clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Is Giovani dos Santos a bad fit for the LA Galaxy?

New, 4 comments

While Giovani dos Santos is undoubtedly a good player, is he a bad fit for the LA Galaxy?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With the LA Galaxy's recent acquisition of Dan Kennedy and reports that LA is working to resign Omar Gonzalez with newly minted TAM from the league, the picture of what this team will look like come opening day next year is slowly coming into focus.

"If we have a healthy team, get them right, and have some additions in positions we need help, we could be a real good team next year," Arena told Kevin Baxter of the LA Times, adding that there will be some new additions, but conceding "whether you call them name people or not, that remains to be seen."

While the addition of Dan Kennedy is a welcome one, and the prospect of new players coming in, intriguing, one could very easily argue that the problem with the LA Galaxy in 2015 had nothing to do with what was missing, but rather the clubs commitment to players who simply didn't fit together.  In my opinion, the trouble all began when the club signed Mexican star, Giovani dos Santos.

Statistically, Giovani dos Santos is a truly elite MLS player. In fact, he's one of the best chance creators in the league, ranking third in expected assists per 90 (a measure of how many assists a player is expected to have given the quality of the shots being created by their passes as determined by expected goals).

Player

xA p90

Chance Creation p90

Touch%

Cristian Maidana

0.348175

3.98853

0.127

Martin Perez Garcia

0.339172

3.535032

0.125

Giovani dos Santos

0.335676

2.918919

0.077

Mauro Diaz

0.328711

2.929688

0.121

Kwadwo Poku

0.321872

2.926108

0.099

Javier Morales

0.317532

3.896104

0.149

Fabian Espindola

0.287934

2.961609

0.085

Benny Feilhaber

0.287595

2.637495

0.113

Giovani is able to do this despite having a chance creation rate, (the number of shots he creates with his passes per 90 minutes) lower than the likes of Javier Morales and Cristian Maidana. But why is his chance creation rate lower? When you break it down, it's pretty simple. Giovani dos Santos doesn't get nearly the same amount of touches per game as a guy like Javier Morales, and this is because he plays as a forward where touches are harder to come by. It's a simple fact of soccer that forwards don't get as many touches as midfielders.

Giovani dos Santos is a forward that likes to drop back, and this is certainly reflected in his touch percentage compared to other forwards, but the difference is marginal in the big picture of forwards vs. midfielders. Just to give you an idea of the disparity, if you look at the touch percentage of all players in the league with over 1000 minutes of play, the first true forward to appear is Conor Doyle, who ranks 144th.

But why does this matter? One way to look at touch percentage is a measure of a player's influence on a game. The more touches a player has, the more chances they have to impact the game. From a numbers perspective, a player like Giovani dos Santos, who is a bonafide chance creator, may have fewer chances to impact the game than a Javier Morales, but the impact of this is off-set by the quality of the chances they are able to deliver (hence the higher xA numbers) and ability to score on their own.

It's a truly hybrid position and there isn't an xG+xA leader in MLS who splits his stats so evenly between the two categories, as you can see below.

Player

xG + xA p90

xG p90

xA p90

Chance Creation p90

Touch%

Sebastian Giovinco

0.847038

0.59224652

0.254791

2.254473

0.08

David Villa

0.798613

0.60680958

0.191425

1.85372

0.078

Kei Kamara

0.788748

0.64504754

0.1437

1.354992

0.058

Robbie Keane

0.756591

0.57100176

0.185589

1.792619

0.06

Didier Drogba

0.746169

0.61001965

0.136149

1.768173

0.092

Bradley Wright-Phillips

0.737913

0.63384367

0.104069

1.34166

0.056

Clint Dempsey

0.723664

0.45515267

0.268511

2.003817

0.087

Giovani dos Santos

0.705405

0.37135135

0.335676

2.918919

0.077

Like I said, Giovani dos Santos is a very good MLS player, and there isn't a more balanced secondary striker in the league. The problem, however, is that the Galaxy don't have a traditional number 9 for him to play under.

The problem with the Keane/Gio tandem

Robbie Keane has almost no "back to goal" game to speak of, and, while he isn't a chance creator, he tends to operate in the same in-between space as Giovani dos Santos. In this seam between the midfield and defense, Robbie causes positional havoc for defenders and uses his footwork to get off shots for himself.

The Galaxy have two very good strikers who like to operate in the same space, and this makes for an exceptionally bad striker pairing, as I wrote about here after they debuted together.

