MLS 2019: Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy - tactical preview tactics

The Allianz Field will be hosting LA Galaxy with the home team, Minnesota United, fighting in their first-ever Audi MLS Cup Playoffs. The Loons, who are the fourth in the seed, will be looking to beat Galaxy to advance further into the tournament.  For LA Galaxy, a win would take them to play against their bitter rivals, LAFC.

In this tactical preview, we will show you the tactics that each team will play in this hotly contested MLS matchup. Through tactical analysis, you’ll be able to see the game styles of each team. Moreover, we’ll show you specific analysis on how each team will approach the attack and defence phases.

Lineups

Adrian Paul Heath and his Minnesota side should line up in their custom 4-2-3-1. Guillermo Barros Schelotto and his LA Galaxy side might line up in their 4-2-3-1 to play through their strengths and mirror Minnesota’s formation. Moreover, there are no serious injuries for either team. 

Minnesota United seek to attack through the wings

One of Minnesota’s main methods for attacking is through their utilisation of wing play, in particular, the right-wing. This is seen as about 42% of Minnesota’s attacks come through the right-hand side.

As such, the question begs: how do Minnesota United attack through their wings?

There are three components to this tactic: target man movement, forward positioning, and ball movement.

The first component in attacking the wing consists of the target man movement. A concept of a target man is important because it allows the home team to directly affect the opposition defensive line. Normally, teams affect defensive opposition lines via the use of short passes and runners. However, using the target man yields an effective chance of disrupting the defensive line because most of the time, one or two centre-backs are always occupied with the target man.

Most of the time, teams in the MLS are positioned to play possession-based football. In traditional possession-based structures, defensive lines push up to support the rest of the team. The Loonies want to take advantage of this situation by having the target man drop deep.

This dropping deep attracts at least one centre-back because a free target man with lots of space can quickly turn around and disrupt the defensive line through an even more effective method: dribbling. As such, at least one centre-back has to drop with the target man. 

MLS 2019: Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy - tactical preview tactics
Here we see the benefits of the target man dropping deep

The forward drops deep to latch onto a pass from Minnesota. Moving from his original position, shown in orange, he attracts the accompanying defender with him. This movement also attracts two more opposition players. The attraction opens up spaces for the striker to pass to.

He could pass to the wings which have been opened, shown in blue, due to this movement. Furthermore, the target man can try for a third-man movement.

This would require him to pass to the nearby midfielders, shown in straight red lines. These midfielders can find better vantage points for passes and as such, free their teammates in more space.

With this move, the defensive line now has space and holes between its defensive players. However, how do Minnesota take advantage of this hole to advance their wing play? This is where the positioning of the attackers comes into play.

The attackers of Minnesota United are often situated narrowly and moreover, occupy the half-spaces of the pitch. This narrow positioning forces the opposition defence to also constrict their lines. This constriction is critical because now the defensive structure is very compact and narrow.

MLS 2019: Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy - tactical preview tactics
Here we see the tactical benefits of narrow positioning

In this picture, we see an example of how narrow positioning helps Minnesota track through the wings. The attackers in the box, whose position is shown in red, keep the defensive line’s structure, shown in grey, very narrow and compact. 

The narrow structure frees up space on the wings which the wide Loonies player can use. Furthermore, it forces the full-back to unwillingly come out to press the Minnesota player. This increases the space between the centre-back and full-back, shown in yellow, which is hurtful as a critical space is being undefended. 

This positioning creates space on the wings which the Loonies exploit. However, there must be a certain method behind exploiting the said space. Ineffective use of possession can result in defence accounting for the wide spaces.

This is where the final component of Minnesota’s attack comes into play. Once they have the ball, they have a knack for quickly moving the ball from one player to another. A fast ball movement is important because it constantly asks the opponent to restructure their formation and as a result, adjust to quickly changing movements.

By quickly whizzing the ball and concentrating the ball in one sphere of the pitch, the defence is inevitably forced to surround the area. This allows for Minnesota to utilise their excellent midfielders such as Osvaldo Alonso, who averages 4.2 accurate long balls per game, to play long switching plays.

