With the Coronavirus pandemic decimating football, it is no surprise that cancellations appear regularly. However, the outbreak at northern club Tijuana (Xolos) has provided the Mexican league with this interesting tactical encounter against a rejuvenated Santos Laguna during the international period. With their game being postponed in late September, it will be Santos’s first home game and Xolos’s first away game since early September. Both teams have had poor seasons so far and sit in the bottom half of the table. A victory for either team will give them impetus, going into the post-season playoffs, which start next month. In Mexico, this season will see the top twelve of the eighteen teams qualify for the playoffs. The tactical analysis will look at how the teams have lined up recently.

Line Ups

Guilermo Almada’s team favors a 4-4-2 set up, having lined-up in the same formation for every game since their surprise defeat to Necaxa back in August. Xolos, on the other hand, have changed the structure of their team frequently through the season from 3-5-2 to 3-4-1-2 to 4-4-2 to 4-3-1-2, as they look to find the winning mix. Given that Pablo Guede’s team continue to struggle for goals, it would not surprise if Santos faced a new line up on Sunday evening.

Throughout the season, Xolos have looked to get players forward. In recent games, four attacking players have appeared in the tactical analysis. In the image below, the more advanced of the midfield lines flood ahead to support Leal upfront. The heat maps of Lainez (no20) and Castillo (no7) indicate that the wingers push on quite deep. On the other side of the coin, Balanta and Rivera sit deep and support the backline.

However, Santos has had to address the problems that they have unusually encountered this season. Having finished in the top four in four of the last five campaigns, the northern giants sit tenth, fifteen points behind leaders Leon, albeit with a game in hand. They are struggling mightily for goals. Coach Almada has stuck with his 4-4-2 over the last three campaigns, as seen in the image below.

As with ‘Xolos,’ the holding midfielders sit deep, protecting the backline. Garmica (no 7) sits tight on the wing, dropping back to support Van Rankin when needed. Sandoval (no24) has struggled to get as far forward up the field, which has led to the forward pairing to become isolated at times. Both of the wingers have scored just once this season so far.

Stopping Juan Furch

The tall Argentinian striker has played a vital role in Santos’s recent success. With fifty-six goals in his three years at the club, it is clear to see that his return of two in the first eleven games this year is a significant drop-off. It drops his average return of 0.4 goals a game to just 0.2, as opposing teams have developed plans to counter his threat. In the image below, the Queretaro defender is marking him, man, to man inside the six-yard box, ensuring that his only shot in the game is blocked wide. We see his shooting opportunities drop to 2.06 a game from as high as 2.5 a year earlier with the lack of support elsewhere. In his most recent game, he had the highest number of losses for his team as he was closed down frequently by the opposition.

He is still able to support his team and is working hard to find the space required. As seen in the game’s image against Monterrey, Furch is still finding gaps when the defense allows. In particular, when a team is chasing the game. In this case, Santos needed a goal to get back on par, so we see the number 11 (Gomarian) breaking forward to support the attackers in a quick countering move. This gave the team more options and allowed them to equalize. He has also started to offer more in assists for the team, with other players now taking advantage of the additional space. It has helped the team to grow to the new challenge.


Jordan Silva will likely face the challenge of Furch this week. Silva has been in exceptional form for Xolos this season in the five games that he has appeared. He wins around two-thirds of all tackles that he completes both in the air and on the ground. This is an impressive number given he usually meets over twenty in a game while his central partner Guzman clears up the loose balls. Silva will need to be at the top of his game as Furch is apt to take advantage of space. Communication with both Balanta and Rivera in front of him will ensure that Furch has his room restricted during the game.

A new trait that Santos has adopted will need to be focused on by Xolos in their tactical analysis and will be discussed a bit more later. Santos likes to pounce forward, encouraging the opposition to become more advanced on the field. It is a trap designed to create more holes to exploit in the final third of the field. Xolos need to be careful that they do not switch off as it will cost them a goal, which may prove key in the final result. With both teams struggling for goals, one or two key moments will decide the game.

Will Xolos change their approach.

