There is no doubt the 39-year-old is a legend, but he’s also a liability on the field for El Tri in what could be a hard-fought group
It’s a problem Mexico manager Juan Carlo Osorio had when he arrived as head coach in the fall of 2015 and it’s one he has on the eve of his first-ever World Cup. It’s not rotations or injuries or style of play. It’s Rafa Marquez.
Save a brief resurgence in 2016, the legend hasn’t been the ideal player for El Tri to have on the field, whether it’s at center back, defensive midfielder or elsewhere. Now that he’s on the World Cup team, what is Osorio planning for Marquez? As much of a romantic about the game as Osorio is, he’s also too pragmatic to bring Marquez along for the ride without having a plan to use him on the field.
Let’s get this out of the way. You have to give Marquez credit, and not just for his history. His past is decorated with honors for club and country, and despite a massive speed bump on the road to a fifth World Cup, he’s made it. He’s in Moscow, wearing team gear unsullied by advertisers and playing in El Tri’s friendly matches before the tournament. Playing in a fifth tournament will be a remarkable achievement, and he’s worked hard on his fitness in recent months to be able to achieve this goal.
Yet, when stacked up against Mexico’s other options, Marquez falls short.
Let’s take his showing against Denmark. Marquez came on at the halftime break for Hector Herrera and spent the second half as the withdrawn player in the midfield. Well, at least that was the idea. Marquez spent way too much of his time lurching forward at Denmark attackers in the pocket between the two interior midfielders.
Things started off well with that strategy. In the 47th minute, he poked a pass away from Christian Eriksen and found a teammate for what could’ve been a counterattack. That’s good.
The issues came later. In the 54th minute, there is a series where he has several issues, dropping between the center backs to help them push out wide (something the midfielder is asked to do in Osorio’s system) but then struggling to cope with the pressure and putting goalkeeper Guillermo Ochoa in a tough situation that is only resolved by Carlos Salcedo putting a slick move on a pressuring attacker to get the ball out of Mexico’s defensive third.
Marquez eagerly joins an attack that soon develops down the right-hand side, leaving Marco Fabian as the player tracking back with Marquez trapped up field when Denmark counters. It’s not that Marquez always needs to be the deepest midfielder, but he does need to show more positional discipline. This unwanted inversion – Fabian playing in front of the center backs with Marquez in no man’s land – became too much of a pattern.
Denmark’s first blood comes in the 71st minute, and it was a stunning opener from Yussuf Poulsen. Run the play back just 30 seconds though and you’ll see Marquez again biting and leaving his position in an attempt to, well, it’s not really clear what he was trying to do. Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez has the defender in front of him and Marquez is back in the center circle. He vacates the space in the middle, allowing Eriksen to come into the middle and receive the pass (thanks also to a hopeless slide from a different Mexico midfielder). Marquez sprints back, but the 39-year-old can’t hope to catch up with the 26-year-old Premier League star, who finds Poulsen in position to score.
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Mexico as a whole wasn’t great against Denmark, but the second half was much worse than the first, and some of that is down to Marquez’s struggles to keep up and his lack of positional discipline.
So what is Osorio going to do with Marquez? With better options in the middle like Hector Herrera, Edson Alvarez and maybe even Jonathan dos Santos, Marquez isn’t the best man to play in the group stage. Ideally for Mexico, El Tri is stomping South Korea or Sweden 3-0 before bringing Marquez on for a cameo that would count as him playing and wearing the armband in a fifth tournament. That situation is hardly guaranteed to happen, though. Osorio may need those substitutions. Getting out of the group stage is the priority, so there could be a situation where Osorio has to choose between putting an attacking player in to look for another goal or giving Marquez minutes. He’s going to do whatever he can to win the game.
Maybe Osorio really sees Marquez as more than a leader. After all, there were rumors about the future Atlas director heading to the tournament in an advisory role. Instead, he has a roster spot. The manager must once again decide what to do with Marquez – a question that he’s faced his entire tenure and one that may define how his time with Mexico is viewed for years to come.