Inside Mexico's first camp under 'Tata' Martino, and El Tri's mission to win back respect
SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- There was one phrase that seemed to set the tone for Gerardo "Tata" Martino's first Mexico camp: When the Argentine declared, "My obligation as Mexico head coach is to make the national team be respected."
Martino said that ahead of Friday's 3-1 victory over Chile in San Diego and the idea extended through Tuesday's 4-2 win against Paraguay in Levi's Stadium. In fact, the phrase could be the overriding mantra for Martino's cycle in charge leading to Qatar 2022 -- for matters both on and off the pitch.
Since the squad met eight days ago in the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, just south of San Diego, Martino has gone about establishing ground rules. The idea is that everyone knows where they stand from the start. "He likes us to be disciplined and I think that'll help us to do things right," Cruz Azul's Roberto Alvarado said after the game against Paraguay.
Players and coaching staff eat and travel separately from the rest of the FMF staff these days, unlike in the more inclusive Juan Carlos Osorio era. No player left camp early to return to Europe and prepare for club games, as they did with regularity under Osorio and interim coach Ricardo Ferretti. "We have a way of working that doesn't contain big mysteries and in which there are rights and obligations," Martino said last week.
The message has certainly been felt by players, FMF workers and the media, although it shouldn't be interpreted as an iron-fisted dictatorship. Martino isn't prone to losing his temper and throwing out irrational statements. It's a more balanced approach. For example, after considering a petition, Martino did allow Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez to leave camp in San Diego to get married.
Equally, if there are issues, Martino will address them. His experience in dealing with big institutions like Barcelona and the Argentina national team indicate he isn't afraid to speak out if required. That was clear in the way Martino took Porto and Jesus "Tecatito" Corona apart for the winger's absence from camp due to a left ankle injury. Martino felt slighted by both the player and Porto and was direct and confrontational in his response. The message in calling out Corona, however, wasn't only for the winger, but every Mexican player, each club side and even the fans: "Make the national team be respected."
Game promoters didn't get off lightly, either. The pitch in San Diego was nowhere near as bad as reports suggested, but Martino was right to point out that a national team that attracted just under 100,000 fans in the U.S. over two games in the international break deserves better. The realities of putting turf down on American football stadiums make it tough, but Martino doesn't want to settle for anything less than the best and that message could be heard loud and clear.
In terms of the media, there's been no thawing of the tension that hit before the World Cup, when players were caught partying the day before leaving for Denmark. The image of veteran Andres Guardado hauling 18-year-old Diego Lainez away from the cameras on arrival in San Diego set the tone. There's a lack of empathy between the experienced players and the Mexican press at present and the media lockdown has been one element of the camp that hasn't changed under Martino, who could be seen hugging, sending messages and taking photos with Paraguayan journalists after his prematch news conference.
On the pitch, Martino's double sessions early in the week contrasted with Osorio's more methodological approach. Again, the message is that the players are coming in to work. "We took advantage of a very good 10 days and that was reflected in the two games," Diego Lainez told reporters on Tuesday. "It's exciting because we learned a lot from the coach and understood a little of what he wants."
Martino employed a standard 4-3-3 in both matches. The idea is to inculcate the system and the demands of the positions into the players, so they understand the system and know their roles, before potentially shifting to other formations. It's a more simplistic, back-to-basics approach than the last World Cup cycle. Martino paced the technical area with intent during games as though he wasn't overly happy, but the playing style was well received by the players. Martino's high press could be seen, the full-backs pushed high and El Tri sought to play out from the back and dominate possession, while looking to penetrate the opposition defense.
Martino declared the camp to be "distinctly positive," but knows the team can improve. "Evidently we can improve a lot more because it is impossible to have a very fluid and polished performance when we have so few training sessions and games," he said.
The only time Martino didn't look in control was when Paraguay coach Eduardo Berizzo -- a former teammate at Newell's Old Boys -- unintentionally kicked the ball into his glasses in the second half, causing a cut on his nose.
There's also been a noticeable shift in tone to be more inclusive to Mexico-based players, whereas Osorio put emphasis on those playing in tougher leagues in Europe. "Since we arrived he's told us that the players in Europe and the players in Mexico have the same possibilities [of playing], which didn't happen in the last cycle and that excites us," Rodolfo Pizarro stated following the win over Chile.
It's a pragmatic stance from Martino, who is aware of the realities of high wages in Mexico and the pulling power of MLS. It's difficult for Mexican players to move to good European leagues, even if the Argentine knows having more players in top leagues would be the ideal.
But though there is an acknowledgement that this is Martino's honeymoon period, it's also been clear a lift was needed. Let's not forget that it was only last November that goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa said El Tri had "no path, no direction."
If nothing else, this camp has given Mexico an idea to rally around and a coach who has so far made a positive impression, even if he is keeping his feet on the ground. "We have to be balanced," Martino said when questioned about the rousing ovation he received from fans in Levi's Stadium. "The moment will arrive in which they also want to swear at me."