The LA Galaxy’s results of late may not scream “crisis” — they're unbeaten in 11 straight, still atop the Western Conference and in pole position to retain their Supporters' Shield.
But look deeper, and there are certainly some concerns at the very least.
The defense isn’t a problem. LA have taken just three points of a possible nine from their last three at home. Bruce Arena’s side has that side locked down pretty well. Despite deploying four different goalkeepers (yes, four) they haven’t allowed a goal over two matches. So, check the box there.
But the attack has lost some fizz, no question.
Obviously, the attack suffers from removal of two massive figures. David Beckham has missed time lately due to a back injury (although he did return as a sub in Monday’s 0-0 draw with Seattle). And Landon Donovan had been away for a month on Gold Cup duty before rejoining Monday’s lineup.
So in one sense, the analysis on this one is simple syrup: Difference-makers haven’t been around to make a difference.
But there’s a tactical takeaway to be gleaned from the Galaxy’s attacking malaise: The side’s offensive bread-and-butter, its peerless transition game, is suffering mightily due to the pair’s absence.
Arena’s team scores most of its goals in one of two ways: off Beckham’s sublime set-piece deliveries and via the transition game. And by extension, the Galaxy create a healthy percentage of those restarts off the transition.
By another name, this is “counterattacking” soccer. But for the Galaxy, it’s really more than counterattacking, per se. Remember, managing the game in open play isn’t just about offense and defense; it’s also about the speed of organizational thought and the aggressiveness of action in between those two states.
Under Arena, the Galaxy have always been a brainy and clever team. One result: Players understand the necessity of immediate pressure upon losing the ball. Sometimes it’s just about providing time for the team to organize defensively. But selectively, it’s about creating turnovers in danger zones, about claiming possession in areas that can quickly be spun into counterattack gold. In short, exploiting the transition game is about situational recognition and then being aggressive as hungry lions.
Past recognition, teams must execute at high pace to convert those opportunities into quality chances, and that’s what missing at the moment. Donovan doesn’t appear confident, and Beckham isn’t always there to mash the gas pedal with decisive and incisive passing.
Donovan can shatter a defense by sprinting into good spaces or by running at defenses before they get organized. At the moment (with just one Galaxy game as a sample, it should be noted, but also based upon his rather quiet Gold Cup), he just isn’t springing audaciously into those areas.
When Donovan does so, havoc ensues. Back up for a moment and examine more closely how quick transitions can be so devastating. Defending against the counterattack is about fast recognition, about rapid assessment and anticipating — and then about quickly arranging a plan to parry the thrust. But that becomes problematic when opponents are moving faster than you can think, and that’s Donovan’s forte.
From the other side, good counterattacks aren’t just charging forward at breakneck pace. Counterattacking situations must be rehearsed through good sessions on the training ground. There must be communication of runs with the ball and without; quality runs off the ball might be intended to gain good attacking positions, but some are about selflessly pulling defenders away that create gaps for others.
That can’t be accomplished on the Saturday-night fly; that comes from Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at practice.
Not only is Donovan fast, he’s a wise player with a great eye for spotting the best run. When he sees those gaps and launches the swashbuckling dashes, defenses melt into confused disarray. So, that’s been missing lately.
Monday against Seattle, Donovan only found top gear a couple of times. On one of those runs, he drew a yellow card on Erik Friberg who recognized the menace of Donovan at full gallop. So, more of that would be nice from a Galaxy perspective.
(This must be mentioned, too: Seattle picked the right tactics. They pressured the Galaxy back line, essentially removing opportunities for the Galaxy to press selectively at the other end. One big part of Sigi Schmid’s plan was forcing Omar Gonzalez to pass rather than fellow center back A.J. DeLaGarza or, later, Gregg Berhalter. With all that, and with the Galaxy in risk-averse mode to help protect a young goalkeeper, the home team sometimes struggled to work out of pressure.)
In addition to missing Donovan’s bold runs, the Galaxy’s ability to move the ball quickly in transition is muted at the moment. Juninho, still an underrated part of the Galaxy success this year, does a good job of managing the LA pace and attack.
But like so many others, he can’t quite match Beckham’s experience and savvy at it. Beckham better understands the nuance of it all, about getting balls moving to the right places before a defense has sorted the marking assignments and begun to subtract passing options. He is better at anticipating opposition movements and teammates’ runs.
Beckham has done all this for so long, at such a high level at Manchester United, Real Madrid and with the English national team. Seconds, and even half-seconds, matter in the transitional race.
The Galaxy usually win their share of those races — they just aren’t at the moment.