Now, I have already written about the LA Galaxy's tremendous drop-off in passing numbers from the midfield, in addition to the Galaxy's lack of chance creation balance between the forwards and the midfield.  I know I just linked to three different articles of mine, but I'm doing so in order to point out that these issues, which can be seen on the field and in the data, are inextricably linked.

A solution in theory

In theory, if Giovani dos Santos is moved back into the midfield, his touches will go up, as will the number of passes from Lletget, Gerrard and Juninho since the ball would circulate more. More touches for Dos Santos would mean more chances for him to orchestrate, much in the way that the movement of Landon Donovan was the driving factor behind Tiki-Taco. While the xG side of Dos Santos' game would likely take a hit, the xG increase to Sebastian Lletget and Gyasi Zardes would more than offset it, as was the case when Gyasi Zardes was moved to forward and Donovan to midfield in 2014 when similar problems occurred with that forward tandem.

But this solution is much easier to talk about in theory than implement in practice, as it's unclear where in the midfield Gio fits. Luckily, there are resources out our disposal to help explore this very issue.

Whoscored.com is a wonderful site with freely available OPTA data for leagues around the world, and one which lets you sort various data points in a number of neat ways. One of these ways is by minutes at a position, which is extremely helpful for players that get moved around the field a bunch. While OPTA does not have complete data on Givoani dos Santos' entire career, it does provide an impressive sample size of  5086 minutes as a striker, 2101 as an attacking winger, and 623 minutes as a CAM, across all leagues and competitions.  Here are some relevant stats which can help us better understand where Giovani can and can't fit, relative to position.


Minutes

Passes p90

Chance Creation p90

Cross %

Throughball %

Shots p90

Goals p90

Goals+Assists p90

Defensive Actions p90

Fwd

5086

24.21

1.8

21%

5%

2.41

0.35

0.65

1.01

Winger

2101

26.9

2.44

67%

0%

2.83

0.21

0.39

1.46

CAM

623

24.13

2.02

43%

0%

1.3

0

0.14

2.17

The problems with the 4-4-2

The Galaxy, at present, play a 4-4-2 with no target forwards. It's a system which can work beautifully, as we saw in 2014, or fall stale, as we saw in 2013 and 2015. One of the principal factors needed for such a system to have any bite, is a #10 winger who blends wide play and inverted runs to create chances.  Despite the goal scoring success of Sebastian Lletget and the athleticism of Gyasi Zardes, neither of them were able to fill this role in 2015.

A good #10 winger has to be involved in ball circulation, active on the defensive side, and, if the team plays without a true target forward, create chances in a variety of ways.

For me, the model for such a player is, and will always be, Landon Donovan in 2014. Can Giovani dos Santos play a similar role? Below is a chart of Gio's career numbers as a winger vs. Landon's 2014 numbers at left mid.


Passes p90

Chance Creation p90

Cross %

Throughball %

Defensive Actions p90

Landon Donovan

53.29

5.17

30%

5%

2.63

Giovani dos Santos

26.9

2.44

67%

0%

1.46

From a circulation standpoint, Gio does not have nearly the pass numbers as Landon Donovan as a winger, and if you refer back to the previous chart, they don't get much better when he's a CAM. While this is certainly a concern, there is some context to consider. The 2014 LA Galaxy were a high possession team, and not just because of Landon Donovan. In fact, Juninho and Rogers had more touches per game than Landon. I bring this up because the passing stats on good passing teams tend to get boosted significantly.  Another factor to consider is that Landon and Gio may have played different roles for their teams.

From a chance creation perspective, the numbers also lack promise. Landon Donovan had a ridiculous chance creation year in 2014, and it's pretty unfair to compare anyone to it. That being said, there is certainly some value in comparing how these players have traditionally played this position in the past. From a chance creation perspective, Landon Donovan certainly has a better record from the wing position. More importantly, the diversity of his chances makes for a more dynamic attack since he's the one pulling the strings. Dos Santos' chance creation game, on the other hand, is very cross dependent.

The value of the cross is hard to value in the modern game. On the one hand, shots created from crosses are converted at a much lower rate than other passes, so a player who is cross dependent will not get as many assists (see Stefan Ishizaki). On the other hand, the presence of a player out wide who can play a cross, opens space inside for others to work in (see Stefan Ishizaki).

