One could be forgiven for thinking that, five matches into his career as Monterrey manager, Antonio Mohamed believes his team is starting to get it right. His side just put five goals past newly minted United States goalkeeper William Yarbrough in a 5-1 drubbing of Léon, the third win since Mohamed took over for Carlos Barra in mid-February.
But this is a coach who has won championships with both Mexican teams he’s coached, América and Tijuana, and would love to win another to rub in the face of the administrators at the capital club who couldn’t get along with the Argentine. With los Rayados still not occupying a playoff spot, he’s still after more.
“At times the team approached the idea we want, but we still have to work,” he said after Saturday’s decisive victory. “We approached the idea and then we stepped back. We must go forward.”
Even if his project isn’t complete, “Turco” — a nickname given to the him because of his Lebanese and Syrian heritage and the practice in Argentina of calling people of Arabic descent “Turk” — already is putting his mark on the club.
You could see it this weekend, with the quickness in which los Rayados moved from defense to attack. The third goal especially, when forward Dorlan Pabón went streaking down the wing after gaining possession and set up Neri Cardozo for the easy finish, looked like a number of goals from Mohamed’s previous stops.
With the good comes the bad, and the defensive lapses Monterrey has shown — especially in Mohamed’s second match, a 3-0 defeat to Chivas — also have his fingerprints on them. Monterrey will work to shore up those gaps, and so far the influence Mohamed has exerted has been almost nothing but positive.
It’s the type of influence Monterrey was lacking prior to Mohamed’s arrival. The best club in the region at the start of this decade, the club has regressed since its Apertura titles in 2009 and 2010 and its three consecutive CONCACAF Champions League crowns between 2010 and 2013. Some of the slide coincided with the aging of the club’s all-time leading scorer Humberto “Chupete” Suazo. The Chilean forward scored more than 100 league goals for Monterrey between 2007 and 2014.
Suazo ran into injuries, with a left shoulder problem keeping him out of last season’s Clausura and forcing him to miss the World Cup. He returned for the Apertura but found himself surpassed by Pabón and returned to Chile this winter to finish his career in his homeland.
For all his speed and skill, Pabón isn’t an inspirational locker room presence, and while they’ll cheer him now, fans won’t soon forget him joining and leaving the club in 2014 after just six matches. With Suazo gone, the club brought in Edwin Cardona from Colombia, and he’s scored five goals – four of them since the managerial switch. Cardona may develop into a leader but is only 22 and is still acclimating to Mexico.
In that void, Monterrey will need to rely on Mohamed’s ability to make up for his teams’ weaknesses. Tijuana had Edgar Castillo, an admittedly poor defensive player, at left back. Mohamed devised a system in which Castillo could get forward nearly as often as he liked to combine with midfielders or put in crosses. The onus fell on center backs Pablo Aguilar, who he later took with him to América, and Javier Gandolfi to fill the space left.
At América, he again had a versatile, attacking left back in Miguel Layún. Instead of keeping him in the back and again relying on Aguilar, his partner and help from the midfield, Mohamed often played Layún in a more advanced role and saw it pay off with the now-Watford man scoring four times in one match. The Mexican international eventually starting both legs of the final in midfield. That was partly out of necessity, with Mohamed holding defender Paul Aguilar (not the aforementioned Pablo; yes, I know it’s a bit confusing) out of the Liguilla because of a locker-room dispute. That the team won the title anyway, with American Ventura Alvarado thrust into the lineup as a sort of stopgap, speaks to both the depth Mohamed fosters at his clubs and the chemistry he is able to balance in the face of disputes.
With Monterrey, he takes over a club without much in the back, but he has his Colombian imports working together well enough up front that he can sometimes mask his team’s defensive shortcomings. He takes over a team which, like Xolos, is made up of several players who came up through the system along with some big-name South Americans.
The club directors in the Sultana of the North won’t be as finicky as those in the capital were, and why would they be? Mohamed already is getting it right, even if he wants to convince you otherwise.