The Dutchman’s Flying Eagles – When Leo Beenhakker took Mexican football by storm

As a result of a process that started somewhere during the mid-to-late 80s, the European game has become the top of the football pyramid. It has been for a while now. Anyone who’s someone plays their trade in one of Europe’s top five leagues; anyone who doesn’t, wants to. For the most part, at least. As such, it’s hard to imagine one of the world’s top coaches leaving the summit of the game to coach somewhere else. In 1994 one of them did, coming down from the heights of Real Madrid and National Teams to manage in México; Leo Beenhakker, however, isn’t a regular manager. This is the story of his spell at Club América, how he built a team that everyone calls the king without a crown, and how can we look to recreate it in FM21.

A small note before we begin. This article is an extrapolation from a two-part series soon to be (hopefully) published on a well-known football site. Here are the links for anyone interested in the full story.

Part One

Part Two

The manager who longed to discover the world

Football is, to many of us, a second home. It’s the embrace of the family we choose, the colours we love, the temple of our faith. That’s why, usually, we don’t want to peak our heads outside. We don’t want to leave that which is ingrained in our identity and venture forth into the unknown. But for some, it’s a calling. The adventure draws them out, like an itch that desperately needs scratching. Leo Beenhakker is one such person. “I’ve always looked to go and discover something different. I spent my youth watching passing cargo ships from all over the world, hoping to jump on one of them so that I could leave and discover the world”, he told Joachim Barbier when interviewed for The Blizzard. 

Beenhakker’s most famous adventure was taking the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago to their first-ever FIFA World Cup

Born in Rotterdam on August 2nd 1942, he lost his father when he was a teenager, which forced him to work as an electrician whilst he played for a number of local clubs. Usually a right winger, a career-ending injury at the age of 19 drove him away from the pitches, but not from football. In 1968 he became the youngest coach at the time to get the license required to manage in the Dutch First Division, aged only 26. He managed smaller sides like SC Veendam and Go Ahead Eagles before landing his first top job in Ajax, where he’d win a league title. From there, he moved to Spain, managing Real Zaragoza and Real Madrid, with a brief stint at the helm of the Dutch National Team. Having won pretty much everything he could win with big European sides, Beenhakker set out to explore new horizons.

After a year in Switzerland with Grasshopper Club Zürich, he took his first job outside of Europe, with the Saudi Arabia National Team. Beenhakker’s first foray into non-European football, however, didn’t end as expected. He was brought in July 1993 into a Saudi Arabia National Team that had cleared the AFC Qualifiers First Round and was about to face the Final Round to try and qualify to their first-ever World Cup. They got the job done, winning the group undefeated over five matches, all played in Qatar as a neutral venue. However, just four months before the beginning of the tournament that both began and ended with terrible penalty misses, the Dutch coach was fired over a disagreement in styles. After a short while, however, he had found a new home.

Dutch style with Mexican spice

Beenhakker was introduced as the new manager of Mexican club América in mid June 1994, signing a one year contract, with an option for another one. In the following days, América announced the signing of two of the most recognizable players in that team, with 31-year-old Zambian Kalusha Bwalya arriving from PSV and 28-year-old Cameroonian striker François Omam-Biyik, signing from French side Racing Club de Lens. 

From the get-go, Beenhakker was able to imprint the style he wanted for his team. The press lauded the team’s style, saying “América showed the entertaining and offensive football that Leo Beenhakker wants to impose, and during the 90 minutes the players showed how much they want to fly high in this era that has just begun”. 

The style Beenhakker had managed to make América thrive on was one of high firepower offensives and overwhelming the opposition, deeply rooted in the Dutch school of football. They mostly played in a 4-3-3, with a solid defence and well-balanced midfield that gave the forward trio a platform from where to strike with surprising freedom. They would press high, looking to counter-press when the ball had just been lost, and then drop into position if the rival had asserted possession. With the ball at their feet, the focus was always on building up play from the back, getting the ball quickly back into play to take advantage of any countering chances, should they exist.

