Looking at the right numbers for the LA Galaxy is key to understanding the problem.
Soccer is a numbers game — but it’s easy to focus on the wrong numbers. A lot of people have talked about how the Galaxy absolutely dominated the game against San Jose and have used some of the following match stats to make their case.
Others have used these same stats to make the argument that stats are pointless.
Here is the thing though. 69.8% possession doesn’t imply domination of anything but possession. Soccer games are not won or lost on any single stat other than the score line, and certain stats must be framed by tactics, and vice versa. Tactics are a means to an end, and often sacrifices are made on one front to gain an advantage overall.
This is not to say that soccer is not a numbers game, because it very much still is. But if the numbers you are seeing do not back up the final outcome, more often than not you simply aren’t looking at the right numbers.
Prior to the game, I tweeted what I thought might be a numbers advantage for San Jose. Unlike Portland and Seattle who both play a 4-2-3-1, San Jose plays a 4-4-1-1, which means that their wings are in a much better position to track back. I used the following crude illustrations which I made on my phone to demonstrate my point.
On the left is an example of a play in the Seattle game where the LA Galaxy had a numbers advantage going forward, thanks to the poor marking of Marco Pappa and Lamar Neagel. As you can see, three distinct channels opened up as a result. On the right I imagined what a similar play would look like against San Jose, considering their wingers would be in a much better position to track back. With wingers tracking back, all the lanes are closed, making the Robbie Keane / Landon Donovan / Robbie Rogers triad far less likely to effectively unzip the backline.
In terms of numbers, I predicted that LA’s 7 v 6 advantage in the attack vs Portland and Seattle, could easily become a 7 v 8 disadvantage against San Jose.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem that the LA Galaxy faced all night. Here you can see an example of exactly what I predicted. The Galaxy are attacking with 7, and San Jose are defending with 8.
San Jose played two very tight lines, allowing LA to maintain loads of possession where it didn’t matter. When the ball got into the final third, however, San Jose forced the Galaxy wide. Remember that stat earliar — 40 crosses from LA compared to four from San Jose? This give you some context. The advantage was by design: San Jose intentionally put numbers behind the ball, allowing LA to have 69.8% of the possession, but in the final third they pushed the Galaxy wide — where they’re least dangerous. San Jose’s message to LA? You can cross the ball all night, if you’d like.
Landon Donovan is good at accelerating through channels. Rogers is good at creating channels for Donovan with his overlapping runs. But what happens when a team doesn’t bite, and simply allows Rogers to have that cross all night? Or what happens when there are enough numbers back to force both Donovan and Rogers wide?
The answer: lots and lots of crosses between the two of them. Something San Jose will take all day, considering the height of their center backs, and the fact that pinpoint cross accuracy has never been one of the finer elements of either Landon’s or Robbie’s game. Only 22% of their crosses were successful on the night.
Twenty-two. That’s a number worth worrying about.
So although LA was able to dominate possession, San Jose kept LA’s chance-creators out of the positions where they create chances best. This can be clearly seen if you compare the following chart of all the chances created in the game against San Jose…
…vs this chart of chances created against Portland.
As you can see, LA’s chance creation in and around the box was much greater in the game against Portland than against San Jose. By keeping numbers behind the ball and funneling the Galaxy attack wide, San Jose was able to cripple LA’s chance creation.
And with Donovan unable to cut inside as effectively, this limited Robbie Keane’s ability to drop back and combine with him. Look at where on the field his passes weren’t occurring: Donovan country.
This tactic was hugely successful for the Earthquakes, as the Galaxy were only able to score a single goal from open play — a goal which only occurred when LA was able to pull San Jose out of their shell and create a numbers advantage for themselves.
Donovan drops back and feeds the ball to a deep lying Juninho. This pulls San Jose out a bit, creating some space.
The ball goes to Rogers…
… who then feeds the ball to Zardes. Zardes one-times it to Landon who is shooting through the space circled earlier.
As Landon accelerates past San Jose’s midfielders, he it creates a 3 v 2 situation.
