Easier said than done: How Liga MX's survivors can derail Tigres' juggernaut
If there was one squad that was capable of deflating the in-form Tigres, it should have been their crosstown rivals, Monterrey.
Man-for-man, Los Rayados are only second in Liga MX to the current titleholders when it comes to attacking talent. Late in the regular season, Monterrey was also able to prove its worth through a narrow 1-0 Clasico Regio win over Tigres.
That didn’t matter during the playoffs.
Led by goals from Andre-Pierre Gignac and Jesus Dueñas, Tigres gained an incredible 4-1 victory over Monterrey in the first leg of last week’s quarterfinal. In the second leg, Gignac once again stepped up with a brace in the 2-0 win.
With an eye-opening 6-1 aggregate victory against one of Mexico’s most intimidating rosters, and an astounding total of 10 goals for Gignac in his last seven matches, Tigres are now waltzing past Liga MX challengers. Under the management of the highly experienced Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti, who is no stranger to the Liguilla, Tigres are without a doubt the title favorites as they head into the semis.
Can anyone disrupt their march toward a second consecutive championship?
Lessons from those who have cracked Tigres’ code
Let’s go back to last month’s CONCACAF Champions League final between Pachuca and Tigres.
Although the Nuevo Leon club was the favorite, Tigres failed after stumbling to a 2-1 aggregate loss.
How did Los Tuzos do it? The solution was simple, but also one that is extremely difficult to implement against a side like Tigres: Focus on the defense.
With an organized and compact backline, Pachuca was able to keep its opponents to one goal over 180 minutes. Sure, Los Tuzos needed a bit of bad luck for Tigres through a missed penalty and hitting the woodwork, but their near-immaculate defensive performances can’t go unnoticed.
With central defenders Oscar Murillo and Omar Gonzalez commanding the backline, Pachuca did a fantastic job of absorbing pressure with little space given to roam, but what if you don’t have noteworthy names like Murillo and Gonzalez? Try a defensive line of five.
As mentioned earlier, Monterrey found a way to stop Tigres before the playoffs. During last month’s 1-0 victory, Rayados manager Antonio Mohamed went with a backline of five and a more defensive approach that frustrated Tigres. On the pitch, Mohamed made it clear that his intention was to keep numbers back and pack the 18-yard box during crosses.
Later on, off a corner in the second half, Los Rayados’ Cesar Montes provided a vital goal that carried the home side to a victory in the rivalry match.
It may not have been brilliant or attractive from Pachuca, or from Mohamed’s initial strategy in the regular season, but it worked. Others should take note.
Xolos’ turn in this week’s semifinals
If Tijuana manager Miguel “Piojo” Herrera has done his homework, he should be well aware of the benefits of changing his attack-minded approach. The upcoming semifinal series against Tigres will be an intimidating one for the coach, but as seen beforehand, there is hope for Xolos by concentrating on the backline.
Oddly enough, this could be solved by a switch to a 5-3-2 formation, an old favorite of Herrera’s before taking on his role with Tijuana. Herrera’s team, the top seed in the playoffs, has thrived with a back four this season.
The key here for Xolos would be the utilization of high-pressing and quick wing-backs like Damian Perez and Paul Arriola. With double duty as defenders, Perez and Arriola could congest the flanks, therefore making it difficult for Tigres to find space. Both could also kickstart counter attacks with help from Xolos’ talented attacker, Aviles Hurtado.
This is, of course, easier said than done, and with a couple of names in the backline lacking playoff experience, it’s going to be a monumental task for Herrera to organize and strengthen his defense. If Herrera can’t come up with a solution, we could see a repeat of the team’s meeting in late April, which ended in a one-sided win for Tigres.
With no real authority from Xolos’ backline of four, Tigres capitalized on Tijuana’s aloofness with a convincing 3-0 victory, with Xolos allowing all three goals in the first 44 minutes. Herrera has a small chance to avoid another defeat, and with a couple of inexperienced names in his backline, Xolos may not have the ability to shutdown Tigres.
Toluca or Chivas: The last hurdle
Assuming Tigres get past Tijuana, what are the odds Chivas or Toluca giving them trouble in the final series? This week, both will fight for the challenge to, potentially, face the current title-holders.
Let’s first take a look at Toluca.
Some Toluca fans might be at ease knowing that their beloved Diablos Rojos defeated the Liga MX giants 1-0 in February. However, it’s important to keep in mind that Tigres were forced to use their third-string goalkeeper in the match. Also, when you mix in the fact that the Apertura champions were still recovering from a lack of a preseason, it doesn’t come as much of a surprise that Tigres faltered.
On paper, Toluca’s squad wouldn’t pose much of a threat in the finals. In fact, surpassing Chivas in the semifinals would be a subtle playoff shock. The Diablos Rojos have the slight advantage of experience, and the team has an underrated attack, but Toluca has also been fairly inconsistent over the past few months.
Barring four world-class performances from goalkeeper Alfredo Talavera, Toluca will probably finish empty-handed in the Liguilla.
What about Chivas? The team hasn’t looked very impressive in recent weeks, but there is some hope with the potential return of key injured players. If attacker Angel Zaldivar and midfielder Rodolfo Pizarro are fully fit, manager Matias Almeyda might be able to match Tigres with an exciting attack of his own.
At their best, Los Rojiblancos have the abilities to steal possession, dictate the pace of the game and provide lively movement in their frontline. Yet, as promising as they seem, Tigres thrive with open spaces and would love to respond to the pressing Guadalajara club with blistering counters. Sitting back and defending isn’t Almeyda’s go-to strategy, either.
Although Chivas’ coach could hit the opposition with some aggressive firepower of his own, odds are Ferretti’s well-oiled machine would emerge with more goals in hand.
The prospect of another Tigres title
Liga MX is undeniably unpredictable.
Media and fans have become accustomed to bewildering results every weekend from the best and worst in the league. Xolos, Toluca and Chivas all have a fighting chance to earn a title, and with only a handful of good results needed to accomplish this, any of the three could walk away with a trophy.
Nevertheless, it would be foolish to ignore the run that Tigres are currently on. Gignac is racking up goals while the squad is dominating results. Los Rayados, who should have been the biggest threat to their rivals, were steamrolled by Tigres’ attack. Ask any Liga MX fan and most will confidently say that Ferretti’s men are the current favorites.
The other three semifinalists might make things problematic, but unless if they find a way to frustrate and properly defend Tigres, they will be a speed bump on the favorite’s path toward a second title.