There is no shortage of big names on the field for the LA Galaxy. At any given time, the club are fielding players of legendary status and rounding out their lineup with USMNT players and should-be-USMNT-players.
The celebrity bias is obviously going to make it so the biggest of the big names are always in the spotlight, and the American cultural bias is going to make it so the USMNTers are getting their fair share of exposure as well. That attention isn't unwarranted at all, by the way. Robbie Keane has been solid gold, Steven Gerrard has been solid despite a few questionable travel arrangements, and guys like Gyasi Zardes and Omar Gonzalez pull their weight and are rewarded with international call-ups.
But the most influential figure wearing a Los Angeles Galaxy uniform is Juninho. A string-puller-turned-workhorse, Juninho continues to fly under the radar, to a degree, but is often the key cog in the LA Galaxy machine.
Even looking back at each game, Juninho's performance isn't necessarily the first we pick to scrutinize. However, after a hefty chunk of matches, it's a good idea to look back and think, 'What was Juninho doing during this period of time?'
Recently, there might as well be two LA Galaxy teams. There's the squad that was unstoppable in August, stringing together ridiculous wins and goal totals, and there's the squad that sputtered through September before picking up a win over FC Dallas to end the month.
Over these two different spans, LA's results have been dictated by their ability to be effective scorers. Conventional wisdom would dictate that, in order to judge their ability (or lack thereof) to score, one has to look at the performances of the attacking players.
However, turning chances into goals and creating those chances in the first place are two very different things. Over LA's good and bad periods of form, there have been a few constants, one of which is is Steven Gerrard's style of play, another of which is that their results are hugely dependent upon volume of chance creation.
A notable variable, on the other hand, has been the play of Juninho, who often pops up in different places in different matches, with mixed results.
Here are Juninho's passing graphs, courtesy of Opta and MLSsoccer.com, during a smattering of LA's matches over the past two months.
Here he is in their 2-1 win over FC Dallas in August:
Here he is in their 5-1 win over NYCFC:
Here he is in their 0-0 draw with Montreal:
Here he is in their 0-3 defeat to Real Salt Lake:
And here he is in their recent 3-1 win over FC Dallas:
There's quite a bit to sift through here, and it's important to note that the Galaxy played differently as a whole against each of these opponents, and those opponents provided unequal levels of challenge. However, a common theme throughout these matches was that Juninho's passing graphs looked a lot different when the Galaxy were effective going forward versus when they were ineffective.
Interestingly enough, Juninho and LA's effectiveness wasn't necessarily predicated on whether he ended up left, right, or center, but rather on whether or not his movement was concentrated.
A quick example pointed out by the graphs above is the difference between Juninho's positioning in the two matches against FC Dallas and the matches against Real Salt Lake and Montreal. Against Dallas, 2-1 and 3-2 wins, Juninho stayed central, spreading the ball around in a relatively defined pattern from the center of midfield.
Against Montreal and RSL, his positioning is wildly different. There's almost no rhyme or reason to what's happening there. In those matches, a 0-0 draw and a 0-3 defeat, Juninho is trying to be everywhere. The locations from which he is passing are spread out all over the field, and so are the destinations of those passes. Notice how ineffective his long balls were in each of those two matches, excluding crosses from corner kicks.
While these graphs alone aren't going to provide any "Aha, eureka!" sort of breakthrough ideas on how to turn the Galaxy into Barcelona, they provide a very interesting look into how structure, especially positional discipline largely facilitated by Juninho, plays a role in the Galaxy's formula.
When things are going well, it's largely because Juninho is doing what he does best, which is playing a compact d-mid role and connecting the dots between LA's back four and their more advanced midfielders. He provides a defensive buffer for both Steven Gerrard and LA's center backs, while maintaining attacking usefulness by providing outlets and acting as an axis through which to switch the direction of play. His role as a midfielder isn't quite the same as that of a Kyle Beckerman type of player, but his ability to recognize and efficiently play his role is just as important to LA's style of play as Beckerman's is to RSL.
When things are going poorly for the Galaxy, Juninho has a tendency to get away from what makes him, and the Galaxy, effective. Instead of cycling play and providing that buffer, he chases the game. Instead of recovering the ball and making tackles in the middle third, he's suddenly racing into the far reaches of the field in hopes of winning it back.
Two things happen immediately because of that and neither of them are good.
The first is that he's no longer where he should be, and the connection he provides between defense and attack is instantly gone. He gets impatient, and the result is that he starts fervently chasing the game. He tries to do both of his jobs by covering an insane amount of ground, but ends up doing neither.
The second bad thing that happens is that Steven Gerrard is suddenly forced to play the Juninho d-mid role. Unfortunately, Gerrard's mid-30's legs can't cover the ground that Juninho's can and his effectiveness is nominal. It's simply not what he's here for.
What happens next is that LA's shape changes, and their disorganization is exploited by good teams. Juninho gets pulled up field and out wide, Gerrard is running in circles trying to corral the opposition's attack, and LA's midfield is stretched into losing the numbers game in their third. The center backs then have to compensate for both personnel and space, which leads to them getting pulled apart and giving up quality shots on target.
When the Galaxy get into this type of hole in a game, that's usually how it stays. What should be a team easily capable of controlling a match turns into an easily overwhelmed group because they get away from what makes them great.
Bottom line: Juninho is very important. He's like that one all-important Jenga block, and he's the pillow that Los Angeles' back four (and Steven Gerrard) can rest their heads on every night.
When he chases the game and loses sight of his role, things get ugly. When he plays his role effectively, he allows the rest of his team to do what they do best, and LA looks like the best attacking team the league has ever seen.