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What’s wrong with Tigres?

An in-depth look at the reasons behind Tigres UANL’s recent lackluster Liga MX and Copa MX performances.

Tigres UANL v Tijuana - Torneo Apertura 2018 Liga MX Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

Tigres UANL opened up the 2018 Apertura season in style as they thrashed Santos Laguna in the Campeón de Campeones by a score of 4-0 behind goals from four different players, including Andre-Pierre Gignac and the newly returned Guido Pizarro. Los Felinos followed up their big trophy winning victory with a fairly straightforward 2-0 victory over León. Both matches showed the manner in which the star-studded Tigres squad is capable of playing. In these first two matches, Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti’s squad had over 60% of the possession, attacked directly, and dominated the rest of the match statistics. Since getting off to a hot start in their first matches of the 2018 Apertura season, however, Tigres have been struggling mightily against largely inferior opposition. Here’s an in-depth look into what’s behind the recent struggles of Tigres UANL.

The first of Tigres’ struggles came as they took a short road trip to take on Ascenso MX side Atlético de San Luis in the Copa MX. Prior to the start of the 2018 Apertura edition of the Copa MX, it was announced that a new rule would require U-20 players to log a combined 180 minutes of action in each game of the tournament. This Copa MX rule change meant that both Tigres and their Ascenso MX opposition would be required to field heavily rotated teams made up largely of youth players. Despite fielding a team largely made up of youngsters, several of Tigres’ first team squad were in the starting XI. Juninho, Israel Jiménez, Ismael Sosa, Edu Vargas, and Enner Valencia all started and played the full 90 minutes in this disappointing match.

Ascenso MX side Atlético de San Luis dominated Tigres for the vast majority of the match. The intensity with which the hosts played surprised the heavily rotated Tigres squad that came into the match surely thinking that it would be an easy victory. The Tigres youth players were easily beaten off the ball by their Ascenso MX opposition, and if it weren’t for some heroics by Miguel Ortega in goal, the scoreline could have been much worse than it was. When Tigres had possession of the ball they never really looked like threatening the San Luis goal. The vast majority of the rotated squad’s possession was inside their own half as the midfield and backline lazily passed in between one another. The lazy passes and lack of attacking concern enabled the hosts to press defensively and cause a ton of mistakes by the Tigres youngsters.

Whenever Tigres was able to move forward in the attack it was largely due to the hold up play of Edu Vargas in the midfield. The Chilean number 9 played largely in an attacking midfield role and was the source of everything positive for Tigres, including their one goal in the embarrassing 2-1 defeat. However, much of the holdup play was for not as the rest of the Tigres squad failed to get into positive attacking positions and left Vargas to deal with 2-3 defenders on his own.

The vast majority of pundits and fans wrote off the disappointing display against Atlético de San Luis by saying that Tuca Ferretti and Tigres could care less about winning the Copa MX. However, the underlying problems of doing nothing with possession and lacking ideas offensively from the match in San Luis carried over into the next match when Tigres hosted Xolos de Tijuana in Jornada 2 of Liga MX action.

The matchup against Xolos de Tijuana was one that Tigres should have been able to comfortably win by multiple goals. On paper, los Felinos are significantly better than Xolos in just about every position on the pitch. However, this on paper superiority didn’t exactly translate to a convincing win on the pitch. In a typical fashion, Tigres easily had the majority of the possession besting the visitors from Tijuana 69%-31%. They also bested the visitors in just about every statistical category in the match. Despite all of this, Tigres were only able to come away with a 1-0 victory thanks to Gignac’s individual quality on a surprisingly accurate cross from Aquino, and some very poor finishing on the part of Xolos.

The vast majority of Tigres’ possession was spent inside of their own half as the midfielders and backline lazily passed the ball back and forth between one another. Occasionally, Tigres would try and look somewhat threatening offensively by playing down the wings through Aquino or Damm who whipped in plenty of inaccurate crosses that almost entirely resulted in nothing as far as goals are concerned. There was hardly any urgency from the Tigres players. For his part, Tuca Feretti actually got up from the bench to scream in anger at his players from giving such a lackluster display. However, none of his yelling and shouting led to any significant changes. It was as if Tigres were sleep walking and perfectly content to do so.

