Cruz Control

Cruz Azul was always expected to be in contention for a Liguilla place. No matter the difficulties encountered, anything less than a top eight finish would have been disaster. The Liguilla was just never expected to be nearly locked-up midway through the season.

Cruz Azul earned twenty-two points out of the first twenty-four available this season. It's always wise to be cautious as a Cruz Azul fan. Getting overly excited about a particular iteration of this team could lead to even greater heartbreak.  There's not many ways to downplay this start too heavily, though. They've been great - simply great. Cruz Azul fans should be excited. This team has stormed through these eight matches and are very much a team in the title hunt.

Now before you pull out your Cruz Azul themed quinceanera dresses or the usual assortment of low blows aimed at the mental frailty of the team, I want to break it down a bit further. What is at the root of this successful run, and what is its real sustainability?

You could say that Cruz Azul is on a good run simply because this is the regular season. This is what they do before the pressure mounts. This is of course accurate (and painful) but it doesn't do justice to the magnitude of the streak they've put forth. There's some real forces at work with this club that seem more physical and substantial than what was perceived as the mental forces at work during Cruz Azul's last great run of form last spring.

The most obvious change in the team starts with its leader. Luis Fernando Tena returned to the club following the untimely (and probably unfair) departure of Guillermo Vasquez. Vasquez was a more than adequate coach for the club, but suffered the same fate so many managers do in Mexico.  There's not really a belief in consistency and the slow build in Liga MX. A bad loss and the "fuera" chants course through the crowd, especially in the Estadio Azul. At least he went out with more dignity than was afforded Enrique Meza.   

Despite what is a fairly impressive coaching resume, Tena's claim to fame is justifiably being the leader of the team that captured gold at the London Olympics. Tena seemed like the obvious choice to follow-up Chepo de la Torre's tumultuous tenure with the national team. He was already in place as Chepo's assistant and had a literal gold medal around his neck. The Mexican Federation did in fact slide Tena into the head seat after Chepo's ousting. Unfortunately for Tena, the FMF still had their finger on the ejection button; One match was all Tena was permitted with the team - one match and not even a full international break weekend.

It's a shame that Tena was not given time to work with El Tri, for with Cruz Azul, Tena has shown the ability to imprint his mark on a team in a short period of time. Cruz Azul's scoring output (17 goals in 8 matches) can be attributed to a multitude of factors, but the primary ought to be Tena's use of the roster and tactical approach employed.

The number of attacking players on the field has never been higher, and they waste no time heading in that direction. The much-maligned (according to me) striker Mariano Pavone is having his best run of form with the team at the moment. Tena has him playing off of the final line of defense and being a point and pivot man in the attack. His ability to post-up (for lack of a better term) and distribute to the midfielders pouring forward has led to a great deal of quality chances. Pavone's finishing still leaves plenty to be desired, but it has been less needed than ever.

Tena deserves credit for the players he is using on the field and how he is using them. Yet, this wouldn't be possible just months ago. The clear Achilles heel for the club has finally been addressed. This roster now has depth. The substitute bench no longer reeks of desperation and lower division talent. There are actually players that can be brought in that don't cause an immediate cringe from the fan base. The positional versatility of so many of these players makes for a multitude of coaching decisions but ones that should be less constipation-inducing.

The addition of Marco Fabian is undoubtedly the most impactful recent move. While the quality of his recent play is probably being slightly overblown by his goal tally and this golazo, Fabian's impact has been undeniable. He's been a force and constant source of pressure on the opposition's defense. His motor is in constant motion. He's making the runs you want him to make while in constant possession of the most deadly of finishing strikes. It's the classic example of someone who so desperately needed a change of scenery. The unrivaled quality has always been there. Cruz Azul is the team that has been lucky to have this bit of quality for whatever amount of time it sticks around.

Fabian's addition is only part of the equation. The play of Mauro Formica, Rogelio Chavez, Fausto Pinto, and Luis Amaranto Perea have each been critical to the early success of the team. Enough can't be said about how time is needed to adjust to play in Mexico and assimilate with a new team. A year apart, both Formica and Perea were dreadful in their first season with Cruz Azul. Perea became the absolute rock in defense for the club that his illustrious career promised. Formica is now becoming a dynamic player for the club and is working incredibly well in Tena's plans.           

