Liga MX: Necaxa fires coach Michel as season slips away

TOLUCA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 22: Marcelo Michel Leano, Coach of Necaxa looks on during the 10th round match between Toluca and Necaxa as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Nemesio Diez Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Toluca, Mexico. (Photo by Angel Castillo/Jam Media/Getty Images)
TOLUCA, MEXICO - SEPTEMBER 22: Marcelo Michel Leano, Coach of Necaxa looks on during the 10th round match between Toluca and Necaxa as part of the Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX at Nemesio Diez Stadium on September 22, 2018 in Toluca, Mexico. (Photo by Angel Castillo/Jam Media/Getty Images) /

Necaxa sacked coach Marcelo Michel with four games remaining in his first season in charge of the struggling Rayos.

Michel – the league’s youngest coach at 31 – was seen as somewhat of a wunderkind after managing three Ascenso MX clubs in three short years as a head coach, leading Zacatepec to the playoffs two years in a row while also reaching the semifinals in the Copa MX.

The Rayos – a provincial club with modest expectations – is in 15th place through 13 weeks, posting a 3-3-7 record and Necaxa was knocked out of the Copa MX in the Round of 16 after winning the tournament last season.

Perhaps more embarrassing for Necaxa management was that it was Ignacio Ambriz who knocked the Rayos out of the Copa in front of Necaxa’s home fans at Estadio Victoria in Aguascalientes. Ambriz – now the head coach at León – was a Necaxa legend as a player and managed the club for two seasons (Apertura 2017 and Clausura 2018).

León blanked Necaxa in Estadio Victoria again on Saturday night, pushing the Rayos’ winless streak to 4 games and ruining what had seemed to be a promising season back in July.

That was enough for the Tinajero family – Ernesto Tinajero is the majority owner and his son, Santiago, took over general manager duties in May 2017.

Five short months

With much fanfare, Necaxa announced it had signed Michel on May 11. His Ascenso MX teams had shown great flair and his team at Zacatepec defeated first division teams Necaxa, Pachuca and León during its run to the semifinals in the Clausura 2018 Copa MX tourney. In fact, Zacatepec finished ahead of Necaxa in the group stage.

Though Necaxa won that Copa MX tournament, the Rayos had finished the league season in 11th place, just 2 points out of a playoff spot. However, management dismantled the team, selling off goalie Marcelo Barovero (one of the league’s best), central defender Igor Lichnovsky, teen sensation Roberto Alvarado and striker Carlos González (who scored a hat trick over the weekend with UNAM).

The Rayos brought in a lot of new faces to plug the holes, including several youngsters who were seen as the future of the club.

Michel installed a quick-passing attack that featured constant motion through midfield. The offense requires trust because the constant movement makes the team vulnerable to counterattacks if players aren’t filling in and aware of spacing.

Necaxa kicked off the season in mid-July by defeating Monterrey for the league SuperCup. On July 22, the Rayos opened the league season at home with a stunning 2-1 win over powerhouse América, a title favorite (and currently in first place).

After a 5-3 loss at UNAM that exposed Necaxa’s defensive liabilities, the Rayos defeated Lobos BUAP 1-0, also at home. Since then, Necaxa has won just once in 10 league matches and the offense has completely broken down.

Stagnation and collapse

After the promising start in league and Cup, coach Michel seemed to take a misguided approach to Cup matches by using completely makeshift line-ups. It’s understandable to rest a few starters and give youngsters a chance to play. But with a new roster and a new offense, it made more sense to give his starters more chances to play together, to become more familiar with the offense.

Playing youth players alongside starters also allows the kids to benefit from the veteran experience and adapt more quickly to a team’s philosophy. But coach Michel used primarily second-line players and youngsters and even though Necaxa won its group stage in the Cup, the senior team did not benefit.

The complex offense did not evolve after its early success. Part of this could be blamed on the way Cup games devolved into one-on-one efforts and the subs’ preference to try solo runs in these Cup matches (to impress the coach, perhaps?) translated to breakdowns in the offense when they were inserted into league games.

Midfield general Mati Fernández went down for four matches due to a leg injury, and the offense never seemed to recover even after he returned. Players broke off the motion attack to take solo runs or to fire shots from long distance. It appeared that trust in the offense had broken down and the impatience shown by the players suggested there was a lack of leadership on the field and in the locker room.

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Had coach Michel lost the team? Were players tuning him out?

After the September FIFA break, there was a momentary rejuvenation as Necaxa defeated previously undefeated Cruz Azul. But that proved to be just a blip and the team returned to negative form right away. Worst of all, there were a few games where the team seemed to simply be mailing it in, giving little effort and showing little interest in teamwork.

The writing seemed to be on the wall after Necaxa played to a scoreless draw at Veracruz. The Rayos had lost all four of their previous road games, so this was their first point from a road game all season. However, Veracruz is the league’s worst defense and the Tiburones completely outplayed Necaxa, fully deserving to win the match.

Though firing coach Michel before he finished his first season seems rash, one wonders if the young manager had lost the club. And if that were the case, the Tinajeros might have made the right move. But the current roster does not appear to be a playoff-caliber team so more changes would appear to be in the offing.