In the massive amounts of football I’ve watched over the past two months, it seems almost crazy to say that I’ve witnessed more of Cruz Azul than just about any other team…having not watched them any time in the last few years before the start of 2022. I started watching the iconic Mexican team in preparation for Forge FC‘s CONCACAF Champions League double-header in February, and now I can’t stop. With so much free flowing football, positional rotation and frantic, energetic vibrancy to their play, La Máquina are one of the most exciting teams around. So with that, today I bring you an in-depth tactical analysis of Juan Reynoso’s Cruz Azul in 2022.
SYSTEM OF PLAY – 4-2-3-1
Despite all their positional rotation and fluidity, Cruz Azul play a clearly defined 4-2-3-1 formation. The over-arching ideologies may sometimes be seen as more 4-4-1-1 or 4-3-3 depending on the phase of the game or specificities of the match, but the 4-2-3-1 has remained consistent all season under Reynoso.
Undeterred by an evident amount of incredibly talented footballers at his disposal, Reynoso has consistently picked the same set of players over and over, making our analytic goals all the easier. 41-year-old Jesus Manuel Corona has started all 8 league matches in goal, possessing remarkably nimble footwork despite his old age. The keeper frequently takes part in Reynoso’s build-up plans, and the main justification for his continued selection – he seamlessly accomplishes both long and short passes to a high degree of success.Embed from Getty Images
To his right, Juan Escobar has been integral to the team’s success since the turn of the year, playing a paramount role in the team’s attacking style despite his right-back position. While he can be susceptible in transition and can be beaten for pace, he’s a defensive warrior that excels in most areas of the game, and wins a significant amount of his 1v1 duels going both ways. The 26-year-old also happens to be the youngest of an old but wise back-line, that incorporates two aerially dominant defenders with excellent long passing range. Those two would be enigmatic Mexican national team defender Julio Dominguez, and the team’s main target on set-pieces – Pablo Aguilar. To their left is another former central defender – Adrian Aldrete, who balances out Juan Escobar’s attacking verve, while still looking for moments to get forward and contribute himself.Embed from Getty Images
In midfield, Juan Reynoso has been incredibly consistent in picking box-to-box long-range shot specialist Rafael Baca, alongside one of Mexico’s most exciting number six’s – Erik Lira. A ‘six’ in both shirt number and trade, Lira frequently drops into the back-line to pick up the ball and break lines on the dribble. He and Baca both play an essential role in defensive transitions, and in providing the link between defense and attack – which can sometimes separate.Embed from Getty Images
Frequently dropping into midfield areas to pick up the ball as a magnet to everything the team want to accomplish, Carlos Rodriguez is enjoying a fantastic start to life at Cruz Azul as the team’s top threat in a ‘number ten’ role. The main taker of set-pieces, Rodriguez has been the team’s top goal contributor so far (3 goals, 2 assists), and makes himself incredibly useful in all phases of the game. Having a clearly defined ‘6’, ‘8’ and ’10’ in the team has not disrupted Reynoso’s plans one bit, with players still rotating at will and accommodating each other’s positioning.Embed from Getty Images
The wide areas are perhaps the most well-stacked, but that hasn’t stopped Ignacio Rivero from transferring from fullback to wing this season, and suddenly becoming one of the team’s top goal-threats. Perhaps even more impressively, he seamlessly migrated into central midfield in both legs against Forge, absolutely dominating the first leg with his class and poise in possession. Uriel Antuna is another one of the other key figureheads to the team’s attack, giving Reynoso’s already fiery team a different, electric edge. With his exceptional pace and trickery, Antuna wins bucket loads of fouls for his team, and can be an easy target for their long-passing ideals.Embed from Getty Images
Up front, Reynoso is still trying to find the best source of equilibrium. Santiago Gimenez struggles to get involved in games, although he can hold up the play and bring others into it at his best. Bryan Angulo meanwhile is not the most intelligent presser, but dovetails well with Charly Rodriguez in allowing the midfielder to find space around him. Neither make for massive goal threats, and that means wide men Angel Romero and Luis Mendoza are often two of the first substitutes to enter the team. Both wing wizards add a similar electricity to the team as Uriel Antuna, and have a remarkable understanding of how to rotate with others and get themselves involved. Since both can also play as a ‘number nine’, Reynoso has a plentitude of options he can deploy whenever the team are misfiring in front of goal, which to be fair, is rare given the threat of Antuna and Rodriguez.
As showcased against Forge, practically every position is well stocked with a replacement of near equal ability. This could prove to be one of Cruz’s greatest strengths as the season progresses and players tire, and Reynoso should not necessarily continue to keep the same level of consistency if results continue to fall by the wayside in the league.
BUILD-UPEmbed from Getty Images
As many Mexican teams love to do, Cruz Azul play out from the back with intensity and variety. They eloquently mix short, one-touch combinations with moments of long-passing perfection, while injecting head-spinning positional rotations and elements of surprise.
