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The decline of LA Galaxy passing

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An in-depth look at the Galaxy's 2015 passing numbers

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When Bruce Arena inherited the LA Galaxy, he wasted no time righting the ship by turning the club into a disciplined counter-attacking team.  While fans across the league often bemoaned the style, giving Arena the nickname "Bunker Bruce," there was no denying its success. In 2009, the Galaxy made it to the MLS Cup Final. In 2010, the Galaxy won the Supporters Shield. In 2011, the Galaxy won the Shield and the Cup, and in 2012, the Galaxy won their second consecutive MLS Cup. After the exit of David Beckham, however, the Galaxy began to shift more towards the direction that modern soccer was going.

Over the last decade, perhaps no tactical movement has had a greater influence on the direction of modern soccer than that of the Tiki-Taka style perfected by Pep Guardiola during his legendary tenure at the helm of Barcelona.

This is not to say that teams went out and copied the style, as Tiki-taka is almost impossible to play since it is entirely based on the incredibly specific skill sets possessed by Barcelona's players at the time, however, Tiki-Taka did awaken a cross continental movement in soccer where teams across the globe started to put more and more emphasis on possession, and throughout the 2013 LA Galaxy season, this is the direction the team chose to move, experiencing their fair share of growing pains along the way.

By 2014, however, the LA Galaxy had managed to transform themselves from one of the best counter-attacking teams this league has ever seen, into one of the most ferociously proactive teams in league history, averaging over 16 shots a game and racking up a dizzyingly high goal differential. At the heart of this change was the same emphasis on possession and ball circulation which had been actively transforming soccer world wide. Tiki-Taco was born and the style propelled the Galaxy to yet another MLS Cup title.

2015, however, saw an entirely different LA Galaxy team. Landon Donovan, Marcelo Sarvas and Stefan Ishizaki all bid the team adieu, replaced by the likes of Giovani dos Santos, Steven Gerrard and Sebastian Lletget. There is no doubt that the Galaxy managed to fill the holes with fine talent, however, the resulting team was much different than that of 2014.

The 2015 LA Galaxy were a team without an identity. The Giovani dos Santos / Robbie Keane forward tandem harked back to the deadly Landon Donovan / Robbie Keane counter attacking team of 2012, however, the team seemed unwilling to play that kind of soccer, trying their best , instead, to be the same kind of proactive, possesion oriented team they were in 2014.

In order to play proactive, possession based soccer, certain sacrifices must be made positionally, as players must push forward quite a bit in order to present passing options and keep the ball circulating. In order for this to work, the positional risk these players assume by taking these attacking positions is off-set by the possession, and, ideally, the resulting goals.

In other words, if you strip away the possession and ball circulation from a team playing such a proactive style, they become little more than a team with poor defensive positioning.  For the 2015 LA Galaxy to continue to be successful using the 2014 model, they'd have to be able to keep up the same level of passing or risk this very fate.  Unfortunately for the Galaxy, they were unable to do so.

In 2015, the Galaxy averaged 51 fewer passes a game than in 2014, and if you go position by position, this was a team wide failure.

Center-mids

Juninho


Passes Per Game

AccLB

InAccLB

AccSP

InAccSP

2014

70.7

6.8

2.4

56.1

5.3

2015

59.4

5.3

3.1

44.9

6.1

Marcelo Sarvas vs. Steven Gerrard


Passes Per Game

AccLB

InAccLB

AccSP

InAccSP

Sarvas

60

4

1.8

47.5

6.7

Gerrard

48.3

4.8

1.9

35.6

6

The Galaxy in 2015 got 23 fewer passes a game from their central midfield tandem then they did in 2014. While people will be quick to dog-pile on Gerrard, it's important to think of how passing works. It's dependant on how often a player has the ball, how often the ball is returned to that player, and how many passing options are available.

Given the drop in Juninho's numbers (using him as a control), it's probably a safe bet that part of the issue here is a decline in at least one of these three departments.  This can be partly explored and verified through the passing numbers of the wingers.

Wingers

Stefan Ishizaki vs. Gyasi  Zardes


Passes Per Game

AccLB

InAccLB

AccSP

InAccSP

Ishizaki

30.6

1.6

1.4

22.7

5

Zardes

26.7

0.5

0.6

20.3

5.3

Landon Donovan vs. Sebastian Lletget


Passes Per Game

AccLB

InAccLB

AccSP

InAccSP

Donovan

50.2

2

1

39.4

7.8

Lletget

35.6

0.6

0.5

29.7

4.7

Between the two wings, the Galaxy are seeing 18.5 fewer passes per game. Of course, most of this has to do with the loss of Landon Donovan's ridiculous 50.2 passes a game number. Zardes and Lletget haven't done a very good job cutting into this deficit, which is why the Galaxy midfield is essentially hemorrhaging passes compared to last year.

With so many passes absent on the wings, it's probably a fair guess that fewer return passes were being played to the central midfielders, which, in turn, means fewer passes from Gerrard and Juninho. Of course, the wingers get a bit of leeway here as well, as it could very well be that the lack of forward runs from the central midfielders is creating fewer passing options for them to play to.

As I said before, the Galaxy's passing failures can be seen across the board and no one player can be blamed for them. In fact, between the forwards and the midfielders, only Giovani dos Santos was passing the ball more than his predecessor.

This is probably even more evidence yet why Giovani dos Santos needs to be moved back into the midfield, but I can only beat that drum so many times.

Taking all these passing numbers into consideration, it's really no wonder why the Galaxy fell on their faces so badly towards the end of the season. As their personnel altered, they failed to adapt their strategies to that personnel. Sebastian Lletget, for instance, is not Landon Donovan, but the attack was never adjusted accordingly. Instead, players continued to move forward with zeal, but without the ball circulation of 2014, the team was easily exposed.

For the Galaxy to succeed in 2016, they'll need to solidify an identity. If they want to keep playing possession soccer, they'll need to reconsider their wing tandem and play at least one forward who is capable of holding the ball. If they opt to return to the ways of the counter, they must spend extra-time in the off-season working on zonal positioning  and discipline.  Regardless of their path, a decision must be made, as this team cannot continue to exist in limbo between the two.