Copa fine-tuning: Mexico finds a new identity as Brazil unleashes a new No 9

The chant started softly, uncertainly, as if the tens of thousands of Mexico fans in this college football stadium in rural Texas were glancing around at each other, trying to figure out if they actually meant it.

Si se puede. Yes we can.

A slogan that was once iconic now felt ironic. Of course they couldn’t do it, whatever “it” was. Three days ago, in their first Copa America warm-up friendly, Mexico were humiliated 4-0 by Uruguay. Now they were down a goal to Brazil, Latin America’s eternal superpower, and the clock had already ticked well past 90.

But as they set up for a last-ditch corner kick, the self-deprecating cheer grew into something louder and less expected: the sound of real hope.

Si se puede. Si se puede.

It is not normal to feel hopeful about a team that left most of its stars — Guillermo Ochoa, Raul Jimenez, Chucky Lozano, Henry Martin — out of its squad to begin a rebuilding process that the manager refers to as “generational change”.

It is even less encouraging when the supposedly new team is barely younger than the old one. The average age of Mexico’s starting line-up in their final game of the 2022 World Cup was 28.4 years old. The 11 that faced Brazil only brought that down to 27.0, still older than two-thirds of the club sides in Europe’s top five leagues.

But if they haven’t really changed generations, Mexico may be starting to change their football.

Lozano’s new-look Mexico ahead of the Brazil fixture (Aric Becker/AFP via Getty Images)

The new El Tri are very good at defending on the front foot. Even though Brazil had more possession, Mexico took nearly twice as many touches in the final third — not to mention more shots — thanks to a high press that kept trapping the Selecao into blunders in the build-up.

Nearly all of Mexico’s chances came after winning the ball high, such as the moment in the first half when the Brazilian goalkeeper Alisson gift-wrapped a bad pass to Carlos Rodriguez in his own box under heavy pressure.

Manager Jaime Lozano said his team had “learned from some situations against Uruguay”, but the main thing they seemed to have learned from Marcelo Bielsa’s side was the value of a tireless man-oriented press.

When Mexico finally scored in the second half to cut Brazil’s lead to 2-1, that’s exactly how it happened. The 29-year-old Monterrey midfielder Luis Romo slid into a tackle in the opposing half, popped up and immediately looked to play the ball forward. Nine seconds later it was in Brazil’s net.

It wasn’t much, but it was something to build on. Mexico, a team that still can’t really pass their way through midfield or even pretend to defend at the back, managed to cover up those weaknesses with high pressing and direct transitions. They held their own against one of the best teams in the world.

By the time their stoppage-time corner went out for another, even higher-stakes corner, the home fans — which is what Mexico are in Texas, after all — were unabashedly screaming.

Si se puede! Si se puede!

And then, sure enough, they actually did do it. Almost.

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Guillermo Martinez equalises for Mexico in added time at the end (Aric Becker/AFP via Getty Images)

In the 93rd minute, 29-year-old Pumas striker Guillermo Martinez headed the second corner onto the post, reached his own rebound and fired it past Alisson to equalise. At 2-2, Mexico’s new workmanlike squad had pressed and transitioned their way to an improbable comeback.

It was improbable because almost nothing else they did worked. A midfield of Romo and Dinamo Moscow’s Luis Chavez could get very little going. Mexico’s usual pivot, West Ham’s Edson Alvarez, was dropped down to centre-back after a nightmare game against Uruguay. His creative rotations out of the back line into pockets of space in midfield were interesting but not very effective. Mexico were only really dangerous when they did not have the ball.

But a comeback was also unlikely because, in the end, Brazil are still Brazil.

Dorival Junior’s Selecao treated this friendly as a chance to break in some new players before the tournament. The 20-year-old Savio was especially bright in his first Brazil start, even though he lined up on the right, opposite his position for Girona. His sweeping dribbles across midfield as an inverted winger threw Mexico’s man-marking into disarray and set up the team’s first goal.

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Savio caught the eye at College Station (Tim Warner/Getty Images)

In the 61st minute, 17-year-old phenom Endrick bounded onto the pitch wearing Brazil’s newest No 9 shirt.

Ronaldo’s number might have looked a little silly on a player so small his kit threatened to swallow him up, except for the fact the kid was an absolute terror. It took him all of a minute to slip behind the Mexican left-back Gerardo Arteaga (though, in fairness, everyone is constantly getting behind Arteaga) to flash his first shot across the face of goal.

The real fun started when Endrick was joined by his soon-to-be Real Madrid team-mate Vinicius Junior, playing something like the new centre-forward role that he tried out in this spring’s Champions League. Their chemistry as a strike partnership was instant.

Whenever either forward dropped off the front line to collect the ball, his first look was for a line-breaking pass to his partner running ahead of him and they’re gifted enough to connect at almost any speed or angle.

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Vinicius Jr demonstrated his class and combined well with Endrick (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

Six minutes into added time, Vinicius Jr cut in from the wing against a double team and curled a long, hopeful cross into the box. He was looking for Endrick, of course, but no Mexico defender even bothered to mark Brazil’s No 9. The shortest player on the pitch rose for an uncontested header at the penalty spot and flicked it into the side of the net to win the game.

Amid the celebration, Endrick ripped off his shirt, threw it into the air, dusted it off and then held up the number backwards to show the crowd: this is his shirt now.

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Endrick is unchallenged as he nods in the winner (Aric Becker/AFP via Getty Images)

Despite Mexico’s last-minute collapse, Lozano was upbeat. “We’re growing, learning, trying to make fewer mistakes. We didn’t make many mistakes, but unfortunately they led to goals,” the manager said. He praised his team’s defensive effort and called them “an uncomfortable team for any opponent to face”.

In a way, both sides came away with what they wanted.

Brazil got their new No 9, perhaps for years to come, and a budding strike partnership that will carry over to one of the world’s best clubs. Nothing else in this second-string friendly mattered nearly as much to them as Endrick and Vinicius Jr’s potential to carry a Neymar-less attack.

As for Mexico, they didn’t get a result, but they got a glimmer of what their football could become. When fans poured out of the stadium into the sweltering Texas night, their chants weren’t embarrassed at all.

(Top photo: Tim Warner/Getty Images)

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