On the maturation of defender Omar Gonzalez & LA Galaxy’s desire to pass out from the back.

Omar

His face lit up when he was asked about it. It was clear it is a game he will enjoy talking about for the rest of his career, not just in the week it had happened.

And what a week it was. Omar Gonzalez was in his third country in the last four days when he gave me some time on Saturday following his side’s 2-2 draw in Toronto. All players of any level have those games that take you to the next level, that give them the confidence in their ability to grow as a player, and for the 24-year-old Gonzalez his had come in Mexico, birthplace of his parents, playing for the United States.

“It was definitely one of the highlights of my career, representing my country playing against, you know, being Mexican, me, but I am extremely happy playing for the US, I grew up here and this is what I have wanted to do since I was a young player and the night was a great effort and showing for me. I was really happy to get a point for the US.”

For Gonzalez, who was named MVP in last season’s MLS Cup final, the World Cup qualifier was just another high-level showcase for him to show his talents and as his team-mate Landon Donovan explained to me postmatch that adds pressure on him when he returns for his club.

“I watched the US games while I was away and I thought he was terrific in the last two (international) games but today was a big test for him too, because anywhere you play as you go higher and higher in levels, your team expects you to come back and perform where you are, at that level, and it was good to see him come back and help us get a point here.”

Anyone who saw the highlights of the game, and not the 90 minutes in its entirety, would question Donovan’s analysis regarding his defender helping his team, after all he was involved in a defensive mix-up on the first goal conceded and was dragged wide by Luis Silva on the second. However, neither goal was directly his fault and throughout the match the US international showed just how he has developed into one of the league’s best defenders. The game was actually a perfect example of how Gonzalez and his team have matured into a team that treasures the ball from front to back.

Team Shape

OG-Shape 1

The Galaxy played a 4-4-2 hybrid again on Saturday with their back four pushing high up the field. Gonzalez, who plays as the right sided centre-back, likes to spread wide and play closer to his full back than his counterpart in the middle of the defence, Leonardo. This allows the centre-back a chance to be an outlet for his full back and midfielders, to create triangles in possession:

OG-triangles

While also closing the gaps between centre back and full back, an area strikers feast in…..

OG-channel cutting

When the opponent attacks as a unit the defensive line drops deeper and they get narrower.

OG-deeper shape

Transitioning back to a high line

And immediately when they deal with the attack, Gonzalez, despite having more senior players around him, is the unquestionable vocal leader in the line to ensure the unit doesn’t get too deep, regularly raising his arms and reminding his team-mates to get forward….

OG-high line

Keeping possession

As the technical report following Euro 2012 explained, the most successful teams are now creating a trend towards a possession-oriented passing game.

OG-possession 3

LA Galaxy, winners of the past two MLS Cups, are no different as Gonzalez explained to me:  “I think as a team we have started to play like that only the past few years, my first year in the league (2009) it was more lets not mess around back here, lets just put it up the field and worry about losing it there and now everyone has been playing together for five years, we are a lot more comfortable with each other and now we do play more out of the back and possess more.”

OG-possession 1

No more was this evident than with the distribution of the goalkeepers. Toronto FC ‘keeper Joe Bednik only played the ball in his own half three times from 35 attempts (9%). The Galaxy, who are where Toronto FC want to be, of course, regularly played it between themselves at the back in moves started by their goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini.

OG-possession 2

The Italian distributed the ball 33 times in the game and 20 of them were in his own half (60%). As Gonzalez rightly said, teams must work on their technical ability to employ such a strategy but it is clear, no matter the standard, no team would want a goalkeeper kicking the ball over the halfway line 91% of the time. In this case, of Bednik’s 32 clearances, 20 went directly to a Galaxy player while, in contrast, Bruce Arena’s team were able to keep possession a lot more because they trusted their defenders on the ball.

Goals

LA’s desire to play from the back was the key contributing factor in the game’s first two goals. This photo, showing Gonzalez starting an attack, was taken 17 seconds before LA opened the scoring.

