Breaking down the tactical battles of the Liga MX Clausura playoffs
There won't be a shortage of intrigue about the buildup off the pitch, but here's a breakdown of each team and quarterfinal series from a tactical and playing-style point of view.
Club Tijuana (1) vs. Morelia (8)
8:30 ET Thursday, May 11, at Estadio Morelos; 9 ET Sunday, May 14, at Estadio Caliente
Xolos completed the fewest number of passes of all the playoff teams and were level with Santos in terms of least possession, but scored more goals (30) than any other team and won more points.
This Club Tijuana side is now very much in Miguel Herrera's image, playing a vertical brand of football, moving the ball forward quickly and taking risks in possession. Striker Martin Caraglio provides a natural target, but his strike partner, Aviles Hurtado -- who plays a free role off Caraglio -- is Xolos' best player and has again enjoyed an exceptional season.
Holding midfielder Guido Rodriguez is another key figure, especially if Herrera is going to use inexperienced 18-year-old center-back Carlos Vargas in the Liguilla.
Standard formation: 4-2-3-1
Most important player: Hurtado
SPI to win the Clausura: 15 percent
SPI to advance vs. Morelia: 61 percent
Morelia scored only 19 goals in the 17-game regular season, but also conceded only 16. Coach Roberto Hernandez tends to play a 4-3-3 formation, which naturally becomes a 4-5-1 out of possession, though he has played three central defenders previously this Clausura.
Morelia is the surprise package of the Liguilla, and though it has picked up results more through sheer desire to avoid relegation than depth of talent, the team from Michoacan has nothing to lose in the playoffs.
The last-gasp goal from Peru international Raul Ruidiaz -- the Clausura's highest goalscorer -- against Monterrey on Saturday secured Morelia's place next season in Liga MX and gave a boost of confidence to the institution. Combine that with the fact that Morelia has very little expectation this postseason, and it is a potential banana skin for Xolos.
Standard formation: 4-3-3
Most important player: Ruidiaz
SPI to win the Clausura: 7 percent
SPI to advance vs. Xolos: 39 percent
Monterrey (2) vs. Tigres (7)
8:30 ET Wednesday, May 10, at Estadio Universitario; 8 ET Saturday, May 13, at Estadio BBVA Bancomer.
In some ways, Monterrey is the most interesting team in the playoffs from a tactical standpoint, with coach Antonio Mohamed not afraid to use his large squad to shift formation or playing styles depending on the opposition.
A narrow 4-1-3-2 is often used, but last time Rayados played Tigres at home on April 22, Mohamed shifted to a 5-3-2, with three center-backs and two predominantly holding midfielders screening the defense. Star players Edwin Cardona and Carlos Sanchez were dropped to the bench.
The result was Monterrey earning a 1-0 victory from a set play. Introducing an extra body into the back line to add cover stopped Tigres' wingers and full-backs from creating numerical superiority in the final third down the flanks. Monterrey had just 34 percent of possession, but restricted the opposition to only one attempt on target.
Mohamed will likely try to repeat the system in this edition of the Clasico Regio. Discipline will be key, as will making counter-attacks and set plays count when opportunities arise.
Standard formation: 4-1-3-2
Most important player: Jose Basanta
SPI to win the Clausura: 16 percent
SPI to advance vs. Tigres: 45 percent
Despite not having the greatest regular season, Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti's Tigres finished with the highest completed-pass percentage -- 82 percent -- attempted almost 2,000 more passes than any other side in the Liguilla and dominated the possession charts. On top of that, four of the top seven players with the most attempted passes in the regular season play for Tigres.
Drawing Monterrey in a quarterfinal Clasico Regio was hardly ideal, however. Tigres will dominate possession -- in the so-called "Tuca-taka" style -- but the big question hanging over the tie is whether Tigres can make possession count and actually create, which they couldn't when the teams last met.
On the positive side, ArgentinA international Guido Pizarro is back after missing the last clasico defeat, and Tigres have found form of late, defeating Tijuana 3-0 and Queretaro 5-1 since that loss to local rivals Rayados.
Chile international Eduardo Vargas is out injured with a left knee problem, but his absence has opened the door for Lucas Zelarayan to come in and shine. In fact, the balance of the side and chemistry upfront has improved with the change.
Tigres' boasted the best defense in the regular season, with only 12 goals conceded, and will fancy their chances for back-to-back titles if they can get past their local rival.
