Pumas UNAM's stunning turnaround led by Castillo, Alustiza, Arribas
Countless Liga MX fans are puzzled about an astonishing turnaround that is currently dominating the headlines. With 11 league matches left on their schedule, Pumas have already surpassed the 13-point tally they collected last season. Thanks to a current mark of 14 points after six weeks of the Clausura, the Mexico City club is looking nothing like the laughingstock it was as recently as late-2017.
Less than three months ago, there was no team stuck in a more miserable run of form than Pumas. Their attack was abysmal, predictable and a constant source of agitation for supporters. In the 2017 Apertura, no Liga MX side scored fewer goals than Pumas.
Star striker Nicolas Castillo struggled to find his rhythm after suffering injury problems late last year, and when the Chile international wasn't finding the back of the net, none of this teammates took the initiative to step up. What inevitably followed was a worrisome last-place finish in the Apertura, a shameful position for an organization that is traditionally seen as one of the "big four" in Mexican soccer.
Now, after a very short winter break that included a couple of key additions, Pumas fans can proudly boast about their beloved squad that has so far been the most impressive in the Clausura. With a two-point cushion over second place, manager David Patino has helped carry his club to the top of the league table.
So how did this happen?
Patino deserves praise but credit for Pumas' resurgence should also be given to Castillo and newcomer Matias Alustiza. Castillo has taken charge with four goals and two assists for the club, as expected. To further prove how much of a nuisance he has been in the final third for defenders, no other Mexican first division player has been fouled more than Castillo in the Clausura.
That said, Alustiza has been just as crucial in the attack as a second striker/central attacking midfielder.
The 33-year-old Argentine isn't afraid to take chances with his shots and has collected three goals in six games. Alustiza is just as adventurous with his take-ons and a much-needed source of experience and confidence with the ball at his feet. He has immediately formed a connection with Castillo in the attack and at the moment, they're arguably the most efficient front-line duo in the league.
Looking elsewhere, Marcelo Diaz is worthy of a mention for his aggressive presence and excellent distribution from midfield. Fellow defensive midfielder David Cabrera has shined working alongside Diaz and Pablo Barrera has surprised many with a couple of headline-grabbing performances too. Yet if we are truly highlighting a figure who has been a game-changer for Pumas, there's no overlooking Alejandro Arribas.
With several seasons of La Liga experience under his belt, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the Spanish central defender has had no problems hitting the ground running in his first Mexican tournament. The powerful 28-year-old has regularly provided a number of vital clearances from the back and against Tigres earlier this month, Arribas cemented his superb start to the season with a goal in their shocking 2-0 win.
If you take a step back, it's easy to see why Pumas have had a brilliant start to the year. From Arribas in defense to Castillo as the out-and-out striker, the squad has a strong core that has been tough for other teams to break down defensively or stop on the counter.
Tactically, Patino isn't afraid to be practical when needed and against some of the league's more intimidating opponents, the manager has frustrated his rivals with a condensed and organized 4-4-1-1 formation. Moving forward and off the break, it can stretch to resemble a 4-2-3-1 that is both direct and vertical inattack.
There's no telling how long these kind of runs can last in a league as unpredictable as Liga MX but at the very least, Pumas are well on the way to redeeming themselves after a horrendous 2017. Castillo is finding the back of the net, Alustiza is thriving as his sidekick, Arribas is looking like one of the signings of the season and as for Patino, he can start dreaming about a playoff position that might soon be within reach.
Cesar Hernandez covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @cesarhfutbol.