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Defensive holes and coaching theory

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Does the early season matter to Bruce Arena?

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

When Robbie Rogers got blamed for Fanendo Adi's goal, I laughed. Not because he wasn't partially culpable (he did keep Adi onside) but because Rogers' positioning was hardly the mistake to highlight on the play. You see, Rogers was actually back. Gargan was not, and Ishizaki makes a huge miscalculation in light of this. You can can watch the goal here.

There is no one behind Stefan Ishizaki, yet he is facing a potential two v one situation against players of superior speed. He decides to put ball pressure on Darlington Nagbe, hoping he can get there before Nagbe can play Rodney Wallace behind him on the overlap. He fails.

Fanendo Adi's first goal is the result of a lingering problem from last year which I have written about before and even postulated prior to the game that it was an area that Portland would do well to attack.  Ishizaki is notorious for pushing high up the field and the LA offense needs its outside backs overlapping. This leaves a huge hole behind them when the ball is turned over and unlike Rogers and Villarreal on the left, neither have the recovery speed to get back in time.

Ideally, we have AJ DeLaGarza back there, either as right back which fixes the recovery speed problem, or center back, where he can sweep up the problems, as Omar and Leonardo fail to do on this play. But fail is a harsh word, even for Leonardo. The fact of the matter is, there really shouldn't be hole to begin with, and with AJ not there to sweep things up, it was a bit of a tactical blunder by Bruce to play the Ishizaki/Gargan pairing.

If you think I'm extracting too much from one play, think again. The opta data shows that our entire right side was woefully under-defended.

Here is Portland's attacking half passing on the wings (spatial note: remember that Portland's left attacks LA's right, and vice versa). Portland's left side saw 51 passes which were completed at an accuracy of 76%. Portland's right side saw 58 passes at  66%. Balanced passing numbers, but Portland saw a 10% decrease in accuracy on the right. As you can also see, Portland had almost no success from the touchline to the corner of the 18 on the right (red dots are incomplete passes).

Why is this? For one, Rogers tracks back far better than Gargan as the heat maps show.

The second reason is that when you compare defensive actions in the defensive half for Ishizaki and Jose Villarreal, it's night and day. Villarreal has 7 ball recoveries, 1 blocked cross, 1 clearance and 1 tackle. Ishizaki has 1 recovery, 1 blocked cross, and 2 clearances.

Ishizaki simply isn't recovering the ball, and combined with Gargan's issues getting back in time, it's a defensive hole. Here are the team's total defensive actions on the wings in their half.

With 34 defensive actions on the left and 11 on the right, the left is out defending the right by 68% despite only seeing 12% more passes.

I'd like to reiterate that this is a lingering problem from last year. Columbus exploited it. Portland exploited it (thrice counting this game), and Colorado exploited it. Now, we don't know what's going on with AJ, but Bruce had better options than getting thrice burned on the same mistake. Sorto and Rogers both have the speed to cover Ishizaki and both performed well at right back in preseason. If Todd Dunivant is too rusty to start at left back, then why not move Zardes to left mid and Villarreal to right? Want Zardes close to goal? Fine, play Bradford Jamieson IV on the left and Villarreal on the right.

If the issue is that Bruce feels both Dunivant isn't ready and Ishizaki needs to be on the field for offense, then this too is a tactical blunder. When Ishizaki is on the wing, he doesn't really work combinations or runs inside. Instead, he pumps crosses and long balls into the box.  But this is exactly what you want if your Portland because Liam Ridgewell and Nat Borchers will win those all day. This is exactly what they did.

Did Ishizaki get an assist off of a set piece? Yes, but how many possessions in the attacking third did we waist with balls into the box that we had no hope of winning? And does it make up for the lack of ball recoveries?

Now I'm not trying to attack Ishizaki. He's a good player. I'm merely saying in the grand picture, with AJ out and against a team that has burnt the Ishizaki/Gargan tandem twice before, Bruce handled the situation poorly and we're extremely lucky to walk out of that game with a point. It's been a persistent problem and one that Bruce was seemingly aware of last year as he began platooning Ishizaki with Baggio Husidic in addition to giving AJ minutes at right back.

So why not take action? Is it the same reason that Bruce played Kenney Walker in the opener and we didn't see the first choice lineup once in  preseason? Is this some sort of coaching gambit where you don't treat early points as seriously as late points in an effort to hit stride by the playoffs rather than burn out?

This seems to be the theory of many Galaxy fans I have engaged with on twitter and given the success of 2012 and 2014 when the Galaxy got off to a slow start, and conversely, the failure to make it to MLS Cup in 2010 despite winning the shield and going unbeaten for the first 11 games of the season, this is a totally understandable theory, and perhaps there is something to it.

Personally, I feel that all points count the same in the end, and whether it's week 2 or week 20, the LA Galaxy should fight for them the same. This is especially true now that the highest seed get's to host MLS Cup, since home teams are unbeaten since the change.

The Galaxy hosting in 2012 was flukey, and the 2014 western conference final was a inches away on a Juninho shot from going in Seattle's favor. Seeds matter. Points matter.  And if the fans are right and this is some sort of coaching strategy by Bruce Arena, it's a risky one.