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The León Paradox: A Juggernaut with Something Missing in Attack

A fifth-consecutive victory showed that they are performing at an elite level, but Los Esmeraldas must start finding the back of the net with greater frequency

Necaxa v Leon - Torneo Guard1anes 2020 Liga MX Photo by Cesar Gomez/Jam Media/Getty Images

Although they slept at the top of the table on Friday night, León and coach Nacho Ambriz have plenty to think about heading into the second half of the regular season. A solid 2-0 road win in Aguascalientes reaffirmed their status as one of the title favorites, but their pretty patterns will not result in liguilla success unless they can become more effective in front of goal.

Despite all their talent, León have one of the worst offenses in the division. They have struck only eight times in as many matches, a far cry from the high-powered hijinks of previous campaigns. Even though the cast of characters at the sharp end of the pitch has largely stayed the same since the beginning of 2019, a crucial ingredient in the potent attacking potion is missing: J.J. Macías.

In his year in Guanajuato, the Chivas loanee established himself as one of the country’s best young prospects. Yet, 19 league goals in 38 appearances were not enough for Los Esmeraldas to part with the $15 million required to activate the starlet’s release clause. As a result, “JJ” returned to his parent club at the beginning of 2020.

Since then, León have continued to rack up impressive results. However, they badly miss Macías’ killer instinct in the box. Neither Nicolás Sosa nor the recently signed Emmanuel Gigliotti have shown the capacity to replace the precocious Mexican international. Both were on the periphery of a solid team showing at the Estadio Victoria.

The fallow form of his two target men creates a headache for Ambriz, but Ángel Mena’s display against Los Rayos hints at a potential solution to the problem. The mercurial Ecuadorian scored twice from the spot and nearly got his hat-trick with an inventive flicked effort at the near post. While he is most comfortable cutting in from the right onto his favored left foot, Mena showed that he has the capacity to wreak havoc through the middle if needed.

In addition to Mena, León have a host of players who can arrive into central spaces to finish off attacks. They seem a side custom made to a false nine formation, which would also allow for the inclusion of former Arsenal man Joel Campbell. Such a setup would make their intricate interchanges even more difficult to mark.

Los Esmeraldas are certainly capable of lifting the Guard1anes 2020 trophy with Sosa or Gigliotti up top. Olivier Giroud started every match for France during their triumphant 2018 World Cup run, and the same player was a crucial component for Chelsea this season.

Giroud is proof positive that there is still room for the hard-working target man in modern football, but León have no need for a fixed forward presence, at least from the start of games. A full-fledged embrace of the lithe creators in the squad should be Ambriz’s plan A. Adopting that strategy would bring the ex-América boss out of his tactical comfort zone, but it could mark the difference between his first league title and another disappointing playoff failure.