The most anticipated matchup of the MLS came in the Banc of California Stadium. The 3,252 could be heard from miles away, the thunder of their “Oles!”s shaking the MLS league leader’s stadium.
After it was El Trafico, the highly contested match-up between LAFC and LA Galaxy that hosts itself twice a year. However, this year, every MLS fan got the LA Derby in an MLS Cup Semi-Finals. With a do or die situation on the hand, fans expected each team to provide a match full of anxiety, emotion, and a reason to fall back in love with soccer.
LAFC manager Bob Bradley made two changes to the squad that beat the Colorado Rapids 3-1. Defender Walker Zimmerman was replaced by Steven Beitashour. The other change was replacing midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye for Lee Nguyen.
LA Galaxy manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto made no changes to his squad that beat Minnesota United 2-1.
LA Galaxy’s inefficient use of possession
Contrary to people’s belief, Schelotto’s LA Galaxy started the game off brilliantly, making good use of their possession to get into dangerous areas and slowly disturb LAFC.
This should have been the platform from which the Galaxy improved their play in the game but LA Galaxy’s end product never materialised.
In an unusual twist, it was LA Galaxy who had more touches and passes. LAFC have established their status as the “Manchester City of MLS”, playing many passes and unlocking defences through their skilful play.
However, today’s match was different. LA Galaxy made 516 passes compared to LAFC’s 395 passes. The Galaxy also made more passes, outnumbering LAFC 699 to 586. However, LA Galaxy couldn’t materialise this advanced position with the ball with results. Two of LA Galaxy’s goals came from a misunderstanding with LAFC and a set-piece – hardly a result of the possession of their ball.
LAFC, on the other hand, had almost all of their goals through clinical and precise use of the ball.
So what went wrong?
There is a fundamental principle regarding possession. It must have a purpose. Possession for the sake of it does not advance the team and leads to the wastefulness of the ball and time. This exact situation occurred with the LA Galaxy.
LA Galaxy’s wastefulness of the ball created very little and for all their time on the ball, the Galaxy made 11 key passes – the same as LAFC who had a fewer possession of the ball.
The purpose on the ball is defined by penetration of the ball. Examples of this include breaking lines, attracting the team to create space on the other side, and through balls. Other examples include one-twos and third man concept plays. All these aspects of penetrative football did not occur with the Galaxy. Whenever they did occur, it was far too rare for it to have a significant impact on the play of the game.
An active issue for the Galaxy stemmed from LAFC’s big surprise in the start. The Galaxy are mid-table in the possession and normally play through a mixture of possession and counterattack. However, Bradley decided for his team to sit and have less of the ball.
This change in game-plan threw off Schelotto’s plans and their tactics. A key problem concerning this was what to do with the possession. The answer to this question never materialised into a clear solution and as such, Galaxy seemed to lack a purpose when having the ball.
One clear example of this was the lack of penetration from the midfield. Just having a look at the heat-map shows why LA Galaxy couldn’t turn the possession into good chances. The whole of midfield sat around the halfway line and did not venture into the attacking forays as much as they should have.
Look at how the midfield stays near the halfway line but never provides any support in the half-spaces or in the central areas, near the goal.
This lack of attack in the midfield, with the ball, can be seen with the two attacking midfielders surrounding the duo of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Cristian Pavón. Both Uriel Antuna and Sebastian Lletget were virtually non-existent, not applying any attacking venture into the midfield.
A glance at their heat-map shows their confined and very limited positions – something which should not be happening for a team that retains most of the ball.
As such, the duo Pavón and Ibrahimovic were left on their devices to defeat the best defence in the league. It was pretty much an impossible task for the duo to beat the LAFC when in possession of the ball. A counterattacking system might have given them some chances, yet as we’ve seen, LAFC’s insistence to let LA Galaxy have the ball meant that counterattacking chances were hard and few to come by.
In this picture, Zlatan and Pavón have absolutely no support in the centre of the pitch. The flanks, shown in grey, are not being overloaded as quickly and there are only two players trying to break LAFC’s narrow defence. The two midfielders that are in support are not dribblers or creators- merely central defensive midfielders. As such, LA Galaxy had no penetration through their midfield.
The attacking situation became very dire for the LA Galaxy. Antuna only made fourteen passes, with only five ending in the final third. Lletget made an impressive 77 passes but only had 17 of his passes end up in the action zone – the final third.
Another reason for LA Galaxy’s inability to transform their possession to an end result was the positioning of the attackers. Schelotto had a very poor attacking structure: Pavón and Ibrahimović spent a lot of the time near the left half-space, with respect to LA Galaxy, near the goal. The defensive midfielders stayed near the halfway line, with the rest of the attackers staying near them as well.
