Armchair Analyst: Getting back to the basics and other thoughts about the LA Galaxy

I just wrote about the LA Galaxy a couple of weeks ago, so I'm maybe overdoing it a bit here. They're a pretty irresistable story, though – from 2008 through 2013, they were one of the league's two most consistent and predictable teams, yet this year they're tinkering with the lineup and formation on almost a weekly basis. It's been pretty fascinating to watch Bruce Arena retool this team on the fly.

Here a few thoughts from Saturday's 3-1 win over the Portland Timbers:


1. Everyone Where They're Comfortable

The big change for this year's Galaxy has been the diamond midfield, which Arena toyed with as early as March for defensive purposes. Putting Landon Donovan or Stefan Ishizaki at the point of the diamond was an easy and fairly effective way to harass opposition d-mids, guys like Kyle Beckerman or Agustin Pelletieri, who start so many strings of possession with quick, accurate outlets.

I think the diamond still has its place in the LA arsenal, but over the last couple of weeks, Arena has gone back to a more basic 4-4-2, and suddenly LA look a lot like the team that won back-to-back MLS Cups in 2011 and 2012. They're able to spread the field, overload either centrally or on the wing, and stretch out the opposition defense before help can get there.

Robbie Keane said it afterward on NBC: "We've gone back to a formation that works best for everyone."

He's certainly included in that, as are Donovan and Robbie Rogers (we'll get to that in a minute), but perhaps most important is the central midfield of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas. When they're at their best the 4-4-2 is really a 4-1-3-2 where the outside guys in the "3" (Donovan & Ishizaki) are pushed up higher than the central guy in the 3 (Sarvas), while Juninho sits as the d-mid. It's shaped like a "Y" rather than a flat line.

Going out that way has helped LA's spacing a bunch, allowing them to build some pretty awesome team goals:

They've also gotten better at using possession to kill off the game:


2. The Best Defense

Maybe Arena was just silly for ever trying to go away from the Omar Gonzalez/A.J. DeLaGarza central defensive pairing. I get why he did it – the Galaxy needed to get a little extra size in there to defend on restarts, and DeLaGarza is just as good at right back as he is at center back – but when those two guys are together, they make all of LA both more solid defensively and more dangerous going forward.

First, the obvious part:

And second, the numbers:

That's now up to 29-8-13 after this week's wins over Seattle and Portland.

Think of it this way: Gonzalez struggles most when isolated, trying to defend 1-v-1 in space. DeLaGarza struggles most when trying to cut out crosses against bigger players. Everybody knows this.

Yet ... how many times have we seen Gonzalez defending 1-v-1 in space over the last 180 minutes? And how about A.J. cutting out crosses?

I can think of one time for each, and that's after two games against two of the best and smartest attacking teams in the league. LA's defensive chemistry is such that their individual weaknesses are only rarely exposed, even when – on paper – they should be fatal.


3. Landon & Robbie on the Left

One of the other big reasons for the diamond was to hide Donovan defensively, and make it so that he doesn't have to work quite as hard tracking back. He still has the jets when he needs them – if you watch the replay of the 3-0 win over Seattle you'll see him run DeAndre Yedlin down twice, once in the first half and once in the second – but until recently he wasn't able to do that kind of work on a consistent basis this year.

And with Todd Dunivant hurt, and no MLS-ready left back on the roster to provide protection, Arena was right to try to find a tactical solution.

In the process, he may have found a really, really nice personnel solution:

Rogers isn't USMNT-ready yet – he had a relatively rough day at the office on Saturday, as his careless turnover led to Portland's only goal and he committed what looked like a PK foul in the second half. He's a work in progress on the defensive side of the ball.

That said, he's a superior athlete with "Oh crap, I've gotta get back" speed, and is surprisingly good 1-v-1 defender for a guy who's spent the vast majority of his career in midfield. He's also not afraid to mix it up inside the 18. Putting Rogers on the same backline as Gonzalez & DeLaGarza, with Juninho protecting the lot of them has pretty much flattened the learning curve, and it's doubtful that Dunivant will be reclaiming his starting spot any time soon.

All that has made it more palatable to put Donovan out wide on the left. The Galaxy just don't have to worry quite so much about attacks up that side – something that killed them against Portland in a 2-2 draw the last time the teams met.

On the attacking side, the benefits of having Rogers out there on the same side of the field as Donovan are obvious. Here's the first goal vs. the Timbers:

This is every tactical tweak Arena's made showing itself in one play:

1. Juninho drops deep between the central defense
2. DeLaGarza flares wide to the left and tells Rogers to push up
3. Donovan is inside, which brings Kalif Alhassan four steps closer to the central midfield and gives Rogers the whole flank
4. The central midfield overload confuses the Timbers, who let Gonzalez dribble 30 yards with only token pressure
5. Once Gonzalez breaks that pressure, Will Johnson is left to try to mark both Donovan and Keane
6. Keane knows the overlap is there. Look at this image below – you can see him check over his shoulder to see Rogers making the run:

That's good soccer, folks. 

Now, I'm not going to write about them again for a little while, because unless you're an LA fan, you're probably sick of these columns. But I can guarantee you I'll be writing about them in November.

The Galaxy are back.