On Saturday the LA Galaxy returned to a shape the likes of which we haven’t really seen since their early season rout of Chinvas USA — a staggered 4-4-2 diamond with Ishizaki pushing so far up the field with such regularity that, in attack, it was closer to a 4-3-3. Using opta data, whoscored.com created the following formational chart:
For comparison, here is how we looked against Chivas earlier in the season:
The biggest difference between the two is the position of Landon Donovan. In the Chivas USA game, Landon played as a striker — while in the San Jose game, despite being listed atop the diamond, he ended up playing as a center mid.
And herein lies the problem. By playing Gyasi Zardes as a forward and Landon at the top of the quote-unquote diamond against a compact Earthquakes team, Landon was essentially tied down next to Sarvas and had a very little impact on the LA Galaxy attack.
Now it’s all well and good to assume that Landon will simply pick the right moments to push forward and make a difference, but against a 4-5-1 those times will be limited — especially if the front three are either not rotating or not opening channels for him to run into.
Here is a chart of all the in-game events involving Landon Donovan, mapped on the field into thirds:
As you can see, Landon Donovan spent most of the game in the middle third. As I often tell my friends, Landon Donovan is a trequartista, not an attacking midfielder, and although these two positions overlap in many ways they are by no means the same thing. Landon Donovan is best in short link up play, and his play making abilities are very much tied to final third.
For evidence of this, here is a chart mapping Donovan’s cumulative chance creation numbers to points of pass origination on the field:
As evidence for his inability to create chances against San Jose from deeper positions, here is a map of all his completed passes in the game. Notice how few are into the final third. Of the Galaxy’s 11 created chances, Landon only created one:
If you play Landon in the midfield, you do so at your own peril — because there are a number of factors that could prevent him from getting forward into the final third where he is so deadly. In the game against San Jose it was a combination of a lack of player rotation, Gyasi Zardes not opening up the channels for Donovan to run into, Landon’s own defensive responsibilities (caused by San Jose playing 5 men in the midfield), and Donovan not being 100%, which kept him tethered to the middle third.
One of the biggest obstacles for Landon was a crowded attacking three up top. In particular, Gyasi Zardes was far too positionally static. Sure he ran up and down the field, and occasionally made runs outside, but for the vast majority of the game he hunkered down centrally in a very traditional center forward way. As I noted in my tactical breakdown of the Colorado game, in which Rob Friend did the very same thing, this limits player rotation at the top. Consider the following three heat maps.
A fluid front 3 is dictated by the movements of the middle man, and in this game, Gyasi stayed centrally:
This had a ripple effect on Robbie Keane and Stefan Ishizaki, who stuck to their sides:
This had the two fold effect that channels were not being opened for Landon to run into, nor was he able to positionally swap with either Keane or Ishizaki:
Three’s company, four’s a crowd — and Landon was the odd man out. Even when Gyasi was making the runs wide, the general intelligence of his runs left a little something to be desired.
Consider the following breakaway. LA has 3 men running at 3 defenders. Keane is dribbling up the gut in order to occupy the two center backs, giving Landon and Gyasi each a clear channel to play with. Landon is eyeing the right channel and continues his run expecting both center backs to be occupied by Keane. For this to work Gyasi Zardes needs to make the smart outside run, forcing the right back to follow and further isolating the two center backs against Keane — this would allow Donovan to shoot through the right channel.
Gyasi, unfortunately, makes a different run.
Zardes takes a very curious turn inside, thus closing the left channel, allowing for the right back to support the right center back covering Keane. This, in turn, allows the left center back to eventually cut off Landon. The sequence ends in a little more than a rather non-threatening shot from Robbie Keane.
That’s not to say that playing Gyasi Zardes as a forward completely ruins the LA Galaxy attack. Far from it: Gyasi gives the Galaxy two bunker-busting elements that the team sorely lacks.
First, aerial ability — Gyasi Zardes has scored more goals with his head than his feet this year, and for a team that struggles against packed midfields, this is no small revelation. Consider the following moment from this Saturday:
The Earthquakes have a numerical advantage and are positioned well — but Gargan manages to create a goal scoring opportunity for Zardes with a simple and well placed cross to the back post. Despite being marked by two defenders, Gyasi wins the header, even if he doesn’t quite put it on frame.
Secondly, Gyasi has speed. In soccer, one of the best ways to create space between the midfield and the defense is to have a speedsters stretch a defense. Consider the juicy scenario below:
Gyasi’s ability to run onto a long ball from Gargan leaves Robbie Keane and Landon Donovan with acres of space to play with.
For Bruce Arena the question now becomes: “How do we combine all these elements? How do we get Gyasi onto the field and also put Landon into a dangerous position?”
Here’s my suggestion: a staggered diamond, with a rotating top four.
Put Donovan back up top with Keane and put Zardes on the left hand side of the diamond. Zardes is perfectly capable of playing a more pinched in midfield role, as his positioning versus Dallas suggests, which means the Galaxy can once again turn to the diamond possession game.
Gyasi’s ability to bolt down the wing would also be a new wrinkle to the diamond, especially with Robbie Rogers behind him who can push up and fill the gap in the diamond. Playing Zardes at left mid in the diamond, also allows for easy rotation into a forward position on the post, especially when Keane checks into the midfield to receive a ball, as he often does.
If Donovan drifts right, as he tends to, both Zardes and Keane can make diagonal runs on the posts and Ishizaki can make a trailing run into the box. Playing Ishizaki at attacking mid gives him the ability to make runs to the right hand side from a central position. This is exactly the kind of movement we saw from him against Vancouver when he pulled Jay Demerit to the right and then sent in a perfectly placed cross to Robbie Keane in the vacated space.
Marcelo Sarvas is key to the lineup because we need a pinched-in right mid who is both comfortable sending balls into the box, and doing the dirty work of defending the right hand side.
In short, you get all the benefits of the Donovan/Keane/Ishizaki rotating triangle, with the added bonus of allowing Zardes to position himself on the post.
The only weakness I can see from this set up is that it could leave Juninho isolated on defense and, if the opposition is especially dangerous on the left hand side, taking away his support from Sarvas. This is easily remedied with a substitution of Baggio Husidic or Kenny Walker.
The bottom line is: the LA Galaxy have to find a way to get all of their attacking players into their best positions. If played correctly, this system would let them do exactly that.