Adrián Chávez between the sticks was as safe a pair of hands as you could find, and an América legend on his own. In front of him, the usual back four of Juan Hernández, Raúl Gutiérrez, Enrique Rodón y Guillermo Naranjo was solid if slightly error-prone. Hernández and Naranjo in particular would provide runs forwards to create overloads on wide areas and overlap the wingers.

In midfield, a core of Joaquín del Olmo, Rodrigo Lara and Kalusha Bwalya provided an equilibrium to América’s play. Del Olmo, at the centre of the three, would often drop during the build-up to aid the centrebacks. From there, he could spray long passes wide or look to combine with his midfield mates. Lara, although not adverse to runs into space from the centre, was largely the holding mid. Kalusha, however, was a revelation. A highly mobile number 10, he would play on the left of the three men midfield, tearing defences apart with his skill and agility. He would often either look to provide passes into space for the three forwards, overlap on the left for a cross with his marvellous left foot or simply shoot from distance.

Joaquín del Olmo drops to aid during build up (1). América’s press nullifies spaces for the opposition (2). Del Olmo sends a long pass for Zague who’s attacking the space on the right.

However, it was upfront that América had their most dangerous players. On the wings, Cuauhtémoc Blanco and Luis Roberto Alves “Zague” created havoc for the opposing defences. Blanco, the younger of the two, was incredibly industrious, pressing relentlessly, whilst Mexican-Brazilian Zague was incredibly creative, his tall frame and long legs giving him a lengthy stride that could out-pace anyone. Both of them being nearly ambidextrous meant they could look to run wide or cut inside for a shot or to find an overlapping teammate, but it also meant they were able to constantly switch positions and keep defences guessing.

All of this played into the hand of François Omam Biyik, who had a debut season to remember with América. The Cameroonian centre-forward was an imposing presence for Mexican defences, but he wasn’t just a target man. A highly skilled scorer, he’d also drop deep to receive the ball in the hole and play one-twos with either winger or a Kalusha Bwalya running from behind. He was also quite capable of taking a spot on the wings when either of the wingers moved centrally, creating a dilemma for the defenders, who didn’t know if they should follow him or not.

Biyik drops to find space and drags a defender with him (1). In a similar play, Del Olmo plays a lobbed ball to a dropping Biyik; the defender is drawn to the big man and that creates space for Bwalya to attack (2). Zague, now on the left, looks to attack space from a long ball; the movement from the front three was key in Beenhakker’s setup (3).

That unpredictability in attack made Beenhakker’s América not only highly effective but incredibly exciting to watch; to this day they’re remembered as one of the best teams to grace México’s Primera División. The Dutch manager agrees; when interviewed in 2017 by a Mexican reporter for Spanish newspaper Marca, he said “I remember that team very fondly,  it’s one of the best teams I managed”. 

The broken spell

However, it all came apart staggeringly fast. On April 6th, 1995, with America flying high, it was announced out of nowhere that Beenhakker had been fired. Initially, the press pushed the idea of tensions within the América training camp and lack of faith over the run of five consecutive draws, but something seemed off. “I don’t know what happened”, said first-choice goalkeeper Adrian Chávez over a telephone interview. “It took me by surprise because our relationship with [Beenhakker] was excellent. I still can’t believe it”.

The Mexican press initially blamed issues between Beenhakker and the squad, but the players quickly distanced themselves from that narrative.

Beenhakker was sacked just 5 matches before the end of the league season, with the team already qualified for the “Liguilla”. They had earned 45 points from 33 matches, with the best attack in the league (78 goals scored) and the 5th best defence. Beenhakker points to his starting of midfielder Del Olmo, who was locking horns with the board about the terms of his contract. That, the Dutchman said, went against the board’s explicit requests and cause his sacking. Club vice-president Francisco Hernández fired back saying the Dutch coach was “arrogant” and “unwilling to adapt”.

The aftermath of Beenhakker’ sacking brought the club into huge turmoil. Croatian Mirko Jozic was the man selected by the América board to replace the Dutchman, but under him, América would show none of the flair that had previously distinguished them. They’d end up getting eliminated in the semifinals, losing 3-2 on aggregate to Cruz Azul.

Like with Blanco, Beenhakker’s second stint with Club América was vital in the rise of another Mexican legend, Guillermo Ochoa.

