Luis Zubeldia to feel right at home at Santos Laguna
2015 was a year that saw Club Santos Laguna win its fifth Liga MX title, with Portuguese head coach Pedro Caixinha leading the way, but also one in which it finished the 2015 Apertura with zero home wins. The club also had to switch coaches during the Apertura after Caixinha's unexpected resignation. Spanish head coach Pako Ayestaran took over and tried to implement his style, but was unsuccessful and left after the Apertura regular season.
However, during the volatile year, Santos did experience some consistency in the form of the club's Argentine contingent of Carlos Izquierdoz, Agustin Marchesin, and Diego "Pulpo" Gonzalez. These three players, all products of the Lanus youth system, are now being strengthened with the arrival of head coach Luis Zubeldia, whose first coaching job was handed to him eight years ago -- at Lanus no less.
At 34-years-old, Zubeldia will be the youngest head coach in Liga MX. In June of 2008, Zubeldia was named Lanus's head coach, and in that moment at just 27, he became the youngest ever coach to hold a coaching job in Argentina's Primera Division.
At 23, he had to quit his footballing career due to a joint disorder, which affected one of his knees. From that point on, he received support from Lanus, where he spent his entire professional career, and started to receive opportunities to coach the players from the club's youth system. In the 2007 Apertura when Lanus won its first ever Primera Division title, Zubeldia was coach Ramon Cabrero's assistant. While fulfilling this role, Zubeldia first met youngsters Gonzalez, Marchesin, and Izquierdoz.
In Zubeldia's first year as head coach in 2008, Gonzalez played a total of 2,664 minutes for Lanus in all competitions. Zubeldia handed Marchesin's Lanus debut in March 2009 and then debuted Izquierdoz 18 months later.
They are three players Zubeldia knows quite well, so it was understandable that the news of Zubeldia's arrival to Torreon was warmly welcomed.
"He's a motivator and works really well; his tenures at Lanus and Racing support it because he debuted a lot of youngsters over there. He's good at keeping the groups united and making each of the footballers feel comfortable."
Today, Santos is one of the Mexican clubs that best works with its youth teams. Last season, Los Laguneros won the U-17 and U-20 tournaments of the 2015 Apertura. What's more is that when Santos makes its 2016 Clausura debut in Leon, it will once again start the new season with the youngest squad in Mexico.
Santos has become one of the main clubs that provides young players to Mexico's youth national teams. The combination of a coach who likes working with young players like Zubeldia and a club that is setting itself apart from other Liga MX clubs by reinforcing its youth teams as each year passes by invites one to think that Zubeldia's tenure in Torreon could bring success to the club.
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In Santos, Zubeldia will find a team that's likely to be a better at direct-attacking as opposed to relying on the possession of the ball to generate its attack. One of the new incomers is Mexican midfielder, Ulises Davila, who's only 24, while Chilean midfielder, Bryan Rabello, who arrived in Torreon last season, is only 21. Those two, who have had playing time in Europe, will have to be Santos' attacking geniuses, and forwards Djaniny Tavares, 24, and Andres Renteria, 22, will have to rack up goals. In addition to being young, what they all have in common is that they are quick attackers, which suits Zubeldia's style.
Finding reliability in the defense will be one of Zubeldia's main early tasks. Last season, the club conceded 24 goals, and only scored 21. Eighteen of those conceded goals happened in Torreon. In that department, the Lanus contingent will be important, especially Marchesin and captain Izquierdoz. Gonzalez will be one of the defensive midfielders that will try to provide balance to a team that will have a handful of speedy attackers.
Upon landing in Mexico, it was easy for Zubeldia to draw comparisons between his current team and his boyhood club. "Mexican football has exponentially grown," he opened his statement. "The league has invested [resources] and there's a lot of great players here. Santos is a similar club to Lanus, where I was brought up. They have been successful in their history, especially in recent times. They have a deep-rooted culture, and I identify with it."
Since 2005, Santos has won three league titles, a Copa MX and a Campeon de Campeones (Mexico's version of a domestic super cup), while Lanus has won a league title and a Copa Sudamericana. Izquierdoz, Marchesin, and Gonzalez already know how it feels to win a championship with Santos, now it's their turn to try to help Zubeldia win his first ever championship as a head coach. In the 2016 Clausura, a Santos win will feel like a Lanus win, too.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.