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Pumas Exceeding Expectations, but at What Cost?

Even though Saturday’s point leaves Los Universitarios in third, performances must improve.

Mazatlan FC v Pumas UNAM - Torneo Guard1anes 2020 Liga MX Photo by Sergio Mejia/Getty Images

Following last Sunday’s disappointing draw against Juárez, Pumas interim head coach Andrés Lillini stated that the Mexico City giants “do not celebrate draws”. Yet, their uninspiring showing in a dull 0-0 stalemate at Mazatlán less than a week later suggests that the Argentinean did not take heed of his own words. Los Universitarios are still perched near the top of the table, but is it worth sacrificing a coach’s credibility and a club’s identity for a privileged league position?

The last few years have been challenging for the seven-time champions. They can no longer compete financially with the division’s richest, while the conveyor belt of talent coming out of their legendary academy has dried up. Consequently, Pumas have been unable to mount a serious title challenge since they lost the Apertura 2015 final to Tigres.

An expert talent spotter known for discovering the likes of Éver Banega, Nicolás Gaitán and Aleksandr Golovin, Lillini was brought to Cantera in 2017 to direct the youth setup. He was instrumental in bringing current first team stalwarts Andrés Iniestra and Alan Mozo through the ranks, and it appears that the tradition of promoting promising youngsters will continue while the former Gimnasia de Jujuy assistant is in charge of the senior side. Academy products Carlos Gutiérrez and Erik Lira have been given a chance this campaign, with the latter making his Liga MX debut in round 2 against Atlas.

Despite their economic disadvantages and insistence on playing youngsters, Pumas’ history demands that they go out to win every match. Lillini said as much after the Bravos debacle, but his conservative tactics on Saturday night directly contradicted that principle.

The visitors lacked ambition during a turgid first half against Los Bucaneros. Front two Juan Dinenno and Carlos González were left stranded for the entire 45 minutes, with winger Juan Iturbe the only player willing to even approach their vicinity. Pumas seemed content to sit in their own end and soak up what little pressure a weak home attack could generate.

Perhaps the summer heat in Sinaloa influenced Lillini’s decision to deploy such a conservative setup. Even though his charges finally shifted out of first gear after the break, they were unable to create anything of note for the lethal Dinenno. In fact, their best opportunity came from an errant Nicolás Díaz back-pass, which the underwhelming Sebastián Saucedo screwed horribly wide.

Numerous reports in recent days have indicated that Lillini has been awarded the Pumas hot seat on a permanent basis. Given his limited managerial experience, the Argentinean has responded capably to the sudden departure of Míchel just a few days before the season began. Los Universitarios are still undefeated and look certain to book a liguilla place.

However, it seems that Lillini has blurred the line between winning at all costs and playing not to lose. An ultra-defensive setup can still be successful, but sitting back against an inferior opponent signals a tacit acceptance of mediocrity. Although Lillini has steadied the ship, Pumas need a manager with higher standards.