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Santos Laguna, Toluca linked by their owners

Liga MX
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 By Tom Marshall

'Gallito' Vazquez unlucky to miss out on World Cup, key for Santos in Liga MX final

After Mexico's preliminary World Cup roster was announced, Herc Gomez talks about which players he wouldn't take to Russia.

Santos Laguna holding midfielder Jose Juan "Gallito" Vazquez would be within his rights to shout about his 2018 Clausura form from the Torreon rooftops, lamenting the fact his name wasn't included in Juan Carlos Osorio's 28-player preliminary Mexico World Cup squad.

Vazquez has been the key player in Santos Laguna reaching Thursday's final against Toluca, playing every single minute of every game along the way; he's logged more playing time than any other player in the league this season.

The work rate of the 30-year-old native from Celaya, Guanajuato, has been outstanding. Vazquez is the metronome of the side. His distribution is efficient -- he has a 89.2 percent pass completion this season, fourth in Liga MX players with a reasonable amount of minutes -- and his tackling is clean. It is remarkable that a defensive midfielder has committed only eight fouls in 1,890 minutes of play over the Clausura regular season and the playoffs. After all, 211 players committed more.

Put simply, Vazquez has been the signing of the past offseason and one of the catalysts behind Santos Laguna's improvement. Chivas fans still lament his exit, and rightly so: Vazquez is as close to a guarantee as you are likely to get in Liga MX when it comes to a holding midfielder. Santos Laguna may have been torn in letting youngsters Gael Sandoval and Ronaldo Cisneros leave in exchange for Vazquez last December, but he's proven to be the final piece in the jigsaw this season for Los Guerreros.

And in the final against Toluca over the two games on Thursday and Sunday, Vazquez will be crucial if Santos Laguna is to win its sixth title. The former Leon player will be charged with restricting the space in which Paraguayan playmaker Pablo Barrientos has to work, while also helping to stop roaming right-winger Rubens Sambueza from cutting inside to cause devastation as he has so far this season.

Sadly, the glaring weakness in Vazquez's game outweighs the positives when it comes to El Tri coach Osorio.

"We think [Vazquez] is going through a great spell with his club ... but there is a limiting factor and that's only having 23 players," said Osorio in the news conference to announce Mexico's squad on Monday.

"I'd add the statistic that in [the] 2014 [World Cup] it has been proven that set pieces produced 36 percent of chances, so with a holding midfielder like [Jesus] Molina, who like 'Gallito' or [Jorge] 'Burrito' [Hernandez] is very good at winning back the ball, [we have a holding midfielder who] is dominant in the aerial game. [Molina] is going to protect the defensive line and can recover the ball really well."

Vazquez has been superb this season but his size and lack of physicality ruled him out from a Mexico call-up.
Gallito Vazquez has been superb this season but his size and lack of physicality ruled him out from a Mexico call-up.

No one should've been surprised about Vazquez's absence given that Osorio has played him for a total of just 42 minutes in his time in charge, even more so because those minutes came over Osorio's first two games at the helm.

Vazquez, at 5-foot-5, simply doesn't check the boxes Osorio and his coaching staff have drawn up for the holding midfield position. On top of that, Osorio clearly believes Vazquez isn't as adept further forward as Jonathan dos Santos or Jonathan Gonzalez, two players who would consider themselves holding midfielders but have been harnessed further forward by Osorio.

Ultimately, Vazquez missing out isn't a conspiracy; it's a footballing decision from Osorio based on his own ideas and philosophy. Coaches have their quirks. It happened famously with Cuauhtemoc Blanco and Ricardo La Volpe in 2006, but also to Miguel Espana in 1994, Carlos Hermosillo in 1998 and Jonathan dos Santos in 2010.

In Osorio's defense, Vazquez's weakness in the air is broadly covered by his Santos Laguna teammates, more so perhaps than he would be with Mexico. Santos won more aerial duels than any other team in the Clausura regular season: 324 compared to next-best Cruz Azul on 289. Los Guerreros play with two aerially dominant center-backs and two strikers who can also drop back to defend set pieces.

On a personal level, omission from the World Cup squad will be highly disappointing for Vazquez, who was one of Mexico's best players in Brazil 2014. Perhaps it would have been different had Vazquez moved to Europe after the last World Cup. He reportedly had interest from Italy, Brazil and England, though in the end it may not have made much difference. In short, it's simply a case of right time, wrong place for Vazquez, who can nevertheless round off this season with what would be his fourth Liga MX title.

Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.

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