The final game of matchday 11 of the 2020/21 Liga MX Apertura is a tasty one. Third-placed Club León welcome surprise leaders Pumas UNAM to the Nou Camp (Estadio León) for what promises to be a tense but entertaining affair. The home side have lost just one game all season, against second-placed Cruz Azul and are unbeaten since matchday three. Whilst the visitors are yet to lose a game all season in the league, with six wins and four draws. This game holds particular significance for Pumas, who could equal their club record for consecutive games without defeat in the league if they manage to hold off León. The last time they went 11 games without defeat was the 2011 Clausura: they were crowned champions that year… Either way, both teams will view this as a must-win game so as to not lose ground on Cruz Azul, who shouldn’t face any difficulties as they travel to 14th placed Mazaltan.
Both teams come into this game off the back of wins in which they scored three goals, meaning that it should make exciting viewing, especially for the neutral. These two teams last faced each other back in March, before the 2020 Clausura was brought to a swift end due to the global pandemic, with León coming out on top in a 3-1 win. They have in fact won their last three against Pumas, which should give them confidence going into this game, despite the University side being unbeaten so far this season.
Both teams have regularly played in offensive 4-4-2 formations this season, which should add even more excitement to the fixture. With both teams lining up similarly tactically, it could well come down to the individual performance of players to decide the game.
As can be seen from the stats above, when playing in a 4-4-2 formation, León are definitely the more possession-based of the two teams. They have averaged 62.59% possession when setting up in this way, whilst Pumas UNAM have averaged less of the ball than their opposition with 46.26%. We can expect León to attempt more passes, particularly shorter ones as shown by their pass accuracy of 90.41% compared to Pumas’ 79.84%, which would follow the pattern of the game the last time these two met. León had 53% of the possession, attempting 426 passes to Pumas’ 368. However, Pumas’ lack of possession does not reduce their threat in front of goal as supported by their xG tally of 6.15 (higher than León’s 6.08) when playing in a 4-4-2 this season.
Pumas UNAM have received some positive news this week as they see the return of Sebastián Saucedo back to the squad following an injury which had ruled him out since game week five. Although he is unlikely to start, the 23-year-old American is expected to get some minutes off the bench and could add yet more fire to Pumas’ attack. Captain Andres Iniestra is likely to keep his place in midfield too. In terms of León’s attacking options, Ignacio Ambriz has a decision to make between Jose David Ramirez and Jean Meneses on the left-hand side of the midfield.
How can Pumas UNAM break down León?
The key to breaking down the team who has conceded the least amount of goals this season, therefore boasting the league’s best defence, will Pumas’ prolific front two: Juan Dinneno and Carlos González. Dinneno has proved an outstanding acquisition by sporting director Chucho Ramirez and is the club’s top scorer with seven goals so far this campaign. The Paraguayan González is an experienced scorer at this level and has started his third season with Pumas brilliantly having notched four goals already. He scored 11 last season and 12 the season before for the unbeaten side from Mexico City. Manager Lillini said of the pair that they ‘live to score goals’ and this analysis will now take a look at how they are making Pumas fans dream of a title this season.
The two forwards have become accustomed to playing together and are now showing signs of understanding each other’s movements. González is a selfless player who uses his intelligence to make runs off the ball which creates space for Dinneno to exploit. In their most recent victory over Atletico San Luis, it was the movement of the Paraguayan which created the opening for the Argentine Dinneno’s seventh goal of the season.
As the image from the passage of play shows, Pumas recover the ball in their own half and the forward pair can be found very close together, occupying both centre-halves. Strikers playing in a two are often criticised for not playing close enough to each other, so this is a good sign of the positional awareness and understanding of both players. They are able to communicate and react to each other’s movements.
The Pumas right-back Mozo drives with the ball, bypassing the midfield and forcing the Atletico defenders to engage with him. In the meantime, González has cleverly arched his run across the pitch, forcing the other centre-back to follow him. What he does well is maintaining his width, drawing the centre-back away from goal meaning that there is space in behind for his strike partner Dinneno to exploit.
Dinneno demonstrates his footballing intelligence by timing his run perfectly and exploiting the space left behind the two occupied centre-backs. The full-back is unable to track him successfully, whilst the centre-back who was tracking his strike partner González, cannot recover quickly enough to intercept the pass or prevent a shot on goal. Dinneno finishes the chance which was created due to his strike partner’s selfless running off the ball. The pair have developed an excellent understanding and are playing to each other’s strengths at this moment, providing Pumas’ biggest goal threat.
How can León create opportunities against Pumas?
As we have already discussed, León like to dominate possession and are high volume passers. This is a result of having excellent technical players such as Mena, Aquino and veteran Montes within their midfield. This allows teams to form an organised defensive structure against them. When this happens, León depend on their technical excellence to create opportunities where space is apparently limited.
