Pachuca is back on track after regaining its identity against Tigres
MEXICO CITY -- As the final whistle sounded in Estadio Hidalgo and the Pachuca faithful couldn't stop singing, Diego Alonso sprinted off the field holding his fist up high in the sign of victory. After three consecutive losses to kick off the 2017 Apertura, Pachuca achieved its first win and it happened against Tigres, the club Los Tuzos defeated in the most recent CONCACAF Champions League final.
Twenty-two-year-old captain Erick Gutierrez scored the winner on a night when all his family made the trip down to Hidalgo from Sinaloa. The 2-1 win started to give color to a season that had been worrying for a club like Pachuca, whose recent consistency has allowed it to lift a Liga MX and CONCACAF trophy since May 2016.
"The most important thing tonight is that we recuperated our DNA. We were ourselves, and we played like we have been used to," said Alonso after last Saturday's game. "And to tell you the truth, during the game I knew that against Tigres we could draw or even lose, but I felt proud about what was going on on the field. I knew that if we continue playing like we did tonight the rest of the season would be easier to confront. We can play bad or good, or win or lose, but the identity always has to be present. We recuperated our DNA and our style of play."
Alonso's message is clear with his post-game analysis. He admitted that the possibility of drawing or losing to Ricardo "Tuca" Ferretti's team was viable, but what was most important to him was the team's style.
Both goals scored against the Monterrey side were products of quick individual plays from right-back Raul "Deditos" Lopez and right-winger Jonathan Urretaviscaya and, under Alonso's watch, Pachuca has mastered two styles of attack: It can score after three quick passes, but can also get on the score sheet after completing more than 10 passes, in which almost every member of the XI gets a touch.
"When a game comes along, I don't see if we're in last place, in the middle, or in Liguilla zone," Alonso explained when asked if the first three points of the Apertura eased pressure. "We always want to be a protagonist and be among the top of the table. I will be honest with you, we rarely look at the table. What keeps us busy is to be a protagonist in all the stadiums, in each game we participate, and logically if we have a good style of play and get good results, it's easier to reach the places we want to be in."
Against Tigres, Alonso handed 17-year-old Roberto de la Rosa his Liga MX debut and the teenager embraced the challenge, taking several shots on goal.
Alonso doesn't look at the age of the player; what he takes into account is how the player is feeling days before an important game. He chose to debut De la Rosa against a defense that included Liga MX veterans such as Juninho and Hugo Ayala and, in doing so, left 29-year-old Argentine striker German Cano off the squad list.
When talking to Pachuca's sporting director Marco Garces about what Alonso offers, specifically when it comes to dealing with one of the most potent youth academies in Liga MX, he described the coach's vision and decision-making as imperative.
"It's very important to point this out because you always hear that Pachuca does a great job with its academy," said Garces. "But the reality is that if there's not a constant line that reaches First Division, well it's impossible because if the spaces aren't available after the departure of players, the opportunities won't exist. Without a good job in identifying talent and developing it, plus without a First Division coach who's willing to risk it by handing these academy players the needed minutes to finish their formation, it would be impossible to have the success we've had.
"The player that comes out of the academy is not completely prepared to play in First Division," continued Garces. "He readies himself once he's playing in first division and that's an opportunity that's given by a coach who has to be prepared to correct and have a lot of patience. And let's not forget that when the results are negative, the coach's job is always on the line, but he has the courage to play with our academy players."
In recent weeks, Garces' words have come to light because, even though the results weren't going Pachuca's way, Alonso didn't betray his ideals and continued giving minutes to youngsters, especially in Copa MX play.
After the win over Tigres on Saturday, Los Tuzos made the trip to Queretaro with a squad that included 14 youth academy players and, in the last seconds of the match, 17-year-old Erick Sanchez scored a golazo that gave Pachuca a 1-0 win. Alonso celebrated the goal as if they had scored the winner in a final.
Meanwhile, as important as it was for Gutierrez to score the winner vs. Tigres, it was also vital to see Chilean forward Angelo Sagal score his first Liga MX goal and for Edson Puch, who came off the bench, to look sharp as he adapts to his new teammates.
"The players that we brought in are also excellent footballers, and they're adapting," said Alonso recently. "We have to work and create partnerships on the field for them. They have to adapt to our style of play, but we also have to adapt to their qualities."
What Pachuca's start of the season has demonstrated is that Alonso's ties with the club are sturdy as a rock. His main goal from now on until the end of 2017 is to "play good and win," as he likes to reiterate at every opportunity.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.