MEXICO CITY — As a season hit by COVID-19 cruises toward its conclusion, the real story in the Liga MX playoffs isn’t the scandal at Chivas or even the ever-growing Mexico City vs. Nuevo Leon regional rivalry.
Instead, it’s whether Club Leon — one of Mexico’s best teams in recent years — can cap its period of dominance with some silverware.
Coached by Ignacio “Nacho” Ambriz, they lost just once in the regular season, finishing in first place and picking up 40 points from 17 games. The former Mexico captain is a veteran in the Liga MX coaching carousel (stints at Necaxa, Club America, and Queretaro). He has spent time as an assistant at Osasuna and Atletico Madrid and harbors ambitions of coaching in Europe. But it’s not only Ambriz’s results with Leon, where he has been since 2018, that have turned heads. La Fiera has been winning with a fluid, attacking style that has made them the hot favorites to lift the 2020 Guard1anes title.
“I am happy that we have had a very good tournament, but it’s not over,” said Ambriz ahead of the international break. “We have to prepare very well for the playoffs because I think this team has the ingredients to be title winners.”
How have they done it, and what’s next for this ambitious team?
Leon stars revitalized under ‘Ambriz-ball’
One player who has shined under Ambriz’s guidance is right-back Fernando Navarro, who spoke to ESPN about his innovative role with Leon and the club’s progression.
The Mexico City native doesn’t see himself as any kind of footballing pioneer. The 31-year-old defender loves playing the game, but would actually prefer to sit down and watch the NFL than soccer. Even so, his admiration for Aaron Rodgers and, by extension, Green Bay Packers doesn’t diminish the uniqueness of his contribution for Leon.
“We are all conscious that at any moment we can be at full-back, at any moment we can be holding midfielders, forwards and we have to take on the roles and play as the position demands and that is something that ‘Nacho’ likes,” Navarro explains.
Take a screenshot of a Leon game when the team is in possession, and chances are that Navarro won’t be where you’d expect a right-back to be. He drifts centrally when Leon gets the ball, but not necessarily to bolster the central midfield, shield the defense or provide cover on the team’s attack-defense transition. Navarro tends to move in and forward from the touchline, often turning up in a No. 10 role or as an old-fashioned inside-forward. In fact, Navarro started his career as a forward — only becoming a wing-back at his first club, Atlante, due to injury — and laughs that he still misses playing there.
“First we press the ball and try to be aggressive. If they play past us cleanly, we have the obligation to get back behind the ball,” said Navarro. “I can’t forget that I am a full-backm and I know that when the ball is lost, I have to return to a holding midfield role, center-back or, if I can get there, to full-back.”
He clearly enjoys the fact Ambriz gives him the liberty to finish plays, something he didn’t get when his career was in a rut under Ricardo “Tuca” Ferretti at Tigres between 2011 and 2012. The numbers show Navarro is either scoring or assisting very close to every two games this season.
Ecuador international winger Angel Mena has also benefited hugely from Navarro’s movement and Ambriz’s system. The 32-year-old has recorded five assists and seven goals this season. After a difficult spell at Cruz Azul — eight goals in 52 appearances — in which he was deemed a bust, Mena has recorded an outstanding 37 goals and 21 assists over 68 appearances for Leon in Liga MX since joining in 2018.
“I go inside and I take away markers. I even sometimes take away a center-back so that center-back can’t cover for the full-back and it becomes a one-on-one situation [for Mena], which he excels at taking advantage of,” Navarro explains.
Another player benefiting from “Ambriz-ball” is central midfielder Luis “Chapito” Montes, who is the favorite to be named the Liga MX MVP this season. The 34-year-old seems to be getting better with age, but Leon’s style of play, particularly having a fixed holding midfielder — usually Peruvian Pedro Aquino — combined with Navarro’s marauding runs, is also geared towards getting the most out of Montes.
“I know him perfectly well and it’s also why I appear further forward sometimes,” said Navarro. “I think the position [Montes] shines in most and in which he can help the team is with the pitch in front of him because of his vision, because he can create goal-scoring chances from the halfway line, from three-quarters up; he can play one-twos and can shoot [from distance]. I go forward so ‘Chapo’ stays put, so he can distribute the ball.”
On the opposite flank, Colombia international Yairo Moreno has been converted from a winger — even featuring at times as an attacking midfielder — to a full-back by Ambriz, providing yet more attacking thrust to Leon. Moreno is more of a traditional full-back in the sense that he attacks around the outside, but as opponents have begun to sit increasingly deeper when playing Leon this year, the former Deportivo Independiente Medellin player has also been given license by Ambriz to move inside as well to cause disorder in the opposition defense.
“He comes to the center because he strikes the ball well and can switch play with ease,” explained Navarro. “He’s very quick and can create a lot in the middle as well.
“The changes of position have given us a lot, and it’s one of the fundamentals that we have that helps us a lot. Yes, it’s tiring for us, but it also wears down our opponents.”
Ambriz embraces styles from Guardiola, Aguirre
The audacious style that Ambriz has implemented at Leon stems from his ambition to coach in higher-profile leagues, as well as his time learning from ex-Atletico Madrid and Mexico boss, Javier Aguirre.
“I have the experience [in Europe] that I picked up with Javier,” Ambriz told ESPN in September. “I liked how they work, how they play in Europe… I had Costa Rica and Panama [national teams] after me [before signing for Leon], but my idea is to go to Europe and after [the 2022 World Cup in] Qatar, I’d like to manage my country’s national team.”
But Ambriz has also leaned on the thinking of Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola, who brought the inverted full-back role into the popular imagination while at Bayern Munich. Navarro adds that Guardiola’s flexibility in his tactical thinking is something that has directly influenced this Leon side and Ambriz.
“‘Nacho’ loves Pep Guardiola — he is someone he loves to watch and learn from and I think that is reflected on the pitch,” said Navarro. “I think he has taken certain characteristics of Guardiola’s game and, at a different level and without comparing ourselves, we try to do more or less the same.”
One of the notable aspects of Guardiola’s career is reinventing players in different roles and positions, and it’s something Ambriz has brought out of Navarro. When Navarro moves forward and infield, it’s almost as if he is poking and prodding the opposition defense, finding pockets of space or opening up gaps. This movement gives Club Leon an advantage in terms of the uncertainty it creates: how will Navarro’s opposite man deal with him being in a position a full-back rarely occupies?
Should the winger come back to track? The center-back step up? The midfielders? There’s no simple solution.
“A lot of times, the movements footballers have to make aren’t always to receive the ball, but instead to create space for other players,” said Navarro. The defensive side would seem to be an area to exploit, at least in theory. In reality, Leon also had the best defensive record over the regular season largely down to a collective responsibility to hunt down the ball and fill gaps wherever they may be.
In terms of results, Ambriz’s Leon has excelled like Guardiola’s side tend to do. Since Ambriz took over, no team in Liga MX has won more games (46 of 78), scored more goals (147) or has a better goal difference (+64). But ultimately only one scenario matters: that of Leon lifting their eight league title and first since 2014.
For all the admiration for Ambriz, there is a potential question mark about his teams in knockout scenarios. They crashed out to Morelia in the 2019 Apertura quarterfinals and fell short against Tigres in the Clausura final. Then there was that disastrous display and 3-0 defeat away against LAFC in the CONCACAF Champions League second leg last February.
Ambriz has said that he has the fortune at Leon to “see what I have in my head reflected on the pitch.” What he truly envisions, therefore, is a Liga MX title.