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Is Jeff Larentowicz the answer in central midfield?

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Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

After the departure of Juninho, one of the biggest questions going into next season is who will be paired with Steven Gerrard in the midfield. With guys like Baggio Husidic, Rafael Garcia and Sebastian Lletget (CM being arguably Lletget's natural position), Bruce Arena was not without options. With the recent signing of Jeff Larentowicz, Arena has given himself and the team, yet another.

While Jeff Larentowicz has spent the majority of his MLS career playing as a defensive midfielder, 68% of his minutes over the last two years have come at center back. While it is unclear where he will play for the Galaxy, the fact that Bruce Arena referred to Larentowicz as "an experienced & proven midfielder in [MLS]" when the club announced his signing, may be a clue.

While trying to read the mind of Bruce Arena is always a fool's errand, let's assume, for the sake of argument, that Arena is planning on starting the season with a Gerrard/Larentowicz pairing. What might that team look like and how would it differ from the Gerrard/Juninho tandem?

What the LA Galaxy had in Juninho was a player who got on the ball a lot. This can be measured by touch percentage. Juninho was consistently a league leader in touches on the ball.


Touch Percentage

Team Rank*

League Rank*

2012

11.6%

2

27

2013

11.9%

1

14

2014

13%

1

4

2015

12.6%

1

11

*among players with 1000 minutes or more

It's important to note that these numbers are adjusted for minutes on the field, which means that Juninho was getting more touches than Steven Gerrard.  While Juninho was never the playmaker on offense, he was indisputably the Galaxy's primary ball circulator.

If Jeff Larentowicz has been brought in to start next to Steven Gerrard, it would hardly be a like-for-like swap in terms of playing styles. Take touch percentage, for example.


Touch Percentage

League Rank*

2011

10.9%

60

2012

12.1%

16

2013

9.4%

128

*among players with 1000 minutes or more

You may be wondering where 2014 and 2015 are. In 2015, Jeff Larentowicz played 0 minutes in the midfield, and in 2014, played in the midfield only 61% of the time. As such, his touch percentage is rather skewed for those years since defenders don't get as many touches as midfielders, so I've omitted them.  As you can see, Jeff Larentowicz simply doesn't get on the ball as often as Juninho.

This can also be seen when looking at passing data. Here I have added in 2014 and 2015 since Whoscored.com allows for the filtering of pass data by minutes at a position. Below are how many passes per 90 minutes each player averaged when playing as a cm or cdm.


Juninho

Larentowicz

2015

63.5

(Played 0 minutes in midfield)

2014

70.7

47.4

2013

56.4

37.6

Tabling the obvious issue of Larentowicz not having played in the midfield since 2014, the issue of decreased circulation certainly comes into play. Obviously, the thinking would be that Jeff Larentowicz's defensive presence would free up Steven Gerrard to take on the role of the primary circulator in the middle, but when you consider Gerrard's age, and, as I noted in this article, how many more passes per 90 Marcelo Sarvas made in 2014 than Steven Gerrard in 2015, Gerrard's ability to take on this role is certainly in question.

Of course, there are many other factors to consider when looking at circulation numbers. As I noted in the above article, the lack of a forward who can hold the ball was almost certainly a factor in the Galaxy's team-wide passing numbers taking a dive, and, while there is most likely a causal relationship between the drop off in passes from Galaxy wingers and the drop off in passes from Galaxy center-mids from 2014 to 2015, it's not exactly clear which drop off caused which. Did the Galaxy wingers see less of the ball because the center-mids weren't getting it to them enough, or did the center-mids see less of the ball because the wingers weren't resetting enough?

All of this is to say, with Gyasi Zardes moving back to forward, as indicated by Bruce Arena, and with Giovani dos Santos moving back to midfield (as would logically follow a Gyasi Zardes move to forward), the passing recipe for Steven Gerrard will be closer to what Marcelo Sarvas was working with, and could yield similar passing numbers.

Even if we assume that it was the set-up last year and not Steven Gerrard's age which saw him play fewer passes per 90 minutes than his predecessor, it's hard to fathom the Gerrard/Larentowicz pairing approaching anywhere near the pass numbers achieved by the Juninho/Sarvas pairing, which allowed that team to maintain such aggressively attacking positions as they did, without putting undue stress on the back line.

In 2014, Marcelo Sarvas had 60 passes per game and Juninho had 70.7. Even if Steven Gerrard were to get his numbers all the way up to 65 passes per game, Jeff Larentowicz would need 18.3 passes per 90 more than his 2014 average, for the 2016 LA Galaxy midfield to maintain the same level of circulation from the center-mid position.

For this reason, it's hard to see the team as a whole, reaching the same levels of possession which they saw in 2014 if Jeff Larentowicz is indeed being brought in to start. Of course, in many ways, the 2014 LA Galaxy were a super team and few teams compare favorably to them, but it's a comparison I'm making because it's a playing style which many fans will want to return to, and it's one which, in my opinion based on the numbers, will be near impossible to replicate successfully with a Gerrard/Larentowicz pairing.

With less distribution, the Galaxy's aggressive attacking positioning which we've grown accustomed to since the departure of David Beckham, could continue to be more of a liability on the counter than the offensive upside warrants.

Conceivably the team could return to the more conservative style of 2011, however, with a weakened backline, the vast improvement in the quality of attacking playmakers in the league since that time, and Gyasi Zardes' documented issues making runs early enough to be sprung from deep lying balls (Beckham's over the top balls to Donovan being a key component to the 2011 offense), it's hard to imagine the Galaxy being anywhere near as successful.

At the end of the day, while a strong CDM like Jeff Larentowicz may seem like a great idea considering our weakened backline, Gerrard's age, and Giovani dos Santos' distaste for defending, ultimately, a team's ability to attack and defend cannot be weighed so simplistically. Teams whose players regularly bomb forward in the attack, generally are able to do so because they are able to maintain enough possession to allow this to happen and create enough chances to end attacking sequences with shots of some kind, allowing for everyone to reset.

For the Galaxy to succeed, they'll need Giovani dos Santos to be the main source of chance creation, much in the same way that Landon Donovan was on the wing. This will create more scoring opportunities for Gyasi Zardes, allowing for that Tiki-Taco/Top-Gun hybrid offense which we saw in 2014. If Gio fails, the offense becomes one dimensional.

In order for Gio to be successful in finding seams, the Galaxy midfield will have to move the ball a lot. The ball in the 2014 LA Galaxy attack was constantly being played to the feet of Juninho and Marcelo Sarvas, and, in turn, these two were constantly playing the ball out to the wings. The constant left to right movement created time on the ball for players to get forward and created seams for Landon Donovan to exploit. Landon's success was made possible by the likes of Juninho and Sarvas, whose constant movement and showing for the ball allowed such long spells of possession.

I don't see a Gerrard/Larentowicz pairing excelling in this department.