Jesus Gallardo's versatility could earn him a place in Mexico's World Cup squad
The urgency that there's no time to waste has been felt in the first two weeks of the 2018 Clausura. For some there will only be 17 regular season matches to impress, while others could end up having as many as 23 if their club reaches the Liga MX final in late May. The bulk of Mexico's national team in next summer's World Cup will be formed by players who are playing in Europe, but there will still be a significant bunch coming from Liga MX.
On this road to Russia, so specific, and at the same time so unpredictable, walks Jesus Gallardo, who has started the season with Pumas with a goal and an assist after 180 minutes of play. Gallardo, who made 16 appearances with El Tri last year, will arrive to Sunday's Clasico Capitalino against Club America with the intention of continuing to solidify his World Cup chances.
"He has a biotype different to the common Mexican footballer because he has a lot of strength and great velocity, of which you don't usually see in the Mexican footballer,' David Patino, Gallardo's current manager, once explained to Univision Deportes. "Usually, what makes the Mexican footballer stand out is his resistance."
Mexico has wingers with the characteristics that Patino highlights, especially when it comes to velocity. For example, players like Pablo Barrera, Jurgen Damm, Javier Aquino and Hirving "Chucky" Lozano fit that bill. Jesus "Tecatito" Corona, perhaps Mexico's most technically gifted winger, doesn't possess an intrepid speed or notable strength, but his ability to dribble through opponents makes up for it. Gallardo is a special case because he's naturally left-footed and when dribbling in open space, it's hard for defenders to stop him.
With Pumas, Gallardo's role is mainly to move the ball forward and to find Nicolas Castillo and Matias Alustiza in the final third, while in Juan Carlos Osorio's Mexico, Gallardo has been tasked more with the defensive needs of the team. Perhaps his "strength," which Patino highlighted, makes Osorio believe that Gallardo can offer interesting contributions to the defensive line.
For instance, in Mexico's friendly against Poland, Gallardo played the entire match, and the numbers that stood out were defensive stats. According to InStat, the 23-year-old won eight of 13 attempted defensive challenges and won five of his eight aerial duels. His defensive numbers have progressively improved under Osorio's watch. Gallardo is one of several Mexico players that Osorio has specifically shaped into the type of player that he wants, and even though there have been instances where Gallardo has clearly struggled while playing at left-back, the numbers in Mexico's last friendly suggest that he's progressing.
It's not the first time that Osorio has advised a footballer to play another role on the field. It happened with Tottenham's Davinson Sanchez, as Osorio told Sky Sports. "I was coaching Nacional in Colombia, who are from Medellin. After winning a title we moved to Cali and I was invited to play football -- which [I] enjoy to do so with my friends -- and I noticed this guy, and I really liked what I saw.
"So at the end of the day and I asked him, that was Davinson, if he wanted to join National. He was 17. The only thing was he was playing as a central midfielder, and I said to him, 'I can see you have the qualities to play as a central defender'".
"He accepted the challenge and then he went to Medellin. We trained him for two years with the first team and at 19 we gave him his debut."
The difference between Gallardo and Sanchez is that Osorio can't work with Gallardo every day, and when Gallardo goes back to Pumas, Patino sees him more as a left-winger in an offense that includes Alustiza and Castillo in the center, and Mauro Formica on the right.
Gallardo has created three key passes over the first two league games, but he has yet to have an accurate cross. He's only had one accurate long ball out of three attempts, and that's how he got his first assist of the Clausura. Last Sunday against Atlas, Gallardo won six of 11 duels and completed all of his four dribble attempts.
His best goalscoring numbers happened in the 2017 Clausura when he finished the season with four goals. This season he might have the chance to surpass that number, especially if Pumas maintain their current tempo, which is intense and looks to use speed to create danger through the counterattack.
Under Osorio's watch, Gallardo is only becoming a more complete footballer, capable of responding as both a left-winger and left-back. In the Mexico picture, his presence could become fundamental as a naturally left-footed player that provides velocity and strength. His direct style of play is improving, and could only get better if Patino manages to lead Pumas to a Liguilla berth, something which could start shaping up if they manage to defeat America at Ciudad Universitaria this weekend.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.