Key to the process, Jesus Corona will frequently take goal kicks long, aiming for the halfway line in the wide areas. But he can also play short to the centre-backs, and form a diamond quartet with Erik Lira to help the team progress. The fullbacks will start low on these short goal-kicks, and then situate themselves higher up the pitch in all other aspects of the phase. They may however come closer to the ball one at a time during the circulation stage of the build-up, in which the centre-backs and the ‘6’ look for avenues to progress forward. Dominguez and Aguilar will stretch the width of the field to expand the opposition’s press, with Erik Lira taking his moments to drop in between and add to the opposition’s misery.
Within their diamond shape, Lira and Dominguez are the two men more likely to progress through carrying the ball forward, while Aguilar and Corona are more likely to go long and spread looping diagonals into the wide areas.
Importantly in the discussion of Cruz’s build-up, the goalkeeper remains an instant outlet after the team win possession in their own half. Rather than bursting into a quick attacking transition, Reynoso’s team will often be patient and play the ball backwards instead, looking to reset in their diamond shapes.
If the opposition press high and screen the team’s real ‘number six’, La Maquina will counter-act that through positional rotation, as another midfielder drops instead. Charly Rodriguez is often the man to do so, helping to sometimes change their build-up and progression shape from 2-3-5 to 2-4-4 or 2-5-3. A former defensive midfielder, Rodriguez wants to be on the ball as much as possible, and his movement in deep only adds to the chaos of what’s happening around him.Embed from Getty Images
Also crucial to the process of building out from the back, Cruz Azul make a hefty amount of long-passes, almost always more than their opposition. Aguilar loves a long pass, frequently targeting the left-side with diagonal passes from the right half-space. Dominguez meanwhile likes to clip balls over the top toward the path of chasers. Rivero is another long-passing threat, and this season has been able to use his quality in the final third, closer to goal. It must be said that despite their desire to go long and spray these kind of risky passes, the risk doesn’t always pay off. Aguilar in particular is not always the most accurate of long passers, in spite of his endeavors. How the opposition counter-acts a player like Aguilar could then take on many different forms.
If they sit back and let the long passes materialize, they may win more first and second balls. But they may also allow Cruz Azul to showcase their short passing magic and progress through the thirds through those close combinations. If they press high, Cruz may be forced into going long, but then have more space and time to win those duels, or the subsequent knock downs. In that case, Cruz could again break the pressure through their short triangle passing combinations, leaving the opposition with fewer numbers closer to their own goal. It’s a dilemma that Forge FC struggled to contend with in the second leg, with Terran Campbell giving Cruz’s centre-backs all the time in the world to clip long passes over the top. The Hamilton-based club balanced that out with a high-line and achieved relative success in catching players offside, but the strategy still resulted in more than a few chances for La Maquina to sprint up the field and threaten at goal. In short, Cruz’s build-up is incredibly difficult to contend with, and at times allows them to completely by-pass the progression stage, and go right to creation and finishing.
ATTACKING PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
Cruz Azul’s build-up may be well-orchestrated, but you don’t tend to score an awful lot of goals in football from having a good build-up and nothing else. Fortunately for Reynoso’s team, their class when combining in their own third extends further down the field, with their positional rotation and fluidity taking center stage.
In the progression phase, Charly Rodriguez will often find ways to link between the attack and defense, coming close toward the ball in a 2-5-3 shape – as the fullbacks also look for moments to expand their attacking horizons. This is where that 4-3-3 kind of structure we mentioned may take form.
In this kind of shape, Cruz Azul will look to take advantage of the wide areas, through overloading and isolating, in addition to central mechanisms for switching play. Fullbacks frequently overlap the wingers ahead of them, who may shift inside or involve themselves in central areas in response. Further down the field you may also be likely to see more in the way of underlapping runs from fullbacks, as wingers look to get at their opposition markers in 1v1’s that quickly become 2v1’s. If Reynoso’s men want to circulate the ball in different ways, several players can spread the ball diagonally across to those stretching the width, or again look for moments to find a runner in space with a pass over the top of the opposition’s defense.
Corresponding with the variety in mechanisms for breaking down the opposition, Cruz’s fluidity in movement also takes on many forms. In the second leg against Forge, we noted just how much Luis Mendoza and Angel Romero positioned themselves in central areas, sometimes even on the same side of the field.
It may seem crazy to have a left winger shift all the way across to the right-side to receive, but that’s exactly why it works. Overloading the wide areas in this manner can be a useful way of picking apart the opposition and taking players out of their position, not to mention confusing the opposition into obliteration. If anyone were foolish enough to deploy a man-marking scheme against Cruz, they would get absolutely battered by the constant rotation and confusion.
Higher up the pitch, the fullbacks remain essential to the process, looking for late arrivals into the box. This is where Juan Escobar thrives in the final third, and where someone like Joaquin Martinez can also create constant chaos with his incessant movement inside.