Santos has shown in tactical analysis that their success this season is best reliant on swift counterattacks where their powerful strikers have more space to exploit over the last few weeks. This may prove a problem for Xolos if they adopt their usual strategy. Their last five games have seen their overall possession rate fluctuate between 49-52% at home and down at 41% in their one away game. This indicates that they are not afraid to take on their opposition as equals. The equal share of passes and shots all proves this theory. In their last game at home to Chivas from Guadalajara, they both attempted around 430 passes and ten shots. The image below highlights the gung-ho approach with five players forward in the attack. This allows them to create the number of opportunities that occur regularly in their matches.

However, this is an approach that Santos is fully prepared for, having developed a siege mentality designed for attacking teams. The last number of games have seen Santos sit back and soak up untold pressure from teams and then take advantage of the chances that fall their way. This approach’s key is the deep sitting holding players Cervantes and Gorriaran, who block play and fill the holes within the backline. The table below highlights their role, with only the two central defenders winning the ball back more for Santos in their most recent game. Santos enjoys the type of game that Xolos will bring to them and will be fully prepared. The question, therefore, lies in solutions to this dilemma.

Xolos needs to use the tactical analysis of the last Santos home game to identify the flaw in their game approach recently. In this game against Pumas, the visitors sat back with deep lines and invited Santos to break them down. Pumas only had two shots in the entire first half – however, they did score one, which changed the game’s shape. It is difficult for Xolos as their attacking line is one of the weakest in the league. With ten goals from their twelve matches so far, their goal-scoring rate is second-worst in the league, and bottom club San Luis has scored more. The image below shows the build-up play for the first Pumas goal in the game. We can see that they won the ball over high up the pitch after Santos had been encouraged to attack them. This allowed the forward line to attack more space, and Iturbe scored from a distance. At the time of transition, there were three on three situations for the Pumas team to exploit. If Xolos can create these opportunities, their attacking line will have a chance to grab a goal as well.

Tactical Analysis of Lines of Engagement 

With Santos enjoying sitting deep against teams, it will be pivotal to examine where balls are recovered for both teams, as space will be at a premium in this game. In the case of Santos, the role of Gorriaran need particular consideration. In the table above, we noted how he had recovered the ball eight times during the last game against Puebla for the team from his holding position in midfield. However, when we focus specifically on him as we have done below, we can see that most of these recoveries take place in the opponent’s half. In these circumstances, the opponents are not entirely focused on the defensive phase, giving Santos the upper hand.

The image underneath truly highlights the critical facet of his role. We see Gorriaran winning the ball deep in Puebla’s half, where he sends it out wide left to the full-back, Andrade. Andrade brings the ball forward into the space vacated by the right-sided Puebla midfielder and scores Santos’s second goal from a distance. The Puebla midfielder had been looking to support his own team’s attack when the ball was turned over. The black line highlights the run made by Andrade once Santos has possession.

Xolos will need to encourage their midfielders to engage with the ball, putting their defense at more risk further. We tend to hold midfielders to sit deep against their backline, creating a concrete wall of six. Balanta in midfield for Xolos plays a key role for them. In a recent game against a robust Cruz Azul team, he recovered the ball, a team-leading 15 times. However, the issue remains that this occurs mainly within his half, as we can see here. This allows the defense to prepare more for a Xolos attack than in the cases identified for Santos.

Castillo’s first goal against Monterrey at the start of September highlights Xolos’ added benefit by encouraging this strategy more. In this image, the Monterrey midfielder (in white) has just won the ball back for his team, and we can see the standard deep-seated six for Xolos. However, a loose first touch provides Castillo (circled) with the opportunity to win back the ball. With this five on four situation for his team, space is exploited for the game’s first goal. They face the problem that it is not a regular occurrence for the team, as they look to protect their own goal quickly once they lose possession.

Final Thoughts

The game between these two mid-table teams will be an interesting strategic battle. If Xolos adapt their typical strategy of taking on teams at face value, there will be plenty of space for Santos’s forwards to use. They certainly have the talent and adaptability once they gain a yard on their defenders. The critical battle will be in midfield and will decide the game. Whoever has the advantage in the line of engagement is likely to create more clear-cut opportunities. With the talent up front for both teams, it is comfortable to say that they will take one or two of these chances. If the defenses drop dee