As we look forward to the return of Major League Soccer next month, one match, in particular, stands out for one reason or another. Los Angeles FC and the Los Angeles Galaxy will clash heads again for the first time in the 2020 MLS season in Orlando. As always, this matchup promises fireworks and excitement. And judging off of their first six matches, many goals. In the buildup to this match and many others, we will do a thorough analysis of every single team in the MLS before the July return.
While we could go back and analyze any of their past meetups, this tactical analysis will flashback to July of 2018 where a red-hot LAFC visited the Galaxy in Carson, who were coming off a bad loss against their Northern California rivals, the San Jose Earthquakes. We will look at the tactics and setups used by both sides that played a large factor in the deciding of this tight game.
LAFC, having previous success with this system, came out with a pretty standard 4-3-3 shape that allowed them to get numbers in the midfield and open up space for their biggest threat, ex-Arsenal star and Mexico international Carlos Vela. A midfield three of Kaye, Atuesta, and Blessing appeared to be well-balanced on paper, with all of them being very strong all-around options.
The Galaxy went for a more defensive shape in the form of a 4-4-1-1, with PSG legend Zlatan Ibrahimović leading the line alone. The Galaxy had become accustomed to a 4-2-3-1 under manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto, but the Argentinian wanted more service for Ibrahimović that came by way of Favio Álvarez, who played off the shoulder of the Swede as a second striker.
Straight out of the gate, LAFC took a more aggressive approach to how they would react without the ball. They pushed up high and tried to keep the Galaxy contained in small pockets of the pitch. This approach worked for Bob Bradley’s side as LAFC cramped the midfield and forced an errant pass to which Mark-Anthony Kaye picked up the ball and found Carlos Vela, who was then fouled in the box. Vela was able to convert and their high-intensity press paid off. LAFC’s midfield stayed compact and connected, the front three recognized the turnover and subsequently made runs into the box, and these runs caught out the Galaxy backline. In the image below, we can see Galaxy left-back Diego Polenta completely out of position as a result of this quick turnover. Galaxy found themselves outnumbered in the middle of the park for most of the first half, and this was all down to LAFC’s 4-3-3 shape and the Galaxy’s midfield being disconnected as Favio Álvarez got a little too connected to Ibrahimović.
The Galaxy, who were chasing the game very early on, were still hesitant to press and favored a more man-to-man. The thinking behind their press was to keep LAFC going sideways while limiting the chance of getting caught out in the midfield. While the midfield was largely contained, gaps started to appear in the space between the Galaxy’s midfield and defense. In this example, Galaxy’s Julian Araujo pressed LAFC’s left-back, but this opened up a gap because the Galaxy midfield could not rotate in time. Thus, defensive-midfielder Joe Corona was left alone to mark two LAFC attackers in the middle. The Galaxy’s hesitancy in their approach is what got them in trouble early on, but Schelotto recognized this at halftime and made a switch that saw his side drop back even further.
While LAFC came out hot and maintained their press throughout the match, the jump in PPDA seen below is actually a negative. When comparing the 8.6 PPDA in the first half to 9.4 in the second, it becomes clear that this jump was in part to the massive shift in possession from the 46th minute to the 60th minute, where the Galaxy controlled 60% of the ball. LAFC started to press too high, and they were punished as a result, conceding .93 attacks per minute, with one of those Galaxy attacks leading to a goal from Ibrahimović. The LAFC press got them off to a great start, but it was arguably also the reason for the second-half meltdown that followed.
Passage of play
Possession can decide games, but what a team does with that possession is obviously more important. LAFC were ranked in the top three for both average possession (55.6% per game) and pass accuracy (84.4%) in 2019. In fact, they demonstrated both the former and latter in this match. But, the difference was that much of this possession saw LAFC go sideways or backward way too often.
Minus a few stints of Galaxy dominance, LAFC were in control of the ball for the majority of the game. But, they struggled to penetrate through the flat midfield four of the Galaxy, and even when they seemed like they did, LAFC would be comfortable turning backward and finding the defenders to restart the entire buildup play. Latif Blessing, seen below with the ball, breaks through the Galaxy midfield and looks up to find himself in acres of space. His first touch is good and at first glance, it appears that he’s going to drive into the space. However, Blessing opts to turn back into pressure and play the ball back to one of the defenders who are still trying to get up the pitch. This entire segment highlights a bigger issue at hand: LAFC are too committed to playing a possession game and that results in a passive mentality as demonstrated by one of their more forward-thinking midfielders.
Football is a simple game, or at least the Galaxy think so. Schelotto’s men put on a clinic on directness and attacking with purpose. Unlike LAFC, the Galaxy were eager to get the ball up the pitch. While in past games they may have been too direct, they were able to exploit LAFC’s holes. One of which was height. While the right side of LAFC’s defense had height in Tristan Blackmon (6’1”) and Walker Zimmerman (6’3”), the left side was well under-equipped to deal with Zlatan Ibrahimović (6’5”) as Eddie Segura and Jordan Harvey are both under six feet. The Galaxy found their second goal as a result of this size advantage. Being the direct team they are, Polenta looked up early and fed a good ball into his striker, Ibrahimović easily got his head onto the ball and nodded the ball into the back of the net. An example of one team taking their chances, and the other not playing with any real attacking intent.
Some may have considered Galaxy’s approach long-ball or just kick and run, but that would undermine the sheer strategy behind their approach from the first minute. Galaxy’s first goal was an example of a classic “hit and hope,” but it was also a calculated ball that ended up bouncing in their favor. Yet again, Ibrahimović used his height and found himself with space to unload a dipping volley into the bottom right corner. While not the most efficient chance, the big difference is that the Galaxy were taking those chances, while LAFC were not.
As mentioned above, the game really did come down to who took their chances. It was an even affair for much of the 90 minutes and LAFC easily could’ve found themselves walking away with a point or even all three. That’s certainly not a far-fetched statement when comparing LAFC’s 1.57 XG’s with the Galaxy’s 1.26 XG’s. It’s no secret that the Galaxy had defensive struggles in the 2019 season and LAFC opened up the backline on multiple occasions.
Vela and central-forward Adama Diomande’s interchanging on the left side caused many problems for the Galaxy defense which in turn would open up space for Diego Rossi on multiple occasions. His best chance came in the 70th minute when Diomande drew two Galaxy defenders into the middle and left Rossi wide open on the right flank, where he powered his effort just over the bar. This came moments before Ibrahimović and co. would link up for a third goal after a long David Bingham goal kick. Diomande’s movement was flawless for much of the game, but LAFC’s lack of finishing quality cost them the opportunity at salvaging anything from this match.
As always, “El Trafico” lived up to its hype. Whether that be through Vela, Ibrahimović, or the passion that flows through both sets of supporters, this matchup gets better and better as time goes on. July 19th, 2019 was just another example of this fact. Come July 2020, the next installment of this derby will certainly be different. Maybe because the past stars of this fixture will no longer be present, or because there will be no fans. Either way, these two sides never let us down and the tactical battle will be a fascinating one as the MLS makes its long-awaited return.