As we can see here in the example below, León are capable of finding space against teams who form an organised block against them. In this instance, it is against Atlas who held a relatively high line.
Montes traps the ball in the centre of the pitch and is faced with two defensive lines of three midfielders and four defenders. He is pressured by the opposition forward closest to him but is allowed enough time to lift his head up and assess his options.
This proves to be a mistake from Atlas as Montes has the quality to pick out the pass and the rest of the forward players have the freedom and intelligence to make runs off the ball. In this instance, it is right-back Fernando Navarro Moran who finds himself in the centre forward position (highlighting the fluidity of León’s attacking play). He has the presence of mind to spin and exploit the space in behind the Atlas defence, knowing that it is likely his central midfielder and captain will be able to find him. Centre forward Emmanuel Gigliotti pins the other centre-back.
Naturally, Navarro has the technical ability to bring the ball down whilst on the move and with limited space as he approaches the opposition goal. He catches the ball on his foot whilst being able to keep it away from the chasing centre-back.
He then has the awareness to cut the ball back into the path of top scorer Gigliotti who is able to slot the ball home into the empty net.
Over the last five games, we can see a trend of Montes and full-back Navarro linking up well. The midfielder has passed it to him more than any other player in that time, highlighting León’s threat down the right-hand side.
This graphic further demonstrates León’s tendency to attack down the right-hand side through Navarro and winger Angel Mena. They play more through passes from the right of the pitch than the league’s average and it is clearly an area of strength.
On top of this, Navarro and Mena are two of the highest volume crossers from the right-hand side as can be seen in the image below, with Mena attempting 14 crosses and Navarro seven.
Pumas like to set up in a very high defensive line from set pieces, which could be exploited if the delivery is of the right quality. In Montes, León have a player within their ranks able to cause problems from this type of situation.
As we can see here, Pumas operate a high defensive line when facing this free-kick from the middle of the park, Atletico San Luis have targeted the left-back area and overloaded it with players.
The quality of the ball is good enough to allow the attacker to have a free header against the left-back and he sends it back across goal into a dangerous area.
The second runner is not tracked as the rest of the Pumas defence switch off, allowing the striker a free header. If it wasn’t for the genius of Talavera in goal, the University side would have fallen behind.
Again, later in the same game, we see another example of Lillini’s perhaps ‘over-exaggeration’ of the high defensive line when defending a free-kick from a wide position this time.
The San Luis players are standing in an offside position awaiting the cross, with the defensive line from Pumas ahead of the 18-yard box.
The quality of the delivery and the perfect timing of the runs mean that there are five potential attacking players that have beaten the offside trap and are allowed a free header on goal. Luckily again for Pumas, it is the class of Talavera that keeps them ahead.
Exploiting Pumas’ weaknesses at left back
The impetus that León put on utilising Navarro and Mena down the right flank is particularly interesting given that the left-back position has been Pumas’ most vulnerable defensively so far this season. This could be an area where León are able to win the game and end their rivals’ unbeaten run.
Left-back Alejandro Mayorga (number three) has lost the greatest number of duels (21) this season for Pumas UNAM, three of which led directly to shots on target, demonstrating his defensive frailties.
Mayorga here is slightly out of position and ahead of the line set by the rest of the defence, leaving a lot of space in the full-back area which he should be covering.
The left-back then tracks the forward runner who pulls out wide but leaves a huge gap between himself and the centre-back closest to him which is exploited via a through pass from the right centre of the pitch (where León are strong).
Mayorga, highlighted with the red circle is now out of the game and cannot support his team defensively. Consequently, his centre-back has had to leave his position to cover and his central midfielder is having to drop into the penalty area to track another runner. This means that there is space in the highlighted green area for a spare midfielder to enter into and have a free shot at goal.
The forward is able to find the on-rushing midfielder with an accurate cut back and he is allowed an unopposed shot at goal.
Mayorga’s lack of positional understanding and León’s quality and movement down the right-hand side could be the key to unlocking Pumas UNAM’s defence in this game. Montes, Mena and Navarro will be looking to link up and expose the left-back’s weaknesses.
As discussed at the beginning of the analysis, Pumas will have to rely on their clinical strike partnership to break down the toughest defence in the league so far this season. The current form of former Premier League and Serie A winger Juan Manuel Iturbe could provide some magic too. However, if León are to end the unbeaten record of their rivals, they should exploit their left flank and look to take advantage of the high line from set pieces. They have the technical ability within their midfield to successfully deliver free kicks and through passes to exploit the high defensive line too. Right-back Navarro and the quality of captain Montes in midfield could be the two key match winners in this exciting top of the table clash.