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Liga MX Apertura 2017 Preview: The Contenders

With the new Liga MX season fast-approaching, Tom Harrison brings you an in-depth preview of every single team. Including their key transfers, possible line-up, the view from a fan, and Tom’s analysis. In part three, Tom looks at the contenders. These sides aren’t the favourites for the title, but will be expected to be in the thick of the liguilla battle.

León

Last season: Apertura- 8th (Semi-finals), 14th

Key additions: Carlos Felipe Rodríguez (Morelia), Iván Piris (Monterrey), Álvaro Ramos (Deportes Iquique), Maximiliano Cerato (Everton)

Key departures: Aldo Rocha (Morelia)

Javier Torrente took Liga MX by storm, winning seven of his first 11 matches with León, before losing to Tigres in the Apertura semi-final. Going into the Clausura with great momentum, much was expected from León, but they ended up finishing a lowly 14th.

The return of Carlos “Gullit” Pena, now with Scottish side Rangers, didn’t work out, and neither did Torrente’s style of football. The high-press, ultra direct tactic was significantly less effective in the Clausura than the Apertura.

Perhaps this was because teams worked out how to play against Torrente’s León. Perhaps this was due to fatigue, thus making high-pressing more challenging. Or perhaps this was just the long-term result of playing low-possession football. No side had less touches of the ball than León in the Clausura, and on average, the team with more possession is more likely to win any given match.

Torrente has kept his job in Guanajuato, and now he has to prove that his style can be successful in the long-term, or the Bielsa-ite must develop a larger variety of play styles. A good off-season, which has given León players time to recover physically, and plenty of time for Torrente to work on the training field and in friendly matches, should be a major help.

 

Possible line-up

 

Formation-wise, it’s unsure whether Torrente will mainly use a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-4-2. In a 4-2-3-1, Luis “Chapito” Montes is likely to play behind the striker, but he may but shuffled back to make way for second striker. New additions Álvaro Ramos and Maximiliano Cerato would be battling over such a role, with Jorge Pereyra.

Apart from exploiting transitions when the ball is won high up the field via pressing, León’s main sources of creativity will be found out wide. Elías Hernández and Andrés “Rifle” Andrade are two of the most rounded attacking players in Liga MX. They may not be as flashy some of the biggest stars in Mexico, but both were statistically superb last season.

The pair were ranked in the top five for both key pass efficiency (attempted passes per key pass), and big chance creation efficiency (attempted passes per big chance created). These statistics are impacted by the direct style of León’s play, but the efficiency of the creativity of Elías and Andrés is still very noteworthy.

Rifle also impressed with the ball at his feet. Only Avilés Hurtado, Carlos “Darwin” Quintero and Joao Rojas completed more dribbles per 90 minutes across 2016/17.

Defensively, there will be interesting battles between; Carlos Felipe Rodríguez and William Yarbrough, Osvaldo Rodríguez and Juan Cornejo, Iván Piris and Fernando Navarro. Navarro may be used in a midfield role though, if Alex Mejía isn’t fit, after being tested there in pre-season.

 

The view from the fan- Nación Esmeralda US (@NEsmeraldaUS)

The new season is fast approaching, and Torrente will be looking to win from the get go on Liga MX week 1. We did a decent job regarding signings. No big names were brought. But Torrente will have at least to options for each position in the field. Preseason has not been good for “La Fiera” so far. The team got positive vibes, in the 1st half vs teams from the Ascenso MX but when it has been up against stronger opposition from the Liga MX, the results were not very positive, but I would like to hope this won’t reflect Leon’s season. The challenge is on, and Javier Torrente will be looking to recreate the same form that made him a fan favorite, back in the Apertura 2016 season. There might be a few absences vs Atlas. Some due to injury or international duty (Novaretti, Montes, Hernandez) and a new formation to look forward to. Overall, I believe there is enough quality for us to aspired to the Liguilla but there might be bumps along the way.

