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Hell Hath Frozen Over: When did Leonardo get good?

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It's time for LA Galaxy fans to recognize that Leonardo is positively contributing to the defense.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Facepalm gifs come to mind when thinking of Leonardo's performances in previous years.  The start of 2014 was particularly brutal.  Although everyone has tried to purge it from our minds, let's remember this travesty:

  1. Leonardo gets beat down the right in minute 1, then loses his man who scores
  2. Entire defense gets beat by a ball over the top through a hole the size of the ocean between James Riley and Leo; Xolos goal
  3. Lazy defending by Leo trying to trap a ball, gets stripped, leads to a goal
  4. Leo inexplicably diving in for a header when he's 1 v 2, gets beat for a goal
  5. Though not in the highlights, he also got away with a potential PK towards the end of the game

He was a dumpster fire that day.  Leo's worst game in an LA jersey came at the worst possible time - during a CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinal game amidst an epic comeback by the LA Galaxy offense led by Robbie Keane.  (At one point I feared for Leo's life every time he glanced at the Irishman.)  Many fans wouldn't have had an issue if Leo got left behind in Tijuana, never to return.

Fans have long memories, and for the next set of games, any time Leo was inserted onto the pitch, the opposing team was immediately mentally credited a goal via a "Leonardo brain fart."  It felt like Leo was constantly facing his own goal, getting beat, making a horrid back pass, and in general looking like a rhino on skates in the backfield.

It got to the point where fans wondered if Bruce Arena had lost his marbles, or if Leo had incriminating photos.

Then a miracle happened.

Somewhere in the back half of 2014, Leonardo's mistakes diminished.  It felt like a mirage, but the team defense was good...actually, great.  Leo was part of the #1 defense in the league.  Per WhoScored:

2014

Team

Defense Rating

1

L.A. Galaxy

7.26

2

Seattle Sounders FC

7.12

3

Portland Timbers

7.08

Leonardo's final two games of the season - the away playoff game against Seattle, and the MLS Cup Final - were quiet, something to aspire to as a CB.  For once, he went unnoticed, and for Leonardo that's a feat.

So what changed?  And has it continued into 2015?

Leonardo is a decent passer.  Looking over 2014 to 2015 to date, his successful pass ratio is 85%.  That's better than Omar, and among the better passers on the team (2014 82% avg passing accuracy, 2015 77%).  He doesn't loosely give up the ball, barring the occasional bad back pass.

Looking at his defensive metrics, there are a few areas where Leonardo demonstrated marked improvement over 2014 and into 2015:

  • Tackles lost
  • Aerial duels
  • Interceptions

Tackles Lost & Aerial Duels

Leo's tackles lost chalkboard stat has gone from 0.5/game to 0.2/game year over year.  It seems like he has his back to goal more often, he's better at shielding, and he's going to ground less.  Not sure if this is because he's been healthier and trusts his body more, or if it's something else, but regardless, there are fewer moments where he's left in the dust.  Leo only has 2 tackles lost this year, and strung together 7 games back to back with no tackles lost - something he never did in 2014.

Note that this stat doesn't include fouls given up - the MLS Opta chalkboard counts those separately.  That's the less positive note:  Leo is fouling more often in 2015, likely as a result of the increased number of times the midfield loses the ball in dangerous positions.   This is particularly true on the left where he plays - Landon Donovan is no longer there to keep the opposing defense honest.  No offense to the rotating door of LA left midfielders, but they are not going to carry the threat that Landon Donovan did.  Those set pieces given up in dangerous areas will continue to be an issue if Gerrard or Llettget don't solve LA's midfield possession problems.

In 2015, Leonardo is also winning headers more often.  His aerial duels won stat improved 15% year over year - he wins 2/3 of the aerial duels he's in.  Looks like he's using his body better.

Using squakwa's stats, and comparing Leonardo to Omar and the team average in both tackles and aerial duels, Leonardo has improved in both tackles won (including fouls) and aerial duels at a faster rate than the team average.  His aerial duels improvement actually beats Omar, though Omar's tackles won rate is better than Leo's (and one of the sources of Omar's improvement year over year).

Interceptions

By far the biggest area where Leonardo has shown marked improvement in the last year and a half is interceptions.  Check out his trend line from 2014 to present:

As a result of this improvement, Leo's mix of defensive plays has accordingly changed year over year:

Leonardo has been much, much better about cutting out balls before they become dangerous, and he's less prone to the bonehead dives exemplified by the fourth goal against Xolos.  It appears that he's reading the game better.

LA has been facing more passes to cut out with their midfield not retaining the ball at the same rate this year.  Average possession is down from 53% in 2014 to 51%.  But even when adjusting for greater passes against, Leonardo still sees significant improvement in interceptions.  The PAPI (passes against per interception) change for LA overall is -20% for 2015 versus 2014.  Aka, LA in 2015 is intercepting more often.  However, Leonardo's interceptions are up 147% in the same time period.  That's a material difference that cannot be explained away by simply saying the Galaxy is intercepting more with greater passes against.

Comparing Leo

Overall, the 2015 LA Galaxy defense doesn't hold a candle to 2014:

2015

Team

Rating

1

Sporting Kansas City

7.22

2

Seattle

7.12

3

Columbus

7.10

13

L.A. Galaxy

6.96

However, the two CBs aren't the problem here, or the goalkeeper, as Penedo has kept LA in games and saved them points already a few times this year.  Per whoscored, Omar Gonzalez is currently ranked as the #2 overall defender, and the #1 CB, in MLS.  Leonardo has broken into the top 10 (!) of active CBs, something all LA Galaxy fans would have scoffed at last year.  In fact, Leo's stats are not that far behind Chad Marshall's, and he passed Jamison Olave this week with Olave's performance against LA.

In Summary

Though he is somewhat protected by Omar Gonzalez currently playing at the top of his game, Leonardo's personal improvements have made an overall difference:

Whatever Leonardo has been doing in the last year has been working.  Staying healthy, keeping focus, being more patient, working with the defensive coaches differently...whatever he's doing he should keep it up.  We're not seeing illusions.  Overall, Leonardo's improvements in interceptions, tackling, and aerial duels have made a huge difference in his performance year over year.

So check out your window.  Pigs may be flying.