From their 69% possession, Tigres managed 12 shots (3 on target) and generated 14 corners off of the ridiculously poor crosses that Aquino and Damm whipped in for most of the match. Out of these opportunities, only Gignac’s free header inside the area off of Javier Aquino’s lone accurate cross found the back of the net. A team with such a large chunk of the possession and so many different chances should have put more goals into the back of the net. Especially in a squad as stacked with talent as Tigres.

In Jornada 3, Tigres traveled to Mexico City to take on a completely revamped Cruz Azul under the leadership of Pedro Caixinha. Prior to the match, Caixinha made some controversial comments about Tigres’ status as a “grande” in Mexican fútbol. It would seem as though these types of comments would motivate a squad like Tigres to go out and play with more effort and energy in the match. However, this was far from what happened out on a rain socked Estadio Azteca pitch.

Tigres, who were without Andre-Pierre Gignac thanks to the Frenchman picking up a throat infection, played exactly the same style of fútbol as they did against Xolos de Tijuana in Jornada 2. Tactically, they once again came out in a 4-2-3-1 formation. This time, instead of Gignac up top Tuca Ferretti decided to go with Enner Valencia. Apart from the inclusion of Valencia in the lineup, the rest of the starting XI was the exact same from the side that played Xolos in the previous match.

Again, it was Tigres who had the majority of the possession in the match. This time, los Felinos bested Cruz Azul 70%-30%. With their massive possession edge, Tigres generated 8 shots (0 on target) and a measly four corner kicks. Once again, the vast majority of the possession was spent between the midfielders and backline; nowhere near the final third of the pitch. This lack of offensive fútbol came back to bite Tigres as they fell 1-0 against Cruz Azul on a 68th minute goal from young Mexican Roberto Alvarado.

By maintaining such a large portion of the match’s possession Tigres forces an opponent, in this case Cruz Azul, to be much more deliberate with their own possession. This means that los Felinos will face teams that are much more direct in their offensive approach. In some cases, this means that the opponent will rely heavily on counterattacks. In other cases it means that the opposition is going to play deliberate attacking fútbol every time they have possession. In the match against Cruz Azul, Tigres were unable to cope with the attacking display of the home side. This led to five yellow cards being issued to Tigres players. Frankly put, the Tigres defensive midfielders and defenders weren’t fast enough to keep up with the quick attacking style of play that their own possession based style forced Cruz Azul into playing.

It’s perfectly fine for Tigres to dominate possession statistics week in and week out. However, if this dominant possession doesn’t lead to anything offensively its all for not. Especially considering the fact that dominating the majority of the match’s possession forces the opposition to be much more direct with their approach because they know that they won't have many opportunities to have or maintain possession while playing against Tigres.

The current struggles of Tigres are the fault of none other than head coach Tuca Ferretti. The legendary Brazilian coach loves to play from the back and rely upon the passing abilities of his defensive midfield and backline. This style of play is hugely possession based and requires Tigres to dominate the midfield week in and week out in order to be successful. Disrupt the midfield’s ability to distribute the ball to the wingers and attacking players and you've basically stopped Tigres from being effective. Playing a 4-2-3-1 formation under a strict tactical coach like Ferretti doesn’t really make things any easier for Tigres offensively. Rather, this formation limits the creativity of Tigres offensively and puts a ton of pressure on Javier Aquino and Jürgen Damm out on the wings to deliver crosses into the box for the attacking players. As of date, nothing from Aquino or Damm has shown that they are consistently capable of being the two of the most important players for Tigres offensively.

To make matters worse, it looks like teams across the league have discovered the key to slowing down Tigres when they are in possession of the ball. In the matches where los Felinos have struggled, opposition teams have complicated things by limiting the passing ability of the talented Tigres midfield. By clogging up the passing lanes, opposing teams are forcing the Tigres midfield to pass back to the backline in order to avoid errant passes or turnovers in possession. When an error or turnover in possession does take place, the opposing teams are trying to quickly attack Tigres and capitalize while they are in possession.

It looks like Tigres are in desperate need of a tactical change to free up space for the midfielders, in order to be more effective offensively with their possession, if they want to have any hope of turning around their recent struggles. Perhaps giving Gignac a strike partner up top could also make a positive difference for the Tigres attack. At the end of the day it’ll be up to Tuca Ferretti to make the changes that could be the difference between a championship winning season or another early exit for Tigres.

What do you think is wrong with Tigres UANL? Is it a tactical problem? Is Tuca Ferretti to blame? Or is it something else entirely different? Be sure to let us know below in the comment section.