Since the attackers had been narrow and the target man had been regularly coming deep to lay off and receive the ball, Minnesota have a player in a 1v1 situation with the opposition full-back with a disrupted defensive line.

This allows them to put the ball in dangerous areas and progressively advance the ball towards the goal.

LA Galaxy’s use of midfield trickery to attack 

LA Galaxy have scored the third-most goals in the MLS, bagging 58 in the process, and are only behind New York City FC and LAFC. As such, this points to the fact that something is ticking in the Galaxy’s attacking tactics.

The presence of the phenomenal Zlatan Ibrahimović is definitely a major factor. However the Great Swede can only score so many great goals. There is a tactical side to LA Galaxy’s attacking structure that allows the Swede to flourish. This is evident as Zlatan has scored 30 goals, only four behind league leader Carlos Vela.

So what is it that allows Galaxy and their Swedish star to tick?

One indicator of their attacks seems to concern their action zones. Out of the whole pitch, Galaxy spend 42% of their action in the midfield. In fact, LA Galaxy’s actions occur through a unique interaction between a midfield that is tiered.

Most of the times, LA Galaxy play a 4-2-3-1 with three attacking midfielders supporting Zlatan. The pivot at the bottom is there to aid the defence with support in build-up and getting by the pressure, but they also perform first of the duties for an LA Galaxy attack to start.

A pivot allows symmetry in the formation and as such, LA Galaxy, with the aid of the centre-backs and full-backs, play near the half-way line with the pivot. Both sides triangulate with a centre-back, central defensive midfielder, and full-back. This triangulation and horizontal play goes on for some time.

MLS 2019: Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy - tactical preview tactics
Here we see the pivot structure in the midfield.

Here we see the attacking structure of LA Galaxy in open play. The defensive line with centre-backs is supported by the pivot ahead of them. Moreover, the full-backs create triangles with the pivot and the defensive line.

Notice how the triangles allow LA Galaxy to bypass the first waves of pressure and allow LA Galaxy to progress the ball into the midfield with safety. 

The aim of these triangles and the use of pivot is to attract the midfield. By attracting the midfield by a sizeable distance, it creates a big gap between the opposition defence and midfield. As such, this requires constant interplay in the middle as to slowly attract the team.

This is why Galaxy play with a pivot. Not only does it allow them to attract the midfield but it also safeguards them against counterattacks as a pivot offers more protection to the defence than a single midfielder.

Moreover, Giovanni dos Santos is usually the one tasked with that job, as someone who plays 59.3 short passes per game, and Lletget, who plays 45 accurate short passes per game. Clearly, Galaxy have a talented duo of midfielders who are safe with the ball.

MLS 2019: Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy - tactical preview tactics
Here we see the space that can be created between the midfield.

This picture shows the results of midfield play. By constantly playing down the triangles between the central defensive midfielders, centre-backs, and full-backs, LA Galaxy are able to shift the midfield horizontally and vertically.

This combination creates a big space between the defensive and midfield line, as seen in grey. The player in this space can now cause trouble because if he gets the ball, he can turn and attack the defence.

Moreover, having big spaces in your formation makes you susceptible to through balls and lethal runs that can further weaken your defence. 

As such, while the pivot works the job of attracting the midfield, the front three work the job of exploiting the space and sometimes the helping the pivot in his job. 

With the lone forward occupying the defensive line, it is the three central attackers who occupy the space between the opposition midfield and defensive blocks. As such, when space is created between these two blocks, the three attackers are able to exploit the space in unique ways.

A common theme seems to be the attackers coming in narrow to open up space for the full-backs to attack. Another theme for the attackers is to widen their positions – in case of counterattacks – to stretch the opposition’s formation.

MLS 2019: Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy - tactical preview tactics
Here is the result of the forwards coming in narrow

Here the midfield was opened for Galaxy. The attacker in the far left makes a run inwards. This run attracts the opposition full-back in that direction which opens a passing lane for the Galaxy midfielder to pass to the overlapping full-back.

