(Editorial) – The LA Galaxy appear to have turned a familiar corner. The second half of the season is underway and the five time champs are undefeated in eight games (all competitions) thanks to a gut check win in Portland this weekend.
They have also won six straight games, four in league competition. After their midweek win against Seattle Sounders, they are headed to the Semifinals of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. There have been concerns about team chemistry throughout the year, especially in the attack. But the star players and head coach Bruce Arena might just be figuring it out, again.
LA Galaxy Chemistry: Have They Turned The Corner?
Last season’s failures were in part due to the number of changes the Galaxy made mid-season. Designated players Steven Gerrard and Giovani dos Santos arrived in the summer. Historically, mid-season designated player additions and their teams have chemistry issues and don’t do well in the playoffs.
Early Season Troubles
Going into this season, the team needed to build chemistry, especially in the attack. Early on, Robbie Keane and Dos Santos got in each other’s way, trying to fill the same role. This also forced Gyasi Zardes out wide, where he struggled.
When Keane was out, Dos Santos and Gerrard were able to thrive in a 4-2-3-1, with Dos Santos playing the No. 10 role. Dos Santos played in a natural position. Gerrard was pared with Nigel de Jong, giving him a defensive safety blanket. He also didn’t have to run as much as when he was in the center of a 4-4-2.
As Keane returned to the lineup, Arena played around with a 4-3-3, with Zardes and Dos Santos as wingers and various midfield combinations. This did allow the Galaxy’s three best attackers on the field at the same time. It allowed them to play free flowing soccer and switch positions as needed. Landon Donovan even described it as a “4-3-whatever,” because the three up could orient themselves to whatever the situation called for.
While this formation produced some excellent offensive moments, it strained the midfield. Gerrard, De Jong, and Jeff Larentowicz were not fit to run and spread the field in a 4-3-3. Arena rarely played more than one true wide midfielder during this period. Often times it was Mike Magee, who like the aforementioned midfielders is no spring chicken. This left the back line vulnerable and prevented the Galaxy from playing sustained possession-based soccer.
The Recent Surge
Since the return of Keane and Zardes from national team duty, the club appears to have turned a corner. They’ve won all four league games. The formation has been (mostly) a 4-2-3-1 but Arena has continued to rotate players and positions.
The key to this budding surge has been that the Galaxy’s best players are playing at their best. Independent of the formation and their positions, they are playing well together. Keane is scoring spectacular goals. Gerrard is contributing, in both an advanced and deep lying role. Zardes has elevated his game and is suddenly a chance creator.
Everyone is playing well as an individual and linking up with one another. Most importantly, Dos Santos and Keane have figured out how to work together. The two showed this big time in Portland this past weekend.
They’ve set each other up for chances and they fit their roles to the situation, rather than both just trying to play their instinctual playmaker role no matter the context.
The defense is solid and has been most of the year. The four big offensive pieces (the three designated players and Zardes) are all playing well and playing well together. Furthermore, Arena is finally using his depth to its full extent. The fullbacks are rotating in and out to stay fresh. Emmanuel Boateng, Sebastian Lletget, and Magee are all getting time on the wings. All three are contributing.
This team has enough firepower to make the playoffs on firepower alone. To win the Supporter’s Shield or MLS Cup, they are going to need a greater level of team chemistry. While Tiki Taco might not be a reality, the groundwork for successful version of the LA Galaxy has been laid.
It won’t be a 4-3-3. It might not be the patented 4-4-2 with a Y Midfield and/or Tiki Taco. If the Galaxy are going to win anything substantial this year, it will probably be through the combination play of their stars. It will be less of the team effort in 2014 and more of the 2012 team that siphoned the offense through a few key players.
Based on how the club has played this past month, the 4-2-3-1 gives the Galaxy a hybrid between the structure of their 4-4-2 with the flexibility of the 4-2-3-1. A five man midfield prevents the slower older players from being overrun (a problem in the 4-3-3). It allows De Jong to protect the back four. It gives Zardes and Dos Santos the freedom to roam at times to link up in the attack without the destroying the shape of the team behind them.
The 4-2-3-1 might not be the final answer, but the current version is a really good rough draft.
Dos Santos and Zardes appear up to the task. If Keane is healthy and angry, he’ll definitely be ready come playoff time. A healthy Gerrard will be as well.
Keeping the Chemistry Going
What exactly got the LA Galaxy chemistry going again is still a bit unclear. Maybe all it took was all the big players being healthy and together in training for everyone to start peaking together. Maybe it just took whatever magical voodoo ritual Arena does to make these second half surges possible. Whatever it was, it appears to be working.