Over the last few weeks, the LA Galaxy have employed a diamond formation that has maximized possession, confused defenders, and led to an uptick in goal scoring chances. Unlike most diamond formations, however, the Galaxy have been playing without a true target forward. Instead they’ve opted for a trio of attackers – Robbie Keane, Landon Donovan, and Stefan Ishizaki – whose constant drifting and swapping has wreaked havoc on defenses by luring marking backs out of position and creating space for one another.
All of this changed, however, in last week’s road game against the Colorado Rapids. With Marcelo Sarvas ruled out due to injury, Bruce Arena opted to deploy Rob Friend up top and move Landon Donovan to right mid. The addition of a true target forward completely changed the dynamic of this formation, and while I would not call the results disastrous, as the Galaxy created plenty of goal scoring chances, I do feel that the Galaxy attack lost a bit of its bite. The question is not just what went wrong. It’s also: how can LA fix it?
Rob Friend is a classic number 9 target forward. His positioning on the field is near constant, firmly planted in front of the two center backs. One of his biggest roles is to occupy them centrally thereby creating space underneath him for Donovan, Keane, and Ishizaki to operate in. This is a radically different attacking dynamic than that of previous weeks when the Donovan and Keane forward pairing looked to pull centerbacks out of position with their movement. This difference can be clearly seen in the heat maps.
Consider the case of Robbie Keane. On the left is his heat map from the Galaxy’s home game against Vancouver. On the right is his heat map from last Saturday’s game vs Colorado. As you can see, Keane spent most of the game playing directly under Rob Friend, whereas in previous games he was free to roam all over the pitch. In doing so he would draw markers with him and create space for Ishizaki and Donovan to run into.
Now consider the case of Landon Donovan. Here is a heat map comparison of the same two games. Although Landon did his fair share of moving in both games, you will notice that by being played at right mid in the Colorado game his movement was restricted to the right and center, whereas in previous games as a forward, Landon Donovan was able to drift to the left hand side as well.
This in turn limited Ishizaki’s ability to move to the right, as I have marked below.
After reviewing the heat charts, it is hard to argue that the presence of Rob Friend was not a detriment to the attacking fluidity of the Galaxy. Not only did his rigid positioning have a ripple effect throughout the formation, but the Galaxy attack became overly dependent on using him as an outlet. Nearly every Galaxy attack started with an aerial ball to Friend with the hopes that his knockdown would put our attackers in an advantageous position. In short, it was all just a little bit too predictable from the Galaxy.
With Sarvas out for the next few weeks, I feel the Galaxy have but two courses of action:
STAY THE COURSE
There is an inherent danger in drawing too much from a single game. Despite everything I have said about the rigidity of this formation, there is nothing inherently wrong with playing the diamond with a target forward. One need only look at the success of Real Salt Lake and the way they play Álvaro Saborio, as evidence of this. After all, the Galaxy did create plenty of goal scoring opportunities and did manage to maintain a lion share of the possession, so the glimmer of hope is right there in front of us. It may take a few games to master, but when it’s all said and done, having two viable and proven formations may become valuable come playoff time.
MOVE DONOVAN UP TOP
Option number 2 is to return to playing Donovan as a forward. It’s hard to deny that Donovan has played his best soccer of late at the forward position. Even in games where he is deployed at right mid, such as the Colorado game, the stats indicate that the majority of his key passes have come from a central position. Instead of playing Donovan at right mid and asking him to pick his spots to drift inside where he is most effective, why not just start him there in the first place? The trick is finding a replacement for Marcelo Sarvas at right mid — viable midfield options are hard to come by on the Galaxy bench.
That being said, I do think there is a logical, but radical, solution to the problem. Call me crazy, but I think this is time for Galaxy II midfielder Rafael Garcia to shine. Between Ishizaki, Husidic and Sarvas, Sarvas was the midfielder who tracked back the most and pinched in centrally the most in order to help out Juninho. Although Bruce has better attacking options on the bench, I feel Garcia is a better candidate for the Sarvas role, given his work rate and defensive bite. Although the Galaxy may lose a little on the right hand side of the attack, the net gain of playing Donovan at forward would more than make up for this loss of production.
If I had to guess, I think Bruce will opt for option one, and if he does want to return Donovan to forward, I think we will most likely see Gyasi Zardes deployed at right mid. Regardless of what Bruce chooses to do, all eyes will be firmly fixed on the team this Sunday to see if they can figure things out offensively in the game against Portland.