When coaches are in situations where their team either has failed miserably or is in the process of failing miserably, most tend to display some sort of self-awareness. Whether they react with dejection or defiance, coaches usually have some sort of reaction to the poor results that could potentially lead to their demise.
Mexico lost, 2-1, at home to Honduras on Friday, marking the fourth consecutive home World Cup qualifier in which they had failed to win. It took about 20 minutes longer than normal for 'Chepo' Jose Manuel de la Torre to give his post-match press conference. Many assumed he'd been fired in the locker room, while just about everyone expected some show of emotion to go along with some awareness of his situation if he ever did take to the mic.
Instead, Chepo gave the exact same press conference he'd given for six months. He reiterated that Mexico are still in a decent position to qualify for the World Cup. He said he wouldn't resign and that he was still manager because the people who are in charge had faith in him. At 3 a.m. the next day, he was fired.
De la Torre also denied that he made any tactical or team selection errors and said that the players simply didn't perform, just as he did after Mexico's three previous poor home results.
In reality, he handicapped his team in all four of their bad home performances. He set them up to fail and they weren't good enough to overcome his errors. He left his entire right flank wide open for Jamaica to counter down for 90 minutes, weakened his midfield for attacking players to give the United States an easier route to relieve pressure, set up an attack based on wide play and crosses into the box against a Costa Rica team playing an extra central defender and made no reaction to Honduras' halftime formation change in Mexico's most recent debacle.
At some point, players have to perform and make the most of their manager's tactics, but it would have been nice if Chepo's tactics were ever coherent. It would also be nice if Chepo acknowledged that he put his players in bad spots with bad decisions on a few occasions, but that requires a bit of introspection and humility. Those things sound hard. It's much easier to put your 20-year-old defender on blast.
"The goals were down to individual errors, and that they made getting a positive result into quite a project."
- Jose Manuel de la Torre, translated from Spanish and via Televisa Deportes on Twitter.
The last line of defense on both goals was young phenom Diego Reyes, who was making his eighth appearance for Mexico in place of captain 'Maza' Francisco Rodriguez. Reyes hadn't played a competitive match since May 26. The combined age of the two immobile central midfielders ahead of him is 67.
If FMF hadn't decided to fire de la Torre before his press conference, that line might have sealed his fate. Even if he didn't single out Reyes by name, there's no question that what he did constitutes singling him out. And the player he singled out was physically overmatched by very large grown men, was out of form and had no protection in front of him. The goalkeeper behind him was not 'Memo' Guillermo Ochoa, Mexico's best fit goalkeeper, because Memo declined a call-up after Chepo refused to name him as his first-choice keeper. Chepo did nothing to change what his team was doing after Honduras put on a second striker. Reyes was set up to fail, and when he did fail, he was unfairly singled out by his manager as a failure. It's almost a fireable offense in and of itself.
The result against Honduras was bad enough that de la Torre was almost certainly done as Mexico boss even before his inept press conference, though it's tough to be sure. After all, firing him after two straight home 0-0 draws against Jamaica and the United States wouldn't have been unreasonable, but Justino Compean and the team owners -- who get to vote on major national program decisions -- thought it would be a bit too knee-jerk. On Saturday morning, they finally pulled the trigger, and Compean answered to reporters who asked why it ever got to this point.
Compean on Chepo staying on so long: I bet on continuity and I failed.— Tom Marshall (@mexicoworldcup) September 7, 2013
Betting on continuity and giving managers more than a couple of bad results to work out the kinks in their team is admirable. Lots of coaches get fired hastily now that so much money is on the line in football and it's nice to see that someone is willing to put trust in a struggling manager to right the ship.
In most cases, Compean and the FMF owners probably would have seen their lenience with their manager pay off as their team came together and comfortably qualified for the World Cup, but they happened to bet on the wrong guy. And not just the wrong guy, but one of the worst guys that they could have possibly bet on.
They bet on a manager who was never going to turn things around because he was completely oblivious to the tactical mistakes he made. One who had an odd tendency to play aging players who were well past their prime while giving young players minimal support when he actually used them. One who froze out El Tri's two best players, the aforementioned Ochoa and wide forward Carlos Vela, who is currently in his third season starring for La Liga outfit Real Sociedad. He's incompetent in just about every way.
And the players that he liked to criticize so often? They bailed him out of bad decisions frequently.
The talent of his players is the only reason he won the 2011 Gold Cup. Bob Bradley pencil-whipped him from the start with an unconventional team that led to the U.S. taking a 2-0 lead, but Mexico's attacking talent was too much for the USMNT to handle in Mexico's 4-2 win. In Mexico's only win of the Hex, away to Jamaica, the efforts of Carlos Salcido and Aldo de Nigris to produce the game's only goal was the only positive thing going for Mexico on either side of the ball. Jamaica created more chances than El Tri in that game, but lacked a finishing touch, even though Mexico seemed to have no answer for the speed of their counter attacks. Their teenage right back Alvas Powell had a great game, but was beaten badly on one occasion, which was enough for Mexico to find the winning goal.
Chepo has always looked out of his depth. It was obvious that he wasn't cut out for the job in March and obvious yet again in June. His B-team, by far the best in the 2013 Gold Cup, couldn't even get to the final of that competition. He was kept around long enough to help Mexico drop more points for no good reason and El Tri supporters should be furious that it took a fourth home debacle for him to be fired.
It seems unlikely that de la Torre will ever learn anything from his mistakes, but he's out of Mexico's hair. Now, the question is whether or not the damage he's done to the national team is irreparable in the short term. Compean seems to have learned his lesson, but his next moves will determine whether or not El Tri recover from this debacle anytime soon.
The talent in the Mexico player pool means that they will always have a chance to right the ship, qualify for the World Cup and head to Brazil feeling like they have a chance to make a run to the knockout stage. A good showing against the United States in Columbus and an excellent hire to replace Chepo could reverse Mexico's fortunes instantly.
No pressure, Justino.