When the idea was floating about that Cruz Azul could potentially be handed the 2019/20 Clausura title if it was to be ended prematurely due to Covid-19, manager Robert Siboldi was adamant that he would not be a fan as he wanted his team to win the league the ‘right way’. This says a lot about the honour and principles of the man, whose team had not won a domestic title for 23 years.
However, based on the way his team gave started the 2020/21 Apertura, it is possible that he may have known that the long-awaited title wouldn’t be too far away after all. The 3-0 win against Necaxa on 30 August put La Máquina (The Machine) top of Liga MX, with five wins, a draw and a loss from their opening seven games. This tactical analysis will analyse the tactics used by Siboldi and how his team are on course to dominate the Apertura this season. The analysis will look at the data behind the team’s performances, as well as their attacking and defensive philosophy.
Siboldi’s side are an offensive unit who like to play on the front foot, with Peru’s former MLS player Yoshimar Yotun among their attacking options. The table does not lie, they are putting in very solid offensive performances and the team has a clear structure, which we will discuss later. There is plenty of data to highlight their dominant start to the 2020/21 Apertura including their shooting, passing and defensive work off the ball.
Let’s have a quick look at the system that Siboldi likes to use in order to create his intricate style of passing football, with some numbers to back it up.
‘Flaco’, as he goes by, is somewhat an outlier in his decision to opt with a 4-1-3-2 formation. With so much impetus being put onto creating width in the modern era, Siboldi has created a system where the majority of chances are orchestrated through the middle of the pitch. It is clear that his players have bought into the system and are able to create regular goal-scoring opportunities whilst being defensively solid, which the data below will demonstrate.
La Máquina are high volume shooters and rank joint top so far this season for the number of shots on goal within 109 in seven matches, giving them an average of 14.47 per match. With 33% of these on target, it is clear to see that they are giving themselves numerous opportunities to score against their opposition. What is most impressive is that they have created the most chances (102) from open play. This demonstrates the fluidity and dominance of their attacking play to be able to create good shooting opportunities through their clever and effective manipulation of the ball. Siboldi likes his team to play out from the back, and his 4-1-3-2 system encourages using central areas to then deliver the ball their two strikers to find avenues to goal. This explains the high volume of good shots created.
Both Uruguayan striker and top scorer Jonathan Rodríguez and Argentine youngster Santiago Giménez were the highest volume shooters within the squad, which underlines Siboldi’s effectiveness at creating a system which provides the most shooting opportunities to his best shooters. Whether or not this is successful, then depends on the technical ability of the two forwards, who have certainly made the most of their shooting opportunities. Rodríguez has had 11 of 18 shots on target, scoring six goals, whilst Giménez has managed six of 12 shots on target, scoring twice. They average two and 1.57 shots on target per 90 respectively and represent Cruz Azul’s biggest threat going forwards.
The shot map below gives a more visual idea of the types of shot opportunities Siboldi’s team is creating. Rodríguez (number 21) and Giménez (number 29) dominate the map and what is most intriguing is the volume of shots from central areas, within the opposition penalty area. This highlights a team that is able to create good chances for their strikers, which is reflected by the two forwards having an xG rating of 2.45 and 2.41 respectively, and Cruz Azul topping the league scoring chart with 14 goals and an xG of 13.32 across their last five matches.
An essential element of Cruz Azul under Siboldi’s ability to create such clear-cut shooting opportunities from open play is their confidence to break lines by passing through to central areas. The diamond that Siboldi has implemented is perfectly set-up to allow his midfielders to rely on their technically ability to progress the ball through the thirds. As we can see from the data below, Cruz Azul rank third overall in Liga MX this season for passes made with 2953, an average of 392 per 90 at an accuracy of 85.5%. They clearly like to dominate possession and allow the ball to do the work, but their possession is impactful. As the table shows, they actually fall behind Tigres UANL for passing stats, but their rivals find themselves ninth in the table, highlighting their inefficiency at converting possession into goals.
Cruz Azul’s efficiency when dominating possession in central areas can be further shown through the number of times they lose possession in certain areas of the pitch. As the graphic below demonstrates, they lose the ball far less than the league average in most areas. The fact that out of the six zones in the middle and attacking third they lose possession the least in the centre of the pitch (only 8.6%), is evidence of the impetus that Robert Siboldi puts on creating space for his players to build play through this avenue.
In addition to this, not only has Siboldi set up his team to maintain possession in the middle of the pitch, he has transformed it into the team’s most creative distribution point (when compared to the rest of the teams in the league). As can be seen below, La Máquina play 18.9% of their through passes from the centre of the pitch, well above the league average, demonstrating his desire to create opportunities centrally rather than out wide. He has assembled a group of technically gifted midfielders, of which Mexican Luis Romo stands out, who are able to receive the ball and break lines in central areas. Romo has four assists already this season and averages 2.4 through passes per 90.
Attacking: build-up play and chance creation
Below, we will outline a sequence of play from the back, playing through the lines centrally which highlights how Cruz Azul are able to get their strikers into good goal-scoring positions. This is from the opening goal of their most recent game, a 3-0 victory over Necaxa.
The play starts with the ball in the keeper’s hands and the two centre-backs splitting and dropping off short to provide options.
