Looking for Lobos

What’s happened to Lucas Lobos? The current incarnation of the Tigres number 16 is unrecognizable from the four-time Balón de Oro winner that last summer guided his side to first place in the regular season.

Of course, the Clausura 2013 ended in disappointment as local rivals Monterrey undeservedly played in La Liguilla despite finishing 9th in the regular season and ended Tigres dreams of a 4th title at the quarter final stage. Instead, America took all the praise as the best side in Mexico, despite being comfortably beaten 2-0 at the Azteca by Tigres in the final regular season game (with Lobos himself getting on the score sheet), and losing more games and having a worse goal difference than Tigres over the course of the Clausura.

During those lofty days of the Clausura 2013, Lobos scored 8 goals (more than 25% of all Tigres goals), got 3 assists, and was feted as the best attacking talent in the league. Even that doesn’t tell the whole story; the captain was instrumental in everything good about Tigres. His vision and eye for a pass, his link play between the midfield and attack and his ability to beat an opposition player with the merest flick of a foot typified the attacking intent that Tigres showed that season. They ran out top scorers in the league with 30 goals. All the while the opposing players tried to kick, bully and batter Lobos into oblivion, but the captain always showed a determination and resilience, being notoriously difficult to dispossess despite his relative size.

Fast forward to January 2014 and everything is not so rosy in the Tigres garden. A dismal Apertura 2013 saw Tigres scrape into the playoffs on the final day of the season, needing a late Atlante goal against Chiapas and some refereeing assistance in their own game against Atlas, which saw the hosts reduced to 9 men in the first half, before only managing to drag themselves into 8th spot with a laboured 1-0 victory. Admittedly they were only an 81st minute goalpost away from knocking out America in the quarter final of La Liguilla, but it would have merely been papering over the very obvious cracks.

For Lobos, the season marked the lowest point in his Tigres career to date, managing only 3 goals and 13 shots on target in 19 starts, his worst goals/game and shots/game ratios in his time at the club. Perhaps most worrying, however, was the quality of his overall play. Great players don’t have to score goals and get assists to make their mark on a game; they can contribute in so many other ways. Yet Lobos generally offered nothing, failing to score any of his trademark free kicks, frequently giving the ball away, and showing little of the invention and trickery that won him those individual awards.. Throughout the tournament he appeared to lack any appetite to really get himself motivated for the games, at best he was disinterested, at worst thoroughly apathetic.

Worryingly, his poor form shows no signs of abating. In the two matches so far in 2014 he has been wholly anonymous, with several fans using social media to question whether he merited his continued place in the starting XI against Pachuca on Saturday evening. Unsurprisingly, Tuca stood by his captain, but again Lucas was poor, failing to create a chance of note, and being outshone by the deep-lying Pizarro, new signing Burbano and late substitute Damian Alvarez in terms of goal threat and chance creation from midfield. It spoke volumes that vast numbers of Tigres fans on Twitter believed Damian to be their Man of the Match, despite only being introduced in the 66th minute.

The question then becomes why has his form taken such a nosedive since the summer of 2013? Undoubtedly his child’s health problems must have been a significant weight on his mind (Lobos’ son, Mateo, aged just 1, suffers from a serious lung condition and has required frequent surgery and periods in intensive care throughout his short life). No one is immune to worry. Whether you are teacher or a footballer, it is impossible to perform to your best when your mind is filled with other things, especially so when it’s the health of a loved one. Then there was the whole El Tri issue - pundits, commentators and fans alike were unanimous in their desire to see Lucas don the green shirt and drag El Tri out of their slump. Finally he accepted the call up, but it came in one of the most tumultuous periods in El Tri’s recent history as they went through managers at lightning speed, and the man who was widely considered to be their knight in shining armor didn’t even get so much as a kick. That must’ve hurt. Perhaps his motivation is starting to wane, after being a professional footballer for so long. He is now in the twilight of his career and it’s possible that Mateo’s health issues combined with the national team’s snub are forcing him to put things into perspective and assess what’s most important for him and his family’s future going forwards.

So, what exactly does the future hold for Lobos? Tuca has consistently shown he places his faith in older and more experienced players, but there is only so long you can keep playing a player whose performance level is so far below the expectations and requirements asked of him. Perhaps Tuca feels that given that Lucas wears the armband he is undroppable, but if this is the case it does not bode well for the dressing room morale. Every player wants places in the eleven to be picked on merit, and if this is not the case Tuca will quickly find his authority undermined.

In fact, perhaps less responsibility is exactly what Lucas needs, with all the undoubted stress he will have been experiencing, it is almost certainly asking too much of him to single-handedly drag Tigres into championship contenders, captain the side, and save El Tri all at the same time. It might just be time to pass on the Tigres armband to the next in line and take Lobos out of the spotlight to let him focus on his own performance and nothing more. Lucas must also realize it is pointless to travel round the world with El Tri to sit on the bench. While it is understandable that he wants to keep himself available with the World Cup looming, he must surely be aware that if El Tri didn’t give him playing time while he was only just beginning this dip in form, that is unlikely to change after nearly a year of underperformance and Herrera at the helm. Ruling himself out of contention would be in his best interest.

Lucas is getting no younger, and whilst he will always be loved by Tigres fans for the entertainment he has provided on the pitch and delivering them the championship after 29 long years, at the age of 32 it is vital that he quickly finds the motivation to get back to something resembling decent form to avoid an ignominious end to what has been a fine career with the club.

By Daniel Price



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