The LA Galaxy offense is sputtering and it has been since the end of last year. The problem is simple. Bruce Arena is consistently trotting out lineups without shot creators. While players like Gyasi Zardes, Sebastian Lletget and Mike Magee may be dangerous around goal, they are not the type of players who create shots for others, leaving the offense starved of good shots in the final third.
One clear indicator of this is the amount of crosses the Galaxy are sending in. In general, crosses have a very low conversion rate, with roughly 1 out of every 100 actually ending in a goal. 18% of the chances the Galaxy have created this year have come from crosses which is the 4th highest in the league behind RSL, NYRB, and Seattle who have a combined record of 2-4-4. Conversely, the Galaxy have yet to create a single shot from a through ball.
Perhaps the most damning stat is that the Galaxy are currently averaging under a goal a game from open play. The other teams in the league who are under this mark, Real Salt Lake, Portland Timbers, New York Red Bulls, Chicago Fire, New England Revolution, DC United, Toronto FC, Colorado Rapids, Columbus Crew, Seattle Sounders, and the Vancouver Whitecaps, have a combined record of 7-16-13. As you can see, it's not a good path to be on.
Of course, you can cut the Galaxy some slack with the injuries to Giovani dos Santos, Jose Villarreal and Raul Mendiola (I'm not including Gerrard because he isn't and has never been the type of guy who will get into the final third and play the final pass consistently enough to be the main source of chance creation for a team), however, given Bruce Arena's recent comments that Gyasi Zardes is where he needs to be for the Galaxy, it sounds a whole lot like the plan is to keep Zardes out wide and continue to play Gio and Keane as a tandem, or, at the very least, Gio underneath Keane in a 4231, when Gio returns to full health.
It should be very clear by now that such a partnership is not a fruitful one. Keane and Gio both like to operate in the underneath space between the backline and holding midfielders. This forces Gio into situations where he is playing mainly back to goal, which is not a strength of his. It also means he is getting far fewer touches in the process. While some have argued he is a natural CAM, if Robbie Keane is the forward above him, the same problem exists. Gio will not find himself facing goal enough. Incidentally, this is exactly why the Landon Donovan at the point of a diamond experiment failed so miserably in 2014.
As I have written on numerous occasions, the only logical way to fit dos Santos into this lineup is as a winger as it will get him more touches facing goal. The road block to this has been the belief of Bruce Arena that Giovani dos Santos would be a defensive liability out there. Of course, this is is an observation he can only have gleaned from the training ground as he has thus far refused to experiment with it in competitive games. It also overlooks the fact that the Galaxy won an MLS Cup with Stefan Ishizaki at right mid, who was equally ineffective on the defensive side of the ball.
One could argue that this type of set up doesn't cut it when Steven Gerrard is in the center as he is also a liability on defense, but with Gerrard injured and dos Santos returning to health, we could soon see whether this is indeed the reason why Bruce is hesitant to play Gio out wide.
One thing is certain, however. The Galaxy offense, as it has been running since dos Santos came to the team and was placed at forward, is not a productive one. With virtually every team in the basement of the Western conference having improved, this puts the Galaxy in a precarious spot in terms of potentially winning a playoff positions if something in the offense isn't tweaked.
From this perspective, even if playing dos Santos as a winger is a big defensive risk, it also happens to be the only sensible roster option that has the potential to push the Galaxy offense where it needs to be to not only make it into the playoffs, but guarantee either a seed for a knockout game at home, short of moves we all know that the Galaxy are unwilling to make, such as benching Zardes for a chance creator or benching Gerrard for a more defensively sound option such as Baggio Husidic.
Gerrard, Zardes, and Dos Santos are sunken costs at this point, so the question continues to be, how to we fit them all on the field in an optimal way. As we have seen, when Keane is at forward, having Gio play beside or underneath him is not in any way optimal. This is fairly established at this point.
What we have not seen, however, is Dos Santos on the wing, and there are one of two ways of doing this. The first is to go with the y-midfield formation which the Galaxy ran in 2014.
It's pretty straight forward, but asks a lot of running from Gerrard. With Lletget being strong in both directions, however, an emphasis from him more on the defensive side could be enough to cover for Gerrard so De Jong isn't constantly covering for both him and Gio.
The other way to go about it is to switch to a 4-3-3 4-2-3-1 hybrid, with Zardes as a wing striker, tucking into the box when build up comes down the opposite side where Dos Santos would play something of an enganche.
This removes a great deal of running and playmaking responsibility from Gerrard who can focus on distribution from deeper positions and being the first line of disruption when the ball is turned over, with De Jong being the second. Zardes' recovery speed should allow him to slow down transitions by getting in front of them, which should allow Lletget to get back from any forward excursions he may make.
In midfield build up, Lletget would fan out to the left to create better passing triangles with Gio dropping back to provide width on that side. As the ball gets moved into the final third, Lletget would fall back to match the shape above.
It's a far more complex system and one which may take a few games to master, but when you look at what the Crew are able to do lining up Federico Higuain and Ethan Finlay next to each other (neither of whom defend), and consider that Gerrard would be deeper than Higuain, it's reasonable to assume it can be made to work defensively.
Whatever Bruce does, he simply cannot continue to expect to get results from lineups without chance creators. It makes for a stale offense, and, more than likely, a team that will struggle to make the playoffs.