However, there are a few good reasons to pump the brakes a bit for La Maquina. First and foremost, you absolutely must look at the schedule with a critical eye. Cruz Azul's schedule this season is dramatically lopsided. Only two of Cruz Azul's opponents to this point are currently in Liguilla position, Chivas and Chiapas - not exactly world beaters. Cruz Azul has already matched up with Veracruz, Puebla, and Atlante who've amassed four total wins among them (two coming against each other). Suffice it to say, things are going to get a bit more rigorous for the league leaders.

Cruz Azul has also had their fair share of luck in collecting their staggering number of points. They were the beneficiaries of a favorable red card (and unjust) decision in the Santos Laguna match that aided in the collection of a victory. They were thoroughly outplayed by Atlante for more than 50 minutes of their match before catching on goal-scoring fire. Their most recent match with Puebla was an ugly affair that was worthy of the scoreless draw that it was ten seconds away from becoming (and yes I will gratuitously link to the Fabian golazo again).

Every good team needs luck to get results, and you can only beat the teams on the same field. I do not mean to take anything away from Cruz Azul with this line of thinking. However, there is good reason to think that Cruz Azul will regress some from their killer pace without a clear drop in their level of play.

The dip is coming. Cruz Azul will drop some points somewhere. The schedule and the vagaries of soccer results will certainly play a part in that. Yet, there is also one red flag that should cause some concern for the Cruz Azul faithful.

Cruz Azul are scoring at breakneck pace while only allowing a measly three goals. Everything is great, but stylistically there's something scary about Cruz Azul's play this season. This team seems utterly disinterested in retaining possession.  Despite a seven game winning streak, Cruz Azul has only had a greater possession percentage than their opponent twice this season. The first possession advantage came against Santos, which could be directly tied to Santos playing with ten men and defending for the majority of the match. Their other possession advantage (53%) came during the Atlante match, where they played Atlante (this should serve as explanation enough).

With the attacking talent and speed on the field for Cruz Azul this is somewhat understandable. They storm forward as quickly as possible and try to find the decisive pass that will break the defense without a moment's waste. Their success has justified the approach. The long ball and the repeated cross are alive and well in Mexico City.  The stout defending the team has put forth has enabled Cruz Azul to avoid punishment for the gluttony of possession from their opponents. It simply hasn't mattered. But will it?  

I really don't want to delve too far in to the question of how much possession matters. It's been done before and by better soccer minds. Generally teams with more success have more possession. Of course, there is no requirement that a team win the possession battle to get the results. The numbers alone don't mean anything. When watching Cruz Azul play, it does become apparent that Cruz Azul are incredibly sloppy with the ball; the numbers just confirm what is being played out on the field. They attack in a haphazard manner and are forced to defend and work more to regain the ball. This is not a team simply defending and looking to counter, which could account for a possession disparity. Cruz Azul could be more careful with the ball and set up more play to find cracks in the defense; they simply choose not to. The midfield is a racetrack with little to no horizontal play. The personalities on the pitch undoubtedly contribute to this style. Yet, with the continuance of this approach from one match to the next, this must have some stamp of approval from the manager.

Again, perhaps this is not truly a problem. It's possible and preferable that different tactical approaches are used based on the opposition faced. There's some reason to being more direct with weaker opposition and employing more tact and care with the ball when the schedule provides tougher tests.  It's plausible to see some trouble for Cruz Azul if they continue to play so direct against the top teams in the league.  Thirty-eight percent possession against Chiapas is one thing - when facing Toluca, Leon, or America it could be something else entirely.

In spite of these few red flags, Cruz Azul has plenty to be optimistic about. The league as a whole has few teams that truly look great at the moment. Several marquee players are on their way back to health for Cruz Azul: 'Chaco' Gimenez, 'Jerry' Flores, and Pablo Barrera. Gerardo Torrado will eventually rejoin the squad. The depth and options for this team will only improve as the season progresses.

With a position in the Liguilla a given, Cruz Azul has one thing to work toward - getting over the mental hurdle that playoffs continually represent. If they are lucky enough to reach another final, will this group pull another "Cruz Azul", or can they put those demons to bed once and for all? This season's team has as good of  chance as any to start a new chapter for the club.    

By Jason Marquitz

** photo is used under a Creative Commons license from Gary Denness

*** possession statistics come by way of ESPN


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