Dear Lord, was that an ugly game. I’m not going to sugar coat it: last Sunday’s game against the Chicago Fire was probably the worst the Galaxy have looked all year. Bruce Arena and Robbie Keane can stand around blaming the sun or officiating all they want — but the real problem is being ignored. As soon as the Galaxy announced the starting lineups I knew what we were in for. I don’t claim to be a psychic. I just know an empty bucket when I see one.

What’s an empty bucket? Glad you asked.

Empty Bucket: A derisive term invented by members of the US Men’s National Team message board on BigSoccer, used to describe a 4-4-2 set up wherein both centermids fail to go forward thereby stagnating the attack.

The term gained popularity during a period under Bob Bradley, when neither Michael Bradley nor Ricardo Clark were making attacking runs. And it wasn’t until Michael Bradley developed into an attacking threat that the term died off.

For a tactical analyst there is nothing more frustrating than an empty bucket. Prior to the Galaxy’s game last Sunday against the Chicago Fire, I thought Bruce was smart enough to avoid one at all costs. I was wrong.

On June 1st, 2014, a day that will forever live in infamy, the LA Galaxy lined-up as follows:

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It was my nightmare scenario. Gone were the days of the tactically sophisticated fluid diamond, which had terrorized MLS defenses all year—replaced by two holding mids, Juninho and Walker, and acres of space in front of them, devoid of an attacking threat. It was the dreaded empty bucket.

The problem with the empty bucket is simple, and can be easily demonstrated in the stats for this game. The heat maps paint a clear picture of just how far back Juninho and Walker sat.

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For comparison, here is what a heat map looks like from Ishizaki, when he plays as point man in the diamond.

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The end result was a central pairing which had a combined distribution chart which looked like this. Take note of how few passes there are from above the center circle.

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When both center mids sit back, the right and left mid are left hanging when on the attack. Many people think Baggio had a bad game. While this is true, there is a good reason why: he had no central outlet moving forward. If you look at his completion chart, you can clearly see that he was forced to sit back in order to keep in contact with Walker and Juninho at the bottom of Bruce’s bucket.

Whenever he did move forward he was left isolated, as neither Juninho nor Walker made runs to support him. This is why nearly all of his passes in an advanced position were backwards:

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On the other side of the field, Ishizaki found himself in the same boat, although he had a few more forward passes in the final third because Donovan made more runs to the right to act as an outlet then Keane did for Baggio on the left:

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This is not to bag on Kenny Walker or Juninho as players — both are great holding mids. The problem here is the partnership. Neither has the prowess to anchor the attack in the final third.

The result in Chicago speaks for itself. The Galaxy managed only 53% possession. The tandem of Juninho and Walker combined for a grand total of zero shots and zero assists. Kenny Walker had zero key passes. Juninho managed only one. This had a ripple effect on our attack-minded players. Ishizaki and Husidic were hung out to dry on the wings, and both struggled as a result. Between the two they managed just two key passes and a single cross.

We can all but kiss our chances of winning a record fifth MLS Cup goodbye.

What could Bruce Arena have done instead? How about this: drop Walker, start Gyasi Zardes (on the right), and move Ishizaki to the top of a diamond. Bring back the dynamism that the diamond provides, and let Ishizaki link up with our star strikers. You’re going to see drastically different passing patterns — including some passes toward the opposing goal. Which always helps.

Hopefully Bruce will see the light. With Marcelo Sarvas’s return, he has a good opportunity to revert to the diamond. If the Galaxy opt for a flat four, with a Juninho and Sarvas in the middle, we can all but kiss our chances of winning a record fifth MLS Cup goodbye.

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