One of the most highly anticipated matchups in the MLS is El Trafico, the high-intensity derby of LAFC and LA Galaxy. One team has harboured some superstars while the other team has become successful as an expansion team and now aims to become a bigger club.
LAFC’s record in MLS has been nothing short of sensational. A total of 3 losses out of 27, along with a 19 point difference between their nearest revivals, has meant that LAFC have been cruising first place for a long time.
On the other hand, LA Galaxy, with a total of 11 losses, have been an on and off switch during this season. Despite the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimović and Cristian Pavón being in the squad, Galaxy have struggled to maintain good mom.
In this tactical analysis piece, we aim to showcase the tactics of both teams and an analysis of how and why LAFC drew to LA Galaxy.
Following the 4-0 demolition of San Jose Earthquakes, coach Bob Bradley made three changes to his squad. Central defender Tristan Blackmon was dropped for Walker Zimmerman. Central midfielder Lee Nguyen was dropped for the Canadian Mark-Anthony Kaye. Finally, attacker Joshua Pérez was replaced by striker Adama Diomande.
On the other side of Los Angeles, Guillermo Barros Schelotto made only one change to his side. Defender Daniel Steres, who had gotten a red card against Seattle Sounders, was replaced by Giancarlo González.
LA Galaxy look to counterattack behind LAFC’s fullbacks
Bradley’s team is one that is rooted in the possession and patient buildup. Utilizing a mixture of qualitative and quantitative advantage, LAFC have just about dismantled every team in the MLS. The Black and Gold have suffocated their opponents and used the likes of Carlos Vela to apply the finishing touches to take the win.
However, as in any team rooted in possession, LAFC are susceptible to counterattacks. In a normal pattern of play, possession-based teams send their fullbacks further upfield the pitch to support the midfield and assist the attack. This characteristic means that players have to be comfortable on the ball and in dealing with pressure.
Failure to do this leads to turnovers, something that catches possession-based teams off guard. Since their fullbacks are higher upfield, the central defenders are left to a situation in which they are numerically inferior.
Combine this characteristic with the fact that LAFC played with four at the back, a formation which only leaves two central defenders to deal with LA Galaxy’s attack, and all of a sudden, LAFC look vulnerable when they are in their possession stage.
However, there is a specific time and place where these turnovers need to happen as to ensure maximum efficiency. The turnovers need to happen when LAFC are comfortable with their possession and they are in the phase of building an attack in LA Galaxy’s half.
This situation ensures that the fullbacks are too high upfield to come back and aid the central defenders in time.
In addition to this, the turnovers need to happen in the middle of the pitch. This allows the LA Galaxy to connect with their main attacking instruments immediately.
This is exactly what happened time and time again, LA Galaxy used trigger-associated pressing to force turnovers in the centre of the pitch. This strategy was evidently successful as Bob Bradley’s team lost the ball 24 times.
As one can see in this picture, the majority of the losses of possession are situated in a clump in the centre of the pitch. This location of losses of possession allowed LA Galaxy to start quick counterattacks and hurt LAFC.
The pressing that LA Galaxy utilized was a mid-block system with a formation of a 4-4-2 which would shift into a 4-5-1. This block of five players midfield served to neutralize some of LAFC’s midfield attacking threat.
The specific pressing structure ensured that LA Galaxy had a good chance at counterattacking. One of the pressing structures, which was a trigger, was when LAFC passed sideways or passed backwards.
Whenever this movement happened, one man from the midfield would step forward and press the ball carrier. This stepping motion is important because it transfers one player from the midfield line to the attacking line. This means that if the dispossession occurs, LAFC automatically have an extra person in the dispossession.
Aside from the structural benefits, the player stepping up puts the ball carrier in pressure which might lead to a misplaced pass, something which lead to Galaxy’s first goal.
In this picture, we can see that LA Galaxy midfielder steps to press the LAFC midfielder. This movement upfield places three LA Galaxy attackers near the pressing situation. If LAFC lose the ball here, then the Galaxy will have a trio of attackers to initiate a deadly counterattack.
Moreover, when doing these counterattacks, LA Galaxy made sure to attack the spaces left behind by LAFC’s fullbacks. This allowed them to stretch the defence even more and create space for them to attack the goal.
Here LA Galaxy catch LAFC on the ball and immediately start a counterattack. Notice how the two central defenders are isolated against the counterattack. This 2v2 situation is disadvantageous to LAFC as the absence of the fullbacks leaves huge spaces (shown in yellow) behind them.
The ball carrier and accompanying teammate can exploit these passes with either a pass to the right or a dribble into space on the left.
When these counterattacks would happen, the main focus of the attack would be Ibrahimović. His tall stature and his excellent passing abilities make him an ideal target man. However, Pavon’s presence meant that Ibrahimović was involved more in wall passes and linkup play, something which allowed Ibrahimović to score goals.
Here we see that Pavon has moved into a central position. As such, he attracts the centre block of defenders towards him. At that exact moment, Ibrahimovic starts a diagonal run that goes to space on the left. This movement results in a goal as Ibrahimović has enough time and space to locate his target.
Another thing of importance is that the blue spaces on the left and right represent how space can be created when the fullbacks come back in a hurry. Hurried positioning leaves space on both flanks which could also be exploited by the Galaxy.
LAFC utilize unique buildup tactic to open LA Galaxy
LAFC’s use of buildup is commonplace among their possession-based tactics.
The normal benefits of buildup are known. It allows the possession-based team to bypass the opposition’s forward press while creating a scenario where space and holes are created in the opposition’s structure.
However, LAFC tweaked their buildup pattern slightly to allow for more penetration. In the buildup, as standard, LAFC split their centrebacks and positioned their fullbacks higher up. LA Galaxy responded with a 4-2-3-1 press with Zlatan leading the charge.
