Apertura 2021 final: No. 2 Atlas visits No. 3 León

León must keep Atlas forward Julio Furch (left) in check if it hopes to claim the Apertura 2021 trophy. (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images)
León must keep Atlas forward Julio Furch (left) in check if it hopes to claim the Apertura 2021 trophy. (Photo by ULISES RUIZ/AFP via Getty Images) /
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Ariel Holan has guided León to the Liga MX final in his very first season on the job. (Photo by ALEXANDRE SCHNEIDER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images) /

Career arc of León coach is rather unusual

One fact getting a lot of play in the Mexican sports media is that León coach Ariel Holan never played professional soccer. In fact, he started his coaching career in the sport of field hockey. But once he switched to fútbol, he showed he has the chops to lead, winning league titles in Argentina and Colombia before moving to Liga MX this season.

Holan continued with León’s now iconic style of play – constant vertical attacks. The attacking style was adopted by then-Esmeraldas coach Gustavo Matosas back in January 2012 when “La Fiera” was still in second division, shortly after the franchise was purchased by Grupo Pachuca. Legendary captain Luis Montes – a Pachuca academy product from Cd. Juárez – was sold to León shortly after Tuzos ownership completed the acquisition of the club in 2011 and he has been with the Esmeraldas ever since. His playmaking skills have been a key cog in the offense until this year when injuries limited his playing time.

In May 2021, The Green Machine won promotion to first division and three seasons later the “club del Bajío” won the first of two consecutive Liga MX titles (Apertura 2013, Clausura 2014).

After a few down seasons and a roster overhaul, Ignacio Ambriz arrived in late 2018 and led the franchise back to the top of the Liga MX. “Nacho” tweaked the attacking style by tasking his forwards with constant pressing duties and giving his fullbacks freedom to roam (not just up and down the flanks). For instance, right back Fernando Navarro at times drifted into a False 9 position.

In the past five full seasons, the Esmeraldas twice finished top of the table and reached two Liga MX finals, hoisting the Clausura 2020 trophy. So this team was loaded when Holan took over.

The 61-year-old Argentine has proven to be a good caretaker. After an uneven start, Holan began to get more comfortable with his roster though it took some time for new acquisitions Omar Fernández and Santiago Ormeño to settle into their roles (arguably, Ormeño has yet to fully do so).

Under Holan’s watch, León won its first international trophy (the Leagues Cup) and finished the season in third place, carrying the No. 3 seed through the playoffs and into another Liga MX Finals appearance, its seventh.