Robbie Keane’s arrival doesn’t signal a new era in LA. It just signals the Galaxy’s intent to make the current era faster.
Keane, the prolific Irish striker who’s a legend with his countrymen and the Tottenham Hotspur faithful, will be a welcome addition to Bruce Arena’s side. But with any big addition, there will be concerns about fit and cohesion. Let's take a look.
Masters of Time and Space
The game’s about time and space, and the way to beat any team is to crowd them ‘til they don’t have any of either.
This strategy can be turned on its head, though, by the soccer version of Aikido. Suck a team out too far by holding possession and you can slip a runner in behind them, hitting on a mini-break. We saw that exact scenario play out in the second leg of the Spanish SuperCup this week, when Andrés Iniesta beat Real Madrid’s high press and Lionel Messi sent him in one-on-one with Iker Casillas.
Of course, that’s Barcelona. They’re the envy of the world because they have players who need less time and less space than anyone else. But whether it’s the two greatest teams in the world going at it or a hungover Sunday kick-around in the park, the principle’s the same: The team that controls time and space usually wins the game.
LA’s problem is not that they’ve been unable to grasp the concept, but that they’ve been unable to execute it as well as they’d like. None of the Galaxy forwards had the pace to really burst behind the defense with regularity — Juan Pablo Ángel was the best at getting the timing of it down, but Ángel’s not going to win many foot-races these days.
Compounding that issue is that, on the rare occasions that LA were able to get their forwards into space, their collective finishing has been something less than inspiring. Ángel converted just three of 39 shots into goals; Chad Barrett has gone four-for-37, and Miguel López — who’s allergic to trying to get behind the defense, anyway — has scored once on 27 shots.
As the season’s gone on we’ve seen teams push their defense higher and higher against the Galaxy. LA have handled it because Landon Donovan still has elite speed, enough to keep most defenses honest, and because David Beckham always makes them dangerous on set-pieces.
But they haven’t been convincing in winning the battle for time and space. Crowd them enough, as Portland did a few weeks back, and it’s like taking a hammer to a vase. You can just break them down into individual components and destroy their ability to create for each other.
Push the defense
That’s where Keane comes in. He’s not quite as spry as he was a few years ago, but he’s still fast enough to give any defense fits.
More importantly, he’s as clever as anyone when it comes to timing. In that way he’s the classic English-style No. 10 (though he’ll wear No. 14 for the Galaxy), playing off the shoulder of a true center forward and making darting off-the-ball runs.
It’s those off-the-ball runs that’ll push the opposing defense deeper, lest they let him sneak onto a through-ball. And as they push deeper it leaves more time and space in which the LA midfield — you know, those modest talents like Donovan, Beckham and Juninho — will operate.
Because Keane likes to vary the starting position of his runs (he’s as much at home bursting through from the midfield as he is leading the line), he’ll also force the opposing defensive midfielder to cover more ground, an added bonus given how crucial the d-mid position is in MLS. If the d-mid stays with him, that leaves space for one of the Galaxy midfielders to take; if they pass him off, the central defense had best have the timing of their trap measured, or they’ll be down a goal.
So in short, Keane’s presence should start a domino effect in much the same way that Luke Rodgers’ did for the Red Bulls before his injury. Keane won’t even need to touch the ball to make the Galaxy more effective at what they already do; he’ll just need to step on the field.
The End Product
In English-style soccer — and that’s what the Galaxy play — the whole goal is to get the opposing defenders backpedaling, then actually turned and running at their own goal. Keane has understood that since day one, and in LA he’ll be surrounded by guys who want to play the same way.
That’s why Arena was willing to make such a big midseason change, something he’s usually tried to avoid as manager. You usually don’t get better just by adding a big star in the middle of the year, and he knows as much.
But the risk here is low. Keane will be a big star in MLS but won’t signify a big structural shift for the Galaxy.
It’s not a new era. Just a faster one.
Matthew Doyle writes the Armchair Analyst column for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MLS_Analyst.