Coaches like Paco Jemez, Pedro Caixinha vital to growth of Liga MX
MEXICO CITY -- After six straight seasons without Liguilla football at the Colonia Nochebuena, Cruz Azul is only one win away from securing its place in Mexico's big dance. The job at hand is to beat Veracruz, a side that has six away losses in the 2017 Apertura. Coming off an important 2-1 away win against Morelia in Week 16, Paco Jemez's players look refreshed and eager to get the job done this Saturday in front of their fans, who await with incredulity the possibility of securing a place in the last eight.
They're incredulous because Cruz Azul is a team marred by letdowns. They've lived through enough scenes of their beloved club being unable to get the job done, but Jemez is confident and the players are ready to both bury the past and renew the hopes of a fan base that's desperate to see their club make headlines for their successes, not their failures.
However, Jemez's contract is about to end. After this season, Jemez will go back to Spain to spend the holidays with his loved ones and there, he'll make the decision about whether to stay in Europe or come back to Mexico. How the remainder of the season goes will inevitably influence his decision: if Cruz Azul makes the Liguilla and goes far, the possibilities of him signing an extension will be high. But if Cruz Azul loses to Veracruz, the chances of seeing Jemez in Liga MX next season will be exponentially reduced.
No matter what happens on Saturday at Estadio Azul, though, Jemez's involvement in Liga MX should be analyzed carefully. In Mexico, one thing that's bound to happen is that a lot of attention will be given to his multiple confrontations with local journalists. For example, those instances where Jemez looked exasperated because he didn't like the wording of a certain question, or simply didn't see it necessary to keep answering the same question albeit worded differently. He'll be remembered for declaring that Cruz Azul is not a "grande" after La Maquina lost 3-0 to Lobos BUAP and looked like a team that was on the precipice of falling out from the Liguilla picture.
But his time in Liga MX should be seen as an important chapter in the Mexican game. Jorge Valdano, who won the 1986 World Cup in Mexico with Argentina and has also held various important positions in Real Madrid, came to Mexico last week for his induction to the Football Hall of Fame in Pachuca.
Valdano praised Jemez's coaching style and explained to Futbol Picante's roundtable discussion why his arrival to Liga MX should be seen as a positive moment.
"I believe that his arrival to Mexican football has been good," said Valdano. "I think that's very important to have different ideas in one league because it improves it. Having different ideas come to Spanish football has been one of its biggest advantages. ... I believe a lot in Paco Jemez. I believe in his football. I believe in his personality.
"In Spain, I was one of the many who would turn on the TV to watch his Rayo Vallecano because it was one of the teams that most entertained me. And look: he did it at a club that had a limited budget.
"I hope he does well in Mexico because it will be a good for the Mexican game, I insist. In Spain during our playing years, there were coaches coming from Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, England, Russia, and the then-Yugoslavia. All those arrivals generated a big tactical knowledge in our league and at the end, everyone more or less comes out favored. It turns difficult when everything is homogeneous, everyone copies each other.
"At the end, on each of the pitches, you end up seeing the same game."
During the international break, Jemez gave an interview to Aragon Radio in Spain and he used that moment to describe what were his main goals when he got handed the Cruz Azul job. "We needed to change the playing style, change the way of training."
"We had to turn our team into one that had a recognizable style each time it played, and we also needed the results because Cruz Azul hasn't been in the Liguilla for six consecutive seasons," he said.
There have been games in which Jemez's Cruz Azul shines because of its high-press and possession of the ball, but there have been others where its defense falls apart, making for easy prey. What has been interesting, though, is how Jemez has used three defensive midfielders -- most often Rafael Baca, Gabriel Penalba and Francisco Silva -- to add a sense of rigidity to the team's overall play.
In the first half against Morelia on Nov. 3, this midfield trio tied all the strings together so the offense could stand out. According to InStat, Baca has an 87 percent passing accuracy on average in 90 minutes, Silva has 84 percent and Penalba 89 percent. Penalba's contributions are more significant when you realize that he averages 3.3 successful challenges in attack.
Other key players have been newcomers like Edgar Mendez, whom Jemez specifically selected to join Cruz Azul over the summer offseason; he has five goals and two assists. Also, Mendez is the second most-penalized player in the Apertura with 40 suffered fouls. Striker Felipe Mora, who also came in this offseason, has scored seven times. It's rare to see two newcomers in Cruz Azul become immediate contributors but Jemez has created the environment in which these pick-ups could contribute right away.
It was back in the 2015 Clausura when a European manager led a club to a league title, with Pedro Caixinha at Santos Laguna making it happen. Since Caixinha's departure, Santos has tried with different coaches (among them Pako Ayestaran and Luis Zubeldia) to retain that strong confidence it showed under the manager from Portugal, but it has failed.
Caixinha was a manager known for changing every training session and who put extra importance on maintaining tactical order at the back. In the Clausura that Los Guerreros went on to win, Caixinha knew since late March that the data from Match Analysis he was receiving every week suggested that there was a high chance the team would reach the Liguilla and compete for the title.
"With all the 11 teams we'd played, we have more distance covered, we have more distance covered at high-speed, we have more sprints and we have more distance covered in sprints: that all means we worked harder than all the 11 teams we played against. That also means that we have more players arriving in the opponent's box and we have more shots on goal," he told The Mexican Soccer Show in 2015.
For Mexican football, the expertise that Caixinha provided and the one that nowadays is being provided by Jemez and current Mexico manager, Juan Carlos Osorio, can only be healthy for the well-being of the Mexican game, like Valdano said, but it's not easy. Jemez, who also mentioned in the interview with Aragon Radio that Liga MX has several clubs capable of competing in La Liga, has had a feisty reception from the Mexican media but he does have Cruz Azul on the verge of Liguilla football.
Juanma Lillo, one of the few managers from Spain to coach in Liga MX, told ESPN FC that it's tough for European coaches to be well-liked in Latin America.
"What I can tell you is that in the world of coaches, the setting is still resistant to change," said Lillo. "In South America, it's still very homogeneous in regards to who can coach a club. In Mexico for example, it's really complicated for a European to arrive, even if Caixinha won a title with Santos Laguna not that long ago. I think he was the only European coach in the league, no? You're not that open about the possibility of bringing in coaches from abroad.
"With players, it's a whole different story. And like you said, in Mexico, it's not any type of foreign player: it's mostly South American footballers. European footballers are not that common in Liga MX, but they're arriving.
"However, I do believe that what usually happens with the cultures is that they will get better when they mix. It would be absurd to think that football can improve without the mixture of ideas. That's why I think that one of the good things that we have in European football is that each day we have more people coming from different parts of the world."
For Mexican football to keep growing in the world stage, it needs more coaches like Paco Jemez to arrive to Liga MX in order to refresh ideas and, more importantly, expand the debate.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.