After the LA Galaxy loss to the Houston Dynamo last night, Bruce Arena did not mince words. He pointed out plainly that his club didn't play well, that they were outworked in every facet of the match. Surely it's not that simple, but if it's true that LA were outworked it should show up in the data.
"Houston worked harder that us," said Bruce Arena. "They owned the center of the midfield."
Galaxy actually passed better in the midfield than their overall passing accuracy (75.7%), while Houston's midfield passing was about on par with their overall passing. The worst passers in the midfield were Greg Cochrane (63%) and Marcelo Sarvas (72%).
It's another case where a player who was generally praised initially turns out to have had an Achilles heel in his performance. If we're looking for a spot in the midfield where possession wasn't valued, Cochrane is that weak spot. Passing accuracy is only part of the story. A big part of Houston owning the center of the midfield is second chance possessions.
Using the Tempo Free Soccer method, LA had more individual possessions in the midfield (79 tackled and possession lost - 1 unsuccessful clearance), while Houston by far had more second chance possessions. The Galaxy were unsuccessful on 8 of their attempted clearances. So that's 78 times LA lost possession in the midfield, to only 59 for Houston.
The Tempo Free method has Houston with 145 possessions total and LA with 160. A sizable disparity, but believable when noting that LA had 60% of the possession against Houston.
Perhaps the key isn't position on the field, but position in the formation. Galaxy midfielders were accurate on 73% of their passes, while Houston's were accurate on 68%. I think it's fair to conclude that if Houston was really in control of the midfield it wasn't because Houston's passing was better, it was because of the defensive effort.
Even then, it wasn't really the midfield where this battle was won. Houston outdid LA in recoveries, interceptions, an clearances. Again, to be expected with LA having so much more of the possession, but the solid defensive play against the Galaxy attack kept LA from getting solid looks on goal.
Outside of the Landon Donovan penalty which Tally Hall saved, the Galaxy only had one other attempt on goal. It should stand out for those who watched the match, Gyasi Zardes ends up with a one on one with Hall and tries to send the ball into the back of the net through Hall's legs. Hall is able to make the save stopping the Galaxy's only attempt on target from the run of play.
"We were too passive in the attacking third of the field," said Bruce Arena. "We didn't have enough people who had the initiative to take on players looking for their shot."
Nine of the Galaxy's attempts on goal were blocked. When half of a team's shot attempts are blocked, that doesn't reflect well on shot selection. Five of those nine blocked shots were taken outside the box. LA had four more attempts outside the box that they were able to get off, so half the Galaxy's shot attempts were blocked and half the Galaxy's shot attempts were low percentage attempts from outside the box.
The Opta data has the Galaxy ahead in the duel battle, but in the final third LA was awful; only two out of eleven dribble attempts were successful. Both the successful attempts were Jose Villarreal's, the only one in the box was the one which resulted in the penalty kick. The Galaxy had two solid scoring opportunities all match while dominating possession. They didn't play well.
If the problem is poor shot selection and distribution in the final third, it's a problem that can be solved with the return of Robbie Keane. He's the player who creates the shots beyond the obvious, who can take Donovan's distribution and add a cherry on top.
Still, the match very well could have had an LA goal before the half hour mark, which is a final point to argue. Tally Hall didn't play the ball and took out Villarreal's right leg. That he was allowed to stay in goal and save Donovan's shot is an honest point of contention.
That acknowledged, the Galaxy didn't play well against the Houston Dynamo. Ultimately, that's why they lost.