It’s hard to understate just how much improved Club Tijuana has been this season when compared to the 2017 Apertura. Four games into the Apertura, Xolos were dead last in the table with a record of 0W 1D 3L. They had conceded seven goals while scoring only one. While they would turn it around somewhat, the slow start effectively killed any chance they had at returning to the Liguilla.
Four games into the 2018 Clausura, Xolos are tied with Pumas, Monterrey, and Club América at the top of the table. They are undefeated at 2W 2D 0L and are the only club in Liga MX yet to concede a goal this season. In fairness, prior to their recent game against Puebla where Xolos scored two goals (and could have had at least two or three more), the offense had been moribund and lacking in the final third. But this is still a much different team than last season.
It all starts with stability in the back. Goalkeeper Gibran Lajud has steadily improved over the past few seasons when he took the goalkeeping reins from retiring Federico Vilar. Lajud’s progress has not gone unnoticed, as the 24 year old received his first call up to Mexico this past week.
Last season, manager Eduardo Coudet used a five man back line that usually consisted of Damián Pérez and Matías Aguirregaray as wing backs ahead of the center back trio of Emmanuel Aguilera, Alejandro Donatti, and Juan Carlos “Topo” Valenzuela. Pérez is a pragmatic defender, while Aguirregaray consistently ran upfield with little regard for the defensive shape. This put the center backs under considerable strain, and since it was the first season in the league for Aguilera and Donatti, the communication and sense of spatial awareness of where their counterparts were did not exist.
This season, the defense has solidified into a cohesive unit in front of Lajud. Aguilera, Donatti, and Aguirregaray have all shipped out, and manager Diego Cocca has instituted a four man back line of Pérez, Topo, Pablo Aguilar, and a resurgent Michael Orozco Fiscal (although Orozco missed the Puebla game with an injury, replaced by Omar Mendoza). Only Mendoza is a complete newcomer to Xolos; Aguilar played with the club in 2012-13 however both are Liga MX veterans who know what to expect when they face a team managed by Enrique Meza or Ignacio Ambríz.
An integral part of the defense has been the work of central defensive midfielder Damián Musto. Whether it was due to the scattershot nature of the defense behind him or his unfamiliarity with Liga MX, Musto often looked out of place in the Apertura. This season he’s settled into the role nicely, serving as a conduit between defense and offense as a CDM should.
The most important cog in this defensive renaissance has been Aguilar. Taking the captain’s armband from Topo Valenzuela raised some eyebrows at the beginning of the season, however Aguilar’s play has set the tone for the rest of the squad. SofaScore has Aguilar’s average rating so far for 2018 at 7.63, which is highest on the team by a full quarter point over the next highest player (Valenzuela). Aguilar leads the team in clearances (38), interceptions (13), and duels won (29). It’s not a stretch to say that Aguilar was perhaps the biggest offseason acquisition in Liga MX, with Pumas’ Matías “Chavo” Alustíza the only other that comes immediately to mind.
Perhaps the final piece of the puzzle has been a healthy and adjusted Gustavo “Pantera” Bou. Bou missed time early in the Clausura with an injury, playing just nine minutes in the opener against Cruz Azul before returning full time in week three against Necaxa. Bou broke out in the last game against Puebla, scoring once and smashing a shot off of the woodwork in the rout. Having a full season under his belt should help Bou improve on his seven goals from the 2017 Apertura.
There are still weaknesses for Tijuana. Juan Iturbe was ineffectual on the right wing before going out for the rest of the season with a damaged cruciate ligament in his right knee. Against Puebla, Ignacio Rivero got the start centrally which pushed Luis Chávez out to the right. Chávez played well, but Rivero was ineffectual and was eventually replaced by Miller Bolaños. Cocca has options though. He can give Rivero another shot, replace him with Bolaños, or put Chávez back centrally and use Luís “Quick” Mendoza out on the right wing. Until that is situated, Xolos won’t be able to fully gel going forward.
Juan Lucero also hasn’t quite fit the way Xolos fans had hoped. Lucero has played in 30 games since signing from Indonesian side Johor Darul Ta’zim in February 2016, scoring just seven goals and averaging just over 38 minutes per game. If he can develop some chemistry with Bou and with the eventual replacement for Iturbe he could be a valuable asset, but it needs to happen and happen quickly. Tijuana is thin at striker, and beyond Lucero and Bou there isn’t really an option besides a relatively unproven José Alberto Garcia or playing someone like Bolaños out of position. Bolaños was paired with Lucero up top while Bou was out with injury to begin the season, but he and Lucero were rather ineffective.
Overall though, Tijuana has rebuilt themselves into a formidable opponent thanks mostly due to the renewed focus on defense. For a team that was an afterthought coming into the season, Xolos have put together a team that is forcing the rest of the league to take notice.