It was not supposed to be like this for Chicharito. The Mexican star, one of the most celebrated strikers in Concacaf history as well as one of the most productive, was supposed to conquer MLS. He was supposed to walk into the LA Galaxy lineup and immediately show his class, show his cunning and show his nose for goal. The Galaxy were going to move away from the ponderous, one-dimensional attack that had been their go-to with Zlatan Ibrahimovic in town, and instead put together a modern, mobile approach that culminated, time and again, with the Little Pea finding one-touch finishes in the box.
It's culminated in that way exactly once all year. Chicharito has played in eight games, starting six, and has been on the field for 598 minutes. He has scored once.
In his stead, Homegrown striker Ethan Zubak has been only slightly more productive, with two goals in roughly the same amount of minutes. The bigger difference, however, is in the team's record:
- When Zubak starts the Galaxy are 4-2-2 with 15 goals scored and a +2 goal differential.
- When Chicharito starts the Galaxy are 0-5-1 with 4 goals scored and a -7 goal differential.
Chicharito's poor top-line numbers combined with the team's struggles when he's out there have naturally raised a bit of hell in the Galaxy fanbase. The perception is that he is playing poorly and that the team is playing poorly because of that.
I think that's a reasonable take, but I don't think it tells anywhere near the whole story. My hunch, just from the eye test, was that the Galaxy play more slowly — they are more hesitant to advance the ball and go vertical — when Chicharito's out there. During Wednesday night's 6-3 loss to Portland, Galaxy sideline reporter Megan Reza offered this report, which basically confirmed as much during a hit midway through the second half:
"After last game Sebastian Lletget spoke about some of the differences in the way that this offense has to play up to Javier Hernandez vs. last season when you had Zlatan Ibrahimovic or at times, he explained, like Ethan Zubak. [Lletget said] that playing with that target striker, sometimes it's easier when you need to make that outlet pass, getting the ball up the field, saying that really it's a night and day difference with Chicharito. It's a completely different approach in that sense he has to be the target but the ball needs to be on the ground."
Using Second Spectrum's tracking data we were able to confirm that my hunch and Lletget's analysis are largely true. Here are the numbers (not including Wednesday night's loss, in which Zubak started and scored while Chicharito was home with his newborn):
The top line is this: the Galaxy are faster and more effective when Zubak is playing. The average possession duration is 13 seconds when Zubak's on the field vs 14.7 seconds when Chicharito plays, resulting in 1.067 xG/100 possessions when Zubak's out there to 0.600 xG/100 possessions when it's Chicharito. (336 vs. 408 states for sample size).
That's pretty stark, but we can dig in further. When you restrict just to phases in which the Galaxy get a touch in the final third, a picture starts to be painted:
- When Chicharito is on the field: 181 phases, average duration 19.8 seconds for 0.584xg/100
- When Zubak is on the field: 166 phases, average duration 15.483 seconds for 1.067xg/100
And guess what? We can still enhance! Let's limit it just to sequences that begin in LA's defensive third:
- When Chicharito is on the field: 30 phases, average duration 34.896 seconds for 0.092xg/100
- When Zubak is on the field: 28 phases, average duration 21.726 seconds for 0.273xg/100
The sample size is too small to be definitive with that last one — 30 possessions isn't enough to say "this is absolutely how it is when these guys play" — but it's also not nothing. The Galaxy have been a lot slower and way less effective with Chicharito out there. And the main problem with building slowly is that you give opposing defenses a chance to get organized and get numbers behind the ball. This is evident in the number of defenders goal-side for each player's aggregate touch: When Zubak gets on the ball he's got, on average, 4.08 defenders between himself and goal. When Chicharito gets on the ball that number jumps to 4.82.
Note that this doesn't mean that every time Zubak receives a pass he's immediately swarmed by four defenders, while for Chicharito it's five. It just means that the opposing defense tends to be much more set, and that it's just that much harder to break down a tea that's got good shape and numbers back.
Which, of course, applies to more than just Chicharito and Zubak. Perhaps the worst part of this from LA's point of view has to be that it's dampened the effect that Cristian Pavon has on a game-by-game basis, which is also apparent in the numbers.
- When Chicharito is playing, there’s an average of 6.09 defenders goalside of Pavon at the start of his touches. When Zubak is playing that drops to 5.47.
- Pavon also moves the ball further (total distance) while Zubak’s on the field: avg of 8.92 meters per touch, vs 6.74 meters per touch when Chicharito is playing.
I think these numbers make a pretty convincing case regarding what's happening. The Galaxy, for some reason, play sloooowwwww soccer when Chicharito's out there, which means they're facing more set defenses, which means they have more work to do to generate good chances (or any chances at all), which means there've been fewer chances in general when he's out there. And on the other side, that lack of forward thrust puts extra pressure on an LA defense that has been not great.
I have two theories — beyond Lletget's analysis — as to not just the what, but the why of what's happening. First is that Guillermo Barros Schelotto is asking Chicharito to do more work in build-up, trying to move opposing backlines side-to-side by getting on the ball more and drifting out of the middle and into the channels. Some of the data supports this (just by eyeballing touch maps, Zubak's touches are more central), while other data does not (Zubak and Chicharito have roughly the same number of touches/90).
Second is that Chicharito just isn't making runs like this:
Zubak loops back, collects both Portland center backs and makes a hard, clearing run that opens up space between the Timbers backline and central midfield. The Galaxy eventually exploit that space and earn themselves a good look with it.
Forget the target forward stuff that Lletget was talking about. I think time is better spent wondering why Chicharito isn't living in those same spots making those same type of runs.
That said, they did just give up six goals. So they'll likely have more pressing concerns in film session tomorrow.