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Has Steven Gerrard been playing as a striker for the LA Galaxy?

A tactical look at Steven Gerrard's debut MLS game.

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Galaxy are a team that possesses the ball in a methodical back to front manner. They move forward by patiently moving the ball side to side, probing for passing lanes to advance the ball. This is something that Gerrard commented on when asked to compare the pace of MLS to the premier league.

"What I noticed tonight is that both teams liked to keep the ball a little at the back and pass it from side to side and approach it with a little more patience."

The Galaxy's attack pivots from side to side based around 3 players. The central fulcrum is Juninho, the the wide left option is Robbie Rogers, and the wide right option has been Stefan Ishizaki prior to his leaving.  This can be clearly seen when you look at touch percentage.

These 3 players are essential to the Galaxy attack, not for reasons of goal scoring threat (in fact, between the 3 there is very little), but rather, setting the shape and dictating the tempo via ball circulation. This frees up the Galaxy's free floating attackers to get into position to play quick combinations with one another in the final third. These weapons are the two forwards (usually Keane and Zardes) and the inverted left mid (currently Lletget). The remaining midfielder, the one paired with Juninho, is sort of a hybrid of the two. When Sarvas played it, he didn't quite have have the touches of Juninho or the goal danger of Donovan, but he fit nicely in-between and provided a ton of work defensively.

Ultimately, this is where most people expect Bruce Arena to play Steven Gerrard once the Galaxy finally get all their pieces together after the Gold Cup, however, with Jose Villarreal injured, Alan Gordon and Gyasi Zardes away at the Gold Cup, and Edson Buddle unable to go 90 minutes, Bruce had two options. He could hold Bradford Jamieson IV from the Galaxy II game and use him as a forward, or he could opt to play a 4-5-1, a formation he attempted in the second half in the Galaxy's open cup loss to RSL. Bruce chose the latter with Steven Gerrard playing in front of Kenney Walker and Juninho.

In theory, Steven Gerrard should be a wonderful attacking midfielder in MLS, however, when you consider the way the Galaxy move the ball, playing Steven Gerrard in this role pretty much guarantees he will not receive very many touches unless he ventures outside of it.  This is exactly what we saw against San Jose.

At the beginning of the game, despite Galaxy possession, Steven Gerrard simply could not get touches.

Here is his pass usage broken up into 5 minute intervals.

As you can see, Gerrard gets very few touches in the beginning of the game. The Galaxy attack, though possession heavy, created few chances, allowing San Jose room to punish them on the counter. After the second San Jose goal, Gerrard began to check back more into the midfield. While his touch percentage went up, as did his pass usage, the balls he was playing were mainly layoffs and he had few passes facing goal.

The problem was that this simply pushed the Galaxy lines deeper, as Juninho and Walker simply fell further back and continued to distribute in the way they have done within the system for quite some time. This meant distributing the ball to the wings, and not to Steven Gerrard, the supposed attacking mid.

By relying on wing isolation and overloads while only playing one striker, the Galaxy were trying to play the 4-5-1 like their normal 4-4-2, and it simply wasn't resulting in chances being created.

But here is where Steven Gerrard's experience and understanding of the game came into play. By the 35th minute or so, Steven Gerrard makes a game changing adjustment. He stops checking back into the midfield and begins to play as a striker. This shifts the Galaxy into their more familiar 4-4-2 and within minutes of the shift, the Galaxy are able to equalize with classic 4-4-2 mechanics.

After a bad San Jose turnover, the Galaxy break out on the counter. Notice how Gerrard is playing as a striker.

Keane drops back from the box, occupying San Jose's defensive midfielder as a result. This creates space for Lletget to make the classic Galaxy inverted left mid play and make a diagonal run to the near post, unencumbered by a defensive midfielder. The near post defender fails to pick up Lletget's run into the box as the ball gets played wide to Baggio, and this creates a pick your poison dilemma for the defender seen in between Lletget and Gerrard in the screen capture above. The second he commits to tracking Lletget, Gerrard makes his move to the far post. It's a beautiful recognition of the moment from the Englishman and he is rewarded with his first MLS goal as the ball bounces to him unmarked.

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In the second half, Gerrard continued to play as a striker, and this is something that can be seen in the above back-pass map as well as this network passing map featured in Mathew Doyle's Sunday article.

Back in the familiar 4-4-2, the Galaxy went on to role and we learned a couple of interesting things about the Galaxy in the process.

1. The 4-2-3-1/4-5-1 is not a formation the Galaxy can play with any danger without at least another dangerous winger who can get into forward positions (Gio would be wonderful at this, although this would essentially mean Zardes gets sat in favor of Walker, and I don't see that happening.)

2. Gerrard is a surprisingly good forward. His field awareness and chemistry with Keane made the tandem was reminiscent of the 2012-2013 Keane/Donovan days. We also saw how the Galaxy offense completely shifted to the 2012-2013 buildup style during this time—mainly, getting the ball to the strikers as quickly as possible in an attempt for them to hit in combination on the break (similar to how Dempsey and Martins work) rather than the slow back to front manner the 2014 team went about pulling teams apart.

At the end of the day, I still think that we will see Steven Gerrard slot next to Juninho in the 4-4-2 once everyone arrives back from the Gold Cup, but, for now, Steven Gerrard is a striker, and that's pretty cool.