Standard formation: 4-2-3-1
Most important player: Andre-Pierre Gignac
SPI to win the Clausura: 22 percent
SPI to advance vs Monterrey: 55 percent
Chivas (3) vs. Atlas (6)
10:30 ET Thursday, May 11, at Estadio Jalisco; 7:06 ET Sunday, May 14, at Estadio Chivas.
Similar to Tigres, you know what to expect from Matias Almeyda's Chivas side. The all-Mexican team from Guadalajara is youthful -- the youngest in Liga MX with an average age of 25.2 years -- and attacks as its default mode. Chivas are probably the most exciting team to watch this Liguilla.
But Chivas aren't coming into the playoffs in any sort of form. With injuries to Isaac Brizuela, Angel Zaldivar and Rodolfo Pizarro, who might be back sooner than expected, the flow of the season has been disrupted.
Copa MX winners Chivas come into the playoffs without a win in five games and having scored only twice in those matches. Even those two goals came from set pieces, which makes it 450 minutes since Chivas netted from open play.
In terms of formations, Chivas often look like a 4-2-4, with one of the central forwards sometimes dropping deep to make more of a 4-2-1-3, especially with Zaldivar out. Whatever the shape is, the idea is to be dynamic, move forward at pace and dominate the game.
Standard formation: 4-2-4
Most important player: Orbelin Pineda
SPI to win the Clausura: 11 percent
SPI to advance vs. Atlas: 55 percent
Coach Jose Guadalupe "Profe" Cruz has done a fine job to elevate Atlas to the Liguilla, despite the absences of figures such as Rafa Marquez for most of the season.
Los Rojinegros play a compact 4-4-2 formation, and the team -- made up of mostly Mexicans -- work extremely hard. Underdog against Chivas, if Atlas can summon up a performance like its 2-1 win against Club America in Estadio Azteca, the side will be in good shape to get into the semifinals.
The key all season has been left-back Luis Reyes and right-back Jose Maduena getting forward and providing service to the strikers; Atlas scored more headed goals (eight) than any other side in the regular season. However, Maduena is out, which means there is likely a huge opportunity for Mexico youth international Cristian Gonzalez.
Standard formation: 4-4-2
Most important player: Matias Alustiza
SPI to win the Clausura: 8 percent
SPI to advance vs. Chivas: 45 percent
Toluca (4) vs. Santos Laguna (5)
10:30 ET Wednesday, May 10, at Estadio Corona; 10 ET Saturday, May 13, at Estadio Nemesio Diez.
It's Toluca's 100-year anniversary season and manager Hernan Cristante has put together a balanced and experienced side that wants to grab a trophy to cap the celebrations.
Toluca might not be the most exciting team to watch and have the oldest side -- 30.3 years for those who have featured -- in Liga MX, but there is quality and nous heading into the playoffs. Playmaker Pablo Barrientos is the key figure and pulls the strings. Combined with Gabriel Hauche and Fernando Uribe ahead of him, Toluca's offense deserves respect.
Diablos Rojos have earned more points away from their renovated stadium than at it this season and come into the playoffs out of form, having picked up two points from a possible 15 in the past five regular-season matches.
Standard formation: 4-3-1-2
Most important player: Barrientos
SPI to win the Clausura: 8 percent
SPI to advance vs. Santos: 45 percent
Coach Jose Manuel "Chepo" de la Torre is known for his military discipline, and it's no surprise to learn that Santos Laguna's players have covered more distance than any other side entering the Liguilla.
There is a nice look about Los Guerreros, with Carlos Izquierdoz and Nestor Araujo arguably the best center-back partnership in Mexico's top division and young starlets such as Ulises Rivas, Jorge Sanchez and Walter Sandoval enjoying impressive seasons. Osvaldo Martinez has been one of the signings of the season and dictates play for Santos in the center of the pitch.
Up front is where Santos can improve, with Julio Furch scoring only four times this Clausura. Santos lost once all season -- they drew 11 times -- though you feel that Furch will have to step up if the team are to make a realistic title run.
Santos will be without the suspended Djaniny and Sandoval for the first leg against Toluca.
Standard formation: 4-3-3
Most important player: Martinez
SPI to win the Clausura: 13 percent
SPI to advance vs. Toluca: 55 percent
Tom Marshall covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MexicoWorldCup.