Jose Manuel de la Torre is running out of excuses for the Mexican fans and federation. While his team currently sits in third place in CONCACAF World Cup qualifying -- good enough to get his team to Brazil -- they have struggled thus far in 2013. In nine games, they have one win and eight draws.
More likely than not, 'Chepo' de la Torre's job is on the line in the upcoming Confederations Cup, where Mexico have been placed in a difficult group with Brazil, Japan and Italy. Given their current form, they're favorites to finish last.
The most prevalent feature of Chepo's tenure as Mexico manager has been his constant tinkering with his first choice team and formation. The changes that he's made at almost every position (only "Chicharito" Javier Hernandez and Andres Guardado are constants in his team) have arguably led to his team looking disjointed. In three home games at the Azteca in the Hex, Mexico have no goals. It hasn't mattered what he's tried because nothing seems to work.
De la Torre's critics believe that his regular changes to the team have kept them from developing a rhythm. It's a fair criticism given the seemingly random nature of the moves that he makes, but just north of Mexico's border, the manager of their biggest rival is running his team in a very similar way to a greater degree of success.
Jurgen Klinsmann has done just as much random rearranging of his squad from match to match as de la Torre has. The only difference between the two is that the United States appears to improve with each match, while Mexico has stagnated badly. Klinsmann has the U.S. winning matches while playing some of the prettiest soccer they've ever played, but Chepo's team keep playing to 0-0 draws.
On the surface, Klinsmann's changes appear even more dramatic than de la Torre's. While Chepo has swapped players at every position, they're usually like-for-like changes, or close to it. He's switched formations when moving between Giovani dos Santos and Aldo de Nigris to keep them in their natural positions and his move away from playing Carlos Salcido in the center of a midfield was a move towards playing actual central midfielders. Chepo started his tenure by experimenting with playing a few players in unnatural positions, but has done none of that this June in an attempt to get his team scoring. It hasn't worked.
Klinsmann has gone in the opposite direction. As the U.S. gets deeper into the Hex, he's gotten more and more willing to experiment with starting players in positions other than the ones they normally play. In Tuesday's win over Panama, Klinsmann started five players -- Fabian Johnson, DaMarcus Beasley, Eddie Johnson, Geoff Cameron and Brad Evans -- in spots other than where they play most frequently for their club teams. The only player who has spent significant time with any of their club sides starting in the role that they played on Tuesday is Fabian Johnson, who has spent almost as much time in the Bundesliga in midfield, where he played against Panama, as he has at fullback, where he's played most of his USMNT minutes.
While Chepo's sixth new starting XI in as many competitive matches had the same problems as the previous five squads, Klinsmann's fifth team in as many competitive matches looked better than they ever have during his tenure. It wasn't down to luck or the United States playing a weaker opponent than Mexico did. It happened because Mexico didn't make any changes to the way they played while the U.S. adjusted their tactics to fit the players they had on the pitch and accounted for their opponent's strengths and weaknesses.
Costa Rica manager Jorge Luis Pinto brilliantly anticipated Mexico's changes in personnel and their inability to change their strategy. He switched to a back five with two central midfielders for the second time in the Hex and Mexico made no adjustments to account for the strengths and weaknesses of Los Ticos' setup. If Mexico switched to playing with a single central striker and an added body in the midfield while moving away from lofted crosses into the penalty area, they probably would have created matchup nightmares for Costa Rica.
Instead, El Tri played right into their hands.
They persisted with two strikers, allowing Costa Rica to man-mark both of them while having a spare center back. They never added a midfielder, meaning Costa Rica were never at a disadvantage in the center. They kept lofting crosses into the box for their two sub-six-foot tall strikers, who would have been outnumbered even if they were significantly bigger than the defenders they were up against.
Meanwhile, the U.S. made big adjustments to the way they played in the absences of Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi. With a more pure defensive midfielder next to him in Geoff Cameron, Michael Bradley went forward more often, took more risks and acted as a playmaker, as opposed to his usual role as a facilitator for the attacking midfielders. Instead of playing the ball into Eddie Johnson's feet and using him to help keep possession like they do with Zusi, the U.S. took advantage of his pace while masking his lack of technical ability compared to the man he replaced by playing balls ahead of him, into space, that he could run onto. Instead of directly challenging Panamanian captain Felipe Baloy, a tenacious and athletic central defender, Dempsey and Jozy Altidore made runs off the ball to attempt to pull him away from the middle of the penalty area.
Klinsmann didn't shy away from his basic principles of building attacks from the back, trying to out-possess the opposition and pressing high without the ball, but still made adjustments to his tactics to suit his players and exploit his opposition's weaknesses. Chepo seems incapable of making these types of adjustments.
Mexico's problem isn't necessarily Chepo's constant lineup changes -- after all, Alex Ferguson often went entire years without picking unchanged teams -- it's his inability to change his tactics to fit the players he selects and take advantage of the holes in his opposition. Plenty of U.S. fans would probably love to see Klinsmann pick a starting XI and stick with it, but as long as he's moulding his tactics to fit the game situation and the players he selects, his tinkering is unlikely to have the same adverse effects as de la Torre's.
Managers who like to stick with the same XI aren't necessarily more or less successful than managers who like to change their team frequently. There's no right or wrong way to pick a team or manage lineup decisions, but there is something inherently wrong with hoping random players can make any tactic work without making any attempt to play to their strengths or attack their opponent's weaknesses. Chepo needs to figure that out shortly or he'll be out of a job before he gets another crack at a World Cup qualifier.