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The LA Galaxy's impending identity crisis

Why Bruce Arena may be fast approaching the biggest coaching challenge of his career.

Jaime Valdez-USA TODAY Sports

In 2012, soccer historian and tactics guru, Jonathan Wilson, boldly declared in an article for The Guardian that "a team can control possession or it can control position, but it can't do both."  The article compares the tiki-tacka of Barcelona to the positional style of Chelsea, although most fall somewhere in between.  In essence, position and possession must be thought of as a spectrum and in order to make gains on one end, concessions must be made on the other.

In the early days of Bruce Arena, the Galaxy were known for their iron grip on positioning and as a result, it wasn't really until 2014 that the Galaxy were one of the league's elite possession squads.

Going back to our spectrum, in order to make gains in possession, defensive shape must be sacrificed as fullbacks wingers and even center mids are required further and further up the field. The result is opening space behind.

Of course, the common wisdom is that if one is truly playing possession soccer, it does not matter how much space exists behind because the opponent won't have the ball. While this theory does have some merit, it's hardly as black and white as it is presented. In 2011, the correlation between possession percentage and shots against was 33%. In 2012 it was 37%. In 2013 it was 38%. In 2014, however, it was only 13%.

And when you go through the data, you'll find teams like RSL in 2014 that managed to out possess all but one team in the league but ended up giving up more shots than they took. RSL wasn't creating nearly enough chances from their possession, which, from the standpoint of our spectrum, is risking a lot of space behind in return for very little payoff.

After a string of injuries in 2015, Bruce Arena reverted back to the other side of the spectrum. At one time last month, the Galaxy were allowing the most final third passes per shot against in the league. In other words, they were keeping the ball in front of them. During that same period, possession was drastically down but the Galaxy suffered little loss in the way of goals against average. In many ways, it was a lot like the 2009-2012 Galaxy teams, minus the bite of Landon Donovan on the counter or the ridiculous set piece conversion rate those Beckham teams possessed (although for awhile, the Gordon, Ishizaki tandem wasn't far off the pace).

In the last few games, however, with the return of Robbie Keane and the emergence of Jose Villarreal, Nacho Maganto and Mika Vayrynen, the Galaxy offense has once again returned to its 2014 possession ways. The problem is, they have yet to return to their 2014 chance creation ways.

If possession doesn't create enough chances, what you experience in breakdowns is a net loss, especially since counter attacking goals are scored at higher rates because there are fewer defenders impeding the chance. This principal was rather painfully demonstrated to us during last Saturday's home loss to Vancouver.  The Galaxy absolutely dominated Vancouver on the ball, with 65.6% of the possession; however Vancouver, absolutely dominated the night when it came to scoring opportunities.

The problem, as it has been since the Galaxy's very first game of the season against Chicago, has been a lack of penetration into what I call the chance creation danger zone, depicted below.

Here is the Galaxy's completed passes during the Vancouver game. Notice the hole.

While the Galaxy players were quick to dismiss this as a result of Vancouver's tactics of sitting back, this has been a trend all season as pointed out multiple times by not only myself, but people much smarter than me like Mathew Doyle.  It also bears out in the numbers. Production is down from 58.6% to 47.2% from central attacking zones.

Here is the field distribution of chance creation in 2014

and here is that same distribution for 2015.

In 2014, the Galaxy averaged a staggering 16 shots per game, an amount unmatched in the MLS Opta data era (beginning in 2011) and quite possibly in league history.  The Galaxy had 3 significant types of goals in 2014— the first two having to do with different types of combination and the third having to do with Robbie Keane being insanely good at soccer and scoring goals no soccer player has any business scoring.  For a full breakdown, check out the Tiki-Taco genome project.

While no one style made the Galaxy offense, from a chance creation standpoint, Tiki-Taco was certainly the main driver with nearly 60% of the Galaxy's chances coming from our danger zones as illustrated above and only 23% coming from the wings in what we dubbed the "Top Gun" style.

And this gets to the heart of the Galaxy's current struggles. You see, Tiki-Taco was all about the danger zones and worked in the following way.

Two players would load the left side and two players would sit at the top of the box. Zardes would float  behind and run through the gaps when the ball was played to him. Keane, Donovan and Sarvas rotated in terms of positioning, while Rogers and Ishizaki were constants out wide, keeping teams spread out to maximize gaps. Juninho was the other constant, always sitting behind as the outlet for fast circulation from wing to wing.

That was the shape. In terms of passing tendencies, when the Galaxy were in this attacking mode as I discovered in the Tiki-Taco genome project, it was Donovan and Sarvas who were pulling the strings, and Zardes was the primary target.

Keane tended to do his own thing, when at the top of the box, most often shooting rather than combining, and in terms of chance creation, he was most prolific when drifting to the wings and delivering crosses. It is for this reason that I do not expect Robbie Keane to jump start chance creation in the danger zones once he returns to full fitness, nor should we want Robbie Keane thinking about anything but shooting as shot volume is and always has been his game.

With the loss of Landon Donovan and Marcelo Sarvas, Tiki-Taco has all but died which is why we've seen an 11% decrease in chance creation from the danger zones.  As I stated before, nobody is filling the gap, and midfield penetration into the danger zones simply isn't happening with any regularity.

