Can Almeyda win again with Chivas before weighing up his future?
The new Liga MX season kicks off Friday and while each team and coach must grapple with their own pressures and expectations, the 2018 Clausura could be especially pivotal for Chivas' Argentine coach Matias Almeyda.
Managers from Argentina are in vogue at present -- and for good reason. Mauricio Pochettino has resurrected Tottenham with a young, brash and largely English side, demonstrating that mixing it at the top of the league isn't all about splashing the cash. At Atletico Madrid, Diego Simeone has forged the club into something of a beacon of resistance against the domination of Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Then there are others in the same generation following up, like Eduardo Berizzo (Sevilla) and Mauricio Pelligrino (Southampton), while River Plate's Marcelo Gallardo clearly seems destined for a European move at some point and Jorge Sampaoli has unfinished business there, too.
In Mexico, Matias Almeyda -- a teammate of Pochettino and Simeone in Marcelo Bielsa's Argentina side at the 2002 World Cup -- took on the significant challenge of returning Chivas to the top of the Mexican game when he joined the club back in September 2015. The River Plate youth product wasted no time in explaining that he had come to "awaken the giant" and not simply to steer the club clear of the complicated relegation situation in which Guadalajara, a club that boasts 40 million fans, had found itself.
Almeyda's charisma instantly shone through. He won over the fans, and it wasn't long before the players were on board as well. The first half of 2017 brought a famous league and cup double for Chivas, and naturally, Almeyda started to attract attention from Europe.
Almeyda was linked to the Leicester City job back in October before Claude Puel took the position. Alaves in La Liga were also reportedly interested last summer. The Chile national team flirted with him too, and though Almeyda came out to say he is dedicated to Chivas at present, it isn't difficult to see how he'll make the jump to Europe at some point.
"I think it has to come naturally with a good project," 43-year-old Almeyda said to ESPN FC, stressing that his mind is focused on Chivas at present. "I love football, and I like my work here, in Argentina and at some moment [I'd like] to have the possibility of moving to Europe, but I repeat that it has to come naturally."
Almeyda also said that seeing Argentina's Europe-based coaches succeed makes him "very happy." He put it down to their experiences as players.
"We built our footballing careers in Europe, and that provokes something special in wanting to know everything," he said. "And those of us who have the chance to manage make use of those experiences."
Almeyda struggled the first time he retired as a player in 2005. Clearly obsessed with the game, Almeyda had moved from the small town of Azul, located nearly 200 miles outside of Buenos Aires, to River Plate's youth academy at the age of 13. Almeyda went on to win three Argentine league titles and the Copa Libertadores with River: Serie A, two Italian cups, the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup and the UEFA Super Cup with Lazio and featured at the 1998 and 2002 World Cups. When his career ended abruptly, Almeyda battled depression, and he admitted to drinking heavily in the authorized biography "Alma y Vida," written by Diego Borinsky.
The former central midfielder even tried his hand at being a milk producer back in his native Azul, something that lasted only a couple of months. But having sorted himself out, emerging from retirement and making his way back to River Plate, the club was relegated in 2011. Almeyda immediately hung up his boots for the second time and became head coach, taking on the enormous responsibility of getting Los Millonarios back on their feet, despite never having coached before. Returning River to the first division proved to be the kick-start Almeyda's managerial career required, with a stint at Banfield preceding his move to Chivas.
There are some similarities with what Pochettino has done at Tottenham and Almeyda has done at Chivas. In terms of general style of play, they share the single-mindedness to install an ideology, make the players believe and operate under owners that have traditionally not been easy to work under.
"The work 'Poche' has done is very good because he's been able to give his team its own playing identity, and that's where I see something similar," Almeyda said.
Under Almeyda, Chivas take the initiative in matches and attack, averaging 57.1 percent of possession per game under the Argentine. Playing a 4-2-3-1 and using, as Almeyda stresses, four attackers, the style is easy on the eyes, and he has racked up two Copa MX wins, a Supercopa MX and a first league title in more than 10 years playing some good football.
Stripped of the dogma that Bielsa himself admits has hindered his career, Almeyda has nevertheless taken on many elements of his former coach's philosophy. But Almeyda, who speaks Italian and is learning English, has also achieved at Chivas using only Mexican players, in line with the Chivas club's policy and at a time when Liga MX is becoming increasingly dominated by imported talent.
"Here in Chivas, everything is done only with Mexicans, and it is very important to highlight," Almeyda said. "Here foreigners aren't signed because that's the history of the club, and when you define a playing style and you win, it is very laudable for my boys." A record of 51 wins, 40 draws and 32 losses in official games is better than it looks on paper due to the parity of Liga MX compared to other leagues, as well as the fact that Chivas were in relegation trouble when Almeyda arrived.
The club has undoubtedly helped Almeyda with major signings such as Alan Pulido, Rodolfo Pizarro and Orbelin Pineda, but the former Lazio midfielder has also paid attention to the youth teams and was named general sporting director at Chivas in June 2016, further linking him to the club's longer-term future.
However, there's one significant negative among the positives surrounding Almeyda's time at Chivas: the 2017 Apertura. Chivas followed up the Clausura title win with a 13th-place finish in November, picking up only 18 points over the 17 games in what was a poor title defense.
There were many reasons for the slump. There was no significant investment in the squad last summer. Chivas lost players to the national team, there were injuries, and there was a title "hangover" as key members of the team struggled for form. Looking ahead to 2018, Almeyda and his side need to bounce back. The preseason this time around has been better planned and involved the whole squad, aside from center-back Oswaldo Alanis, who is in a contract dispute with the club.
The stakes are high. A clause allowing Almeyda to leave Chivas for the Mexico national team or Argentina has been widely reported. With the World Cup next summer, Almeyda could position himself as the leading candidate, should current coach Juan Carlos Osorio leave El Tri. Potential suitors in Europe will also be looking on at a manager with the potential and charisma to join that group of Argentines succeeding on the other side of the pond.
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.