Photo Courtesy of LA Galaxy

Analysis: Vanney, the defensive coordinator


Today we are looking at how Greg Vanney’s Toronto FC defenses have fared throughout the years to try to determine how the LA Galaxy might defend. As a preface, there is limited public data to work with from 2014-17. Thus, most of the substantive analysis will come from 2018-20. In addition, we will be using per 90 stats for comparative reasons due to the shortened 2020 season and per-possession stats to normalize data due to uneven defensive opportunities.1

From 2014-2020, Vanney’s tenure saw two increases in goals against per 90 (GA90) in 2015 from 1.53 to 1.65 (from 15th ranking out of 19 teams to 18th out of 20), and in 2018 from 1.19 to 1.88 (2nd out of 22 to 17th out of 23). However, from 2018-2020 his defenses saw a decrease in expected goals against per 90 (xGA90) from 1.62 to 1.17 (15th/23 to 7th/26). Comparing the two we see that Vanney’s defenses improved their GA/xGA from 1.16 to 0.97 (21st/23 to 8th/26). As a reference, 1.00 is average and anything less than 1.00 means the defense is allowing fewer goals than expected, which is a sign of a good defensive team.2 And lastly, we see that opponents’ expected assists per 90 (xA90) have consistently gone down from 1.13 to 0.75 (17th/23 to 3rd/26). While it’s very concerning to see such a large drop in some of these numbers from 2017 to 2018, the positive here is that there was marked improvement from 2018 to 2020, and generally overall.

Last year, the Galaxy averaged a 2.09 GA90 (25th/26) and 1.73 xGA90 (24th/26). New faces like Jonathan Bond, Jorge Villafana, Derrick Williams, and Samuel Grandsir to go along with returning ones like Julian Araujo, Daniel Steres, Jonathan Dos Santos, Sebastian Lletget, and Javier Hernandez will see a clear team defensive scheme put in place to limit the chances and ultimately, the goals that go in. Drawing from his playing past, Vanney has stressed that it will be incumbent that not just five or six players defend, but rather all eleven play together as one cohesive unit when defending.

Table. GA90, xGA90, GA/xGA, and xA90 Rankings per Year from 2014 to 2020.

Vanney’s teams have limited their opponents possession from 2017 to 2020 – from 49.4% to 45.5% (9th/20 to 5th/26). They were able to accomplish this in large part due to their offense being a large contributor to their defense. For comparison, the Galaxy’s 2020 opponents averaged 55.0% possession.

Overall from 2018-2020, Vanney’s defenses had a below-average pressing per possession ranking of 15th. However, they were effective and had an above-average pressing success rate per possession ranking of 10th (not shown in the table below).

Most of the pressing occurred in the attacking third where his teams had an average ranking of 10th, an average ranking of 12th in the middle third, and an average ranking of 18th in their own defensive third. From this, we can infer that most of their pressing was in the middle and attacking thirds of play, which indicates that his teams pressed very heavily and quickly as soon as they lost the ball and if unsuccessful, presumably dropped off into a middle or low defensive block. Over time, while Vanney’s defenses pressed less, they were, however, efficient and smart in the areas tey chose to press, evident of their high defensive pressing per possession ranking in 2020 (in blue).

In LA, it starts at the top with a re-energized Hernandez, along with Lletget, Grandsir, and one more winger/wide-midfielder to immediately apply pressure should they lose possession in order to regain the ball in dangerous areas. Should that not work, we could then see the forward line drop off, and allow the team to regain their defensive shape and apply heavy pressure in the defensive third. Vanney will have players with big engines, but will ask them to be efficient with their energy and only press at opportune moments or in specific areas of the field.

Table. Pressing per Possession Rankings for Attack, Middle, and Defensive Thirds.

The legendary AC Milan defender Paolo Maldini once said, “If I have to make a tackle then I have already made a mistake.” Tackling is often viewed as a last-ditch effort – at a minimum – to disrupt the attacking player in possession, whereby defensive positioning is highly valued. It’s no coincidence that from 2018-2020 Vanney’s teams consistently committed few tackles with an average ranking of 8th in fewest tackles committed. Most of their tackling occurred in the attacking third with an average ranking of 6th, followed by the middle third with an average ranking of 13th, and lastly the defensive third with an average ranking of 15th. If we compare these rankings with the previous pressing rankings, we continue to see a pattern where Vanney’s teams make a big effort in trying to regain possession by not only applying pressure, but also tackling teams in the attacking and middle thirds of the field, which is something we could see in LA.

The Galaxy were certainly one of the higher tackling teams last year (4th most) due to a poor defensive scheme, but we anticipate seeing their numbers decline as Vanney implements his defensive principles of play, and a better team-defensive scheme that relies on defensive positioning and team shape rather than individual ability.

Table. Tackling per Possession Rankings for Attacking, Middle, and Defensive Thirds.

We can also analyze defenses by not only the stats they accumulate, but also by their opponents’ offensive stats that they are able to limit. From 2018-2020, his teams had an average ranking of 9th in limiting opponents’ key passes per possession (KP/poss; key passes are passes that lead directly to a shot), 10th for opponents’ passes into the final third of the field (1/3 per poss), 7th for opponents’ passes into the penalty area (PPA/poss), and 9th for through balls per possession (TB/poss). With the exception of opponents’ final third passing, all of their defensive rankings are trending upward. While opponents have scored less against Vanney’s defenses as shown above, opponents have been able to pass better against them. However, this appears to be a tradeoff that he is willing to accept. In addition, they ranked 7th for opponents’ crosses and 9th for opponents’ crosses into the penalty area, showing how Vanney’s defenses do a good job of pushing the action to the wings and forcing teams to play low-percentage passes (not shown). For Galaxy fans used to seeing their offenses putting in cross after cross, it will be a much more welcome sight to see opponents doing the crossing.

Table. Opponents’ per Possession Passing for KP, ⅓, PPA, and TB.

Collectively, all these data points can be indicative of the nuances and intricacies of defensive actions that cannot be accounted for. Defensive shape or individual player positioning are examples of defensive actions that are not statistically measured, but can play a large role in limiting the opponent’s offense. It will be up to Vanney and his staff to get the team to play to their defensive strengths. And it will be up to the players to ensure that none of these key passing statistics come from the center of the field and rather from the wings. Vanney will presumably task Hernandez and Lletget to funnel the action wide, clog the center with the wingers (Grandsir and another winger) and midfielders (Dos Santos and a CDM), use the midfield and defensive lines (Villafana, WIlliams, Steres, and Araujo) to set traps, and regain possession.

1 Per 90 stats means measurements per 90 minutes or one full game.
1 Teams that have fewer ball possession, will tend to play more defense and have the ability to accumulate a higher number of defensive actions and statistics. Thus, per possession stats are an attempt to normalize defensive actions.
2 xA (expected assists) measures the probability that a pass will become an assist. It does not necessarily rely on a shot actually being taken. Every pass in a game is assigned a value. It takes into account the probability that the average player would score as a result of the pass.