Not even Beenhakker, when he returned to America in 2003, could recapture that. The spell had been broken. “When people ask, I always say that from a professional point of view, Real Madrid is the best thing that happened to me”, he pointed out in that interview for The Blizzard, “but from the point of view of lifestyle, contact with the people and the country itself, Mexico was paradise”.

Beenhakker’s América on FM21

Beenhakker’s side was so dominant and so stylish that many still argue it was the best the Mexican league has had, so how can we replicate it on FM? Can we play in the same vein as Don Leo‘s America or has time left it behind? Let’s find out…

Usually, when I look to replicate a team’s style, I try to find a club with the right players. Having the right skillsets, particularly in positions that are key to a team’s play, can be the make-or-break of a tactic. However, this time, I decided to go for a different approach.

The club I chose to test this tactic was not selected because of any of their current players, but because of the league it plays in. I decided to go for Club América. My logic was as follows: if Beenhakker’s style was so revolutionary in Mexico during the 90s, would it still work today? This, of course, meant I ran the risk of finding a squad that couldn’t play the tactic as I wanted it, but I thought it’d make for a more interesting experiment.

This is the setup I decided on to replicate Beenhakker’s tactics. Team Instructions were fairly simple, with a focus on the team expressiveness, passing game and intensive midfield pressing.

As for roles, a solid back four without much flair, with a BPD there just to ease the build-up phase. The left-back, whilst on Support, has the instructions to Get further forward and Cross more often to mimic Naranjo’s more aggressive approach.

In midfield, the trio of Del Olmo, Lara and Bwalya is represented with a flat mid-3, with a fairly workman-like Carrilero in place of Lara, a creative DLP-S for Del Olmo, and Kalusha Bwalya’s dynamism best portrayed by a Mez on Attack.

But the front three was always going to be the trickiest part. Would we have the right players to perform the roles of Zague, Biyik and Blanco? Immediately after going through the squad, I knew I was in luck. America’s team was a bit short at spots (mostly the left-back and the central midfielder), but I had three players that could fit the bill in Giovani Dos Santos, Roger Martínez and Sebastián Córdova.

I was undecided on which three roles to assign them, particularly the two wingers as they performed similar and dissimilar tasks throughout the games. In the end, I went for an AP-A for Zague’s more creative yet aggressive role and an Inverted Winger on Support for Blanco role; both have the Roam from Position instruction as well as being set to interchange positions to mimic that dynamic positioning that Zague and Blanco had. I went with a CF-S with Martínez for Biyik’s role, though I could’ve gone for a TM-A if America had a more aerially proficient striker in their squad.

The results

I was very curious to see how the tactic would work out. America was primed to be one of the best sides in the Liga MX, but how good? And particularly, could we replicate the stylish game they had under Beenhakker?

I was glad to find a team that had many similarities with the Dutchman’s. As expected, we became a passing-heavy side, with enormous amounts of possession, passing, and movement. We were generating a huge amount of chances, and teams who didn’t close up shop suffered against us.

The CF-S dropping and working as a pivot for the wide attacking mids and the Mez-A worked fantastically and took none of the goalscoring from Martínez.

Another key staple, one that I did not expect, was a lot of switch-crosses from Dos Santos and Córdova, consistently finding each other in space as well as the CF-S. The Mez would also often overlap on the left to create an attacking four that would touch and move around the opposition box looking for an opening.

However, all this movement and passing could become somewhat sterile when rivals found a way to close their defence and wait out for the mistake. Against weaker sides who decided to just weather the storm, we ended up with inflated xGs courtesy of a mirage of long-range shots and tricky headers. We had a couple of results come out a very “FM-ish” with a couple of quick counters hitting just as hard as we did.

Part of that is no doubt the lack of optimal personnel which could be fixed over a transfer market or two, but there was a tactical naivety to our game, a lack of aggressiveness to it. Perhaps something similar happened to the original team, that run of five draws that was pointed out after the coach’s sacking a show of the same symptoms. When it did work, however, it did prove very beautiful to watch, and very hard to contain. Just like Beenhakker’s team.

Thanks for reading.

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