“Their counter-attacks killed us. Every time they would get the ball and counter it almost ended in the goal” – Jonathon Dos Santos, LA Galaxy
A damning but accurate assessment from the LA Galaxy midfielder, who saw his side run-ragged in a 2-1 home defeat to New England Revolution. Despite being heavy underdogs pre-game, this was no fluke, as New England were well drilled, explosive and clinical in transition earning them their first away win in 12 attempts.
In this tactical analysis, I review how New England reversed their travelling troubles and achieved an above average xG of 1.6 against second place in the league. I also analyse how now under Arena, New England have become better defensive outfit beating the likes of DC United and now LA.
LA started the game in a fluid 4-2-3-1 system, with Álvarez positioned slightly behind Ibrahimović, linking play between the lines. Dos Santos and his usual midfield partner in this shape, Corona, occupied the central midfield area. Leading goalscorer Ibrahimović started up front on his own and took his tally to 11 for the season with a trademark solo effort late on.
Arena opted for a 4-1-4-1 system, where he used Caicedo to marshall the spaces between the midfield and defence; precisely where Álvarez likes to position himself. This worked perfectly as the Columbian won 13 defensive duels in the match, more than any other New England player. Carles Gil started in his favoured central midfield position where he put in a man of the match performance for his constant passing threat. Penilla and Fagúndez started on the wings and offered the away side some width.
LA Galaxy started the match as expected, controlling the tempo using short passing in possession. Of the 685 passes the home side made, 607 were short, equating to 88.6%. This explains how their minimum possession at any one time was still 55%.
LA played out from the back splitting their two centre-backs and using Dos Santos and Corona as a double pivot in midfield. New England set out to prevent balls through the centre and used a tight midfield to block passing lanes into Álvarez in particular. LA utilised the space on the wings by pushing their full-backs forward.
Finding the space
New England were less focussed on pressing the ball high up. Instead, they lured LA onto them by dropping inside their own half when out of possession. New England’s use of a defensive midfielder reduced space in the central zones. Therefore, LA resorted to attacking in the lateral areas using the space afforded to them.
LA Galaxy found joy in bypassing the low block operated by New England by using the lateral spaces. Once the pass is played wide, New England’s shape is stretched as it moved across; this left space available for exploitation.
LA moved the ball to the wide areas which pulled across the New England right-back and right-midfielder. The whole structure doesn’t move across in unison creating a large area in the half-space which LA exploit. To prevent this Caicedo (highlighted) should have been more aware of the runner and moved out of the highly protected central zone and into the half-space.
LA were able to move the ball laterally and disrupt New England’s shape. The home side managed 26 crosses successful crosses and attempted 11 more which were blocked. This led to no success, however, as the final ball often lacked quality, which frustrated their big No.9.
Instead of dominating in chances, LA’s attacking fluidity and freedom played right into New England’s hands. The visitors dominated the chances and went in 1-0 ahead at the break.
Shrewd New England
As mentioned, New England were not interested in duelling for possession high up the pitch. Their defensive structure sat deep and allowed LA possession, only engaging when the ball travelled into their half. The away side’s average pass allowed per defensive action was 15.32, demonstrating their strategy of drawing the home side forward.
The robust 4-1-4-1 clogged the central areas and so the LA players drifted wide in attempts to find space. New England only engaged once their shape was set and the vertical lines were tight.
This defensive strategy led to multiple recoveries in their own half as opposed to higher up the pitch. As you can see below, New England’s strategy resulted in 57% of their recoveries occurring in the defensive third. Few recoveries occurred higher up the pitch as New England installed a low block in defensive transition rather than press.
This wasn’t just a park-the-bus job instructed by Arena, the defensive shape played a large part in how their offensive transition operated. LA committed men forward, so as soon as their attack broke down, spaces were there to be exploited.
Once an LA attack broke down, usually from an intercepted cross, they then had multiple players beyond the ball. New England positioned Gil, the best passer in the team, as the more offensive central midfielder. This was so he could use his range to find gaps in LA’s shape.
Once the ball is played to Gil, New England players burst into the space behind the high LA line. Gil then used the time and space available to produce a quality final pass. As a result of his positioning, Gil made 6 key passes and got two assists on the night.
In just four seconds, the ball moved directly through the phases, which resulted in a defence-splitting pass from Gil. There’s no coincidence then that New England were able to create 16 shots all from open play. The visitors were able to finish off these chances and claim a 2-1 victory.
New England can be proud of this away performance. They gave LA Galaxy a masterclass in strategic counter-attacking. They demonstrated how to create a solid base whilst defending, but on top of that use it as a platform to spring into attacks. As Dos Santos stated to in his post-match interview, LA were at the mercy of their opponents every time a counter occurred. The home side will have to become a lot savvier in future if they want to achieve their goal and close the gap on the league leaders.
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