Landon Donovan - Tactics
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Talking Tactics: Landon quiet but effective against RSL

LA Galaxy tactics are no state secret. Not anything close.

Bruce Arena’s team has never strayed from the same basic MO since the manager’s arrival late in 2008. They get the defensive end tight and right. They strike on set pieces and off precision counterattacks, insisting that hapless opponents pay a high price for imprudence and turnovers. In a nutshell, the Galaxy operate smartly and rather safely, allowing the other guy to make the mistakes.

A lot of that philosophy is about David Beckham, whose gold-standard playmaking from deep-lying areas allows the Galaxy to be perennially dangerous without committing tremendous numbers forward.

Within that broader, presiding philosophy, Arena can twist the knobs here and there, tweaking individual roles to fit the occasion. That’s what we saw Sunday against a highly capable Real Salt Lake side, where Arena’s men made their way into the 2011 MLS Cup final with a 3-1 win over the visitors.

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One significant adjustment involved a particularly massive spoke in the Galaxy wheel: Landon Donovan. The order of the day for Donovan was “patience.” The US international certainly contributed to the scoring, and not just on his latest penalty kick.

Donovan supplied the cross that created his team’s early penalty, and he fed Robbie Keane for goal No. 3. Otherwise, however, it was a relatively quiet night offensively by the high standards of a man who may soon become Major League Soccer’s all-time scoring king.

But it appeared to be “quiet by design.” Indeed, it all looked like a strategic choice, one that was about using Donovan to limit defensive exposure, to sensibly manage the night against RSL’s potent midfield.

His starting positions were always fairly conservative, as were his calculated choices on when to scoot forward. Donovan’s signature, darting runs out of the midfield – we’ve watched those with joy for 10 years now – were few and far between. Generally, Donovan remained more closely linked with right back Sean Franklin than with Keane and fellow Galaxy frontrunner Chad Barrett. Donovan had ample opportunity to streak forward, to add one more potent force to the formidable Galaxy counterattack. But time and again, Donovan resisted, favoring restraint over haste in the overall enterprise.

That’s a change for a team that likes to pressure in selective places, creating turnovers in good spots. And it applied a bit of a restrictor plate on the Galaxy’s go-go transition game. Generally, as we’ve written before, the Galaxy’s transition from defense to attack is the quickest and most educated in MLS – probably by a long way.

But it wasn’t quite as peppy on Sunday, and Donovan’s role was a big reason why. Even when he got the ball, Donovan was generally risk-averse, preferring to release balls quickly rather than race toward defenders for those potentially devastating one-on-one opportunities. His choice to get the ball off his foot faster was also a nod to Real Salt Lake’s wobbly center back situation. With Jámison Olave hobbled and Chris Schuler playing the biggest match of his young MLS career, Donovan recognized that balls in behind the central pair were a better choice.

By getting those balls forward rather than carrying them, he kept the defensive discipline that would help prevent RSL’s midfield from gaining rhythm; when Real Salt Lake’s whirling midfield starts “feeling it,” they can be overwhelming. LA felt the full force of an RSL midfield at highest rev earlier this year, as Jason Kreis’ team manhandled the Galaxy at Rio Tinto, 4-1 – a game, for what it’s worth, that Donovan missed.

Another reason for Donovan’s doctrine of patiently biding his time Sunday: He was lined up against Real Salt Lake’s Will Johnson, owner of a massive internal engine, a man who covers as much ground as any MLS midfielder. Donovan, like his teammates, was operating on one fewer day of rest than the men of Real Salt Lake. So limiting the runs forward helped Donovan mitigate Johnson’s power plant of energy.

Besides all that, Keane’s availability creates the room for a more staid strategy involving Donovan. The Irish veteran, busy, bustling and wise, makes smart runs up front, decreasing the urgency for Donovan to fill those spaces.

Just after the Galaxy’s second goal, the home team now ahead 2-1, Arena decided it was time to unleash Donovan’s speed. RSL would surely be pushing for the equalizer, so Arena adjusted the American midfielder’s role in it all. Off went Chad Barrett, in came Chris Birchall.

Birchall took Donovan’s spot along the right. Now repositioned up front, alongside Keane and released from his priority of protecting the back line, Donovan was able to find the higher gears. His ability to link quickly on the counter contributed mightily to the game-clincher, Keane’s wonderful 68th minute strike.

It was the perfect tactical adjustment as two weary teams “ran out of gas” in the second half, in Bruce Arena’s words. All that first-half restraint had left Donovan with enough in his own tank to keep the pressure on RSL to the end.