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Is Cocca a good fit as Mexico’s new coach? Which players will thrive and who’ll struggle?

Mexico‘s men’s national team is now in a new era under the management of Diego Cocca. The 51-year-old Argentine coach was unveiled last week as the leader of an El Tri side that is in need of a rejuvenation after a disappointing exit in the group stage of the 2022 World Cup.

With an aging roster left behind by former coach Gerardo “Tata” Martino, Cocca will quickly need to pinpoint some reinforcements and implement his methods before his debut in next month’s CONCACAF Nations League matches against Suriname (March 23) and Jamaica (March 26).

Ahead of those games, let’s dive into what exactly he’ll bring to Mexico’s tactical board, a few faces who will benefit from his appointment, a handful of others whose time with El Tri will be questioned, and a general sense if Cocca can work some magic with the overall player pool.

Tactics rundown: How Cocca will likely set up Mexico’s XI

Organization is probably the best one-word description of Cocca’s approach.

While leading Atlas to two Liga MX titles in the 2021 Apertura and 2022 Clausura, pragmatism was key in his defense-first style that was carried out in a 3-5-2 formation. Through that setup, Cocca relied on a highly coordinated midfield core and pacey wing-backs that were able to cover plenty of ground on the flanks.

In possession, his attacking gameplan was a direct one that was highlighted by his wing-backs connecting with the dangerous front two of Julian Quiñones and Julio Furch. While Quiñones was more of the clever and playmaking brain of the partnership, Furch was the well-rounded brawn that was excellent with finishing his chances and creating plays of his own.

Out of possession and when chasing a first or second goal, Cocca would have Atlas sit higher up the field and press opponents. Once they had the lead, he was more than happy to sit further back and/or cautiously put more numbers behind the ball — which sometimes led to tense or boring finishes to games.

If you ask most Tigres fans, this was a glaring issue in his short-lived 2023 stint with the club that lasted just five matches before he took the Mexico job. Although he did tinker with a 4-3-3 and 4-1-4-1 formation, his pragmatism remained and was best personified in a narrow 1-0 win during his final game in charge.

Players who can thrive: Araujo, Gimenez, Moreno

The wing-backs can make or break Cocca’s schematic, which means that he’ll especially need players who not only have a solid defensive base, but are also energetic, agile, and comfortable with creating chances going forward. Julian Araujo is someone with a high ceiling that can check these boxes. If the 21-year-old also able to finalize the move to Barcelona from the LA Galaxy soon, that will only increase his stock even more and help him make a great case to be a starter under Cocca.

At 35, Monterrey defender Hector Moreno isn’t getting any younger, but we can’t forget that he was one of Mexico’s few positives in the World Cup with his aerial presence, aggression and distribution. If he has additional support with another central figure in Cocca’s three-man backline, that would provide cover for the veteran that lacks speed but that could also enter a renaissance in his national team career.

Up top, 21-year-old Santiago Gimenez fits the mold of someone like Atlas’ Furch that is much more than just a strong goal-scoring striker. With the Eredivisie’s top-of-the-table Feyenoord, the physical Mexican forward has showcased his ability to connect well with his front-line, find passes in dangerous spaces and rapidly progress the ball. In a Cocca system that might potentially use just two forwards, a versatile option like Gimenez is an ideal fit.

Players who would struggle: Lainez, Jimenez, Rodriguez

If Cocca were to use a 3-5-2 formation, that would spell doom for some pure wingers. Talented options like Hirving “Chucky” Lozano and Alexis Vega could potentially thrive as a second striker, it’s tough to see someone like Tigres’ Diego Lainez earning much of a significant role. Still needing time to improve his finishing, decision-making and stamina, the 22-year-old’s best hope would be earning occasional minutes in a 4-3-3 or 4-1-4-1 scheme.

In the forward position, 31-year-old Wolverampton Wanderers striker Raul Jimenez would also probably run into some issues in Cocca’s demanding style. Sadly, since his life-threatening head injury in November of 2020, his output hasn’t been the same in nearly all aspects of his once all-around capabilities. Jimenez should be in the conversation in the near future for Mexico, but with inconsistent starting roles abroad, all signs point to him continuing his transition from one of El Tri‘s most important players to a backup on the bench.

Despite a decent start to Cruz Azul’s season with a goal and two assists in his first five appearances, 26-year-old midfielder Carlos Rodriguez has struggled with providing consistent performances at the national team level. Often finding himself on the wrong page of his El Tri teammates, Rodriguez could soon be left out of the Cocca midfield playbook — which looks set to be crowded with up-and-coming options stepping up — that requires everyone to be in sync.

Does Cocca’s approach work for Mexico?

The short answer is yes, but with some caveats.

Whether it be in a 3-5-2 or a variation of a four-man backline, Cocca’s strategy asks a lot from his players who are expected to play direct with the ball, press when out of possession, and sit back to defend if needed — all while holding onto an organized shape.

Energetic and well-rounded players are necessary for this, which on paper, Mexico has no lack of. When looking at the generation of players that could be key figures through the 2026 World Cup, names such as Cesar Montes, Erick Gutierrez, Edson Alvarez, Johan Vasquez, Erick Sanchez, Araujo, Gimenez and many more are capable of fulfilling the requirements needed for Cocca.

However, the big question is if the new tactical setup is a good idea in the short to medium term. Unless Cocca decides to alter his methods and become more attack-minded or possession-based (which is a possibility), there are legitimate worries about how well his strategy will look against CONCACAF opponents that almost always bunker their defense. In March’s Nations League games and this summer’s Gold Cup, it’ll be interesting to see the manner in which Cocca deals with this.

Most importantly, he must also figure out what his player pool will look like. The aging roster urgently needs a youthful refresh, and with Cocca and the Mexican Football Federation (FMF) promising in his presentation that he’ll work more closely with clubs, the hope is that there will be even more of a focus to identify and support players who can be important contributors to El Tri.

Like all things involved in this process though, it’s simply hope and not a guarantee just yet for Mexico’s future.

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