OG-LA goal

Seven LA Galaxy passes later, without TFC touching the ball, the visitors took the lead:

Gonzalez said post match: “We’ve been working on getting the ball from the backline and getting forward as quickly as possible and that led to a very good goal by us. Linking with the midfielders and forwards is something we want to keep getting better at, pushing up the field. It’s getting better but it’s a slow process because you don’t want to make mistakes and sometimes you have to choose to get the ball forward quicker.”

He didn’t have to say it but it was clear he was thinking about the equaliser when Leonardo attempted to play a short pass to Gonzalez in the build up to the first goal they conceded.

Cudicini’s rash moment left his goal exposed and gave him a harsh reminder to trust his defenders next time.  As you watch the goal develop you can see the pass was clearly not hit hard enough and wouldn’t have got to Gonzalez…

OG - goal 1

At this stage (above) you can see Gonzalez go towards the ball as he backs himself to defend against Earnshaw going in on goal, but his thought process is forced to change…

0G-goal 2

Instead of running down Earnshaw in a 1×1 battle with the goalkeeper he now has to stop and head towards the goal to cover for the onrushing Cudicini.

Picture 4834

By now Cudicini has effectively taken him out of the game and he is powerless to the decision-making of Earnshaw who produces a terrific finish…

Picture 4835

“That will not make us go backwards at all, we will still continue to possess the ball at the back and link up between each other. I was happy with our positioning, the ball wasn’t hit hard enough and the pitch was playing really slow, the grass was really high, and that’s something we talked about before the game, be aware of back passes. We just made a mistake, ” Gonzalez reflected afterwards.

Lesson learned.

Getting defenders to be comfortable on the ball and trust each other technically may have cost Galaxy a goal against Toronto but it is sure to help them score many more this season. At the heart of their improvement is the form and technical progression shown by Gonzalez who at this rate may be playing his final season in MLS before getting a big move to Europe.

MLS Cup – LA Galaxy 3-1 Houston Dynamo – 4-4-2 vs 4-4-2 but set pieces help Beckham go out a champion.

All it took was five minutes. The home crowd were restless down 1-0 and 300 seconds later a party had started. As the clock moved to 58:58 the game seemed to almost freeze in time as Omar Gonzalez rose high at the far post unmarked and headed his side a vital equalizer. This was now Houston’s acid test. We’d heard all week about how great it was for MLS to give the highest seed home advantage and now it was time to see why it was called home advantage. The energy inside the Home Depot Center changed, the confetti flew everywhere and on the pitch Houston couldn’t keep the ball. For the next five minutes they failed to put together three successive passes, allowed Robbie Keane to put the ball in the back of the net (disallowed for a foul in the box) and crucially committed three fouls, including one on Keane by defender Bobby Boswell that led to a David Beckham free kick. While everyone watching expected the Englishman to swing it on target he went short, over the wall, and on to the familiar head of Gonzalez. As the defender won the crucial header in the box, the time showed 63:58, and a second later Mike Magee’s overhead effort hit Boswell’s hand in the box and LA had a penalty. Landon Donovan would step up and make it 2-1. Game over. Five minutes is all it took for LA to find top gear and undo all of Houston’s good work for the previous 59.

Coming back from 1-0 down, scoring an equalizer that triggered a barrage on their opponent that led to a penalty to make it 2-1 five minutes later is exactly how LA had started their playoffs against Vancouver on November 1st and it proved the potion for success precisely one month later.

Until those five wild minutes, the MLS Cup final had been an excellent tactical battle between two very different versions of 4-4-2. Bruce Arena again went with Donovan playing just off Keane with Mike Magee and Christian Wilhelmsson playing as true natural wingers.

football formations

Dominic Kinnear’s Houston also went with two up top but had two wide players, Oscar Boniek Garcia and skipper Brad Davis, who were very comfortable cutting in and playing in behind the strikers. It proved to be a vital tactical difference that made a significant impact on how Houston played and why LA struggled to.

football formations

Davis and Garcia keep Juninho & Beckham occupied

The first half of the match was not played at such a high tempo that the second half was and that suited Houston and allowed their wide players to take hold of the game. Captain Davis, who missed last year’s final through injury, was, not surprisingly, their most influential player when they attacked and it was his overall intelligent movement that turned the tide towards his side early on. A look at his successful passes on MLS Chalkboards shows just how much room he covered. Only one other player in the match completed more passes than Davis and that was left back Corey Ashe who benefited from his team-mate’s movement down the left flank.

