The first time I ever saw Robbie Keane and Giovani dos Santos pair together as strikers, I had immediate doubts about the tactical wisdom of such a pairing, which I wrote about here. To but it simply, the two were too similar in how they moved off the ball, and in the space they liked to work in. Giovani dos Santos and Robbie Keane both operate best under a point striker who is pushing the line and creating space for them under the defense, and it is from this space that both players like to work their magic.
In 2014, the LA Galaxy excelled at creating this space for Keane by using a Y midfield system starting with their 3-0 win in Seattle. Here is the positioning chart for that game based on touch location, which I've used blue lines to illustrate why Matt Doyle dubbed it the Y midfield. With the centermids stacked on top of each other, and Marcelo Sarvas pushing higher than Juninho, it looked like the letter Y.
As Sarvas pushed forward to occupy a midfielders and Gyasi Zardes stayed high, with Landon Donovan and Stefan Ishizaki keeping width, pockets of space would open up for Robbie Keane, as seen below from that game.
If you take a close look at this shape, you'll see its brilliance. I've used white lines from the Sounders defenders to Galaxy attackers to show how many attackers the defenders are having to keep an eye on. While everyone is technically covered, the Galaxy's spacing as they push the ball into the final third essentially forces the Sounders to have perfect synchronicity in their mark shifting or dangerous space opens up.
What's also important to note here is how Gyasi Zardes, Landon Donovan, Marcelo Sarvas and Stefan Ishizaki, are all spaced in such a way that is creating the gap that Robbie Keane is floating in. This is the same space I mentioned above which Gio and Keane like to operate in, and it happens to be the space that the Galaxy haven't been opening up ever since that strike partnership came to be. For this reason, I am dubbing it "The Promise Land" as, one day, it is foretold that the Galaxy will return to it.
But how does one return to the promise land? In most stories, the hero must undergo some great sacrifice, and this particular narrative is no different.
Sacrifices have to be consequential to mean anything, and there isn't a more consequential player than Robbie Keane who has been involved in around 40% of the Galaxy's goals since joining the team. When Robbie Keane went down with a knee injury a few weeks ago, there was great despair across Galaxy land and few could have predicted what would happen next.
I want you to take a good hard look at this attacking sequence. Notice anything?
Take a look at the Galaxy's shape and compare it to the Seattle example above.
It's the Y midfield! Let's break things down a bit more.
With a true point striker in Zardes playing with his back to goal, something which Keane and dos Santos really don't do, the dynamics of the old Galaxy attack begin to take shape. Centerbacks are occupied on Zardes, the wingers are pinched in just enough to sit in between central passing channels (in yellow) so players can't close down Gerrard without opening space for others, creating a pocket of space for Gerrard to attack. We know this space well although we haven't seen much of it since Bruce started pairing Gio and Keane together.
Let's take a look at another example: the build up to the Mike Magee goal.
Classic Y shape again, this time with Magee sitting in the pocket. And how did this space get created? By having a 9 leading the line.
Let's look at one more goal to hammer home the point, and I'd like to look at it from several angles. Here is the first angle.
And here is the second
It's Boatengs goal on the score sheet, but the goal would much more fairly be credited to the Gaxlay's shape. Once again, it starts with our 9 for pushing the line back, creating a pocket of space. The wingers are positioned perfectly so outside defenders can't collapse on this space without creating problems. As Boateng cuts inside, he forces the issue, forcing defenders who are in between two minds to make a decision. As they step to him, they leave dos Santos in exactly the kind of space you don't want to leave dos Santos in-- the promise land.
With the instincts of a 10, Gio pokes the ball into the box, where Zardes, our 9, holds the ball, allowing attackers to get through space. Of course, he was actually trying to control and shoot and took a bad touch but, the point of this article is not to say that Gyasi Zardes has the instincts of a polished 9, but rather, simply by having a 9, the Galaxy are better.
The Galaxy need someone up top to open space for their attackers, and, just as I pointed out in my article after the first time I saw the Gio and Keane tandem in action, neither are capable of this for the other.
So where does this leave us? With Robbie Keane on the mend and possibly making his return as early as next week, it's unclear what Bruce will do. The most obvious solution is to move Gio into the Landon role which we saw Boateng play so well against RSL, allowing Robbie Keane to re-assume his position as the withdrawn attacker.
Of course, this has been my position ever since seeing these two first paired together, and, despite the foreseeable failures of such a tandem, and, even without said foresight, Bruce, having the benefit of hindsight on its failures in 2015, has stuck to his guns thus far.
Of course, that was before the sacrifice. Before the return. If mythic structure teaches us anything, it's that this is the moment that Bruce Arena reaches deep down and accepts the steps to growth and change. It's a process we saw him undergo in 2014 when he stubbornly kept playing Landon Donovan at the top of the diamond before relenting and moving Donovan to the wing in Seattle-- the first steps on the road to a championship.
But this, begs the question. Is Bruce Arena, in his age, and at this point in his career, still a hero? The coming weeks will be the true test.