Chivas struggles to convert, weakness to crosses cause woeful slump
A second-half, injury-time goal from Alan Pulido rescued a tie for Chivas against Queretaro in Liga MX on Wednesday, ending the Guadalajara club's run of three consecutive defeats. The point from the 2-2 draw was construed as a positive for the institution and understandably so, given that Queretaro had gone 2-1 up in the 88th minute through a Miguel Martinez header.
"I think the point is positive in many ways," said Chivas coach Matias Almeyda after the game. "I admire the reaction of my players a lot."
"We were behind twice and we managed to step up," he added. "We had clear chances [and] they had a great goalkeeper that stopped everything."
It was a fair assessment from Almeyda, and the reaction from Chivas in the second half was commendable. When Queretaro took the lead for the second time, it had come against the run of play and Chivas had looked the only winner of the game after the break.
Chivas owner Jorge Vergara was delighted but the draw, and one good half against a Queretaro side that isn't exactly a title contender, can't paper over what has been a nightmare start to the 2018 Clausura for Chivas, extending a hangover stretching back to last May's 2017 Clausura championship win.
Claiming the league title for the first time in over a decade with a team made up only of Mexicans bestowed instant status on Almeyda and the players. Since that heady May evening, however, Chivas have played 24 Liga MX matches and have won only five of them, picking up just 23 points. Only minnow Veracruz has won fewer (22 points) in the same period.
If Mexico's first division had a relegation system similar to most European countries, the main story in Mexico right now would be Chivas following up their title with an intense relegation battle that could see them drop into the second division. So what has gone so wrong?
Behind the scenes, Oswaldo Alanis' contractual dispute seemed to expose a rift between Almeyda, CEO Jose Luis Higuera and owner Vergara, with the tension surrounding the supposed mistreatment of a player -- Higuera said Alanis wouldn't play unless he signed a new contract before Vergara contradicted him -- seemingly spilling over and affecting the squad.
The last transfer window wasn't positive either, with established central midfielder Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez leaving for Santos Laguna (currently second in the league) and youngsters Walter Sandoval and Ronaldo Cisneros heading the other way. The joys of being a Chivas player during that championship run seem to have made way for the behind-the-scenes tension that has marked much of Vergara's spell as owner of the Guadalajara club but on the field, the situation is more complex.
It may come as a surprise that Chivas have created more chances than any other team this Clausura, lead the possession percentage charts, have had more shots than any other team and are fifth in expected goals. Indeed, Chivas are some 3.66 goals under their expected total after seven games.
Finishing chances has obviously been a problem and Chivas would have lost once again on Wednesday had it not been for Pulido coming up with two quality finishes from half-chances. Brought in at huge cost to Chivas, Pulido was crucial in the 2017 Clausura win but his goals have since dried up. It'll be a major boost if he continues where he left off against Queretaro.
Almeyda will also want to see Orbelin Pineda recapture his form while Rodolfo Pizarro, dropped to the bench against Queretaro, needs to show more consistency. On the positive side, Eduardo "Chofis" Lopez appears to finally be turning into a player able to take on more attacking responsibility. Combined with the reformation of center-back partnership of Jair Pereira and Alanis in the past two games, there are tentative reasons to believe Chivas can still make something of this Clausura, but there are also warning signs. This slump hasn't come from nowhere.
Opposition teams are willing to let Chivas play their attacking game and commit players forward knowing that they'll get chances on counters and, increasingly, from balls into the box. Defending set pieces and crosses or high balls has become a major concern for Chivas. Five of the past six goals Chivas have conceded came directly or indirectly from either crosses from the wing or a long ball pumped forward. The other was Queretaro's rapid counter from a poorly taken Chivas corner.
When the average height of the starting team is just 1.74 meters (5-foot-7) as it was against Queretaro, there is going to be a disadvantage against pretty much all other Liga MX teams. It's even more concerning that Chivas had only two outfield players (Pereira and Alanis) that are any good in the air defensively. When the full-backs are 1.66 meters (5-foot-4, like Edwin Hernandez) and 1.68 meters (5-foot-5, like Jesus Sanchez) and the holding midfield is 1.69 meters (5-foot-5, Michael Perez), it's understandable to think strikers will fancy their chances from crosses against Chivas, especially if they isolate one of those three.
The inability to defend aerial balls into the danger zone is the team's soft underbelly, its Achilles heel and something opponents are honing in on. Chivas aren't getting outplayed and sides aren't passing the ball through them regularly to create chances; instead, they're taking to the air.
There is no immediate solution aside from Almeyda continuing to work on the issue in training. To combat it, Chivas simply must find a way of being more efficient at the other end of the field in order to turn the expected goals into real ones.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.