On Friday, the LA Galaxy won their home opener against the Chicago Fire, by the comfortable scoreline of 2-0. For the vast majority of the game, however, it was far from comfortable. The Galaxy opened the season with 74 minutes of offensively anemic soccer. During these 74 minutes the team only created 3 chances and Robbie Keane and Gyasi Zardes could only manage a shot each. In the final 26 minutes, however, the Galaxy turned it on and began to play something resembling Galaxy soccer. So what changed?
One of the biggest revelations of the Tiki-Taco Genome project had to do with the nature of Robbie Keane in the final third. In short, Robbie is not a man who passes the ball very often when he's in and around the box in central areas. It is only when he drifts wide and into non-shooting positions, that he turns chance creator.
The Tiki-Taco Genome project gives full data on this, but here are a few tangible examples from last year. Below is a graphic showing Robbie Keane's activities in the final third. On the left are shots and on the right are passes. Note the lack of passes into the box from central areas. Keane's passing in the final third is primarily from the wings. You can see a clear distinction between areas where he is shooting and areas where he is passing.
Another example of this can be seen below, which are the same charts for the game in Seattle where the Galaxy clinched an MLS Cup birth. Once again, note the lack of passes into the box from central positions. Again, when Keane is in these areas, he's shooting.
Last year, this was a luxury afforded to him by Landon Donovan and Marcelo Sarvas who were usually the ones making central passes. Sarvas' prowess doesn't really need illustration, but since Donovan lined up on the wing, I'll go ahead and illustrate how he was still instrumental to central chance creation. Check out these key pass maps of his.
But on Sunday, we didn't have Landon Donovan or Marcelo Sarvas, and this radically altered the nature of Robbie Keane's final third activities. For one, he didn't drift into wide positions as there was no Donovan or Sarvas to fill that gap. On the left is his heat map against Chicago and on the right is his heat map in MLS Cup.
This meant that we didn't see Keane crossing the ball, which was a key element of the Top Gun style of goal outlined in the Tiki-Taco Genome project. What we did see, however, was Robbie Keane trying to perform Donovan and Sarvas' role. All of a sudden, we're seeing central passes in the final third from him.
Not only was he ineffective in this role, but it limited his ability to do the things he's best at-- drifting around and shooting all the damn time. While Robbie Keane was still able to get three shots from central positions, this is a bit deceptive as he only had one shot prior to the introduction of Baggio Husidic. When Baggio entered the game, the Galaxy returned to the Y-midfield which Mathew Doyle has explained in several articles.
But let's back up a bit. Bruce Arena started a central tandem of Juninho and Kenney Walker, and prior to the game, I voiced my concern over the lineup's lack of a central fulcrum in the attacking third. This was the role that Sarvas played so well in the Y.
Very concerned about Walker/Juninho tandem. Walker doesn't go forward enough for it to be all that effective.— Sean Steffen (@SeanSteffen) March 7, 2015
The concern proved to be justified as the 74 minutes that Kenney Walker played were the anemic 74 minutes I've been alluding to.
As much as I like K-Walks, he is essentially Captain Safe Pass and thus a poor partner for Juninho who likes to sit back and serve diagonals. Juninho's ability to do this is absolutely key to our offense, however, since he sits so far back, it is important that his partner push up and provide a more direct central link in the final third.
Kenney Walker is not that player. Baggio Husidic is. Check out their respective passing maps. Kenney Walker is almost all side to side with nothing happening in the final third. Baggio Husidic, however, sat on top of the box and provided what Sarvas and Donovan used to provide-- a central attacking fulcrum.
This freed Keane, who was trying to fill this role himself, to play like Robbie Keane once more: Shoot and wander.
The substitution of Baggio Husidic was the turning point in the game. 6 of the Galaxy's 13 shots happened after Baggio Husidic was subbed on. In fact 70% of the Galaxy's chance creation came after Baggio was subbed in, 43% of which came directly from Baggio Husidic. In limited minutes, Baggio outperformed the rest of the team's combined final third chance creation output as you can see below.
He also accounted for 16% of the passes made during his time on the field--by far the highest percentage during that period.
In essence, on Friday night we saw just how important the central fulcrum in the attacking third is to our attack. Without it, Robbie Keane does not have the ability to focus on shots or drift into dangerous wide positions where he is so successful creating chances from. We were also reminded of something the TIki-Taco Genome project highlighted quite well. Baggio Husidic is very good at this role, and, if he can stay healthy, the loss of Sarvas really isn't going to be as impactful as most fans think.
Of course, the fact that we don't have a good back up for such a central cog to the attack is cause for concern, however, the signing of Mika Vayrynen should fix the issue, as long as he proves to be of the quality that the Galaxy believes him to be.
But last year it wasn't just Sarvas. Donovan also played the fulcrum role his fair share. Prior to the game, I tweeted that I wanted to see Jose Villarreal drift inside when Keane pulled wide, much like Donovan used to do. As a natural withdrawn forward, Jose Villarreal should theoretically prove to be perfect for this as he would be drifting into the space of his natural position, but Jose Villarreal was subbed out before Husidic came onto the field and freed Keane to drift.
If both Husidic and Villarreal start in Portland, the Galaxy will theoretically have all the pieces needed to play that dangerous blend of Tiki-Taco and Top Gun which made them so dangerous last year. More on this later in the week.