The win over a Netherlands team still bedding into new coach Frank de Boer's system didn't replicate anything approaching a major tournament, but it did offer a reminder after over a year without a full squad that Mexico has both an identity and a healthy dose of quality.
The game against Algeria wasn't quite so positive for Gerardo "Tata" Martino's men who could have easily lost, although it was an intense game that provided a stern test, from which Mexico managed to escape with a draw.
20 games up for Martino
Martino's record with El Tri after 20 games reads W17, L1, D2, with 53 goals for, 19 against and average possession per game of 62%. Considering the Argentine is adverse to focusing squarely on results in judging a "process" -- "I think that for better or worse results confuse us," Martino said after the Netherlands game -- the numbers won't be of too much importance, especially given the average position of the opposition in the FIFA rankings over his time in charge has been 68th.
The most reassuring aspect so far of Martino's reign has been the implementation of a style of play that seems to suit the player pool, as well as how the players seem to have understood and bought into it. "We can have changes in the system, but what we aren't going to negotiate is the team's style and the style is to try to play out from the back, try to attack and press high," said Martino, following the Algeria game. "We try to sustain that independent of the system used."
Mexico may not have the star names that some national teams can boast, but Martino has shown over his 20 games that El Tri fans have reason to be hopeful moving forward. What looked like a positive partnership on paper when Martino took over in January 2019 is so far working out; the coach has the raw materials at his disposal and is gradually shaping them to his liking.
Wide players like Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, Hirving Lozano and Diego Lainez are all excellent in one-on-one situations and will be vital players; Wolves' Raul Jimenez is one of the Premier League's best strikers; and there are an abundance of technically skilled, hard-working players that fit Martino's playing philosophy.
A first choice XI of Guillermo Ochoa; Luis Rodriguez, Nestor Araujo, Hector Moreno, Jesus Gallardo; Edson Alvarez, Hector Herrera, Andreas Guardado; Corona, Lozano and Jimenez has also emerged, even if a couple of those names -- most notably Rodriguez and Araujo -- aren't completely inked in.
Not that Martino, who has reached Copa America finals twice with Argentina and once with Paraguay, is getting carried away, even if Mexico may move inside the top 10 when the next FIFA rankings come out.
Still issues to iron out
Arguably the most important moment in Martino's stint to this date, aside from lifting the Gold Cup, was losing 4-0 to Argentina in September 2019. After recording back-to-back wins over the United States, Mexico came badly unstuck against an Argentina that picked it off on the counter.
The victory over Netherlands and the European tour in general produced positive signs that El Tri has taken on board some lessons from that Argentina loss, even if it remains a warning against complacency. There was better control of attack-defense transition, the defense wasn't left as exposed, and there were improved individual performances, particularly at centre-back from Araujo, Cesar Montes and Moreno.
But question marks still remain and the depth in quality behind the usual starters isn't as strong as it could be, which was partially highlighted by the less cohesive performance against Algeria, for which Martino made five changes to the starting XI.
The shift to a back five (a 5-2-3/3-4-3 formation) for the first half against the impressive Algeria was awkward at times. The idea was to counter Algeria's strong wide play. But whether Luis Romo, who has played in a more advanced midfield role for Cruz Azul this season, is the one to play the libero position is a long way from being decided, while the position's natural heir Edson Alvarez may have a battle in coming weeks to keep his starting spot at Ajax.
At right-back, the jury is out over whether Jorge Sanchez -- who made a bad mistake for Algeria's second goal -- or Rodriguez are national team material right now, at least as regular starters in important games.
In goal, Ochoa's absence through injury meant Alfredo Talavera and Rodolfo Cota got 90 minutes each over the two games. Talavera certainly impressed, although playing out from the back is of vital importance to Martino and he even said the 38-year-old Pumas keeper needs time to adjust to what he is looking for in that department. And Cota was shaky in general against Algeria.
Elsewhere, Inter Miami's Rodolfo Pizarro looked off the pace coming in off the left wing in both games, while captain Guardado and Qatar-based Moreno remain vital players, despite being 34 and 32, respectively. At some point, replacing both is potentially going to be painful.
"Tecatito" enjoys big international break
It's been a rocky ride for the 27-year-old with the national team and he has never firmly been considered a starter over a consistent period.
Whether that has changed after these last two matches remains to be seen, but the signs are good. The former Monterrey player was man-of-the-match against Netherlands and netted Mexico's opener versus Algeria with a neat finish, just a couple of days after mentioning in interviews that he needed to score more to take his game to the next level.
Martino labelled Corona a "pillar" of the national team, something that has never truly been suggested before.
Pandemic delays generational change
In a parallel world in which COVID-19 hadn't wreaked havoc during 2020, the Olympics would have taken place this past summer and Mexico's Under-23 generation would already be fighting tooth-and-nail for spots in the full national team.
Instead, Mexico's U-23s met in Mexico City while the first team was in Europe. Head coach Jaime Lozano hinted over the weekend in a video conference that Martino is going to get the pick of the younger players moving forward, although there will be compromises made. Olympic-eligible players such as Lainez, Gerardo Arteaga, Cesar Montes, Jesus Gomez, Carlos Rodriguez (who couldn't travel after testing positive for COVID-19) and Alvarez were all in the full national team squad this time, which made sense given all but Montes and Rodriguez are based in Europe.
Clearly Martino, who has a good relationship with Lozano, isn't going to gut the U-23 squad as it prepares for Tokyo 2021. And that means U-23 players such as Jose Juan Macias, Sebastian Cordova, Johan Vasquez, Roberto Alvarado, Erick Aguirre and Alexis Vega are all on the fringe. Exactly how far developed the younger generation is compared to the Russia 2018 generation in Martino's mind remains to be seen.
Chicharito part of the pack chasing "indispensable" Jimenez
Javier "Chicharito" Hernandez's reaction to not being in the Mexico squad ahead of this camp was interesting.
"Is it out?" said the LA Galaxy striker in a video conference. "I hadn't realized. If I'm not on the list I'll keep working to get back."
There's different ways of dealing with national team legends, which the 32-year-old -- Mexico's highest-ever goal scorer -- clearly is. Martino's position has been that Jimenez, whom he labelled as "indispensable" after his two assists against Algeria, is his No/.1 striker and that Hernandez won't be gifted a spot in the squad based off past performances.
"It's a question of choice," said Martino when asked about Hernandez's absence. "I'd be worried if he was on the list and didn't know."
The bottom line is that Hernandez, whose wife gave birth to a daughter during the international break, is out of form in Major League Soccer and is on the outside looking in for the national team. The former Manchester United striker will be forced to scrap it out with Alan Pulido, Henry Martin, Macias and even Monterrey's Rogelio Funes Mori, who is rushing through his Mexican citizenship to be ready if called upon in March, according to ESPN Mexico sources.