Nación Esmeralda US will be providing specific coverage on León across the new season, you can follow them here.

 

Santos Laguna

Last season: Apertura- 16th, Clausura 5th (Quarter-finals)

Key additions: Brian Lozano (América), Javier Cortés (Pumas)

Key departures: Mauricio Cuero (Tijuana)

The string of foreign coaches brought in after Pedro Caixinha weren’t able to have success. Most of the interesting players brought in from Europe weren’t able to live up to expectations. Santos went back to basics.

In came José Manuel “Chepo” de la Torre. In came proven Liga MX talent; Julio Furch and Osvaldo Martínez. In came young players like Gael Sandoval, Ulises Rivas, Jorge Sánchez and Gabriel Arteaga. Performances and results improved, and Santos lost just once in the regular Clausura season. Sure, they drew an extraordinary 11 matches, but Los Guerreros did enough to surprise many by making liguilla.

Very few changes to the line-up have been made over the summer. Javier Cortés is a great option to add to the midfield, and Brian Lozano, who was such a disappointment at América, could offer something from the bench. Mauricio Cuero is the only significant departure, so expect to see a very similar Santos in the 2017 Apertura.

 

Possible line-up

 

If Chepo continues with the same policy of last season, Santos will line-up with three strikers when Julio Furch, Jonathan Rodríguez and Djaniny Tavares are all fit. Furch is the target man, with Rodríguez off to the left, and Djaniny to the right. This is a very unusual way of playing in Mexico.

Furch and Djaniny are often hit and miss, but the star up front is Uruguayan Rodríguez. An excellent dribbler, Jonathan topped the shots on goal per match table last season.

The midfield also works as a trio, in an inverted pyramid. Hard working Ulises Rivas provides the base for Gael Sandoval and Osvaldo Martínez to create. Martínez has revitalised his flagging career since moving to Torreón, whilst Sandoval’s move inside from the wing has seen him emerge as one of El Tri’s brightest prospects.

Like Rivas, Sandoval ranked near the top of the distance covered table in 16-17, and hard work is a common theme throughout the Santos side. The two full-backs must provide width as Santos play without traditional wingers. This requires plenty of running up and down the flanks.

 

 

Tijuana

Last season: Apertura- 1st (Quarter-finals), Clausura- 1st (Semi-finals)

Key additions: José Antonio Rodríguez (Chivas), Matías Aguirregaray (Estadiantes), Alejandro Donatti (Flamengo), Mauricio Cuero (Santos), Enzo Kalinski (Universidad Católica), Luis Ángel Mendoza (Santos), Damián Musto (Rosario Central), Gustavo Bou (Racing Club)

Key departures: Guido Rodríguez, Carlos Vargas (Both América), Milton Caraglio (Atlas), Avilés Hurtado (Monterrey)

The ultra-fluid front four of Dayro Moreno, Gabriel Hauche, Avilés Hurtado and Milton Caraglio, backed up by the extraordinary ball winner that is Guido Rodríguez. That was a very special Tijuana team.

A matter of months later, none of those five players remain at Los Xolos, and neither is the man that put together and organised the team, Miguel “Piojo” Herrera.

Rebuilding is an extremely difficult job, but Tijuana appear to have made some quality moves in the transfer window.

Most of the re-enforcements have come from Argentina. New head coach Eduardo Coudet was previously DT at Rosario Central, and he’s expected to bring a “dynamic” and “intense” play style.

Damián Musto is the man tasked with the seemingly impossible job of replacing Guido Rodríguez, but he comes highly rated. As does striker Gustavo Bou, scorer of 44 goals in 94 league games for Racing.

There’s more Argentine experience coming in from 30-year-olds Alejandro Donatti and Enzo Kalinski. Plus, a Uruguayan international, attacking right-back Matías Aguirregaray. If the new squad can gel and develop understanding and fluidity, Tijuana will once again be a side to keep a close eye on.

