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Why Robbie Keane failed to pair effectively with Giovani dos Santos

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Is more chemistry needed or is the pair tactically ill-suited?

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Fluidity is a word that's tossed around a lot in soccer, but often as a buzz-prhase with little tactical nuance attached.   A fluid attack is one in which players are constantly interchanging positions. It's pretty to watch and a marking nightmare for defenders.

There are varying degrees of fluidity. It can be as simple as a forward who likes to drop off, or as complex as the Dutch teams of the 70's, whose total football style was built around the principle of all players on the field being interchangeable.

At its most basic level, fluidity is about moving in tandem with teammates, which makes chemistry tantamount to its success.  In the Galaxy 4-4-2, for instance, the centermids have to develop an understanding of which player goes forward when, and which player drops back. This chemistry is still something we are seeing Gerrard and Juninho slowly develop

I think Juninho and myself were a little upset with our positions in the first 10-15 minutes of the game, but once it settled down I thought we controlled the game...We will keep working together on our relationship that is growing and maturing, and I am sure it will get better. I certainly enjoy playing with him.  He is an intelligent footballer and I think if Juni concentrates on controlling the game and the tempo, that certainly gives me the platform to attack and hopefully I can make things happen in the final third.

The fluidity of the Galaxy attack pretty much revolves around Robbie Keane, who, as a forward, likes to drift into pockets of space under the defense, pulling defenders out of position and creating space for non traditional attacking runs into forward areas, most usually from the Galaxy's non traditional wingers.

"Sebastian plays inside as well," Robbie Keane remarked, referring to exactly this element of the attack. "We've just got to be careful everybody doesn't get into each other's way."

While not yet the creative force of Landon Donovan, Sebastian Lletget has taken to the inverted winger role quite well, and over the past few games, we've seen him develop a chemistry with Robbie Keane, Robbie Rogers, and the beginnings of one with Gerrard.

Fluidity can not exist without chemistry, and in order for the Galaxy attack to fire on all cylinders, players have to be on the same page.

Enter Giovani

Like Robbie Keane, Giovani dos Santos is the type of player who seeks to pick up the ball in pockets of space in front of the backline, run at defenders, and create space for those around him, in addition to shots for himself. He's an extremely talented player, and one whose movement can add yet another element of fluidity to the Galaxy attack.

But how does he fit with Keane?

Would Gio be best playing out wide in a centrally inverted playmaking role similar to Landon Donovan's in 2014, or paired up top with Robbie Keane? This was the great debate.

I was in the camp that Giovani needed to play as a winger as his playing style as a forward was too similar to Robbie Keane. You want Giovani dos Santos running at defenses in pockets of space as often as possible, rather than splitting his time leading the forward line when Robbie Keane drops back.

In fact, their similarities as strikers is something that Robbie Keane remarked on after the game.

I'm a player that likes to play, coming deep, and it's the same really with Gio.

Despite the similarities, Giovani dos Santos debuted in the forward position. Bruce Arena was coy about whether this was where he preferred him, but did have this to say:

To be fair, at this point [Giovani dos Santos'] fitness isn't where it needs to be to be playing in the midfield.  If you saw the job that Gyasi [Zardes] and Lletget did today, it was terrific, and those are two players that are very fit and it would have been a tough position to put Giovani in.

Problems with the pairing

After the game, Robbie Keane seemed to be under the impression that Giovani dos Santos played underneath him for the majority of the game.

I was playing as a number 9, and he was playing as a number 10 today, but at times he was high up and I dropped off. I think it's important that we do that, because if I'm playing as a number 9 and playing beside 2 centerhalfs, it's very easy to mark me. It's very easy to mark someone who is standing still, so I think it's important that you keep moving, and I think that was the case with myself and Gio today. We kept interchanging, so I think it was difficult for their defenders to know who's coming or going...Just because he’s playing behind me doesn’t mean he’s going to be there all the time.

Robbie Keane's prognosis, however, couldn't be farther from the truth. For starters, is was Giovani dos Santos, not Robbie Keane, was the forward who found himself leading the line as the "number 9," and there was very little interchanging or role sharing between the two. Just take a look at their positioning throughout the game.

And just to show that I am not cherry-picking screen-caps, here is whoscored.com's rendering of the Galaxy's positioning based on an averaging of the x/y coordinates of each player's actions. As you can see, Gio is on top.

And if you want more proof, here is Robbie Keane's passing map, which clearly shows how withdrawn he played for almost the entirety of the match.

The result was a Giovani dos Santos who looked completely out of position on the day. Just look at his passing map. As a 9, he rarely got on the end of balls, with only 6 passes in the final third on the night, outside of corners.

Giovani created 0 shots by way of actual pass. His assist was a mistouched trap in the box. Just about all of his touches on the ball were inconsequential check-backs into the midfield—short back-to-goal layoffs, completely different from Keane's more numerous and forward facing touches from similar areas where he created multiple chances.

The only times Giovani dos Santos looked at all dangerous on the night, was when he found himself running at defenders, which, as a 9, wasn't very often.

On the counter, he was dangerous, and ultimately this is how he found his goal, timing a run perfectly behind the defense on the break.

Unfortunately for the Galaxy going forward, they are not a team that finds themselves in many counterattacking opportunities.

The second occurred after briefly swapping with Gyasi Zardes after their positioning had been pulled by a previous play. Dos Santos found himself on the wing, dribbled his way into an excellent shooting position and blasted a shot which was not at all far from going in.  Note the positioning.

It was a tantalizing look at the type of space he would most commonly find himself in playing as an inverted winger, and perhaps a look at the type of danger to expect from him if Bruce Arena ultimately decides to move him out wide.

None of this is to say that a Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos pairing can not work, however, the chemistry is currently not there. Despite Robbie's quotes on how he thought he played with Gio, the simple fact is that Robbie Keane spent the majority of the game dropped off. This forced Gio to play as an ill-suited 9 and limited his ability to be dangerous on the ball. The responsibilities were not shared, interchanging was not happening, and the pair was far from fluid.

If this is indeed the pairing that Bruce opts to go with going forward, it will be interesting to see if Robbie Keane is willing to adapt his playing style to accommodate Gio dropping back and getting his fair share of play facing goal in pockets of space under the defense.

There is also a question of whether or not this is something you even want from them. The fact that Robbie Keane played the majority of the game under Gio but was quoted as if he thought his excursions into these spaces were occasional and that it was really Gio who occupied them the most, may speak to a certain strikers selfishness that you absolutely want to see from Keane as it's what makes him such a good player.

Asking Keane to share his role with Gio is almost like asking Keane to sacrifice his identity. Keane is going to hunt the ball to make a difference, and you want that from him. Keane's constant drifting into these underneath spaces is a testament to his hunger to make an impact. We saw this in his quotes. Keane wants to keep moving. Keane doesn't want to be "standing between two centerhalfs" where he's easy to mark. So why ask him to split time as a 9?

The same can be said for Gio, which is why a Keane/dos Santos pairing could prove troublesome to implement successfully. Even if they build the chemistry, is their talent being optimized?

Only time will tell how all the pieces of the Galaxy's attack will fit together. From a talent perspective, all the pieces are there to make up the greatest attack in MLS history, however, the pieces also demand an attack that is fluid, as the Galaxy have no true wingers or number 9's outside of Gordon who will continue to be used for utility purposes off the bench.

"Sometimes it takes a little bit of time for the whole team to understand each other," Keane remarked, and despite a few tactical questions left to be solved (such as where to play Gio), it will ultimately be team chemistry that will be the most important factor going forward. How quickly they can build it will determine how far they will go.