In summary, there was no constant link to the attackers. The only who could do this was Pavón but a player can only do so much to link an entire attack.
LA Galaxy’s only combinations occurred on the flanks as the constant overlapping runs from the full-backs allowed the midfielders to try something. However, a lack of central presence meant that there was no way to connect the flanks on the pitch. As such, the play was very isolated and usually fizzled out.
Here we see the poor attacking structure from LA Galaxy. Absolutely no one is in the middle, trying to break the lines and progress the play. As such, LA Galaxy have a big hole of space in which no attacker is making any attempt to occupy.
Additionally, the distances, shown in yellow, are lengthy as a result the LAFC defenders were able to intercept the pass and stop LA Galaxy’s attacking progression. With no passing outlet in the middle, the Galaxy just passed around the outskirts, never making any penetrating play.
Even when the Galaxy managed to get shot, it was under poor conditions and was not a high goalscoring chance. In fact, out of 16 shots, six came outside the box. Out of the ten that occurred in the penalty area, four were off target and one was blocked.
LA Galaxy’s inefficient press becomes their undoing
While Galaxy were largely wasteful with their possession use, Schelotto’s men had one key flaw that Bradley made sure to utilise again and again: pressing.
Pressing is a concept that is wonderful in theory, and when done correctly, in reality. It allows a team to take the game to the other team, taking the initiative to not leave the opposition team with any breathing space.
However, if the team does not press as a team, several gaps start to appear. This is because only one half of the team may be going upfield, with the other half lagging behind. If the opposition team is capable in possession, they can use the other team’s pressing to their advantage.
This is exactly what LAFC did.
In the first half, LAFC only recorded 5 shots but in the second half, they recorded 7 shots. With both teams now tense at 2-2, LAFC slowly grew into the second half. As such, the majority of the second-half, attacking-wise, was ruled by Bradley’s men. A major component of that was LA Galaxy’s poor pressing form.
LA Galaxy pressed in a fluid 4-1-4-1 / 4-2-3-1 in hopes of winning the ball high up so that they could have enough players to execute a counterattack. This is why they needed that block of four/five. It allowed them to have the option to correctly counterattack in case of winning possession.
In the beginning half of the game, the Galaxy executed this press quite well. LAFC were dispossessed an astounding seventeen times. In the early stages of the first half, it seemed like Schelotto’s men had found a way of nullifying Bradley’s men.
However, as the game went on, LAFC’s insistence to sit back and conserve energy meant that it was LA Galaxy who were having to constantly move in and out. With the compounding pressure and goals, cracks started to appear in Galaxy’s pressing.
The most important, and noticeable, was Galaxy’s failure to press as a unit. Whenever LAFC had possession of the ball, maybe two or three of Schelotto’s men would press – namely Pavón, Ibrahimovic. As such, LAFC were able to drag these isolated pressors deep and then use their excellent passing circuitry to beat these isolated lines.
Here we see LA Galaxy’s poor pressing form. The lines of pressing are very uncoordinated and loose. This has created a big space between the lines of their pressure, as seen in orange. LAFC players can occupy that space and allow for vertical progression in just two passes.
As such, two passes later, LA Galaxy will only have their pivot and four-man backline defending the full attack of LAFC, a prospect which every team is scared of.
In the second half, LAFC stopped having to counterattack as they started to realise that gaps would appear just by Galaxy’s inefficient pressing. In many scenarios, Bradley’s men were able to get past two lines of Galaxy’s press and immediately have the ball near the Galaxy’s delicate pivot.
The ability for LAFC to do this time and time again meant that the LA Galaxy defenders were often exposed and forced to work harder to deny the prolific team any chances of goal. Repeated incidents started to tire out the defence and as the game went on, LAFC were able to find spaces just by the fault of LA Galaxy’s pressing.
In a single pass, LAFC are now in the middle of the pitch with the defence of LA Galaxy in disarray. Since LAFC were very poor in their pressing, the midfielder is able to run and exploit the space. He can pass it to the wingers, where there is a 1v1 situation, or drive centre and attract players.
In either case, the poor form has allowed LAFC with space to attack and breed a new attack.
LAFC showcase a masterclass in counter-attacking
The approach from Bradley was nothing short of a masterclass.
Not only did his tactics surprise and throw out LA Galaxy’s game-plan, but it also allowed LAFC to construct their attack in a way that hadn’t occurred frequently before. This unpredictability added a dimension to LAFC’s already harrowing attack.
So how did Bradley make his team execute a masterclass in counterattack?
There are a few integral principles of a counterattack, all of them which were shown by Bob Bradley’s men.
