The Saturday before the big game between Real Salt Lake and the LA Galaxy head coach Bruce Arena closed off practice. Bruce was planning something, but no one knew what. On Sunday we got our answer with two big changes on the right side of the formation. Stefan Ishizaki was playing in place of Baggio Hušidić at right mid, and Leonardo was starting alongside Omar Gonzalez with AJ DeLaGarza starting at right back.
Now I have been quite vocal in my criticism of Bruce's tactics, however, every once in a while Bruce will pull something off that's so tactically brilliant it makes me reevaluate my assessment of his tactical acumen. Last Sunday was one of those days.
When the lineup was announced, we all rolled our eyes. Leonardo, are you kidding me? Plata will eat him alive. Speculation on the injury status of Gargan soon followed. No way moving AJ from CB to RB is a tactical switch, right? Wrong!
After the game, AJ told me that he learned he was starting at right-back earlier last week. When Gargan came into the game, he looked healthy. So why the switch?
The AJ to right-back move was absolutely brilliant for 2 reasons. For starters, it completely shut Joao Plata out of the game which was certainly by Bruce's design.
Much like Robbie Keane, one of the biggest elements of Plata's game is drifting to the left hand side and causing overloads and missed marks. Overloading the left has become a staple of this RSL team. Just take a look at these two field maps of his regular season output. Plata's goals are on the left, and his 's chance creation is on the right. As you can see in both of them, drifting wide is a huge part of his game.
And in case you haven't noticed, Joao Plata is fast; Dan Gargan is not. In the first leg, Plata pretty much had his way with Gargan on that side and the Galaxy were lucky that no goals resulted from it. Given Plata's propensity to drift left, Bruce put AJ at RB gaving Plata two channels to work with.
In between LA's two best defenders. AJ and Omar.
Given their years of expereince together, catching both of them out of position is a tough task. AJ and Omar were both smooth and near flawless when it came to handing off marks all game. No luck for Plata down this channel.
Channel two: Around AJ
This is also pretty damn hard considering how good AJ DeLaGarza is at reading the game and positioning himself accordingly. Watch how he reads this ball and angles his movement so Plata can't turn the corner.
As you can see, putting AJ at right pack shored up both of Plata's main channels. The plan worked like a charm. Actually, scratch that. Charms don't work. This worked like the opposite of a charm. Like a talisman in a horror movie placed in Plata's pocket bringing unforeseen hardship upon him.
This brings us to the second reason the AJ switch was so incredibly brilliant. Bruce very wisely saw that RSL could be had if the field was adequately stretched out. He opted to play Stefan Ishizaki. While I've been one of the biggest proponents of Baggio Husidic and his usurping of Ishizaki's place in the lineup this year, I thought that in this game in particular this was the right move. It's even something I brought up in the last podcast prior to the game.
What Stefan Ishizaki gives you is a player that will set up shop in advanced positions, and hug the lines. This in turn, opens channels. Just ask AJ DeLaGarza, who created 3 chances on the night including an assist on the game winning goal. At a certain point in the season, teams started to realize that the advanced positioning of Stefan Ishizaki could be exploited on the counter; especially when you have Dan Gargan pushing so high up the field. Neither of those guys are speedsters.
This is where AJ comes it. By playing AJ at right back, Ishizaki has ample cover behind him and can freely cause havoc further up the field. It my seem like a small thing considering Stefan Ishizaki only created one chance all game, but he was undeniably important to this victory. In a positional sense, Ishizaki played a vital role in many of the Galaxy's goals. Through his positioning he was constantly pulling defenders and opening channels. With Stefan Ishizaki manning the right, LA can apply equal attacking pressure down both wings which makes it hard for teams to cheat to one side.
And this brings us to the general importance of width to this Galaxy team. If you follow me on twitter, you'll know I probably used the word "wide" and "width" about 20 times during the game. The bulk of LA's chance creation came from the wings and from a withdrawn Robbie Keane who fed the likes of Landon Donovan and Gyasi Zardes as they made deep lying runs, which were left untracked by RSL's back line and midfield.
After the game, AJ said that LA focused on getting the ball around Kyle Beckerman, RSL's much Dreaded/Dreded CDM. As I described in the podcast prior to the RSL game, LA's offense works by going sideways to go forward, with Sarvas and Juninho being the central hubs in the middle third, and Robbie Keane being the hub in the attacking third, where he finds space between the back line and defensive mids to feed balls to players making piercing late runs from the midfield. Matt Doyle more eloquently described the style in the following excerpt from this article
"LA like to line up with two guys on the left, usually the fullback (Robbie Rogers) and either Keane or Donovan. There will then be two guys stacked laterally at the top of the box.
The first is the runner. The second is the wall:"
Another wrinkle on the night was that Sarvas drifted right quite a bit in support of AJ and Stefan Ishizaki.
When he did so, the added man on the right gave RSL fits, especially as AJ acted as a deep lying runner on several occasions, including the first goal.
And on some occasions, Sarvas would act as the runner, as happened with LA's 4th goal.
Juninho also did his fair share of drifting to the left hand side as you can see from these maps.
Not a maps guy? Here's that support in action.
And here is a handy dandy trick to predicting how a Galaxy match is going to go. Is the opponent allowing Sarvas to make attacking runs to the top of the box or towards either wing? If the answer is yes, the Galaxy attack will almost definitely have a good night. Is Juninho finding time to participate in the Galaxy's classic two to three man left sided attack? If the answer is also yes, the opposing team is in for a LONG night.
So there you have it. Bruce Arena is proves once again that his critics (read: me) are completely wrong to question his tactical chops. We are talking about a man who was able to shut down Italy, flummox Mexico with a back 3 and play Germany within an inch of their World Cup lives. He may be stubborn and slow to react, but the man knows his soccer.
But will we see this same lineup vs. Seattle? It's a tough call, and ultimately that's also part of Bruce's secret genius. Now Sigi Schmidt has no idea what lineup good ol' predictable Bruce is going to put out.