Donovan opts to pass it to Keane, who cuts into the box and takes a shot. Gyasi Zardes is able to pounce on the rebound and the Galaxy equalize. Here again we see that soccer is a numbers game, and LA was only able to find the back of the net by swinging the numbers in their favor.
The San Jose goals can also be easily explained in terms of numbers.
Marcelo Sarvas is advancing the ball, but proceeds to turn it over on a blocked shot. San Jose receives the ball with multiple LA players caught very high up the field.
Dan Gargan is chief among them and is unable to catch up to Shea Salinas. This puts Omar in a position where he is forced to manage both Salinas, who is making a vertical run towards him, and Wondolowski, who is making an angled run off his back shoulder.
Shea Salinas cuts inside, forcing Omar into a bad decision. Omar step to Salinas and allows Wondolowski to get in behind him.
This in turn causes Omar to play catch-up:
Wondolowski uses a beautiful cut back to exploit the fact that Omar is running full sprint to catch him.
After Wondolowski beats Omar, he proceeds to take a shot from an angle that he has no business scoring from. Penedo probably should have done better with it, but as you can see below, it’s possible that his view was shielded.
In LA’s system, Sarvas and Juninho are responsible for breaking up attacks that come through the middle. But on San Jose’s first goal Sarvas was caught up field, leaving the Quakes with a numbers advantage in the attack. This also occurred on San Jose’s second goal.
LA once again turns the ball over when Sarvas is up field, leaving Juninho alone on an island. This time, however, the blame falls squarely on Landon Donovan for his poor pass to Juninho, which San Jose intercepts.
As you can see in the picture below, when the ball is intercepted, both Sarvas and Juninho are caught up field, and Landon Donovan is caught flat footed in between Atiba Harris and Garcia.
Harris blows by Donovan to receive the ball in space. And since both Juninho and Sarvas are far up field, Garcia is able to trail the play completely unmarked.
Atiba Harris crosses the ball to Wondolowski, who lays it off to Garcia, who buries it in the back of the net. If the Galaxy didn’t learn the first time, hopefully they did the second: when your players are charging forward, you need to be careful with the ball.
While we are on the subject of the second goal, it is worth noting that Penedo got a hand a hand to the shot, but it bounced off and through. I bring this up because this highlights an aspect of Penedo’s game that needs improvement, and it is something the coaching staff have been working on since he signed.
Jaime Penedo is a very good keeper. No question about it. But his one Achilles heel is that he often reacts with only one hand, and the Garcia goal is a perfect example of this.
In frame 1, you can see Penedo as he sets up for the dive. Note his left arm is already in motion. In the second frame, we can tell that his right arm was not in motion during his set up, by its position on the right side of his body. Had he gotten to the ball with both hands, the likelihood of it bouncing through is much lower. Obviously this is all split second stuff; however, since this is a problem that the coaching staff have noted, I do not feel that questioning Penedo’s technique here is entirely unfair
Forget the table of stats I posted at the beginning of this article — or rather, consider the numbers in their proper context. If you ask me, via shrewd tactics San Jose won the true numbers game on the night. They always made sure they had more players behind the ball then the LA Galaxy had attacking, and made sure those men were positioned to keep LA away from the areas of the field where they’re most dangerous. By stymieing the Galaxy attack when LA was throwing numbers forward, San Jose put themselves in an excellent position to create a numbers advantage on the counter, which they did to great effect.
Was LA robbed of a goal on a soft call on Robbie Keane? Yes. But that’s soccer for ya. Were the LA Galaxy extremely lucky to get a goal on a corner kick, considering their ineptitude in that department? Most definitely.
Luck and random chance will always be a factor in soccer games, but to pin this tie on bad luck is unwise. SJ came into LA with a plan to limit the home team’s chances, and they executed that plan brilliantly. Yes, they sacrificed the wings. Yes, they sacrificed possession. But they did so for a reason. Those sacrifices put them in a position to truly compete against a team that is better than them. If you chalk it all up to luck, no lessons can be learned. If I was able to foresee the numbers advantage San Jose had in this game, so too should the players and coaches — and more importantly, they should recognize how to alter the attack against opponents who might try to do the same thing in the future.