When Houston would break, one of Davis or Garcia would always come inside making up a three in midfield, which meant neither Ricardo Clark or Adam Moffat felt the pressure to get forward and out of their defensive shape. This also pushed Juninho and David Beckham, LA’s two best passers by some margin, deeper, limiting the amount of danger they could cause. In fact, LA’s best two chances of the first half came through Beckham, one at a free kick which Magee headed wide and the other when the 37-year-old picked up the ball in front of his own box and sent Keane loose on the left side. With Donovan sprinting alongside him and then being fed the ball, it was an attack that should have put LA ahead, but instead the American shot wide.

Moffat & Clark’s gameplan

It appeared to some – including ESPN’s panel at half time – that Houston’s midfield duo were too deep and needed to get higher on Beckham to stop such great long-range deliveries. To me, they were exactly where they needed to be. Clark and Moffat were doing an exceptional job sitting deep and being outlets for a backline, and goalkeeper, who like to play out from the back. With Davis and/or Garcia cutting in there was always someone for them to be able to find and with Beckham and Juninho being pinned deep, Moffat, in particular, had licence to often pick the ball up and stroll 30 yards without being pressed, which is precisely what happened in the 43rd minute when Houston scored. The play was started by Hall who rolled it out to the Scotsman who then played an easy 1-2 with Garcia, before strolling into space untouched. The lively Calen Carr then made a great run in between both centre-backs, stayed onside, and was picked out by Moffat and sent in clear on goal. Carr then took his time, waited for the poor Josh Saunders to go down,  and slotted home at the near post.

Donovan & Keane – 2 men doing 4 people’s jobs.

You can always tell which players are tactically intelligent by watching trends develop in the first half and seeing which players react to it without waiting for instructions from their manager at half-time. Seeing what Moffat & Clark were doing, both LA’s front men started coming deeper and pressing them. In fact, at one stage late in the first half, Donovan won the ball that way and the transition led to another chance but the pair couldn’t do it regularly because they needed to occupy Boswell and Jermaine Taylor up top. Galaxy’s wide men in Mike Magee and, in particular, Christian Wilhelmsson did very little work in this area. They may well have been instructed to stay close to the line and stretch the side’s shape but LA suffered because of it. At half-time I wondered if Arena would bring Donovan back to right wing for the Swede and ask Edson Buddle to play alongside Keane. This would put his captain in a place where he could defend the position better when Houston attacked and occasionally cut in and create triangles inside when he had the ball, something he has done exceptionally for the USA in recent years. It was a move Arena made later in the match but not until his team had scored twice.

Set pieces set LA on their way

Houston’s shape and tactical awareness always meant LA would always struggle to score from open play. It seemed like they were at their most dangerous on a fast break or via a set piece and it was the latter that would lead to their two goals. A minute before they conceded the first they crucially lost Carr to injury and he would be prove to be a big loss in the air when it would come to marking opponents in the box. Davis, now back defending his left flank, was the first culprit when he defended a cross with his arm and gave away a free kick on the right side. Swung in by Beckham, it was knocked out for a corner and although that was partially cleared, Gonzalez and company were still in the box when Juninho swung a ball in that the central defender headed home. After that the game changed, five minutes of madness for the Dynamo and a quicker tempo from the Galaxy culminated in the penalty that put them ahead for good. By the time Robbie Keane won another spot kick it was injury time and Houston were over committing knowing the game was practically over. The Irishman made it 3-1, Beckham was taken off to get his final moment and seconds later he was back on the pitch celebrating his second successive Major League Soccer Championship. He was not the game’s best player – that vote would rightfully go to Gonzalez – and for a stretch of the game he got outplayed by his direct opponents in midfield but it was fitting that in his final game he was the architect of Houston’s downfall. Beckham has always been at his best behind a set piece and it was those that made the difference in his final match in MLS.