Liga MX

Tactical Trends to Watch in the 2017 Apertura

With 13 teams missing players at the Gold Cup, and many new signings not yet ready to start, we saw a fair few backups and youngsters take the field during jornada uno. This limited the amount that could be learnt from the first week of the 2017 Apertura. However, there were still some interesting tactical trends observed, that may be seen throughout the season.

With the help of Sofascore’s stats, Tom Harrison takes a look at three trends…


Attacking-midfielders in deeper roles

In the 1970s, the average footballer covered around 5km per match. With the improvements in the physical capabilities of players, distance covered per game is now around 10km, if not in excess. Kilometres travelled per 90 minutes isn’t as high in Mexico as it is in Europe, due to heat and altitude, but it’s still significantly higher than it was years ago.

Footballers travelling greater distances means a team today can cover a pitch better than teams could in previous years. Therefore, space and time available for opponents is reduced.

The reduction in time and space has resulted in many playmakers being moved backwards on the pitch, from a “number ten” role to a “number eight” position. Or even deeper in the case of the great Andrea Pirlo.

Moving into a deeper role gives the playmaker more time and space to utilise their skills, and create opportunities for their side. In Mexico, where many sides adopt a deep defensive-line when out of possession, moving a little deeper could prove particularly effective at improving time and space.

In jornada uno, we saw three ‘natural’ attacking-midfielders being played in deeper, central-midfield roles. Moved from a ‘number ten’ to a ‘number eight’. These three were; Lucas “Chino” Zelarayán, Diego Valdés and Clifford Aboagye.

All three weke absolutely outstanding in jornada uno. Zelarayán and Aboagye were near-perfect with their distribution, failing to make just three of their 116 attempted passes between them. Valdés’ 80% completion rate doesn’t match up to the 96% of Aboagye or 98% of Zelarayán, but the Chilean was more effective when dribbling. Valdés completed three dribbles and was fouled five times.

The trio were able to make significant attacking contributions as well. Valdés made three key passes and created a big chance, Clifford produced a glorious piece of skill to set-up Atlas’ third goal, whilst “El Chino” kicked-off Tigres’ five-nil win with a stunning golazo.

Evidently, Zelarayán, Aboagye and Valdés excelled in their deeper roles when in possession, but how did they do without the ball? The concern with playing ‘natural’ attacking-midfielders in deeper roles it that they won’t provide sufficient cover defensively.

The answer, is extraordinarily well.

Diego Valdés won a joint league high five tackles versus Monterrey. Aboagye and Zelarayán lagged only slightly behind, with four tackles in their matches. All three led their respective teams in the tackles department, proving they are capable of making important defensive contributions.

Clifford went further than just making tackles, completing five interceptions against León, the highest amount for a midfielder in jornada uno.

This isn’t the first example of attacking-midfielders performing well, both when in and out of possession, when played in a deeper role. Dieter Villalpando played in central-midfield for Chiapas last season, and was superb.

85% pass accuracy, 1.4 key passes per game, 69% dribble success rate, 1.6 tackles per game. Villalpando’s numbers from 2016/17 are remarkably similar to those of Orbelín Pineda, and Dieter covered a greater distance per 90 minutes than anyone else in Liga MX across the 2017 Clausura.

If coaches are looking to give their playmakers more space, or simply cannot fit them into their system as an attacking-midfielder, shifting them deeper can often prove a more effective solution than putting them out wide.

In a deeper, central role, playmakers can pass the ball to all angles, something which cannot be done when they’re out wide, unless they constantly drift inside. Constantly drifting inside can be problematic, as without full-backs pushing forwards, width, and therefore space on the pitch is reduced.

Playing an attacking-midfielder in central-midfield can be seen as risky, as the player may not be able to contribute enough defensively. But as the likes of; Aboagye, Zelarayán, Valdés and Villalpando have shown, many are capable of work hard and winning back possession. Considering their success, ‘natural’ attacking-midfielders in deeper roles could become a feature of this season.


Strikers that aren’t the furthest forward player in their side

It would be expected for a team’s most advanced player to be their striker, unless they’re playing with a false-nine.

For seven of the 16 teams that have average player position maps from jornada uno (stats from Lobos BUAP’s non-televised match against Santos are limited), this wasn’t the case.

Four of the most advanced players during jornada uno were wingers. Jefferson Cuero (Morelia), Carlos Fierro (Chivas), Rubens Sambueza (Toluca) and Jonathan Urretaviscaya (Pachuca).

The other three were second strikers/inside-forwards; Dorlan Pabón (Monterrey), Carlos Darwin Quintero (América) and Daniel “Keko” Villalba (Veracruz).

This suggests a couple of things about the build-up play of many Liga MX sides.

Firstly, many strikers are expected to drop away from the opposing defensive line, and play an important role in the build-up. Secondly, supporting forwards (wingers, inside-forwards, etc…) often push themselves high up the pitch, perhaps making runs in-behind opposing defences on a regular basis.

It also may indicate that some supporting attackers in Mexico don’t have to contribute too much defensively.

It will be interesting to keep an eye on how often attackers that aren’t strikers end up playing further forward than strikers on average.


A rise in the use of three centre-backs

Using three centre-backs has become rather fashionable in football recently, particularly following the successes of Juventus and Chelsea. Perhaps it’s the reaction to the rise in inverted-wingers in football, who operate mostly in the ‘half-spaces’ in-between centre-backs and full-backs, when the opposition uses a back-four. Fielding two outside centre-backs can effectively cover this ‘half-space’.

In the final regular week of the 2017 Clausura, two teams played with three centre-backs. By the first week of the 2017 Apertura, that figure had doubled to four.

This may well be a short-term anomaly, but it’s something to keep an eye on across the season, especially with the use of three centre-backs being ‘en trend’ in football right now.

The most interesting switch to three centre-backs came from Tigres. Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti has long trusted the 4-2-3-1, but changing to a back three allowed Tuca to field André-Pierre Gignac, Enner Valencia and Eduardo Vargas up front, with Javier Aquino and Jurgen Damm on the wings.

Tigres have adopted more of an attacking approach to the three centre-back system, fielding wingers at wing-back, rather than full-backs, which is what we’ve seen from Club América.



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