After receiving the ball, the right centre-back moves the ball centrally to the deep-lying midfielder who drops in-between the two defenders to receive the ball and create a three-on-one to evade the press.
He is then ably to comfortably return the ball to the original centre-back, who now has time to drive forward with the ball at his feet, passing through the first third of the pitch. This next phase is characterised by a combination of the midfield and forward players being disciplined enough to hold their position and create space, and others being clever enough to move without the ball and take advantage of the space created.
Here, the two wider central midfielders do not crowd the central area of the pitch, occupying their respective markers. Simultaneously, the centre forward Giménez drops deep, away from the opposition defence and into the space left centrally (highlighted in green). This then allows the central attacking midfielder, Orbelín Pineda to accelerate into the hole between the midfield and defence, created by Giménez, who is not followed by the central defender. An overload is created in the central area of the pitch, which frees Pineda to drive at the defence.
Since Pineda receives the ball on the run, he carries the momentum in the attack. This, in turn, triggers the other striker Rodríguez to begin his run in behind the defenders who are caught flat footed and watching the ball.
This creates an opportunity for the midfielder to play a relatively simple through ball, which is calmly finished by Rodríguez who rounds the keeper.
The key to Siboldi’s build-up play here is trust. He believes in his players to be disciplined and patient enough to not overcrowd the very central areas when in possession, for the other midfielders and strikers to exploit the space and receive the ball in the remaining dangerous areas through intelligent movement. Notice in the above passage of play how it is the number 31 Pineda who picks the ball up when coming in from slightly left of the centre, despite his average position below being on the right of the midfield diamond. He has trust in his defenders to patiently play out from the back, whilst his midfielders regularly interchange positions. He is confident that their technical ability will allow them to recycle the ball until gaps are formed and consequently deliver the correct pass which gives his striker’s solid opportunities on goal in central areas, which they are clinical enough to finish.
The above graphic highlights the average position for Siboldi’s side during the 3-0 victory over Necaxa. His players, as highlighted in blue, adopt central positions and form clusters in order to play through the lines and create overloads in the middle of the park.
Defending: out of possession
Flaco likes his team to press when out of possession and does not allow the opposition to play through the middle, as his own team does so successfully. Cruz Azul, who have Chile defender Igor Lichnovsky (who has previously played La Liga football) in their defensive ranks, have only conceded five goals in their first seven games of this season’s Apertura, boasting the second best defence in the league after second placed León. Much of their defensive stability comes as a result of their dominant attacking performances and the fact that they generally have more possession of the football however we will have a look at an example of how they set up when they lose the ball.
As we can interpret from the table below, Siboldi’s team are amongst the top five for the number of interceptions which shows that they are winning the ball back at a high volume. The large number of interceptions is a result of the ability to press effectively off the ball and put pressure on the opponent, forcing them to react quickly and often attempt a difficult pass. This is also down to Siboldi’s insistence on forcing opposition teams out wide and inviting them to cross the ball, where he can crowd the penalty area and trust his defenders to intercept the crosses.
This is further highlighted by the image below, which depicts where Cruz Azul wins most of their duels in the defensive third. As we can see by the white squares, Siboldi’s relies on his team to makes most of their defensive interceptions in their own box, highlighting that he is comfortable with other teams crossing the ball.
In addition to this, another interesting metric which helps paint a better picture of how a team like to shape up off the ball is PPDA. This metric measures the pressing intensity of a team by recording how many passes they allow the opposition to make before a defensive action takes place. Therefore, one would expect teams that dominate to have a lower PPDA value as they are likely to win the ball back quickly after losing it. Siboldi’s team definitely stand out in this statistic, reflecting his commitment to pressing the opposition.
As the table below highlights, when compared to the rest of the league, Cruz Azul have the fourth lowest PPDA score meaning they allow teams to make an average of 8.86 passes before engaging in a defensive action. This enables Siboldi’s team to dominate and constantly recycle possession as we have alluded to previously in this analysis.
The PPDA score only relates to the final (attacking) 60% of the field as we can see in the example below.
Cruz Azul are in controlled possession of the ball, with the opposition sitting deep on the edge of their own penalty area. The two players circled either side of the ball carrier form a curve of protection ready to engage if the team are to lose possession.
Possession is then turned over after an intercepted pass by the opposition centre-back, whose outlet is a pass into the striker’s feet. The three circled Cruz Azul players immediately engage in the direction of the striker, putting pressure on his first touch.
The covering defender on the left-hand side is able to capitalise on the striker’s forced poor touch and recovers possession for Cruz Azul, enabling them to sustain another attack after just one pass.
It is fair to argue that higher calibre opposition may be able to play around Siboldi’s press or even capitalise on the crossing opportunities that he allows the opposition. However, at the start of this season, La Máquina appear to be functioning exactly as their nickname suggests. Robert Siboldi has averaged nearly two points per game in his second stint as manager of the team he also once represented as a player and his pragmatic, yet technically driven approach is proving to be very successful this time around. He is able to play to his team’s strengths and certainly has mastered the art of playing through the middle of the park. Could Cruz Azul win their first domestic title in 23 years? Let’s see how long until the machine runs out…