The Liga MX season is split into two parts, the Apertura and Clausura. Each season is followed by a playoff known as the ‘Liguilla’, where teams are seeded to decide each fixture. Last November saw one of the most intriguing games as first placed Santos Laguna faced eighth-placed C.F Monterrey. Santos Laguna had dominated the Apertura for most of the season, whereas Monterrey had just sneaked into the playoffs.
A rollercoaster season for Monterrey, off the back of their CONCACAF Champions League win, meant Antonio Mohamed returned for his second stint as manager. Both clubs were in impressive form, with Santos Laguna unbeaten in six. Whereas Monterrey had not lost a game under Mohamed, unbeaten in their last nine. This tactical analysis will examine how Monterrey were able to utilise counter-attacks and set-pieces to defeat Santos Laguna and take a 5-2 lead into the second leg.
Mohamed set up in one of his favoured formations, a 4-1-4-1. With their star striker Rogelio Funes Mori unavailable, it was up to, former Tottenham man, Vicent Janssen to lead the line. The exciting duo of ex La Liga man, Dorlan Pabón and, Atletico Madrid target, Jesús Gallardo lined up on each wing. Defenders Nicolás Sánchez and César Montes were tasked with keeping Julio Furch quiet.
Santos Laguna manager Guillermo Almada set up with a 4-2-3-1 formation. Star man Julio Furch led the line, with an attacking trio of Brian Lozano, Diego Valdés and Erick Castillo behind him. Ulises Rivas and Fernando Gorriarán started as the two defensive midfielders.
Usually, both clubs look to utilise the high press and counter when they can. Santos Laguna have the lowest average duration of possession with 11.60. They also boast the lowest passes per defensive action (PPDA), with 6.32 per match. PPDA is a metric used to quantify high press intensity. Monterrey are also one of the best at this with 7.75 per match, showing that both clubs look to press the opponent when possible.
However, Monterrey were able to use this to their advantage. Monterrey had identified that Santos Laguna were more effective without the ball, so they decide to let them have it as much as possible. Monterrey were comfortable with sitting deep and soaking up the pressure as displayed in the chart below. Their average formation line was much deeper than Santos Laguna’s, for a majority of the game, highlighting the tactics used by Monterrey.
In the first minute of the game, Monterrey get several players behind the ball. As soon as they win the ball back, they have a number of players progress forward to start the counter-attack. We can see in the image above each player attacking creates a different run to create options for their teammates.
Janssen’s run towards the box frees up space for Maximiliano Meza, circled, who takes an early shot at goal. This was an early warning for Santos Laguna that Monterrey would employ this tactic, however, they never seemed to adapt.
Above is another great example of Monterrey catching Santos Laguna on the counter. The above image is usually a game phase that you see in the dying minutes, however, this occurred only in the 12th minute. This time, Monterrey defend a set-piece successfully and start their attack from this. Monterrey have all but two players back, highlighted in the red square. Janssen is isolated on his own with two Santos Laguna defenders.
Carlos Rodriguez also joins the attack breaking from his own half and finding the open space Santos Laguna had left. Janssen was able to find Rodriguez, as he ran on to fire Monterrey three goals ahead. Unfortunately, the goal was ruled out due to handball by Janssen in the build-up. Despite this, we see another instance of how Monterrey were easily able to use this method to penetrate Santos Laguna’s defence.
Monterrey’s plan was finally rewarded with a goal in the 85th minute which put them 5-2 up. Above we can see Monterrey breaking forward again after winning the ball deep in their own half. Janssen wins the ball near his own goal line and breaks forward. Dorlan Pabón is also breaking with Janssen, and the latter is able to find him with a cross-field pass. Pabón has acres of space to attack in to and finds himself in a one on one situation. This is very similar to the counter-attack we analysed earlier. Janssen seems isolated up top on his own but is able to find a team-mate and set them free on goal. This time the goal most certainly counted as Pabón delightfully chips the ball over the keeper to seal the win.
The plan was executed perfectly by Monterrey as they allowed Santos Laguna to dominate the ball, having 56% possession. These counter-attacks were a common theme in the game, with Monterrey having seven, compared to Santos Laguna’s two.
Santos Laguna dominance and high pressure
Despite Monterrey using the above tactic so effectively, it was likely that Santos Laguna would find success at some point. Monterrey’s deep defensive line meant they were able to dominate large majorities of the game. Santos Laguna finished top of the league and scored the most goals in the Apertura (40), showing that goal scoring is not something they usually struggle with.
Whilst they were trying to deal with Monterrey’s counters, they were able to use their dominance to create opportunities. Santos Laguna frontman Furch had little impact on the game, until the 23rd minute where he was able to claw a goal back for them.
Above is Santos Laguna’s first goal, and it all stems from Monterrey’s unwillingness to engage higher up the pitch. A long ball forward draws Monterrey’s Nicolás Sánchez out; however, he misses the header and Furch retrieves the ball. The next phase is key as it highlights how Monterrey’s key tactic was their undoing. Monterrey allow Furch to carry the ball a substantial distance from near the half-way line to the edge of the box. Monterrey are set on being deep, hence the reason for all the defenders highlighted constantly dropping as Furch progresses. However, by doing so they open up space for Furch, and a player of his calibre is going to seize an opportunity like this one. Furch slots the ball into the far corner and gets back one back for Santos Laguna.