The tweak in LAFC’s buildup was dropping the left fullback into the defensive line. These tweaks achieved two benefits that hurt the Galaxy.
The first one is that the action of the fullback dropping down attracted the Galaxy press deeper into LAFC. This brought the midfield block of three deeper into the half. However, this action was not complemented by an upward movement of the midfield pivot.
In essence, Galaxy ended up not pressing as a block, instead of separating into lines of the press that were uncoordinated. This created space in the centre of the pitch which was then occupied by the likes of Blessing and Vela.
Here we can see that the fullback drops deep to the defensive line of LAFC. This defensive line combines with the lone midfielder in the centre. As soon as the fullback receives the ball, two players are attracted to him: the forward closest to him and the midfielder from the midfield block. These movements work to draw the Galaxy deeper into the half.
These movements will leave space behind them which will be attracted by LAFC through short passes.
Here is the end result of the pressing. LAFC, with short passes, have created space between the midfield line and the attack line. This space is occupied by Latif Blessing who can turn and attack the space in front of him.
Additionally note that since Blessing has plenty of space to work in, it will only take one pass to break the midfield line. As such, via this, LAFC will have broken two pressing blocks with two simple passes, allowing them to attack with space and time. Due to this, LAFC can increase the potency of their buildup as their attacking play is now starting in the centre of the pitch,
Another effect of this buildup was the concentration of the play on one side of the play. With a fullback joining the forays of buildup, the Galaxy press was drawn to that side. As such, when LAFC got out of the press, they would find themselves congested on the left-hand side.
In a display of tactical nous, Vela would stay wide. This forced the right fullback of Galaxy to stay with the Mexican talisman. This, in turn, created a gap between the central defender and the fullback, a space that was exploited by LAFC’s midfielders. In essence, the buildup allowed LAFC to attack through their most dangerous attacker, a sign that the attacking structure was working.
In this example, the buildup and continued play from LAFC has congested the LA Galaxy team into a compact space (as shown in blue). Vela has positioned himself very wide which has created a gap between the centreback and the fullback (shown in blue). This gap, in turn, creates space (shown in yellow) which can now be occupied by the nearby Diamande.
As one can imagine, the opportunities are endless if space is occupied. Since Vela occupies the fullback, the ball carrier has the license to directly attack the goal. Vela’s presence also means that the ball carrier can exchange short interchanges allowing him to be set free of the defensive line.
This buildup strategy also allowed Vela to participate in 1v1s with the fullback, a scenario that Vela is almost always going to win while stretching the LA Galaxy defence. In fact, this strategy of condensing play to free Vela was what lead to the third goal, scored by the talisman himself.
Latif Blessing provides a blessing for LAFC
One of El Trafico’s standout performers was Latif Blessing. Indeed a blessing to LAFC, Blessing added another component to LAFC that they strongly needed.
After a blistering start by LA Galaxy in which they scored three goals in the span of 15 minutes, LAFC were looking uncharacteristically out of shape. A sense of nervousness pervaded the Black and Gold, however, Blessing’s presence calmed the team down.
Bradley had moved the Ghanian midfielder upfield, nearer to the front three. The reason for doing this becomes apparent when you see the tactical qualities Blessing brings. In a match where both teams recorded high numbers of dispossessions, Blessing brought the retention of the ball back to LAFC.
Completing 9 dribbles, the most alongside rival Pavon, Blessing started attacking moves and looked to catalyze The Black and Gold’s attack. In fact, Blessing had a success rate of 56%, the highest in the game alongside Pavon, and helped disrupt LA Galaxy’s structure time and time again.
Not only did Blessing help start some of LAFC’s attacking movements, but he also was a critical force in stopping LA Galaxy’s attack progressions. Blessing made the second-highest interceptions, 3, all of which came in his own half. No other LAFC player came close to this statistic.
One of Blessing’s tactical roles was to make barging runs towards the goal. This is best evidenced by the fact that out of the three Los Angeles midfielders, Blessing had the most touches inside the box (8), two of which included goals.
The frequency and positioning of these late runs were equally as important. While the likes of Diego Rossi and Vela held up the ball, Blessing’s runs would break the defensive structure that LA Galaxy had made. These runs made an otherwise organized defensive line disorganized, a characteristic that helped LAFC to keep threatening the goal.
Aside from disorganizing Galaxy’s defence, Blessing also added a goal threat. His runs would require Galaxy defenders to move their sluggish legs a bit more and as such, Blessing had many opportunities where he could have had another goal.
In this picture, Blessing, due to his movement and positioning, is able to receive the ball in the central area. He’s almost acting as a second striker which pulls the defenders near him. This, in turn, vacates space on the left and right. Blessing has the chance to set either of two attackers free and assist in a goal.
Situations like these often transpired due to Blessing’s work rate and willingness to contribute to attacks Both of these qualities helped LAFC assert dominance in the midfield and allow Bradley’s team to slowly edge into the game and eventually, carve out a draw.
The analysis has shown that this game was much more tactical than it seemed.
For the coaches, one will breathe a sigh of relief while the other will be sure to improve his team’s structure. Bradley will be proud of his team’s attitude to comeback while doing it in the style that Bradley wants. He will, however, have worries of his team to be attacked on the counter.
On the other side of Los Angeles, Schelotto will have some serious thinking to do. Despite having star talents, his team crumbled after their 3-1 victory. The team’s inability to hold their will in the midfield will certainly concern the Argentinian manager
However a major positive of this game was the pure match value. Emotion, a comeback, a local derby, the passion, it was all there to be seen in El Trafico. This match was an indicator of the action and the drama the Major League Soccer will have for us in the future.
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