The LA Galaxy have been a staple in Major League Soccer since its inauguration in 1997. Winning is nothing foreign to the franchise, highlighted by five MLS Cups but recent success has been hard to come by. In the club’s first two matches of the 2020 MLS season, Guillermo Barros Schelotto’s men have only taken one point from the six available. While this slump has not come out of thin air, the recent acquisitions of European proven quality would suggest that a playoff run should be the minimum. In this tactical analysis, we’ll find out why the Los Angeles Galaxy have gotten off to such a rough start and how they should move forward once the season kicks off again.

Backline

LA Galaxy's Slow Start- tactical analysis
LA’s backline in transition

As documented in the past, it is no secret that the Galaxy have had their troubles at the back. Even after the signing of former Liverpool man Emiliano Insua at left-back and a whole year under manager Schelotto, who has no doubt spent the majority of his time trying to instill some discipline and consistency in the defence, the Galaxy still looks mistake-prone in their defensive setup. While the numbers only show the Galaxy conceding two goals in two games, the vulnerability of the four-man defence is clear below. After giving the ball away in the midfield, both full-backs are completely out of position and one centre-back is nearly at the halfway line. Galaxy’s reliance on a fast buildup often leaves them susceptible to quick counters by the opposition. The overall defensive shape has certainly improved in the last year or so but the big worry continues to be careless mistakes that ultimately gift goals to the opposition. This is backed up by the 1.65 XG for the Galaxy’s opposition, lower than the actual two goals conceded. 

While the defence has shown that it is far from a finished product, there is still promise that once Schelotto finds the personnel he wants, the defence can put in a run of solid displays. The 4-1-4-1 shape that Schelotto has deployed gives the defence an extra layer of support with that one holding-midfielder hovering over the centre-backs.

LA Galaxy's Slow Start- tactical analysis
Xi vs Vancouver

The key moving forward is regaining positional awareness that every defender in the team has seemed to lack for the last two years. If this is drilled heavier than ever, the Galaxy could find themselves with one of the best backlines in the league as there is no questioning the talent and experience on show.

Midfield

What was once the foundation of every great Galaxy team under former manager Bruce Arena, the midfield has arguably been the most problematic area for the Galaxy in their first two games. The Galaxy face a true identity crisis in the middle of the park. There is no fluidity in what the midfield trio do and that disconnect is quite observable on the transition. While a 4-1-4-1 ensures that there will always be outlets for a quick attack through the wingers or a ball over the top, the Galaxy essentially have been playing with a flat three in the centre. Deep lying playmaker Jonathan Dos Santos is at his best when linking the defence to the midfield, experienced veteran Joe Corona is a typical box-to-box midfielder, and U.S National Team regular Sebastian Lleget usually finds himself drifting wide to support either of the wingers.

LA Galaxy's Slow Start- tactical analysis
LA’s flat midfield 3

This leaves a giant gap between the most advanced centre-midfielder and the striker, who in this case is Chicharito, best known for playing off the last defender and poaching balls in the box. The Galaxy desperately needs a number 10 to occupy that gap. While on-loan Boca Juniors man Cristian Pavón has done extraordinarily well in being the main playmaker for the Galaxy, reflected in his team-high eight assists in just eleven games, it is near impossible for a  classic number 7 like Pavon to replicate the job of a number 10. 

Going back to this idea of an “identity crisis,” it is clear that Schelotto wants his team to play a high-tempo, possession-based game. But unless Dos Santos is played as the deepest midfielder, this simply won’t happen. When it hasn’t been Dos Santos playing in that role, it’s been Perry Kitchen, a very safe option at the base of any midfield. The problem with Kitchen is the problem that many typical number 6’s presents: A lack of creativity. While great number 6’s of the past like Lothar Matthaus, Claude Makelele, and Roy Keane all lacked the offensive ability of their midfield counterparts, they were surrounded by creative players who acted as outlets for them.

The Galaxy lack players with creativity to make up for Kitchen’s lack thereof. There are both pros and cons for using a more defensive-minded midfielder, and in the Galaxy’s case, many of their problems with using Kitchen stem from the lack of versatility in their midfield. As shown below, the Galaxy conceded a very weak goal to an even weaker Vancouver Whitecaps side because of the lack of cohesion in midfield. The midfielders are circled, all three of which are on the right side of the pitch after ball chasing.

LA Galaxy's Slow Start- tactical analysis
Midfield 3 getting caught out

Dos Santos was tasked with sitting deeper in a midfield three, but as the Galaxy became more frustrated with their lack of ruthlessness in front of goal, the midfield became more disconnected. Dos Santos eventually came out and Lleget was deployed as the deepest midfielder. Ultimately he lost his man in the box who had time to take a touch and finish in the bottom right corner of the goal.

In addition to adding some stability to the defense, Schelotto needs to find a balance in the midfield that enables the midfield to contribute in attack but also help do the dirty work. A number 10 wouldn’t hurt either.

Attack

Since Zlatan Ibrahimović’s arrival to the city of stars, it’s been no secret what the game-plan was for the Galaxy. Now coined “hit and pray,” the Galaxy lived and died off of Zlatan’s Ariel ability in the box. While no surprise, the numbers prove the Galaxy’s heavy reliance on the Swede in his two years for the club. While he provided extremely impressive returns, 1.03 goals per 90, the one-sidedness of LA’s approach became predictable.

With the signing of Javier Hernandez, aka Chicharito, the Galaxy have a lethal poacher who will take his chances in the box more often than not. But, he is a much different player than Zlatan and the Galaxy are yet to adapt to this change. In Zlatan’s last three games with Los Angeles, he received 16 crosses, all but one were in the air. In Chicharito’s first two games, he received 6 crosses, all but one were in the air as well. From these combined 22 crosses, they only combined for one shot on target. While Zlatan’s brilliance in the air was effective during the regular season, teams eventually found out that double-marking him significantly reduced the threat he posed. On the opposite spectrum, defenders were happy for the 5’9 (175cm) Chicharito to be receiving balls in the air if it meant that they weren’t at his feet. In both cases, LA’s reluctance to switch up how they approach the attacking side of the game hurt them.

LA Galaxy's Slow Start- tactical analysis
LA’s cross-heavy offense

Going forward, priority one needs to be figuring out a way to find Chicharito in the spaces he thrives in. Pavon and his tricky winger counterpart Aleksandar Katai are very capable of running at defenders and beating them to the inside or outside. In addition to those two, previously mentioned Insua has shown his impressive display of crossing in both the season opener versus Houston and the home opener against Vancouver. If the Galaxy can get their crosses on the floor, The “little pea” will do the rest. The attacking talent is evident and the Galaxy have been unlucky to have only scored once, and with 2.16 expected goals in their first two matches, it really is just a matter of taking their chances. While an inventive number 10 could be the solution to both the midfield and attack woes, the frontline has some serious firepower in its own right and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Chicharito and co, leading the chase for one of the highest-scoring offences in Major League Soccer

Conclusion

Los Angeles have had their problems in the early stages of the season like most teams do. The reason for concern is the sheer talent throughout the squad and a largely underwhelming managerial stint for Guillermo Barros Schelotto. Fortunately for both player and manager, there will be plenty of time to rethink the approach to this season, if of course it ever happens. While Galaxy fans will be disappointed to see their club down in 10th place, an early season revival should be on the cards if some minor changes are made across the pitch.