Lo, the plight of the side reduced to 10 men! They may fight harder, bonding around the Spartan commitment of battling for a point, especially on the road, but they are surely climbing a hill.
But what determines if going a man down becomes a Sisyphean task of defending, or a Herculean team-building exercise to rally around?
Simple answer: It’s the tactics, stupid.
The LA Galaxy put on a clinic along these lines last Saturday in Northern California. Not only was Bruce Arena’s team reduced to 10 men, they had to stick midfielder Mike Magee in goal. Magee wasn’t bad, all things considering.
But the Galaxy were well aware that only a spirited exercise in discipline and commitment could prevent Magee from falling under a rattling siege. Yes, San Jose’s attack barely tested Magee until close to the end, but a great deal of credit must go to the Galaxy for digging in and executing a tour de force of shorthanded defense.
The key was their ability to absorb pressure yet limit the real danger: bending without breaking. Arena arranged his team in a fairly standard formation for this situation, a 4-4-1. A team playing at home might adopt a more aggressive 4-3-2. But in striker Juan Pablo Ángel, the Galaxy have a wise veteran who understands playing as a lone target man. He knows how to separate from defenders to provide an outlet, and then how to hold the ball and bring others into the attack.
In fact, the Galaxy created more dangerous opportunities over the first 25 to 30 minutes of the second half that San Jose. And the Galaxy never completely ceded the field; they looked for situations to pressure, occasionally, in San Jose’s end, something the LA are always good at. They still hunted for the chances to create turnovers, but did so more judiciously than usual.
The real key for LA was where the two defensive lines of four set up. When San Jose had possession, Galaxy midfielders offered no pressure until about 50 yards from their own goal. Even then, they were ready to slowly retreat into deeper positions. Then, the entire unit’s spacing was perfect. Generally, LA’s back line was somewhere near the 18, with the midfield line about 10 to 12 yards ahead.
As a result, San Jose struggled mightily. The Galaxy lines were so well linked, so well connected, and so well spaced that Frank Yallop’s Quakes rarely found an opening or even space and time to look for an opening.
Part and parcel was the choice not to waste energy relentlessly trying to deny service from San Jose’s mids and backs. Ángel and, later, Chad Barrett, applied just enough pressure near midfield without overcommitting. Otherwise, Galaxy midfielders stepped passively toward Quakes who got their heads up, but never hurried out to challenge. Again, this maintained the integrity and the connection of the four-man lines. That disciplined connection cannot be over emphasized; it’s so hard to pass or dribble through eight men in such a tightly organized structure.
Generally, the danger in allowing servers that kind of easy access is balls going over the top, creating trouble for defenders who are caught running uncomfortably toward their own goal. But the deep positioning of the Galaxy lines mitigated that danger. As their defenders were generally in their bend-don’t-break area about 20 yards out, there simply wasn’t room behind them in which San Jose could aim balls.
It also helped that the Galaxy, blessed with tall center backs, are a team well-suited to play this way. Balls aimed into the heart of the LA defense were blunted by Omar Gonzalez and Gregg Berhalter. Pull those two further away from goal and you’ve got trouble. But let them sit back as more stationary objects, with everything in front of them, and they are well in their danger-clearing element.
Obviously, San Jose could have made better adjustments. It looked, though, like they weren’t sure how to play against 10 men. This is something most teams train for. Or should.
But regardless, hats off to the Galaxy for their performance. Magee might have earned the Player of the Week honors for his goalkeeping, but the truth is, the guys in front of him made sure he didn’t have to do much to garner the accolades.