Against teams that sit very deep and let Cruz play deeper on the field, La Maquina may have more difficulty creating chances. But they always find a way – scoring in each of their fixtures so far this season. If they want to inject a flavour of surprise, players like Rafael Baca can also strike for glory from distance, with pure precision. They also repeatedly threaten from set-pieces – with Rodriguez and Romulo Otero both exceptional set-piece takers, and Pablo Aguilar a genuine threat. Finally, with their high-pressing ideology, the likes of Antuna and Rodriguez often win the ball back high up the pitch and then immediately go on the hunt for a goal. All of this means that Juan Reynoso’s team can score goals from every direction, which makes it completely unsurprising why they’ve bagged 18 goals in 10 matches between their Champions League and Clausura matches in 2022. As we’ll come to talk about, they can also be quite solid defensively, making them all the more difficult to beat.
DEFENSIVE PRINCIPLESEmbed from Getty Images
While they can be picked apart and exposed in transition, La Maquina have conceded just 10 goals in their 10 matches so far in 2022, and boast one of the most impressive defensive records in the league. Their central midfield pairing of Erik Lira and Rafael Baca have been crucial to their defensive success, linking a forward and defensive line that can sometimes become disjointed.
When defending high up the pitch as part of their high-press or high-block, Cruz Azul shape up in a 4-4-2 formation, with wingers stepping out of line to press opposition fullbacks. If there is a particularly dangerous defensive midfielder in the opposition’s line-up, this can shape up in more of a 4-2-3-1. However, the ‘number ten’ usually joins the striker in pressing from the front, and becomes the first outlet in attacking transitions as a result, helping to pull the strings and bolster the team’s sharp speed on the counter.
That 4-4-2 shape remains in place across all three defensive phases, with the compactness growing with each third as the opposition progress. In their high press however, the defensive line will remain remarkably reserved from the front two, not even stepping up into the opposition’s half. In doing so, they invite attackers to move further away from Cruz’s goal, and set themselves up to contend with long passes from deep. In other words, they are not concerned with strikers seeking space in between gaps of their defense as they hold a high line. There is no high line to hold, and the opposition have to move the ball quickly if they do want to go long, since the pressure from the front is so intense. With the power and strength Cruz’s centre-backs possess in the air, the ability of an opposition team to win long-balls becomes all the more difficult.Embed from Getty Images
However, Reynoso’s team are less adept at defending long-passes over the top, particularly in transition. With Erik Lira actively staying out of the creation stage and Aldrete less likely to venture forward, the space is less readily available on Azul’s left. However, the right-back in the team plays more like a right-winger than fullback in attack, and that is exactly the space that opposition teams should be looking to target in transition. Tigres did so magnificently earlier in the week, and scored both of their goals through quick, left-sided attacks. Escobar is mighty and a solid 1v1 defender, but he can be beaten for pace, not to mention for position. This puts the stress on players like Lira and Baca to adequately cover in transition, reducing the roles they could have in attack – such as Baca’s long-range shooting ability.
When given enough time to set-up, Cruz Azul are normally solid. With a tremendous amount of games under their belt, the centre-backs know how to position themselves to clear the ball out of danger. In fact, Pablo Aguilar has made more clearances than any other player in Liga MX since the start of 2022 (7.6 per game). The central midfielders again play their part in compacting central areas and keeping the play out wide, and the wingers are generally active enough in coming all the way back to create 2v1’s out wide.
At the same time, in every single game that I’ve watched of Cruz Azul, they always have moments where they leave space out wide, that could easily be exploited. I noted this both pre-match to Forge, and post-match after the first leg. If Reynoso’s wide men don’t hold line height with the central midfielders, or are slow in getting back to cover, the opposition has to be quick in taking advantage of these opportunities before the moment passes. Further, injecting pace against Cruz’s aging back-line is another necessity, particularly in targeting those wide spaces in transition, where the fullbacks simply can’t recover in time. If the opposition can’t accomplish any of these tactics, Cruz can be incredibly difficult to break down.
CONCLUSIONEmbed from Getty Images
Cruz Azul have made themselves one of the most exciting teams to watch at the start of 2022, both for their exhilarating energy in attack, and at times, their susceptibility going the other way. Their possession-based game is mixed with a wonderful variety of long-passing precision and short-passing positional rotation, making their tactics an always-evolving process to study. With a few slip-ups in recent weeks, Cruz Azul will need to continue to find creative ways of scoring goals, and rotate through the depth of talent they have at their disposal more often. They could certainly challenge for both the Clausura and CONCACAF Champions League title if they find their best form, with Juan Reynoso implementing one of the most watchable brands of football in Liga MX.
So there it is! A tactical analysis of Juan Reynoso’s Cruz Azul. Be sure to check out more of our analyses from around the world, and follow on social media @mastermindsite. Thanks for reading and see you soon!
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