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.