After the Galaxy's 5-2 defeat at the hands of the Portland Timbers, both team and coach lamented about the lack of effort and physicality.
If you look at individual battles, their eleven against our eleven; they just thoroughly dominated us in a physical nature I'd say. It wasn't tactical, it wasn't anything more than I thought their desire to win that game and fight and work was much greater than ours. -- Bruce Arena
"[They won] all over the pitch. And that shouldn't happen. They wanted it. I think it's important we don't be too hard on ourselves as we still have a huge game to play next week, but we have to take responsibility for that second half performance because it was nowhere near good enough. -- Steven Gerrard
While these may very well have been large factors in the loss, the issues mask a much deeper problem that the Galaxy have struggled with ever since Bruce Arena landed on the current Galaxy lineup with Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos playing as forwards, Juninho and Steven Gerrard in the center of the midfield and Sebastian Lletget and Gyasi Zardes on the wings. It's a lineup that suffers from a complete lack of balance.
The LA Galaxy won MLS Cup in 2014 based largely on the wise, mid-season move of Bruce Arena to move Landon Donovan into the midfield and Gyasi Zardes to forward. While there are complex tactical reasons why such a move worked (mainly in the way it allowed Marcelo Sarvas and Robbie Rogers to play), at its most basic level, this was about getting a playmaker into the midfield, while still maintaining the ability to score.
In 2013, teams quickly discovered that the key to shutting down the Galaxy was to pack in centrally and smother the Keane/Donovan tandem as they were the primary play-makers, and this is ultimately what did the team in during the playoffs when RSL came to town and parked the bus. In 2014, after seeing similar tactics at the beginning of the season, Bruce Arena changed the game by moving Landon Donovan into the midfield, making such bunker techniques ineffective as the Galaxy's play-makers were now spread out—one at forward and one at left mid.
If you take a positional look at chance creation numbers per 90 minutes last year, this is clear to see.
But what does any of this have to do with the Galaxy's current woes? If you look at the same figures for the Galaxy's current squad, you'll see that the Galaxy no longer have that balance on the field.
Like the 2013 Galaxy squad, this current Galaxy team suffers from top-heaviness, which means, just like the Galaxy in 2013, this team is living and dying by the creativity of their forwards—something which can be easily tactically prepared for.
In 2014, the Galaxy midfield created an average of 2.26 shots per 90 minutes. The current Galaxy midfield creates a mere 1.36 shots per game. That's a 40% decrease.
So why the sudden change? Let's face it. From an offensive standpoint, Steven Gerrard has been a disappointment, and when you look at the wingers, as talented as they are, they are not play-makers. While Sebastian Lletget has come onto the scene and been absolutely lights out in terms of his technical ability, field awareness, his two way nature and nose for goal, he's simply not creating shots for others at a high level. For all of the pace that Gyasi Zardes offers on the opposite wing, the same can be said for him.
Without play-makers in the midfield, all a team has to do is sit on the Galaxy's forwards to completely neutralize the attack. Forget "physicality" or questions of "wanting it." This is by far the larger issue.
But is this a fixable problem? Yes! And the Galaxy actually have a number of options to address the issue.
1. Swap Gio and Gyasi
Those who follow this website or my ramblings on twitter will know that I've been against the Keane/Gio forward tandem for tactical reasons since day one. It's not a good fit. Neither of them can hold the ball and teams can very easily bunker that tandem out of a game. If Bruce simply mimicked his 2014 fix, this time moving Gio into the midfield instead of Donovan, then teams would have a lot harder time sitting on the Galaxy attack. His 2.77 chance creation per 90 rate could be just what this Galaxy midfield needs, and would likely go up since he would be seeing more of the ball.
2. Jose Villarreal
When Jose Villarreal came into the game against Portland, he reminded us all why we were all so high on him early in the season. His chance creation rate of 2.49 per 90 is well above that of any Galaxy player, except Giovani dos Santos, and, if he can return to full health, then playing him on the wings could be exactly what the doctor ordered.
3. Raul Mendiola
File this under "least likely" and "biggest gamble," but Raul Mendiola could also offer the Galaxy attack what it needs. Unfortunately, I could not find key-pass numbers for USL Pro, but Mendiola's 0.5 assists per 90 speak for themselves. Sure USL Pro is a much lower level than MLS, but if you spend any time watching Raul Mendiola, you'll see that the talent level is there.
But how likely are these fixes? Sadly, not likely at all. Villarreal is still returning to game fitness. Mendiola is an interesting option, but he'll no doubt play significant minutes in Guatemala this week, making his inclusion into the lineup in KC, unlikely. The same can be said for Villarreal. If neither player makes it into the starting 11 for the Galaxy's last regular season game, it's highly unlikely that Bruce Arena will be doing any roster experimenting during the opening round of the playoffs.
This brings us to the Giovani dos Santos solution, which I also don't see Bruce Arena implementing. It's not like Arena is unaware of this option. In fact, it's one that he's very briefly flirted with at times this year, most notably during the second half in Dallas. It's also, essentially, the same choice he faced last year with Gyasi Zardes and Landon Donovan. The fact that Bruce Arena hasn't made the switch already is a major clue that Bruce has a reason for not doing so. Bruce Arena has already stated that Gyasi's "engine" makes him a better defender in that position, and maybe he believes dos Santos too much of a defensive liability on the wing. It really doesn't matter what Bruce Arena's reasoning is--- just that he has one, which is why it's unlikely we'll see Gio lining up on the wings any time soon.
So where does this leave the Galaxy? In a word: vulnerable. This team has tremendous talent, but it does not have balance, leaving them tactically vulnerable in the playoffs to teams looking to shut the forwards down.