Mexico's sobering loss to Argentina makes Martino's challenge clearer

SAN ANTONIO -- This international break compacted the Mexico national team's longstanding existential dilemma into the space of a few days.

First up, last Friday, there was a confident and impressive 3-0 victory against a United States side in transition. Beating your rival always brings a boost, but especially when it was so convincing, highlighting an apparent gap between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in CONCACAF.

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The win also included three goals that reflected concepts that coach Gerardo "Tata" Martino is looking to create as central cornerstones of Mexico's identity: the first came from an elaborate build-up, circulating the ball with speed to eventually prize open the US defense; the second from stealing possession after implementing a high press and the third from a swift counter-attack.

Naturally, confidence was high heading into Tuesday's game in San Antonio against an Argentina team that wasn't at full strength; there was a real sense that Mexico had truly taken a step forward under Martino and that the Alamodome would be an ideal setting for El Tri to prove that, extending Martino's 11-game undefeated run in the process. But it fell terribly flat.

Mexico was a shadow of the team that defeated the United States and fell 4-0 to La Albiceleste, with Lautaro Martinez securing a first-half hat trick. Martino has warned that Mexico is in the chasing pack when it comes to elite national teams and he was proven right on the evidence of Tuesday's game.

"The first first level is made up national teams that have been important for 100 years," Martino said last month. "It's not easy to reach that level. The only national team that I've seen step up to that level is Spain. It was always Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy; I wouldn't even put a national team like England in there. We can probably put France in there now."

Arguably Mexico's strongest XI right now was given a reality check by a young Argentina, just as the Mexico's youngsters were in the trip to South America last November, when El Tri lost two games to La Albiceleste, both by 2-0. Mexico's run without a win over Argentina is now at 10 matches and Tuesday's game was one of those where everything fell apart at the seams and Mexico's weaknesses were left exposed.

There were question marks about the lack of innovation attacking, the ease at which Argentina created chances, Edson Alvarez's greenness playing the holding role on his own against top opposition, whether Jesus Gallardo is defensively adept enough against good sides and the vacuum of on-field leadership when things went wrong.

Nestor Araujo's abysmal performance was, in some ways, the least of Mexico's concerns. It was certainly a bad night for the center-back, who was partly at fault for three of Argentina's goals, but he's the only Europe-based out-and-out defender Mexico has and his performances for Celta Vigo have been decent.

More worrying, perhaps, than Araujo's individual errors, Guillermo Ochoa's vulnerability and Carlos Salcedo's poor display will be the parallels with the 7-0 defeat to Chile in the Copa America Centenario, which ended Juan Carlos Osorio's 10-game unbeaten run at the start of his spell in charge.

Mexico seemed to shut down after the first goal went in, losing confidence in playing out from the back -- which Argentina coach Lionel Scaloni said afterwards was the plan -- and leaking four goals in 22 first-half minutes. It was like a boxer looking to force the fight and to get punches away on the inside, but being thwarted continuously by the opponent's jab, losing composure and then getting picked off.

Argentina was able to stop Mexico's full-backs having any influence on the game. Winning that particularly battle meant wingers Hirving Lozano and Jesus Corona were left isolated and Raul Jimenez was virtually non-existent for large parts of the game.

In the Gold Cup, Mexico struggled to break down teams like Haiti, who used a low block and moved the ball forward swiftly. Mix a similar tactic in with Argentina and Martinez's quality and Mexico's individual errors and you get the 4-0 scoreline.

Having 63% of possession was all well and good, but Mexico's first shot on goal came in the 91st minute. The expected goals for Mexico was 0.16 to Argentina's 2.21, highlighting the vast gap between the teams on the night and Mexico's bluntness in the final third. Clearly, a team can have a bad game and Martino wasn't alarmed by the defeat.

"I don't think [the defeat] is our reality and I also don't think that going 11 games without losing was our reality," Martino told the postmatch news conference. "It's the second 'A level' game we've had. The first was against Chile. And the substantial difference against Argentina and Chile is that tonight we committed the kinds of errors in which we knew Argentina could damage us."

One of Martino's solutions is to try to play more games against high-quality opposition so players get used to that level on a more regular basis, but he isn't the first Mexico coach to ask for that and the "A level" games he mentioned afterward are hard to come by.

The reality is that in the next two international windows Mexico will play Bermuda and Panama twice in the CONCACAF Nations League. March offers a window to bring in big teams for friendlies, while Nations League finals will be in June. After that, World Cup qualifying begins in September 2020. In other words, there are few opportunities between now and Qatar 2022, especially with Mexico not involved in the Copa America next summer.

Martino will have to work with the calendar and circumstances he has -- and knew about before taking the job -- grappling and attempting to change Mexico's age-old status of being a giant in the region, but an also-ran on the world stage.