With 0 target forwards to cross to, and 0 throughballs from the wing position in the data, the numbers don't look good for Gio, however, the data could also be an artifact of the style of Mallorca during his time there. Mallorca was by no means a team who held possession well in 2012, and, as a chance creator, Dos Santos' main target was forward Tomer Hemed, who is known for his aerial prowess.  Perhaps evidence of adaptability can be seen in his chance creation numbers as a forward.

All of his career throughballs were played at Villarreal as a secondary striker where he had the likes of Uche, Peirera and Cani making runs. This suggests that effective throughballs are certainly in his arsenal as a chance creator when presented with good attacking runs.

The question of role could also be important to breaking down the defensive action discrepancy between Giovani dos Santos and Landon Donovan.  As a winger for Mallorca, dos Santos played a more advanced position than the opposite winger in their slanted 4-2-3-1. This is not at all uncommon with this formation, and can be seen in MLS.  Ethan Finlay, for instance, had a defensive action rate of 1.2 p90 in 2015, while Lloyd Sam's was 1.8.

Are these players defensively poor or are their numbers a product of their role? While the question is hard to measure, the fact that Giovani dos Santos has a significantly higher defensive action rate when played in the center of the park, leads me to believe that the severity of his low numbers is partially to do with the role he was playing on the wing. This is not to say that he is a good defender, but it certainly puts the numbers in perspective.

Putting these caveats aside, let's say that Giovani dos Santos simply isn't a fit for the 4-4-2. Let's say he isn't the type of player who will get enough touches, be diverse enough in his chance creation, and a defensive liability. What are the Galaxy to do?

The problems with a 4-2-3-1

The obvious solution to the Galaxy's problems in this scenario is a switch to a 4-2-3-1 or even a 4-3-3. The problem, however, is that Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes don't exactly fit such a system. While Gyasi Zardes has the muscle for the lone striker job, his positioning and movement leaves something to be desired.

Robbie Keane is a more viable option, as his passing skills are up to the task, however, Robbie Keane has a tendency to play in a very Robbie Keane way, i.e, dropping back under the defense to work shots. While Robbie would no doubt get his goals, it would hurt build up as a whole.

Even if Robbie Keane were to fit such a system, the problem quickly becomes one of what to do about Gyasi Zardes. Gyasi does not have the passing skills or vision to play in a possession oriented midfield where guys like Jose Villarreal, Ignacio Maganto and Raul Mendiola would be far more at home on the wings. In other words, Gyasi would have to be benched in order for such a solution to work. As much as I would welcome this, I simply don't see the Galaxy easing off their stubbornness when it comes to the development of Gyasi Zardes over bench players with more midfield promise.

The problem with the diamond

Another solution might be to move Giovani dos Santos more centrally and play a diamond. While Gio's data as a CAM isn't stellar, it's also limited in minutes. This would limit his crossing, which is a problem we see from his wing data, and accentuate his throughball skills, which is something that comes through when he plays as a secondary striker. It would also do a great deal to raise the Galaxy's possession game and get more chance creators into the midfield (Villarreal, Nacho or Mendiola).

The problem, of course, is Steven Gerrard. The Galaxy are not going to bench Steven Gerrard, which leaves the only diamond option as playing him as an unprotected regista while playing Juninho wide right as a shuttler. If you ever want a recipe for a defensively broken midfield, that's it.

The only solution is to gamble

At the end of the day, the Galaxy have assembled a group of DP's who simply do not work together. Keane makes it impossible to play Gio in his natural position. Gerrard makes it impossible to play Gio in a diamond , and Gyasi Zardes has no place in a 4-2-3-1.

This leaves the Galaxy with only two options going into the next season. The first is a simple one, and it's the one I'll put my money on them choosing. Change nothing. Continue to play the broken forward combination of Gio and Keane and a pair of wingers who don't create chances and somehow hope that "talent" will win out over bad tactics and history.

The second option is a bit of a gamble, but it's the only viable one that offers a solution beyond the crossing of fingers. Keep the 4-4-2 and play Giovani dos Santos at right mid. Will his lack of defensive effort and over reliance on crossing from the wing be a problem? Possibly, but what the heck is the point of having a veteran coach in Bruce Arena who understands player management so well, and a player like Giovani dos Santos who is the product of the greatest soccer academy in the world, if said coach can't force said player to do things that the player should know from his understanding of the game, will be beneficial to the team? It's a tough task, but isn't this kind of the point of Bruce Arena?

What do you think about the Galaxy's predicament? Think Bruce can fix it? What's the solution? Sound off below.