 

 

Possible line-up

 

It’s difficult to predict exactly how Tijuana will line-up and play, given that Coudet is new to Liga MX.

The squad has a lot of potential on paper, but with so many players, and a coach, new to Liga MX, it could be a struggle to start.

Los Xolos have kept together the successful centre-back pairing of Emanuel Aguilera and Juan Carlos “Topo” Valenzuela though, so there is a solid base to build from. Behind them, two talented but inconsistent keepers will battle over the starting spot.

Much will be expected from Gustavo Bou, and he should be supplied well from the likes of; Ismael Malcorra, Paul Arriola, Juan Lucero, Mauricio Cuero and Luis “Quick” Mendoza. Malcorra will be particularly interesting to keep an eye on. He did well after becoming a regular starter in the Clausura, and will now take on a more significant role following the departure of Hurtado. Perhaps we’ll even see Malcorra in a central role.

 

The view from the fan- Xolo Skull (@XoloSkull17)

The end of Xolos season ended at disappointment with a loss as the hands of mighty Tigres. Piojo Herrera returned to Club America,  highly coveted players Guido Rodriguez, Aviles Hurtado and Milton Caraglio’s departures left the club without a brilliance in the attack and the heart of the midfield. The draft added some positive additions, but fans were left with an empty sad void and very little optimism for this upcoming season. However, Xolos brilliant front office had plenty of surprises on hand. Enter Eduardo “Chacho” Coudet. He is a mashup of Turco Mohamed and Piojo Herrera, the two most successful Xolos coaches up to date. Enter Gustavo Bou. “La Pantera” was a staple at Racing’s attack, scorching the Argentinian league with brilliant goals. He is a more skillful and creative version of Milton Caraglio. Damian Musto is an attacking midfielder’s worst nightmare. A feisty, strong and technical ball hawking midfielder with creativity to start attacks upon ball recoveries in midfield. Musto was the heart of the midfield during Coudet’s time at Rosario. Enzo Kalinski adds an extra layer of midfield support to Musto. He is a creative box-to-box midfielder, who can add an extra spark in the attack while helping the midfield maintain possession. Towering 6’4” centerback Alejandro Donatti adds both brilliant defensive capabilities while adding a new dimension to the Xolos aerial threat. Right-back Matias Aguirregaray is a speeding bullet that adds another threat to Xolos attack, while also providing great pace to cover opposing team’s wingers. Mauricio Cuero is a younger, bulkier version of Aviles Hurtado. These new additions, coupled with Xolos current talents the likes of Ignacio Malcorra, Damian Perez, Martin Lucero, Topo Valenzuela, Paul Arriola, Joe Corona and young exciting goalkeeper Gibran Lajud, leaves Xolos with a team ready to take Liga MX by storm. If you want to watch to be dazzled each weekend, look no further than Tijuana.

 

Toluca

Last season: Apertura- 10th, Clausura 4th (Semi-finals)

Key additions: Santiago García (Werder Bremen), Mateus Goncalves (Pachuca)

Key departures: Paulo Da Silva (Libertad), Aarón Galindo (Released), Maikon Leite (Bahia), Sinha (Retired), Jordan Silva (Cruz Azul), Erbín Trejo (Querétaro)

Fed up of never making it past the semi-final stage, Toluca decided to replace José Cardozo with Hernán Cristante. His best achievement last season? You guessed it, a semi-final.

Nonetheless, Toluca were impressed enough with the work of Cristante to allow him to continue, as Toluca head into the second half of their centenary year, desperate for a title.

Toluca were the only side to field an average age of over 30 last season, and their vastly experienced squad looked good for much of the campaign. However, they had a knack of losing games they really shouldn’t have on paper.

Chiapas, Cruz Azul, Puebla and Querétaro all picked up three points at the renovated Estadio Nemesio Díez. Los Diablos Rojos still made it into liguilla though, but went out to Chivas due to their inferior league position.

