The FIFA World Cup 2018 is over and leagues around Europe are set to start in a couple of weeks. Meantime, Liga MX, with its 2018 Apertura opener starting last weekend, is the major tournament to begin between the ‘others’ leagues.
Other than some classic topics such as the questions about the pro/rel system – last season relegated Lobos BUAP paid to retain their spot in the top tier whilst Liga MX let us understand that only teams able to meet some entry requirements could gain promotion – or about how to help Mexican players find playing time – a new rule determines that every footballer born in 1997 or later have to be allowed at least 765 minutes of playing time by their club this Apertura. This 2018/19 season should be also mentioned for the youth on the touchline.
In fact, there are three head coaches under 40 in Gerardo Espinoza (36) of Atlas, Rafael Puente Jr (39) of Queretaro, and, above all, Marcelo Michel Leano, who took charge of Necaxa at the tender age of 31.
In a football nation where there has always been a dichotomy between followers of Ricardo La Volpe – Salida Lavolpiana’s father – and Manuel Lapuente, these young managers should bring on some fresh, new ideas. On his part, Leano is a disciple of Juan Carlos Osorio, the highly criticized (before the World Cup) Colombian head coach of Mexico National Team.
Running that way
True to be told, Leano’s roots aren’t far from Mexican football: former Guadalajara’s Tecos FC defender Juan Carlos Leano is his cousin whilst his uncle, Juan Antonio, is the owner of the same Tecos. Furthermore, the younger Leano cut his teeth being mentored by the great Johan Cruyff when the Dutchman shortly worked as an adviser to Chivas.
Under Cruyff, Leano learned the Dutch way before building his sides through this path. So, is not unusual that Leano stressed his teams to control the game through ball retention, moving the ball in order to manipulate opposition’s defensive structure. That happened last season, when Leano coached Liga de Ascenso’s Zacatepec to a second-division fourth-place and to a Copa MX semi-final and this seems to happen this term too as observed during the recent Supercopa game between Necaxa and Monterrey.
With both teams looking to dominate the game through ball possession, it was Leano’s team that flourished. When Monterrey started to press higher up the field, Necaxa bravely retained ball control in their own territory just to break up opponent’s pressure, finding space in between their lines. As in Osorio’s tactical approach, Leano – also an admirer of Marcelo Bielsa – wants his side building from the back through a patient first phase of construction.
You can’t argue that Leano learned a lot from Bielsa’s philosophy. “Football is order and venture,” once Leano told newspaper Record, “too much order is boring, too much venture is dangerous… the best football tactical book are football rules: rules tell that if you score a goal more than the opponent, you win the game. You don’t win if you don’t score. Playing to don’t allow goals is playing against the rules.”
When out of possession, under the 31-year-old manager, Necaxa build a 4-1-4-1 structure with a high defensive line, looking for central, vertical compactness.
Leano’s tactical approach is far from naïve. He learned from Cruyff but also from Cesar Luis Menotti, with which he enjoyed a short spell when the Argentinian coach worked with Tecos. But Leano continuously tried to learn more about coaching as he also went in Europe to study training and meet coaches while he also is an avid reader of tactical magazines from Spain, Germany, and England.
So, Leano learned his way and, although he never professionally played, his resume and education in football make clear is more than a risky hire. Leano started coaching back with Venados of Merida back in 2016, then he came to the Coras of Tepic before the aforementioned season with Zacatepec.
Leano should be able to improve Necaxa’s last season 11th place even if is hard to image them as title contenders. Other clubs look better equipped to fight for the crown. Santos Laguna are the reigning champions and they will try to repeat themselves. Cruz Azul count on former Rangers’ manager Pedro Caixinha and strengthen their roster adding players such as Carlos Izquierdoz and Nestor Araujo. Pachuca under Pako Ayestaran and Leon could also make a deep run into the playoffs. Clausura finalist Toluca too should compete.
Chivas suffered a turbulent pre-season in which Matias Almeyda – apparently a candidate to replace Jorge Sampaoli at Argentina’s helm – left the club. The potential is there but the club owned by Jorge Vergara need some players – notably forward Alan Pulido – should fit in along the way.
If the new coach, Jose Cardozo, will be able to repeat his predecessor’s success over there remains to be seen. A poor start could put pressure on former Paraguayan forward and this could weaken his position in Guadalajara.
Miguel Herrera’s Club America remain a strong side although Las Aguilas lost French star Jeremy Menez to an ACL tear. Diego Alonso’s Monterrey too strengthen their roster.
At the end, 2018 Apertura remains unpredictable. That said, it would be interesting take a look to how Necaxa will evolve under a so young manager as Leano is.