Liga MX: New-look Necaxa builds for the future with Michel

AGUASCALIENTES, MEXICO - August 25: Marcelo Michel Leano, Head coach of Necaxa during the 7th round match between Necaxa and Tigres UANL as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Victoria Stadium on August 25, 2018 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo by Cesar Gomez/Jam Media/Getty Images)
AGUASCALIENTES, MEXICO - August 25: Marcelo Michel Leano, Head coach of Necaxa during the 7th round match between Necaxa and Tigres UANL as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Victoria Stadium on August 25, 2018 in Aguascalientes, Mexico. (Photo by Cesar Gomez/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

A victory over América is always going to be a big highlight in any season for Necaxa. Unfortunately, the Rayos’ 2-1 win over the Águilas came in the first game and there hasn’t really been another highlight since.

New coach Marcelo Michel Leaño got Necaxa’s Apertura 2018 campaign off to a flying start, guiding the Rayos to a 1-0 win over Monterrey in the Liga MX Super Copa then stunning heavily favored América a week later when Brian Fernández scored the winner in minute 75, just 3 minutes after the hated Águilas had knotted the score at 1.

The “Rojiblancos” have gone 1-2-4 since, however, scoring only 8 times and giving up 12 while falling to 15th place. The challenge doesn’t get any easier in the second half as the season resumes after the FIFA break with games against league-leading Cruz Azul, followed by a road game in Toluca then a visit from defending league champions Santos.

A New Regime

Coach Michel – at 31, he is the youngest head coach in the league – knew he faced a rebuilding task upon taking the Rayos job in May. Necaxa lost key contributors from each line (plus goalie Marcelo Barovero) on a team that finished out of the playoffs in 11th place last season.

The Guadalajara native followed a unique path to the coaching ranks, starting in the Estudiantes Tecos front office where he led player development for 9 years before joining the Chivas as sporting director. There, Michel worked with Johan Cruyff, engaging the Dutch legend in discussions of tactics. He had earlier worked with César Luis Menotti at Tecos and both of these legends informed his transition into coaching.

Michel enjoyed success at Mérida, Tepic and Zacatepec in second division where he adapted concepts of Total Football to lead exciting, attacking teams. His success with Zacatepec in the 2017-2018 Copa MX seasons caught the attention of the Nexaca brass and they hired him to take over for Ignacio Ambriz.

The Rayos hope Michel can develop players from the academy and young players from South America, while mixing and matching the bargain basement veterans available within Necaxa’s limited budget. Hopefully, the young tactician is given the opportunity to install his schemes.

Key Players

The América result obviously has proven too good to be true, but the tactics on display that night offered hints of a stylish, attacking approach that can be fun to watch if executed effectively. Week 2 – a 5-3 loss to the Pumas in Mexico City – showed what can happen when the forward-flowing strategy breaks down.

The Rayos attack is based on flooding the center of the pitch with bodies in motion and ball movement from sideline-to-sideline. The players have some freedom to move from sector to sector but spacing discipline requires that someone is available to cover the vacated spaces. Fullbacks, especially right back Brayan Beckeles, are encouraged to push forward and not just down the flanks.

When healthy, midfielder Matías Fernández is the key to the Necaxa offense. His composure with the ball at his feet allows him to survey the defense, probe between lines when space allows or get the ball circulating again. Unfortunately, his injury in Week 4 slowed the team’s adaptation to the demanding tactics.

Twenty-year-old striker Víctor Dávila is the point man of the Rayos attack, but the absence of Fernández found him losing patience, shooting from uncomfortable distance, tracking back into unfavorable positions and misfiring on passes.

Strike partner Brian Fernández is clever at working free, slipping his marker and firing quick one-timers, but both he and Dávila are more dangerous when fed cleanly or led into open zones.

Mixing and Matching

After the loss to the Pumas, coach Michel knew he had to tinker with his line-up. This was probably the strategy all along since player development is a critical team goal, especially in the short-term.

The problem is that the offense demands familiarity and trust, as well as a willingness to track back quickly and cover the back line when possession is lost. But since the Rayos brought in 13 new players over the summer (not all remain with the first team), understanding how teammates play and anticipating where they might be has not come easy. So, making through passes or even delivering crosses can occasionally be difficult. And Necaxa has made some awful looking passes at times. A sturdy defensive midfielder can often cover up these kinds of mistakes but the lack of suck a player on the roster makes Necaxa vulnerable to the counter. This has been especially true because there has been a notable lack of commitment to chasing back on defense from time-to-time and this has put goalie Hugo González under too much pressure all too frequently. But González has held up quite well, for the most part.

Some new faces have struggled to adapt to the quick passing essence of the offense, falling back on one-on-one habits or slowing down the pace of the offense. Talented players such as newcomer Facundo Castro and young vet Daniel Álvarez have too often dribbled themselves into trouble, discombobulating the Rayos momentum and interrupting ball control. But this is not an easy offense to pick up and they will learn eventually … or be shown the door.

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Good News in the Copa

Necaxa is the defending Copa MX champ and the fact that they advanced out of the group stage this season is a positive development, if only that it provides extra game minutes to spread around.

The Rayos looked good in topping Group 4, even defeating the Pumas twice. At one point, I thought Coach Michel overplayed his hand by twice using a completely second-choice line-up. I understand that Copa matches are a good time to give academy players playing time, but I think it is equally important to let them play some minutes alongside first-teamers because I think they can learn faster, and mistakes might be cleaned up by the veterans.

After a very bad loss to second division Tampico Madero in their third group match, it seemed that Coach Michel might have risked too much, but a 1-0 win at home against the Pumas clinched advancement.

Necaxa qualified as the No. 5 seed and must wait to see who earns the No. 12 seed (it could be León or Diego Maradona’s Dorados club). They will play their Round of 16 match at home in two weeks and by then the defense of their Copa crown might be all that’s left to play for.

What to Expect

A playoff spot seems virtually out of the question even with 9 games remaining. I would expect Coach Michel to place special emphasis on tactics the next two months, especially with an eye on working with those players he will want to keep for the Clausura 2019 season.

Youngsters such as Dávila, young veteran Dieter Villalpando, 19-year-old midfielder Marcelo Allende, 20-year-old newcomer Ricardo Marín (a product of América’s system who has yet to make an impact) and even the aforementioned Facundo Castro (a 23-year-old import from Uruguay) all have promise. They could thrive in this system.

Necaxa’s rehab project, Carlos “Gullit” Peña, could also see more playing time if he regains fitness because when he is “on,” his field awareness and clever passing would fit neatly into the Total Football style.

Another critical issue to address is the back line. Ventura Alvarado has been shifted into a central defense role and is adapting adequately. He could become a mainstay. Veteran Leobardo López is his back-line mate, but he is slowing as he turned 35 this month. Beckeles has grown into a dependable force at right fullback but Michel has been experimenting at left fullback, asking midfielder Luis Felipe Gallegos to step into that role. If the coach can identify some reliable players to plug the gaps in the back line, the Rayos can confidently aim for a playoff berth next season.

This could be a difficult home stretch for Necaxa fans, but at least we have bragging rights over América. Perhaps we’ll see the Águilas again in the Copa MX semifinals.