 

Possible line-up

 

Toluca may have one of the oldest squads in Liga MX, but this summer has seen their two most experienced players depart. Paulo da Silva and Sinha, owner of 879 league appearances for Toluca between themselves, have left Los Diablos Rojos. da Silva returns to his native Paraguay, whilst Sinha has hung up his boots, three years after he originally said he’d retire.

Sinha only had a cameo role towards the end of his career, so shouldn’t be missed too much, but da Silva was still a regular starter. With the experience in the squad, Toluca appear well prepared to deal with his absence though, and replacement Santiago García has spent years in the Bundesliga and Serie A.

Toluca have usually adopted an asymmetric 4-4-2 diamond under Hernán Cristante, with Rubens Sambueza pushing up on the left, and Jesús Méndez dropping back to support Antonio Ríos. However, Cristante can easily shift to a 4-2-3-1, with Méndez moving alongside Ríos and Gabriel Hauche or Rodrigo Gómez on the right-wing.

Inspiration is often found in the form of Pablo “Pitu” Barrientos. One of the most intelligent footballers in Liga MX, Barrientos regularly creates opportunities with his high level of vision and masterful ball control. When on form, the Argentine is a joy to watch, but can he still dominate matches at 32?

 

 

Pumas

Last season: Apertura- 6th (Quarter-finals), Clausura- 17th

Key additions: Mauro Formica, Joffre Guerrón (Both Cruz Azul), Néstor Calderón (Santos Laguna)

Key departures: Alejandro Palacios (Atlético San Luis), Darío Verón (Olimpia), Javier Cortés (Santos Laguna), Alejandro Castro (Atlético San Luis), Omar Islas (Venados), Eduardo Herrera (Rangers)

A fairly strong Apertura ended in a drubbing at the hands of eventual winners Tigres. But with highly-rated striker Nicolás Castillo coming in, signs appeared positive for Pumas’ Clausura.

Liga MX is never that straightforward though. Pumas endured a nightmare Clausura; conceding a season-high 30 goals, finishing in 17th place, and losing four-one to Tigres in the CONCACAF Champions League quarter-finals.

Many called for Francisco “Paco” Palencia’s head, but Paco is part of a longer-term project at Pumas, to re-vitalise their famous cantera, and the club legend has been given more time to prove his worth.

Whilst Paco survived the axe, a couple of other Pumas legends didn’t. Alejandro “Pikolin” Palacios has been sent to Ascenso side Atlético San Luis, whilst Darío Verón has moved back to Paraguay, with Club Olimpia. Both had been part of Pumas since 2003.

It’s sad to see these Pumas, and Liga MX, legends moving on, but it may well be for the best. Both Pikolin and Verón showed signs that their performances were regressing last season, with the 30 goals Pumas conceded in the Clausura some evidence for this. Having said this, replacing their influence at the club won’t be easy.

 

Possible line-up

 

It’s difficult to see Pumas making much of an improvement on last season’s horrific defensive show. Alfredo Saldívar saved just 67.7% the shots he faced last season, one of the worst percentages in Liga MX. Gerardo Alcoba appears to be on the decline, and his partner is set to be someone with limited experience. Abraham González, eventually kept by the Mexico City side, is superb in possession but didn’t offer enough cover for the back-four last season. Meanwhile, full-backs Alan Mendoza and José Carlos van Rankin can both be suspect defensively.

Pumas look a lot better at the other end of the field. Nicolás Castillo took Liga MX by storm in the Clausura, and is a hot favourite to end this season as top scorer if he remains fit. Castillo will be supported by Mauro Formica, once part of a table-topping Cruz Azul side, the ultra-confident Jesús Gallardo, the revitalised Pablo Barrera, plus a couple of wildcards; Bryan Rabello and Joffre Guerrón.

Suspect defence, strong attack. Pumas could be this season’s great entertainers.

 

 

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