Central Winger: What patterns of play key LA's playoff run?
The LA Galaxy and the Houston Dynamo, when all is said and done, will have played the maximum possible number of playoff games this postseason. Of the five games that LA have played so far, they have a record of 3-2-0 losses – not necessarily a stat line that would be expected out of a league finalist. In today's article, we will look at each of LA's matches and look a what patterns can be found in their system of play.
Knockout Round (Nov. 1): LA Galaxy 2, Vancouver Whitecaps 1
Despite conceding an early goal to Vancouver, the Galaxy dominated this game with nearly 70 percent of the possession – and that's clear by looking at the pure volume in the passing network. Todd Dunivant pushing mercilessly up the left flank undoubtedly caused the 'Caps problems as his average position is calculated to be just as far up the pitch as Landon Donovan. Also, Donovan's positional relationship with David Beckham is particularly interesting – as they operated in almost exactly the same space.
Western Conference Semifinals, 1st leg (Nov. 4): LA Galaxy 0, San Jose Earthquakes 1
Opting for a two-man central midfield with Sarvas and Juninho handed LA another possession victory (60 percent) which could only be undone by a late free kick from San Jose's Víctor Bernárdez. Opting to pull the dynamic duo of Beckham and Donovan apart (into separate striking and midfield roles) left the Galaxy impotent. Notice Dunivant was not able to push up the field to provide pressure in the attacking half – an important key to the Galaxy victory over Vancouver in the previous round.
Western Conference Semifinals, 2nd leg (Nov. 8): San Jose Earthquakes 1 - LA Galaxy 3
Going back to the successful one-man central midfield setup of Juninho and re-pairing Donovan and Beckham in free-flowing roles down the right flank, the Galaxy unloaded in the first half at Buck Shaw Stadium. The San Jose goal via Alan Gordon late in the second half was a mere consolation.
However, unlike the previous playoff games where LA had controlled a major portion of possession, they were significantly out-possessed in this match – only possessing the ball for 35 percent of the time. While it's clear looking at this graph that the Galaxy had not passed as much as in previous matches – this is an important statement match in terms of proving that they can score several goals even during matches where they don't see a majority of possession.
Western Conference Championship, 1st leg (Nov. 11): LA Galaxy 3, Seattle Sounders 0
Likely in reaction to the new opponent in Seattle – but still looking back at what has previously garnered success in the year's playoffs – the Galaxy deployed Christian Wilhelmsson along the right wing for the first time this postseason.
Alongside this change, LA kept Beckham in the free-roaming role on the advanced right side of midfield, moved Donovan into a strike partnership with Robbie Keane, and opted to have Sean Franklin overlap down the right wing instead of Dunivant on the left. These changes could not have gone much better – resulting in a resounding and insurmountable 3-0 lead going into the second leg in Seattle.
Western Conference Championship, 2nd leg (Nov. 18): Seattle Sounders 2, LA Galaxy 1
Coming into this match a 3-0 favorite makes this particular LA system tough to analyze. For the first time this postseason, no Galaxy player's average position was beyond 10 yards into the attacking half. Also, looking at the volume of the passing, it's clear the LA were pretty significantly out-possessed (the Galaxy had 38 percent possession). Obviously, this isn't the Galaxy team we will see against Houston on Dec. 1. There is not much tactical nous on display here – just a team grinding out a result.
Looking forward to MLS Cup, I have a handful of tactical points that may be worth keeping an eye on. The Donovan/Beckham relationship is not just a good storyline – it's an important tactical nuance of LA's system. There is nobody in the Western Conference that has found a solution to the pair when they are clicking, and Houston likely won't either.
Another key point to watch is the flow of possession – and how LA react to not possessing the ball for significant amounts of time. They have proven, particularly during the first San Jose leg, that they remain incredibly potent on counter-attacks.
Lastly, I will be keeping my eye on the outside backs – and which flank Bruce Arena decides to exploit. Both Dunivant and Franklin have proven to be incredibly valuable when providing pressure high up the flank – providing structure for the Galaxy attack to launch into the attacking third.