Some of this has to do with the constant shuffling of midfielders due to injury and a congested schedule, however, some of it can legitimately be attributed to the lack of performance from certain players. With Baggio Husidic being platooned around (but frankly hasn't looked good when given the rare cm start) Mika Vayrynen has become Bruce's regular choice in the middle with Juninho. Vayrynen has shown a tendency to sit back and pull out wide, but has rarely shown up in the final third in the way Marcelo Sarvas did.

Some may argue he's out of form, but his chance creation numbers, 0.4 per 90, are on par with his 2014/2015 Europa League numbers. In fact, all of his passing numbers are pretty much on par with his Europa League passing numbers, so it's quite possible the Galaxy are currently getting exactly the player they scouted. For comparison, Sarvas created 1.4 chances per 90 in 2014.

Obviously this is a hole that Steven Gerrard is on his way to remedy, but whether he still has the legs to get into the final third as often as needed if paired with Juninho in a 4-4-2, remains to be seen.

There has been one Galaxy player, however, that has shown a great deal of promise in the all important chance creation danger zone.  His chance creation per 90 rate is quite good and 58.6% of the chances he's creating are from central attacking positions.

Aside from doing stuff like this

when playing as a second forward, Jose Villarreal drops back into our magic zone and not only creates chances, but brings players like Mika Vayrynen and Nacho Maganto into similar areas with his passing. Here is his map from his 67 minutes against Houston.

And here is his map from his 45 minutes against RSL.

For me, Villarreal was the player of the game in both matches despite only playing one half against RSL. Bruce wanted to bring in Robbie Keane for a half and justified the move in the press conference by saying he thought Nacho was having the better game (Zardes at right mid, for whatever reason, didn't seem to be part of his equation).

In my opinion, Nacho and Villarreal were both having brilliant games due in large part to the way they were playing off of one another. Although anecdotal, Naho wasn't nearly as brilliant in the second half.

The subbing of Villarreal in that game also grazes our final issue facing the Galaxy team going forward.  How does this team all fit together when everyone is healthy? It's a difficult question to answer and the more I ponder it, the more I fear the Galaxy may be headed towards an impending identity crisis.

Obviously Robbie Keane is a must. For me, Villarreal and Nacho have exhibited stellar combination play, but you can't really play both of them without benching either Zardes (which isn't going to happen) or moving Zardes to right mid and benching Ishizaki, who I doubt Bruce would drop in favor of a left foot dominant player.

This leaves Maganto and Villarreal to fight for minutes at left mid in a system that may no longer be sustainable. As the Tike-Taco genome project shows, Robbie Keane is not someone you can count upon for chance creation in central attacking areas. Gyasi Zardes is a forward who  will continue to be ineffective until he receives that kind of service, as these account for the vast majority of his professional goals and his goal droughts have come when said service isn't there.

Early indications are that Vayrynen is not going to create many chances from these areas, and by now it should be clear that Ishizaki isn't going to adapt his predominantly wide cross oriented game, which leaves the burden on the left mid spot to dependably create chances in these areas by cutting inside. This is simply asking too much of one player, but without sustained chance creation at left mid when cutting into the the danger zones, the Galaxy will continue to play a brand of high possession low chance creation soccer and the lack of positioning will continue to get exploiteded.

The other option is to return to the position side of the spectrum—the side occupied by every Bruce Arena coached Galaxy team prior to 2014. This style also may be more suited to Gerrard, giving him cover from any lack of full out box to box effort he may no longer have in his legs.

Of course, this would require the Galaxy to start playing counter attacking soccer which the Galaxy no longer have the personnel for. Robbie Keane is great on the counter, but he needs a partner, and although Gyasi Zardes is fast, his inability to make predictive runs hampers him in this department.

Zardes has definitely grown a lot since 2013, but this is one area of his game which we are not seeing improvement. In fact, according to Opta data, Gyasi Zardes only has one career shot on a fast break and that was in 2013.One fast break goal in 5,753 professional minutes. To put that in perspective, Bradford Jamieson reached that total in just 34 professional minutes. In 2014, Juninho had more fast break shots than Gyasi, and Robbie Keane, his strike partner, had 5 to his 0.  Regardless of your overall opinions of Zardes' talents, it's hard to argue counter soccer is his strong suit.

What your left with is a cross roads of sorts in regard to the stylistic direction of this team, however, in order to be successful down either path, the Galaxy will be forced to make difficult sacrifices in regard to  talent, or else blindly play players in roles they do not fit.

If we revert to the counter attack, will Jamieson IV be allowed to surpass Zardes? If the Galaxy want to continue their 2014 style, will Bruce be willing to sit Ishizaki in order to field Villarreal and Maganto? Of course these are just hypotheticals, but these are the types of decisions Bruce Arena may very well have to soon make and they certainly aren't easy ones.

In fact, figuring out this mess may prove to be the toughest task of Bruce Arena's career, and trailing all but two teams in the conference in points per game and having already played half the season, he won't be given much time or wiggle room to figure things out before the Galaxy will need to make a push.

Saturday's game in Columbus marks the halfway mark in the Galaxy season. What are your thoughts on the team and their prospects going forward? Share them below.