The first principle of counterattacking efficiently is to have a well structured defence that is able to absorb pressure and attacks of the opposition team. A defence with a disciplined shape keeps the shape between the lines to a minimum and restricts the ability for the opposition to break the lines.
This is critical because the opposition is forced to try to new moves which inevitably results in dispossessions which lead to the counterattack.
LAFC defended in a fluid 4-4-2 that transformed into 4-5-1 to account for Galaxy’s five midfielders. A constant in this fluid formation was Vela up top, in the first half. Bradley chose to put him there as in case of a counter-attack, his team could find the best player in the team and league in an advanced position.
In this picture, we can see LAFC’s coordinated and disciplined 4-4-2. Notice how the positioning of the players is close such that LA Galaxy will not be able to play through the centre. The ability for players to easily collapse means that any LA Galaxy play down the middle will result in an interception or dispossession.
That is important because it allows them to quickly counter-attack and threaten the goal. Notice how the most lethal attackers, Vela and Rossi, are at the top meaning that if a counterattack were to start, LAFC could easily find their most lethal attackers in the most advanced position.
Moreover, forwards Rossi and Rodriguez, when dropping back, always remained in the half-spaces. Their positioning in this space meant that when Bradley’s men obtained possession of the ball, two of their forwards in positioned in a space from where they could break the defensive line of the Galaxy.
Defending is only one part of counterattacking. Having a well-structured defence allowed the team to dispossess the LA Galaxy and start a counterattack. However, where LAFC truly shined was their speed and lethal power with their counterattacks.
Part of this tactic comes from the tactical profile of all of LAFC’s attackers. Vela has established himself as the skilled extraordinaire. He has the ability to break defences and get past any block of players. Additionally, he has the eye for through balls and creative passes that add another dimension to LAFC’s attacks.
Another vital person is Rossi. His willingness to run the channels and occupy the left or the right wings make him a tactical problem as he obviously can’t be man-marked. Just like his Latin counterpart, Rossi is very skilful and has enough pace to dust the best defenders.
An underrated part of the counter-attack was Rodriguez. Often not credited with success, his dribbling abilities rival that of Vela and his creative passing profile allows LAFC to exploit areas that would have been, previously, unavailable.
In the first half, Bradley placed Vela in the centre, Rossi on the right, and Rodriguez on the right. In that half, each player had a special role. Rodriguez’s major role was to use his dribbling and pace to create space for veteran players Vela and Rossi.
From there, Vela and Rossi would diverge, trying to either isolate themselves against a defender or aid each other in trying to achieve the goal. This type of interplay meant that LAFC would try to narrow their attacking profiles so that one of them could get isolated and this is exactly what happened for the first goal.
Here we see the narrow structure from LA Galaxy, as shown in yellow. Here, the attackers of LAFC position themselves to get isolated on the wings, which is what Vela and Rossi do in this picture. This movement creates enough space for Vela to dribble and score.
While the third goal came through open play, LAFC started to get nervous. Galaxy, somehow and someway, were climbing their back to fighting grounds. This is when Bradley put on Adama Diomande to boost his side’s counterattacks.
With the introduction of Diomande, replacing Rodriguez, Vela moved to the wings while the forward occupied the traditional number nine role.
This little tweak made LAFC’s counterattacks unbearable. Instead of now focusing on Vela, the attention of LA Galaxy moved to the centre attacker Diomande. This move allowed Rossi and Vela to work on the peripherals and isolate themselves against the defenders.
Indirectly, their wide positioning helped Diomande isolate himself against a central defender which allowed the forward to inject his own creativity into the game, an aspect which led to the fifth goal. His presence was undoubtedly important as his quick brace made sure that LA Galaxy would always be chasing the shadows.
Here we can see Diamonde’s effect on LAFC’s counterattacks. Here, Diamonde drives down the middle. The wingers stay very wide, making 1v1 situations on the wings. This pins those defenders down which mean that Diamonde is able to continue driving at the heart of the LA Galaxy defence and eventually, score a goal.
Quite possibly, this game was one of the best games in MLS history. The drama, the tension, the energy, and the passion was quite unmatched. This analysis showed why, for the first time, under-currents LAFC beat the aristocrats LA Galaxy.
Bradley and his men will be focused on one thing and one thing only: winning the MLS cup. They have dismantled just about every opponent and if there is anything this game showed, they are showing no signs of stopping.
LA Galaxy will be, quite reasonably, disappointed that they couldn’t translate their bright start to a persistent result. With talks of Zlatan leaving, it might be time for LA Galaxy to employ new tactics and a new strategy as right now, Zlatan has been the biggest reason why they’ve come this far.
However, the true winners of this game are the fans. The MLS once again proves why they are the league to watch, with an emerging passion for the beautiful game that is putting the other leagues to the heat.
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