Cruz Azul's midfield trio keeps Paco Jemez & Co. eyeing Liga MX playoffs


MEXICO CITY -- The last Liga MX loss that Cruz Azul suffered happened in Week 14 of the 2017 Clausura, and it happened against Puebla at Estadio Cuauhtemoc. In Week 8, Paco Jemez's Cruz Azul returned to the same venue it had lost before 2-1, in a bizarre game where La Maquina conceded a goal in the 93rd minute. But times are different nowadays because since that last-second loss against one of Mexico's weakest sides, Jemez & Co. hasn't lost a single league game. Although the team would want to have more than two wins after eight matches in the 2017 Apertura, Cruz Azul's playing style is one that begins to satisfy Jemez though the work is still incomplete.

"I'm going to tell you something," and Jemez began to explain to ESPN FC what he saw of his midfield trio, Gabriel Penalba, Rafael Baca and Francisco Silva, in the game against Puebla. "In the first half, I really didn't like how they positioned themselves on the field. Let me explain: the fact that we had a hard time generating dangerous plays caused our three central midfielders to finish in areas where they normally shouldn't be.

"This is not a problem derived from the idea that they were doing something wrong. Rather, it was a problem derived from the idea that they wanted the ball, wanted to find spaces, wanted to help generate plays and in that desire to do stuff, we looked scattered around the field," Jemez continued. "It's a situation that doesn't help us or a situation that we want.

"In the second half, we were more organized and more compact in the midfield. We have to keep in mind that our style of play demands a lot of work and they [Penalba, Baca and Silva] understand that all the play will pass through them."

"They're high-quality players, who give you a good defensive and offensive level of performance. They're consolidating their roles in their team and winning confidence. For me, they're one of the important parts of this team," Jemez concluded.

If there's a certain part of Jemez's Cruz Azul that keeps growing and consolidating, it's that midfield trio. Jemez might make several changes to his back four or switch around his attack, but he's never going to break apart that trio of Penalba, Baca and Silva. So far this season, Silva has three assists while Baca has one goal. Penalba is the only one yet to get an assist or a goal but considering his height and the presence he has in the heart of the midfield, his participation is invaluable.

Baca, left, is part of the midfield that keeps Cruz Azul ticking along. He has one goal so far this season.

Jemez's observations from that score-less draw performance against Puebla were interesting because in that match, where the pitch played a role in stifling Cruz Azul's possession-based style, what stood out was that Silva at times appeared as right-back or left-back, asking for the ball so he could start the plays from the back, while Baca would always shift into the center of the defense and act as another center-back when the team lost possession of the ball.

Penalba's role on the field was most confusing because at times he looked like he was playing behind the striker, Martin Cauteruccio, but at others he moved into the box, becoming another scoring target. As noted by Jemez during the post-game conference, the trio was scattered all over the place, especially in the first half.

So far in the Apertura, Cruz Azul has scored nine goals but that number must increase over the coming weeks so it can be better placed in the Liguilla spots.

Jemez's Cruz Azul also evokes memories of how Jemez's Rayo Vallecano side played in La Liga. What Rayo showed on the field was so impressive that in 2014, none other than Carlo Ancelotti said on Cadena Ser's El Larguero that Rayo could be considered the image of Spanish football. "The image of Spanish football can be Rayo Vallecano, a small club that plays fantastic football. They have a lot of courage. Rayo Vallecano is the best way to explain how Spanish football is."

In his best Rayo side, Jemez's best player on the field was central midfielder Roberto Trashorras. His passing completion rate and ability to single-handedly start plays for the team were vital. At the moment, Jemez doesn't have a player like Trashorras in his Cruz Azul XI but he does admit that he has quality players. "To find a player like [Roberto] Trashorras is very complicated. To find a footballer with that typology is difficult. We don't have a player of that sort and there are many teams out there that don't have him. He's a very specific, particular type of player who's not that easy to find. We have players here with different virtues and other interesting characteristics, but to find a player like Roberto is very difficult."

If Cruz Azul makes a deep run in the season, one thing that must keep working and improving will be the trio of Penalba, Baca and Silva. Fortunately for Jemez, it's looking like the midfield trio will keep getting better.

Nayib Moran covers Liga MX and the Mexican national team for ESPN FC. Twitter: @nayibmoran.