Subtle actions like these allow Galaxy to get into positions where they can feed Zlatan. In our case, this move results in crossing, something that Zlatan is an expert in turning into goals for him or his teammates.

In short, the front three’s dynamic movement creates trouble for the defence and as such, many spaces open up. Through here, the job of the attackers remains to feed the ball into Zlatan who can create magic in a small space.

Zlatan’s goal-scoring involvement is not a minor factor. The simple fact is that the Great Swede has contributed an astounding 64% of Galaxy’s goals. As such, stopping him is no easy feat, much less when he has a trio of attackers who support and create openings for him.

Minnesota’s Latin weapon

Many clubs boast of a key player who can turn games on its heads. LA Galaxy have Zlatan while the likes of LAFC have Carlos Vela. However, who is the key player for Minnesota? Going off of pure statistics, one can conclude Darwin Quintero, the veteran Colombian who has 15 goals and assists in 26 appearances.

While he does not boast some of the more prolific numbers like Zlatan, he does play a key role for Minnesota. This is partly because of Minnesota’s wastefulness. Both Galaxy and Minnesota create an equal number of chances, as seen by the fact that Galaxy create 10.9 key passes per game while Minnesota create 10.2.

Quintero adds an element of creativity and flair in Minnesota’s attacking and midfield structures. Through a pure statistic viewpoint, Quintero averages 2.1 key passes per game, only behind creative central defensive midfielder Jan Gregus. These key passes introduce the much-needed creativity which allows Minnesota to create chances from spontaneous scenarios.

Since these goal-scoring chances are not a product of the system but rather a product of the player, the Loonies can inject a dose of unpredictability and surprise in their attack, two components which can create flash moments of brilliance. 

One of Quintero’s biggest skillset lies in his dribbling. The astute Colombian attempts 5.9 dribbles per 90 minutes, having a completion rate of 49%. This success rate and attempt rate is only matched by some of the best players like Vela, Nani, and Cristian Pavón.

Quintero’s dribbling abilities allow Minnesota’s midfield a penetrative presence while also allowing a break from the regular pattern of attack. This penetration from the Colombian creates several tactical side-effects that aid the Loonies’ attack.

A major one is the creation of space in the opposition defensive line. As Quintero dribbles, he attracts players. These players leave their original positions which means that space is created. Moreover, seeing his rate of key passes, this means that Quintero is very skilled at passing the ball from his dribbling scenarios.

This ability allows Minnesota to get into situations which would not have been possible with the normal styles of play. This, in turn, gives their players extra space and time which converts into higher goal-scoring chances. 

Aside from dribbling, Quintero also possesses an amazing range of through balls and defence-splitting passes. These types of passes are important because they allow the Loonies another way to split the defensive line. This alternative method can result in 1v1s and allow the team to gain an advantage which would have been previously unavailable.

MLS 2019: Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy - tactical preview tactics
Here is an example of Quintero’s defence-splitting passing

Here we see Quintero receiving the ball in a deeper position. Despite this deep positioning, he plays a threading pass that splits the defensive line of the opposition team. 

MLS 2019: Minnesota United vs LA Galaxy - tactical preview tactics
Here is the end result of those passes.

This is the end result of his penetrating passes. The player is through on goal with the whole defensive line, shown in black, cleared in one single pass. Now, Minnesota can attack the space ahead, shown in black, and have high chances of scoring a goal.

Conclusion

The play-off between Minnesota and LA Galaxy will be a tightly contested one, as this analysis has shown. Both sides have reached respectable positions and have all players firing. LA Galaxy know that this play-off will not be an easy match-up. While the presence of Zlatan is formidable enough, Minnesota’s defence record, which is 16 goals better than LA Galaxy’s record, should provide a challenge to Galaxy.

Minnesota also know that it will be a cold and hard drawn-out fight. While Minnesota’s attack is excellent, it can be at fault for being wasteful. However, Heath can count on his star man Quintero to unlock LA Galaxy’s tactics and allow Minnesota to carve a win in their first-ever playoff.


artwork by @chapluana

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