Donovan and the Galaxy midfield

Josie's recent post on the Galaxy's tactics, got me thinking about the division of labor among the midfielders and Landon Donovan. Whatever the reason might be, Donovan has been much more integral to the Galaxy's attack during the current 3-match win streak than he had been during the first three months of the season. More than just the goals in which he's been involved, Donovan has appeared to be a rejuvenated force since returning from national-team duty, with much more of his activity focused on the attacking end of the field rather than tracking back to provide defensive cover, where he is much less effective. He has been able to do this because the Galaxy midfield--Beckham and Juninho especially--have taken over the defensive responsibilities that had consumed too much of Donovan's energy and attention earlier in the year.

MLS's OptaSports charting tool illustrates this when we compare the Galaxy's two matches this year against Real Salt Lake: a season-opening 1:3 loss at the Home Depot Center in March, and last week's come-from-behind victory at Rio Tinto. While Donovan was more or less equally involved in both matches, his activity was much more offensively focused in June's victory than in March's defeat.

In March, Donovan was moderately but ineffectively involved in the Galaxy offense, completing 34 passes and taking a single, off-target shot. While moving back and forth across the full width of the field, the Opta chart shows that most of Donovan's work was confined to the flanks, with very few passes sent toward goal in the attacking half of the field. Indeed, a large share of the passes he made were made back in the direction of the Galaxy's own goal. Meanwhile, a significant amount of Donovan's efforts that night were made defending the Galaxy's half of the field, where he made 4 of his 8 recorded recoveries as well as his single tackle. Among the Galaxy midfield that night, only Marcelo Sarvas had a busier defensive night; Beckham put in a defensive effort comparable to Donovan's, but Magee and Juninho did next to nothing. (And they weren't particularly active on the offensive end that night, either.)

Fast forward to June, and it was a very different Galaxy midfield that showed up to Rio Tinto. With no Buddle or Keane in the lineup, Donovan played up top as an often solitary striker. He nonetheless remained very active offensively, completing 26 passes as well as netting his game-winning brace on four shots taken. Besides the obvious--the two goals--the primary contrast with the match in March is Donovan's presence in the center of the attacking third. He did retreat down the left flank, but as many as half of his successful touches came in and around the penalty area. Even the handful of recorded efforts he made on defense took place almost exclusively in the RSL half of the field, including the one "recovery" that led just seconds later to the Galaxy's opening goal.

And what allowed Donovan to play so far forward in June's rematch? Well, besides the desperation that comes from trailing 0:2 early in the first half, the Galaxy's midfield did yeoman's work defending the center of the park as well as the dangerous Fabian Espindola on RSL's right flank. Most noteworthy are the defensive efforts put in by Juninho and Beckham, who between them were credited with 2 tackles, 10 interceptions, 2 clearances, 1 blocked cross, and 11 recoveries on the night.

As Josie noted, it appears that Juninho is most effectively used by the Galaxy as a defensive midfielder. Against Vancouver over the weekend, both he and Beckham put on an absolute clinic in the center of the field, allowing Donovan and Keane to be creative in the offensive half, while the flanks were ably patrolled by Dunivant and Magee on the left, and Franklin and Jimenez on the right. Given the success of the recent 9-point week, I expect to see Juninho stay in that holding midfielder's role for quite some time--or at least until the return of Omar G perhaps liberates Juninho to take on a more attacking role.

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