In the 1970's, player fitness and amphetamine science had finally reached a point where "pressing soccer" was able to come to fruition. The Netherlands and the USSR were the first to the game, and their swarming ball pressure completely changed the nature of soccer as we know it. A lot has changed since then. Haircuts have gotten less goofy, soccer shorts have become less plum hugging, but the importance of ball pressure has remained the same.
On Saturday, the Houston Dynamo lined up in a 4-1-4-1 looking to out-man the LA Galaxy midfield and while many would call their performance cynical, few will argue its effectiveness in neutralizing the Galaxy attack. There is also a certain level of genius that gets discounted when you toss out what the Dynamo did as bus parking. The Galaxy have faced their fare share of teams that have sat back on them as well as teams that pressure the ball constantly, and, for the most part, in both cases it has been something the Galaxy have been able to consistently overcome.
When teams press, the Galaxy tend to use quick passing sequences to get behind the pressing lines and exploit that opened space behind. When teams sit back, the Galaxy tends to push their lines high and circulate the ball around the box until something opens up.
Of course, pressing soccer usually pulls defenders out of shape by its very nature, which makes it very hard to pull off when the prime directive from the manager is to sit back and keep shape. In other words, it is very hard to be able to do both, and yet this is exactly what the Dynamo did that so frustrated the Galaxy.
"We lost too many battles on the night." Bruce Arena
The genius of Houston's 5 man midfield scheme was that they did it through a 4-1-4-1. Most teams that attempt to play 5 midfielders to out-man our 4-4-2 tend to do so with two midfielders sitting back which brings the point of ball pressure further back in their defensive half. Houston's high line of four, however, pushed that point of ball pressure deeper back, while giving them enough players to absorb nearby passing options.
In many ways, it is quite similar to what Dortmund does with their space oriented Gegenpressing which this article explains in the following way:
The entire team presses in the direction of the ball and seeks to generate the greatest possible pressure. This pressure should force errors, enable the team to cover and support the first pressing player, and simultaneously absorb the nearby passing options in their cover shadow.
What the Dynamo did was not Gegenpressing, as Gegenpressing is pressure applied immediately after losing the ball (which Houston had very little of), but they did very much initiate space oriented pressure higher up the field and created effective cover shadow robbing the Galaxy of immediate passing options. Their ability to do this was inherently tied to their 4-1-4-1 shape.
In modern soccer, pressure is often more than about forcing quick decisions. Done properly, it can also be a means of directing opposition ball movement into predictable patterns. Basically, if you give only one passing option, guess where the pass is more than likely going?
The Dynamo turned the midfield into a 3 v 2 situation with Ricardo Clark and Luis Garrido setting a high point of engagement with Juninho and Husidic, while Nathan Sturgis sat back awaiting to shift towards and shut down passing lanes of the subsequent pass receiver—usually a winger or fullback.
The above sequence is a rough outline of the type of movement that the Galaxy were facing. It is far from perfect since the jerseys are so damn big in that formation creator, but it should give you an idea of what Houston did that so smothered the Galaxy attack at its source.
Look at this pressure on Rogers and the number and positioning of the surrounding Houston players. Again, this isn't Dortmund's Gegenpressing, but the cover shadow isn't all that different: Garrido with the pressure on Robbie Rogers and Sturgis stepping in to join the pressure but making sure to simultaneously occupy the passing lane to Robbie Keane.
This isn't traditional "park the bus" midfield overloading. If a bus is being parked, it's not being parked in front of goal. The bus is being parked in front of Baggio Husidic and Juninho in the middle third. But there is an inherent risk to this style, and it's one that the Galaxy are currently ill suited to exploit. When Sturgis shifts, there is a huge hole for an attacking midfielder to exploit. Keane is standing in it in the above example.
If Keane receives the ball here, however, he is far too deep to directly facilitate any chances on goal. This will be the job of whoever he is going to pass it to further up the field. Without Landon Donovan, however, the Galaxy don't really have that secondary node of chance creation anymore, which is why forcing Keane back completely killed the Galaxy offense on the night.
Keane even explained that Houston's formation was effecting his normal positioning.
They played 3 in the midfield so the number 6 was getting a lot of the ball, so as we are playing a 4-4-2, naturally one of the strikers drops off on the number six to stop him from getting the ball.
Here is his passing chart on the night. Green boxes are completed passes and the arrows point to the pass destination. Red boxes are incomplete passes. Yellow boxes are key passes (passes leading to a shot)
As you can see, the biggest cluster of his passes come extremely far back on the left side of the midfield. On the right side he was able to get forward a bit more as evidenced by the site of his second biggest cluster of passes, but he was unable to create a shot from this cluster.
There are two main reasons why the Galaxy attack looked the most promising on the right. When Juninho sent balls to the right, Baggio Husidic was able to move forward whereas in the same situation on the left he would have to make himself available for a reset as depicted earlier.
What would often result from these movements down the right was Baggio's positioning would allow Keane to get forward into more facilitative positions where he could supply Zardes and Jose Villarreal who would often fill the hole as the second forward.
There were plenty of times that the Galaxy broke the press and got the ball to Keane in advanced spaces, and maybe with more incisive runs from Zardes and Villarreal on the night, a simple Keane through ball could have been enough to finish off Houston, but that was not the case.
In essence, Houston's 4-1-4-1 was a recognition and exploitation of the fact that the Galaxy only have one real DP on the field (yeah, I said it) and rely so heavily on midfield penetration to keep him in dangerous areas. Here are the passing charts for LA in the final third. On the left are successful passes and on the right are unsuccessful passes. In both cases, there is a clear hole at the top of the box. They forced us wide and didn't let us reset to the top of the box.
Luckily, most teams will not try something this radical against the Galaxy in the future, however, this is the third game in a row where the Galaxy have been unable to create chances from the center of the field. If the Galaxy can't figure out a solution to this problem, it's going to be a long stretch of games until Gerrard arrives to fix the problem.