Now that Gerrard to LA is all but official, it's time to examine how Steven Gerrard will impact this Galaxy team. As I noted in a previous article, when looking for a "Donovan replacement," the priority stat should be chance creation, as that was Donovan's primary role on the team, creating nearly 25% of the team's total chances. Using this metric, Steven Gerrard is not a bad replacement by any means, as his current mark of 3.1 key passes per 90 in the Premier League this season comes fairly close to Donovan's key pass numbers in MLS last season: 3.6 per 90.
But key pass numbers can sometimes be troublesome. A key pass is simply a pass that leads to a shot, and, as such, is dependent on the skills of others. The best passer in the world, for instance, would be incapable of generating very many key passes if he was playing on a team whose players are not getting into positions advantageous to shooting.
While Landon Donovan is a terrific passer, it helped that Landon was constantly feeding Robbie Keane, who takes the most shots of any striker in the league. Likewise, Robbie Keane, who created around 15% of the Galaxy's chances last year, would not have been able to create so many chances in a system where he wasn't drifting into the same space as a withdrawn striker, that Landon cuts inside too as an inverted winger.
The 2014 Galaxy, one of the most prolific offenses in MLS history, was built around sustained passing sequences, affording Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane as much time as possible to get into positions where they could work in quick combination. The end result was the famed tiki-taco offense which scored in bushels, often through breathtaking one touch passing sequences in and around the box between three players or more, turning the opposition defenders into little more than cones.
In other words, Tiki-Taco was built around the Galaxy's two primary chance creators, and where they liked to operate on the field. For evidence of this, there is a clear symmetry between the areas of the field where Landon Donovan created chances, seen below.
... and the areas of the field where the Galaxy system as a whole was creating chances.
But let's bring this back to Steven Gerrard. While his key pass numbers are as impressive as Donovan's, the areas in which those key passes are coming from are completely different and will almost certainly necessitate a complete retooling of the Galaxy system. Here is where Steven Gerrard creates his chances.
As you can see, Gerrard creates chances from much farther back on the field. So why does that matter if he statistically creates roughly the same amount of shots as Donovan? This brings us back to the troublesome nature of key passes.
Just as Donovan and Keane are only able to produce their gaudy numbers in a system that is conducive to it-- that is to say, a system that puts them in the right positions and surrounds them with the right players, so too will Gerrard's numbers be dependent on how the team is built around him. And this is the tricky part.
In his hay day, Steven Gerrard would have been perfect for the Galaxy system. A box to box midfielder similar to Sarvas and Juninho, his passing can unlock defenses. Unfortunately however, Steven Gerrard is no longer that box to box player. Age has taken a toll on his legs, and, as such, his game has shifted more to that of a poor man's Pirlo. In other words, a deep lying play-maker whose long diagonals can open up a defense at will.
Sound familiar? Essentially, this was the role that David Beckham played for the Galaxy. In the good ol' days of 2011 and 2012, the midfield was built around Beckham's strengths and weaknesses. Juninho would sit behind him to tidy up his lack of defensive effort, freeing up Becks to strike those long diagonals. With the likes of Donovan and Keane able to run onto those balls, those Galaxy teams were built on sitting back, drawing in teams, then hitting hard on the counter.
So, can the Galaxy be equally effective as those Beckham teams, employing the same kind of strategy? Unfortunately, the answer isn't so simple, and, again, the key lies in the surrounding personel. While the tactics may be sound in theory, they can only be executed with the right players. Gerrard fills the Beckham role nicely, and Keane's role remains the same, but who fills the role that Donovan played on those teams?
When Beckham joined the team, he would serve long balls in perfect stride to Donovan on the regular, who would then facilitate some potent fast breaks. This worked especially well because Donovan's ability to work a counter attack is absolutely world class. He has speed, he knows where to run, he knows how to manipulate space, and he's good in combination.
At present, however, no Galaxy players possess these traits. Ishizaki is good at manipulating space and working combinations, but lacks pace. Zardes has the speed but has yet to develop the positional sense to combine effectively with Keane on the counter. He would have to make incredible strides quickly in order to become a viable option.
So where does that leave LA'? In my mind, there are three options.
Option 1: The Galaxy can play Gerrard as a deep lying playmaker, and simply hope that Zardes can improve quickly. He has a long ways to go, but it's hard to deny that the kid is making good progress.
Option 2: The Galaxy fill the void with a non-DP signing. It's a hard task, and of late, most of the hidden gems of Concacaf and Conembol we have attempted to excavate have turned out to be duds, however, there are plenty of MLS teams who exist primarily on finding exactly these type of game changing players on the cheap. It's just a matter of scouting and luck.
Option 3: Teach an old dog new tricks. Gerrard may have his comfort zone, but who's to say that he can't perform equally well outside of it? Why not put ol' Stevie G at the point of a diamond midfield and see what happens. He's got the mind, he's got the vision, and he's got the passing ability, and it's the system that probably fits the personnel best.
Of course, all of this is complicated by the fact that Gerrard won't be joining the team until July, meaning Bruce essentially has to come up with two systems this year. On the bright side, we've got some promising youngsters on the bench in Bradford Jamison IV and Raul Mendiola, and an absence of wingers will no doubt mean they will be getting more time in the first half of the season. Perhaps, even, one of them could hold the key to recreating the counter approach of the Beckham years.