Like many of us when stepping into any new job or office, Mexico men's manager Jaime "Jimmy" Lozano has needed some time to adjust to his latest role.
Brought in as interim in June and then given the permanent position by August, the 45-year-old has had a mixed bag of results in the handful of months that he has been in charge. Testing out different XIs and tactics in the same manner that a new hire or colleague would test out different lunch options -- always go for the quickest spots, in my opinion -- there have been some hits and misses from the manager that was coaching at the youth national level just a couple years ago.
He has required patience, a virtue that Mexican soccer is often not known for, but when needing to meet what should have been a fairly straightforward Copa America qualification deadline this month, the reality is that El Tri's coach looked ill-prepared despite having 10 games beneath his belt.
Up against Honduras in a Concacaf Nations League quarterfinal series that served as a qualifier for next year's Conmebol tournament, nowhere did Lozano's misses look more apparent than through his miscalculations that almost placed Mexico into a crisis mode. In that first quarterfinal leg last week, El Tri's attack was shockingly absent.
Playing with a casualness that exuded far too much confidence against a team they beat 4-0 in June, Lozano's setup failed to create enough danger in the final third. The Central Americans, who were more than happy to let Mexico harmlessly move the ball around and take low percentage shots, did well to counter and quickly move forward when in possession, eventually scoring in the 30th minute against El Tri backup goalkeeper Angel Malagon.
Down 1-0, Lozano did little to significantly change his strategy and instead opted for what were essentially man-for-man substitutions in the second half. Unsurprisingly, the script stayed the same for Mexico after remaining scoreless, while allowing Honduras to once again capitalize on a goal that secured a 2-0 loss for Lozano and his players in the first quarterfinal leg.
To the coach's credit, those attacking efforts did increase significantly during the second leg on Tuesday with the knowledge that Copa America qualification could slip away, but it was still undoubtedly a mess from his XI.
"At times, and especially in the first half, that need [for goals] made us look off," admitted Lozano after the following result.
With countless examples of poor finishing at the Estadio Azteca, Lozano's players were more to blame in the second leg. Mexico needed 34 shots, and a robust amount of injury time, just to reach the minimum number of two goals that equalized the aggregate scoreline and sent the game to extra time. Once there in the two additional halves of play and with four more shots that failed to hit the target, Mexico were then left with a roll of the dice for Copa America qualification through penalties.
Thanks to shootout goals from Santiago Giménez, Johan Vásquez, Orbelín Pineda, and Cesar Huerta -- who was given three attempts after Honduras' Edrick Menjivar stepped off his line twice -- Mexico were able to get the job done with a 4-2 win through penalties, albeit with a bittersweet taste.
Lozano shouldn't escape any of that bittersweet criticism.
Looking back at the coach's influence on Tuesday, his strategy with substitutions was worth questioning, once again. Taking far too long to make changes and not taking necessary tactical risks until late in the match, Mexico were literally seconds away from losing the quarterfinal series had Edson Álvarez not scored in the 101st minute. That said, Lozano did note post-game that he believed Alvarez's goal wasn't a fluke.
"Yes, it was the last play, but we had plenty of goalscoring chances, we generated a lot," said the coach. "It's not like we didn't have chances and at the end we found a chance by accident. I think that today it was a game that was very different than the one we experienced in Honduras."
Clearly relieved with Copa America qualification in hand, Mexico's coach also highlighted the importance of maintaining his team's right state of mind. Perhaps instead of describing their attitude in the quarterfinal series as overconfident -- especially during the first leg -- what could instead be characterized is an assured mentality from his players that would follow through with Copa America qualification.
"We have to continue trusting ourselves, and above all until the last moment, not losing faith. I think that's what we saw," said Lozano. "I believe in that a lot. Beyond the work on the pitch that was carried out, also the work for each one of them mentally."
All convincing words from Mexico's coach, although it would be difficult to assume the conversation would be the same if Alvarez didn't score or if the penalty shootout had not gone in their favor. Related to issues with finding the back of the net, El Tri have also yet to resolve an aforementioned problem that is growing and genuinely worrisome regarding their out-and-out strikers.
In 400+ minutes of play since October, Mexico's three forwards (Raúl Jiménez, Henry Martín and Gimenez) have all combined for a total of just one single shot on target in four games. Looking ahead to the Copa America, it's unlikely that Lozano can afford this type of inefficiency or tally of 38 shots in a single game to find success.
Moving from new hire to established name, he'll need to start cementing more clear-cut answers and effective in-game strategies in the immediate future. After escaping a near-failure in November, there's also no denying that his stock has decreased in the Mexican soccer world.
Once understandably being given the benefit of the doubt as the new face in the Mexican Football Federation office, the training period is now officially over for the coach who has higher expectations than just narrowly surviving a regional quarterfinal series.