How to win the league and be relegated in the same season

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It is one of the oddities of Argentina’s complicated relegation system that clubs often know their fate many months in advance.

Based on a system that tallies the average points attained over three seasons, the two sides with the lowest averages are automatically relegated from the division each June.

The next two teams up the table play off against second division sides for the right to keep their place in the top flight, this was the fate that befell Buenos Aires giants River Plate last season.

At the beginning of the 2011/12 season (see image below), Tigre – a modest, but historic club from northern Buenos Aires – knew only an incredible campaign would see them avoid relegation this June.

More than that, they would need to challenge for the title to even have a hope of survival, and given they had just lost their star striker Denis Stracqualursi to English club Everton, things didn’t look good for a club with little money and under the guidance of a rookie manager in Rodolfo Arruabarrena.

Although their challenge for second place and a berth in the Copa Libertadores fell short late in the Apertura season, they had already overachieved enough to give themselves an outside chance of survival heading into the Clausura.

Yet five games in, Arruabarrena is now contemplating the possibility of winning the league yet still getting relegated.

Only 36 years old, El Vasco is best known in Europe for his time at Villarreal, who reached the Champions League semi-finals in 2006 thanks to his quarterfinal winner against Internazionale. The team centred around Juan Román Riquelme’s ability as an enganche in Manuel Pellegrini’s 4-3-1-2, and this also forms the base for Arruabarrena’s Tigre.

Villarreal’s success in Spain was built upon a tight-knit unit that shared a footballing philosophy; a little piece of South America in Castellón, with seven Argentinians, a Uruguayan, a Bolivian, a Brazilian and an Ecuadorian when Riquelme arrived, not to mention a Chilean coach in Manuel Pellegrini. It was Pellegrini – now at Malaga – who instilled in Arruabarrena the importance of the group in any success:

“In this job it’s fundamental to lead. It’s much more important than 4-2-2, 4-3-1 or 4-8-3… I don’t know how many systems there are and they keep adding numbers… What is important is to know the personalities of the players, and how to combine them.”

And that he has done.

Arruabarrena celebrates his Champions League goal against Inter in 2006

Blending together a mish-mash of fairly uninspiring players, only Boca Juniors have amassed more points than his side in the last 12 months.

He has unearthed the potential in players like Román Martinez, a former Deportivo Morón player who had failed in Spain, or Ezequiel Maggiolo, who is inexplicably nicknamed ‘lettuce’.

Diego Morales had also led a fairly unremarkable career until being picked up by Tigre, but he has since become the team’s attacking fulcrum, creating goals and also finishing the Apertura as their leading scorer. His role is similar to that of Riquelme in the Villarreal of the mid-noughties, and considering Arruabarrena was the one who originally convinced Riquelme to join the ‘Yellow Submarine’ from Barcelona, his appreciation of the importance of a classic South American ‘10’ is clear.

A win for Tigre this weekend may still not be enough to take them to the dizzying heights of the relegation playoff places, but even with most of his title rivals in midweek continental action, a first ever league title for the club couldn’t be further from the mind of El Vasco.

“Our table is the relegation table,” he said this week. “We mustn't make the mistake of thinking otherwise.”

He is humble too. When recently linked with the job at Boca Juniors - the club where he won the Copa Libertadores as a player – he was quick to quash the speculation, reasoning that he still makes far too many errors.

His mentor Pellegrini once told El País that “if one were to just put players in a tactical system, something crazy would happen”, but even though Arruabarena has followed this advice seemingly to the letter, he may find his side in the crazy situation of being champions while also getting relegated.