Mexico: Juan Carlos Osorio, the professor hoping to lead El Tri to glory
Juan Carlos Osorio, unpopular amongst many Mexico fans prior to the World Cup, is beginning to prove himself with El Tri.
When Mexico scored against Germany there was an earthquake in the capital, Mexico City. Such were the celebrations, the ground shook. In the stadium, the Luzhniki in Moscow, fans in green shirts shouted in joy and disbelief.
The atmosphere was palpable, electric.
For one man on the bench in Russia, though, all was quiet. The ground was still. Juan Carlos Osorio did not wildly celebrate. Instead, he returned to his seat and thought.
“When we scored I sat down, thought about the plan and how not to concede over the next five minutes,” Osorio said when asked about his reaction after the game.
This was typical of Osorio, Mexico’s coach since 2015. He is reserved and ruminative. His critics might say he is reclusive, emotionless, without passion. That is, in fact, what his critics have said.
To them, Osorio has appeared withdrawn, unconcerned with Mexican values. That he is Colombian and more introverted than extroverted has not endeared him to some.
Earlier this month, after Mexico’s final pre-World Cup friendly, a 1-0 win over Scotland, there were calls for Osorio to be sacked. “Fuera, Osorio,” came the chants of fans at the Azteca. This was not new. He has been in the job for three years now, but true popularity has proved elusive.
After Mexico’s excellent beginning to this World Cup, though, those who were unconvinced are starting to accept the methods of this unorthodox coach. Osorio’s side were impressive in beating the World Cup holders, Germany, and might have won by more than 1-0.
Mexico’s coach is nicknamed ‘el profesor’ and against Germany his meticulousness, his unerring attention to detail was in evidence. Germany’s weaknesses were exploited expertly, and Mexico’s gameplan worked to perfection.
The gaps behind the advanced full backs – in particular Joshua Kimmich – were filled by Mexico’s effervescent forward trio – Carlos Vela, Javier Hernandez and Hirving Lozano – and Germany’s midfield were constantly overrun.
The result, when Sami Khedira vacated the space in the middle, was that Mexico repeatedly found themselves facing just the two centre backs: Jerome Boateng and an irritated Mats Hummels. “We designed the plan approximately six months ago,” Osorio said, “and it worked.”
Read more analysis on Mexico’s 1-0 victory over Germany HERE.
It was a display of efficient, efficacious counter attacking; one that suggested El Tri might go far in the tournament. Or at least further than the last 16, the point at which they have been eliminated in each of the last six World Cups.
That would be vindication for Osorio.
He has been doubted, but always persisted, never lost his self-belief. Mexico now look set to top their group and – assuming they avoid Brazil in the last-16 – should have a favourable draw.
Osorio will see this success, this recognition, as a long time coming. He has treated his career almost as a project: endlessly searching for new ideas, improvements, whilst learning and planning. He is 57 now, but his eagerness to develop as a coach was clear in his 20s.
Injury ended Osorio’s playing career at the age of just 26. He was a midfielder and played exclusively in South America – for Internacional in Brazil and Once Caldas in Colombia – but following his retirement, Osorio looked further afield.
He moved to the US, pursuing education, and completed a degree in Exercise Science at Southern Connecticut State University.
Osorio had a passion for fitness, but it did not overshadow his love for football. After completing his degree, he left for New York, where he started a gym. Football, though, was not so easily abandoned.
He sold his gym and headed for Liverpool, without his wife. There he studied for a diploma in Science and Football at John Moores University, and combined his education with observation. Osorio would regularly watch Walter Smith’s Everton in training, as well as Blackburn and Bolton. He was fascinated by a style that was at first so alien to him.
I needed to not only get my licences, but I needed to improve as a trainer on the field. So, I needed to see how the professionals work – Osorio said.
Osorio did, however, find watching Liverpool more difficult. Gerard Houllier, then Liverpool’s coach, was not as welcoming as Smith at Everton, but Osorio was determined and resourceful. He identified a house on Crown Road, with a garden overlooking Liverpool’s Melwood training complex, and made it his mission to stay there permanently.
When Osorio first approached the McManus family, who lived in the house, he asked simply for some steps, so that he could stand on them and peer over the wall which separated Melwood from the houses. They gave him a table, he thanked them, and left to watch his first Liverpool training session.
A day later, he had returned, notebook in hand. And, after a few days of the same, Osorio asked if he could stay at the McManus household. They accepted; Osorio had a base from which to carry out his work. He would not waste the opportunity.
“What he showed to me is that if you want to achieve anything in life, you’ve got to be single-minded and totally determined to go for it,” Tom McManus said in an interview with ESPN.
“Nothing gets in his way. From the day we met him and found out what he was about, we knew he would be successful and he is, and I think he can go further again.”
Osorio learnt much from his time in Liverpool: a new culture, a new way of playing football, methods of coaching that he would later implement. He was particularly enamoured by Houllier’s rotation policy, which he has since used in various roles, most notably with Mexico.
When his education was completed, Osorio returned to the US. He took up a job as a conditioning coach with New Jersey Metro Stars, but stayed for just a year.
In 2001, Manchester City came calling. The Premier League club were searching for a fitness specialist in attempt to give them the edge – somewhat ironically in retrospect – over wealthier opposition. They wanted someone innovative.
Osorio applied for the role and impressed in a face-to-face interview. He was eloquent and knowledgeable; a perfect fit. “What set Juan Carlos apart was his football background,” Dennis Tueart, then a Manchester City director, told the Guardian.
“He managed to dress his sports science in a football language, and he would, for instance, arrange specific sessions to work on the tiny muscle at the top of the groin that’s key to sidefooting the ball; he recognised that soft tissue injuries are a real problem for footballers and had a range of ways of trying to prevent them.”
Osorio stayed at the club for four years before returning to Colombia to coach Millonarios. His background in fitness and conditioning has defined his career, although he is an unquestionably astute tactician too.
Osorio has cited Marcelo Bielsa and Pep Guardiola as influences, but he does not consider himself a disciple of just one coach. His ideas come from a lifetime of ceaseless study and not just of football: Osorio has observed the movements of players in basketball and applied it to football. He is a keen watcher of volleyball and handball too.
“He is obsessed with training,” said journalist Jorge Andres Bermudez, who helped Osorio write his book, La Libreta de Osorio. “He is a teacher because he likes to teach. He does not tell the player: ‘You have to do this.’ He says what needs to be done and why, and has a great ability to convince. His idea is basic: the repetition of exercises and situations to make the player react to the stimuli of the game subconsciously.”
Not all are filled with admiration for Osorio.
He is seen as too cerebral, too mechanical in his approach and his insistence on rotation has earned him criticism when results have not gone as planned.
But he will not change. Osorio has made clear his belief that the squad is there to be used, that all the players should be involved, and he does not have a set way of playing.
“The structure of the team needs to vary according to the opposition,” he has said. It was clear against Germany that the plan was designed with Joachim Low’s team specifically in mind.
Osorio’s methods have proven successful at club level – he won seven titles with Atlético Nacional over three years prior to his appointment as Mexico coach. Now, he will attempt to draw on his vast list of ideas and influences to take a Mexico team brimming with potential to the next level.
And all the while he will sit on the bench, composed and respectful, making notes in his notepad with a blue pen and a red pen, the blue for the positives and the red for the negatives. He will not cause any earthquakes.
Unless, perhaps, Mexico win the World Cup.
Listen to the RealSport football writers discuss all the action from Day 13 of the World Cup in Kremlins in the Basement: RealSport’s daily World Cup podcast.