A Place for Everything — except Donovan

We’ve seen plenty of a discussion over the years about where Landon Donovan plays best — and this year, more so than ever, the debate’s been put to the test as Donovan has been asked to play a number of positions for the LA Galaxy.

Last weekend the Galaxy played Sporting Kansas City. Donovan started atop the diamond, but after a sluggish first half was moved forward — and, not unlike the Portland game, this move rejuvenated a lagging team.

During the game, Ben Jata was especially critical of the decision to play Landon at the top of the diamond:

For all the criticism Landon’s move to the top of the diamond has faced, it has not been without its proponents. After the Galaxy’s loss to Sporting Kansas City, Matthew Doyle put out a fantastic article defending Bruce’s decision. That article’s here, and I highly recommend you read it, as it poses some thought-provoking points in regards to the future of the Galaxy attack.

After mulling over the question in my mind for several weeks, I decided to take a hard look at the numbers to see if they could be of any help in determining Landon’s best position for the Galaxy this year.

First, let’s take a look at a quote from assistant coach, Dave Sarachan, regarding why the staff likes Landon Donovan at the tip of the diamond:

“Playing that position, he’ll have more opportunities to make a final pass than a final shot” 
—Dave Sarachan

Landon Donovan has also been a fan of the move:

“I love it. I think our best games as a team, and my best games have come with me playing there. I think that the guys around me, like having me there. I like running from a deep position … and it’s good to have two good really good attacking players ahead of me that I can get the ball to.”

“I have to be able to get behind defenses and get in and take shots, but also create chances for my teammates.”
—Landon Donovan

Here we see from player and coach that among the top reasons for the move was the perception that it would increase chance creation. But is Donovan really the type of chance creator you want operating at the top of a diamond?

Luckily for us, this is easily measured. In soccer statistics, chance creation is calculated by adding assists (passes leading to a goal) and key passes (passes leading to a shot on goal). At first glance, Donovan is a no-brainer for the top of a diamond — he’s one of the league leaders in this particular stat.

Dig a little deeper, however, and you’ll discover that there is a great disparity between Donovan’s chance creation numbers at the top of a diamond versus his chance creation numbers playing at forward.

For the purposes of this article, I went back and measured how many minutes Landon Donovan has played both as a CAM and as a forward. I then looked at how many chances he was able to create at each position, and using those two numbers, calculated his chance creation per minute stat for both positions. With Donovan playing roughly 630 minutes at forward and 495 at the top of the diamond, I determined the data pool was large enough to generate reliable numbers for comparison. Here’s what I discovered.

Chance Creation Per Minute

Landon DonovanRobbie KeaneJavier Morales
As Center Attacking Mid:.016.039
As Forward:.035.019

Donovan creates over double the number of chances as a forward as he does at the top of the diamond (CAM). As a point of reference, I have included the same stats for elite players at each position.

Javier Morales, who many consider to be the best attacking midfielder in the league, creates .039 chances a minute. Donovan manages just .016 a minute when playing the same position.

Many consider Robbie Keane to be one of the best forwards in the league in terms of goal scoring and bringing other players into the attack. But Donovan actually creates .016 more chances a minute when playing forward than Keane does. As a forward, Donovan’s .035 chances per minute nearly matches the numbers of Javier Morales — a man who sees much more of the ball.

The data suggests that if the coaching staff truly believes playing atop of the diamond allows Donovan to produce more chances, they are mistaken. Perhaps with more time he can develop into a slightly better chance creator from this position. For now, it’s clearly not his best position in terms of that metric.

On Twitter, Matthew Doyle offered a different spin on Landon’s role in the Galaxy diamond:

There is certainly something to be said for increased ball movement, and there is no doubt that when Landon Donovan is playing at the top of the diamond a higher percentage of the Galaxy’s passes run through him. Take a look at the numbers:

Pass Usage

Landon DonovanRobbie Keane
As Center Attacking Mid:12%
As Forward:8.7%6.7%

As you can see, Donovan has far more of a passing impact on the game in terms of volume when he plays at the top of diamond. It is worth noting, however, that even at forward Donovan’s pass usage numbers are still greater than Keane’s.

Increased ball movement should lead to more opportunities for other players to create chances. For Doyle, the Galaxy’s main chance creator in this formation has to be Keane. Unfortunately Keane alone has been unable to fill the chance creation void left by Donovan’s departure from forward.

Team's Total Chance Creation per Minute

LA Galaxy, in total
With Donovan at CAM:.092
With Donovan at FWD:.138

The fundamental problem with this set up thus far is that Landon Donovan is so good at creating chances as a forward that taking him out of that position, regardless of how many more touches you are getting him, will have a negative impact on chance creation numbers. And if you recall from a previous table just how average Donovan is as an attacking midfielder – and just how good he is as a forward (he manages Javier Morales numbers, with fewer touches) – this certainly make sense.

My solution is simple. Instead of asking Robbie Keane to become a Donovan-like chance creator, or asking Donovan to manage Morales-level numbers at the top of the diamond, let’s continue to let Landon shine as a forward.

But that wouldn’t fully address some of the finer points made by Matthew Doyle, both in his article and on Twitter:

When I started to research this article my aim was to eliminate as much of the subjectivity about the Landon Donovan positioning dilemma as I could. Now, at the close of this piece, I find myself standing at the foot of yet another massively subjective question: Is the pairing of Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane dangerous enough?

Certainly it is the most dangerous pairing the Galaxy can currently put up at the moment, but Doyle’s argument is all about projected growth and future planning. Toward that end, does it make sense to strip the Galaxy of the incredible chance creation numbers that Landon Donovan generates up top in the hopes that Gyasi Zardes will develop into the forward many think he can be? Could the intermediate answer be a 4-3-3, or maybe a “best of both worlds” formation which sees Donovan, Keane and Zardes rotating into forward positions as needed?

Unfortunately the answers to these questions won’t be found in the numbers. The Galaxy find themselves in a year of transition. Yes, the fans will demand hardware, and to the club’s credit the team is still within range of winning the supporters shield. But at the end of the day, this is a team looking for answers — and Bruce Arena has the unenviable job of trying to find them.