Pachuca showing positive signs of bouncing back despite results
MEXICO CITY -- It's not long ago that Pachuca defeated Monterrey in a Liga MX final and Tigres in a CONCACAF Champions League final. It all happened within a year, and Diego Alonso's tenure as club manager was on the rise. Then came the summer of 2017 when Pachuca had to let go of Hirving "Chucky" Lozano, who departed to PSV, and an important period of reconstruction began.
In that period, Pachuca went to the transfer market to get players likes Angelo Sagal, Keisuke Honda, Edson Puch, Joaquin "Shaggy" Martinez and Robert Herrera. At the time, it looked like life post-Lozano would be successful for Pachuca, but that hasn't been the case. Five weeks into the 2018 Clausura, there are reasons to be excited in the Pachuca camp but that hasn't exactly translated into wins, which have mostly absent since last summer.
After winning the league in the 2016 Clausura, Pachuca has only appeared in one of the last three Liguillas. The club failed to make the playoffs in both the Apertura and Clausura in 2017, not a positive outcome when considering the serious financial investment the club has made as of late. Not making this season's Liguilla could put Alonso's continuation as manager in serious doubt.
So far in the new season, Los Tuzos have lost two of their three home games, ironically both by a final score of 3-2. With only four points of a possible 15, Alonso tries to evoke an optimistic stance as Pachuca experiences an unstable present.
"In reality, we've received a lot of praise. We've gotten national, local praise, as well from other managers and people outside Mexico," Alonso said after Pachuca lost 3-2 to Morelia on Saturday night at Estadio Hidalgo. "This team deserves more than what it has achieved, but the only way to change things around is by insisting, and improve the situations that we have to improve in order to be better.
"We're usually a team that defends well, but we're suffering in that area now. We've conceded 12 goals and scored 11. We probably have one of the best goalscoring numbers in the league, but we also have one of the worst defenses, which is atypical because since I got here, we've only had one season where we had one of the worst defenses, but since then we've been one of the best."
When looking at past numbers, Alonso is correct with his assessment, as in the 2016 Clausura, Pachuca finished the regular season tied with Chivas for the league's best defense with 16 goals conceded.
In that Clausura season, Pachuca renovated its defense by bringing in defenders such as Omar Gonzalez, Oscar Murillo and Emmanuel Garcia. The defensive backline of Gonzalez, Murillo, Garcia and Stefan Medina immediately paid dividends, emerging as one of the most consistent defenses in Mexico, but those days are long gone.
Murillo, Gonzalez and Garcia still remain members of Pachuca's current defense, but now there are other faces added to the mix like Martinez, Raul "Deditos" Lopez, Herrera and Colombian Dairon Mosquera, who arrived to the club this winter but hasn't debuted in Liga MX because of an injury suffered during a Copa MX game.
Mosquera was a player Alonso and his coaching staff had hoped to immediately plug into the team's defense and perhaps start over Garcia, who as the team's left-back has seen a dramatic drop in his form without anyone challenging him for his starting role in that position.
Although Honda is producing impressive numbers for Pachuca's offense -- three goals and three assists -- the good performances haven't resulted in Pachuca wins. If we add the number of points from the 2017 Apertura to the present Clausura, Pachuca has only earned 23 points of a possible 66. Over this period of time, it has lost five home games, after previously going 29 games unbeaten at Estadio Hidalgo.
In Pachuca's last two games, there have been two bad refereeing decisions, which have affected the outcomes. Against Tigres, a game Pachuca lost 3-2 but was able to come back from behind and tie the game 2-2 after being down 2-0, one of Tigres' goals was clearly offside. And against Morelia, when the score was 2-2 and Pachuca had been playing down a man for the entirety of the second half, Morelia got a penalty call in its favor, which Alonso and the team didn't see as a penalty.
After the match, Alonso shared his impressions after two consecutive 3-2 losses: "It worries us that we have encountered two grotesque calls in two consecutive games. It worries us everything that is being talked about off the field." When Alonso mentioned what's being talked off the field, he was making mention to the accusations Televisa, one of Mexico's most important TV networks, was making in regards to how Pachuca's president, Jesus Martinez, has been able to make the club into the one of the most successful in the country. Televisa's investigation makes emphasis that Martinez has received governmental help in making the club prosperous.
Alonso continued: "I'm not talking about ill-intentioned acts, simply I'm just pointing out what's going on around the institution, and what's going on with the refereeing...I always tell my players the same thing, 'A good team has to always be better than a referee.' We should have scored more in the first half."
The ambiance in Pachuca is not of a team that will make a serious run to the title. There are instances when it looks like Pachuca will recuperate its defensive stability, but then give up an easy set-piece goal. On top of that, the club can no longer count on Victor Guzman, who's out with an ACL injury for the rest of the season. Guzman scored eight goals last season and was the 2017 Apertura's top Mexican-born goalscorer.
Alonso hasn't lost faith, but the team can't afford more 3-2 losses as has been the case in the last two weeks if it wants to make a run to the Liguilla.
Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.