As mentioned earlier, Santos Laguna are extremely good at recovering the ball high up the pitch. Monterrey looked to stifle this by allowing Santos Laguna to dominate possession. This often led to Monterrey giving possession away and being forced into mistakes. Below is an example of how Santos Laguna used their high pressing to cause these mistakes.
These mistakes are an accumulation of Monterrey being so deep that they were unable to keep the ball further up the pitch, but also Santos Laguna forcing it with their high press. Monterrey have the ball in their own box however Furch uses a curved run to force Monterrey’s hand. By doing so, Monterrey only have the option to clear the ball to the highlighted area. All of their options have been cut off by Santos Laguna, so César Montes decides to just clear the ball. However, the clearance is rushed and the ball lands at the feet of Valdés on the edge of the box. Valdés is unable to keep his shot down and Monterrey get away with one. However, this highlights how Santos Laguna were able to use Monterrey’s own tactics against them to force mistakes.
Monterrey were slightly naive here, as they were unwilling to adjust their game plan. Yes, the deep defensive line and counter-attacks were working, yet they were unable to see how it was letting Santos Laguna grow into the game. This was a common theme for Monterrey, after being 2-0 up within eight minutes, they found themselves level at half-time. Monterrey did become more aggressive in the second half. They had a slightly higher defensive line but started to win more duels, winning 62% compared to 48% in the first half. They also started to attack Santos Laguna more (0.43 attacks per minute), rather than soaking up pressure.
Set-pieces, especially corners, are a key aspect of the Liga MX. And in the 2019 Apertura, there was no team with more corners than Monterrey, who averaged 5.83 per game. Monterrey are very accomplished with set-pieces, scoring 11 of their goals in their Apertura from them (41%). Unsurprisingly, they continued to use this method in the game with Santos Laguna. Three of Monterrey’s five goals came directly or as a result of a corner. We will look to examine how Monterrey used different corner routines to score these goals.
Above is an image of how Monterrey scored their first goal. As discussed, Monterrey utilise corners very well. So, when they had one in the first minute Santos Laguna were likely expecting a corner into the box to test them. However, Monterrey caught Santos Laguna off guard and played the corner short. The ball was laid off to Pabón who smashed the ball into the top corner. Within the first minute of the game, Monterrey had used a set-piece variation to take control.
And six minutes later they did the same thing. Again, they had another corner but this time they opted to not go short and deliver the ball in the box. The images below show two corners, the left resulting in a goal with the right one hitting the post. The reason for showing these together is to show how Monterrey were able to isolate Nicolás Sánchez in the box.
In both images, we can see that Sánchez has been left in a one on one situation. Monterrey identify Sánchez as a key threat from set-pieces, supported by his six goals in the Apertura that season. In the left image, we see how Sánchez is able to win his header and put Monterrey 2-0 up. In the right image, Sánchez is again presented with a one on one opportunity, but this time strikes the post with his attempt. Monterrey were very keen to ensure Sánchez was isolated to prevent the chance of a Santos Laguna defender challenging. They did so excellently, as the highlighted areas show that there are very few players around Sánchez, therefore, allowing him to attack the ball.
How they achieve this is extremely interesting. They use methods of crowding and confusion to move the Santos Laguna defence around.
The image above is the build-up before the set-piece goal scored by Sánchez. Sánchez is highlighted in red, whilst his defensive partner César Montes is highlighted in blue. From the images above we see that Sánchez scores his goal in the position that Montes currently occupies. As the corner is delivered the pair rotate their positions to confuse the Santos Laguna defenders. By doing so they are able to create that extra yard of space to gain an advantage. Monterrey also use crowding, by filling one area of the box. They often do so by placing several players near the front post. By doing so, they create the idea that the ball will be delivered to this area. However, as shown above they do this to create the space for Sánchez. These tactics in set-pieces show why Monterrey are successful, and how they used them so effectively in this match.
Later in the match, Monterrey used set-pieces again to create a chance. This time the ball was delivered into the Santos Laguna box and they were unable to clear the danger. Montes latched on to the ball and was brought down by Ulises Rivas, as the referee pointed towards the spot. Janssen dispatched the penalty confidently and put Monterrey 4-2 up.
Ultimately, Monterrey had a game plan and Antonio Mohamed had his men execute it perfectly. The analysis showed how Monterrey sat deep and hit Santos Laguna on the counter. Monterrey did live a charmed life at times, as Santos Laguna’s dominance allowed them to control parts of the game.
However, Monterrey were more aggressive later in the game and were able to use their set pieces to their advantage. Santos Laguna had no answer for this and were unable to reduce the deficit in the second leg. Monterrey’s fine form continued throughout the Liguilla and led them to their first Liga MX championship in nine years.