupts with noise - is priceless.
Design matters. Craft matters. Patterns matter.
All told, the sequence from Moreno’s pass deep in Mexico’s own half to Chicharito’s goal has involved five players, four passes and just 11 seconds of elapsed time. Viewed at full speed, it’s a brilliant execution of synchronisation.
This is an edited extract from Grant Wahl’s new book Football 2.0 published by BackPage Press.