23. Willis / 11. Wenger, 3. Machado, 2. Fuenmmayor, 7. Beasley / 6. Alexander, 24. Ceren / 17. Elis, 10. Martinez, 31. Quioto / 9. Manotas
1. Bingham / 4. Romney, 28 Ciani, 16. Skjelvik 3. Cole / 2. Kitchen, 17. Lletget / 7. Alessandrini, 10. Giovani, 11. Kamara / 9. Ibrahimovic
Sigi Schmid couldn’t decide the optimal formation and starting 11 for LA Galaxy, but Houston Dynamo risked losing two points with their lack of offensive prowess.
LA Galaxy’s struggle in the defense
LA started in a 4-2-3-1 and defended in a 4-4-2 with Giovani dos Santos and Zlatan Ibrahimovic forming the first line. The host pressed high in the early period of the game, but its players didn’t synchronize their movements, and they pressed without enough pressure:
LA’s initial presser often pressed the ball handler without considering whether his teammates could support him or not. He confronted the opponent’s player too soon, and his teammates were not in the positions to cover him or close out the potential pass receivers. Houstons’ ball handler could find space or an opening to escape the pressure. By the time the secondary pressers arrived, Houston’s ball receivers had already surveyed the possible options. Because LA’s supporting pressers needed to move out of the midfield, they left a lot of space behind. Houston’s players could find their attackers in front of LA defenders. Tomas Martinez, Alberth Elis, Romell Quioto could run directly at LA’s last line of the defense. The first goal resulted from a similar play after two minutes from the start.
LA intended to defend in three lines, but Giovani and Ibrahimovic didn’t care about their defending tasks, and LA ended up defending with only two banks of four as a 4-4-0:
As the game went on, LA stopped pressing with high pressure. Their confrontational line sat in the midfield. Houston’s could control the possession close to the half-line. Giovani and Ibrahimovic often ball-watched so Houston’s center backs and double pivots could circulate the ball between the flanks and probe for a mistake in LA’s defense. They also received minimal pressure when making an entry pass to initiate the transition into the attack. When LA’s midfielders moved out of the second line of the defense, they again left too much space behind without any cover. Elis and Quioto also stayed close to the sidelines to provide width for the attack. Their teammates could always find them isolated in 1 vs. 1 situations against LA’s fullbacks. They created the free kick that led to the second goal in one of these situations.
LA played in two units without a connection between them
LA didn’t have a proper mechanism to transition into the attacking phase in the early period of the first half; Perry Kitchen and Sebastian Lletget lack the characteristic to dictate play. The two midfielders didn’t have the passing range and skill to let their teammates move into the attacking positions and connected with them. Lletget has a decent dribble, but he focuses on the penetration than transferring the ball to his teammates. Ibrahimovic, Giovani, Ola Kamara, and Romain Alessandrini all wanted to attack and stayed in front of Houston’s defenders but not helped to advance the ball. LA attacked in a 4-2-4. The defenders and the double pivots could only pass to the attackers with a long ball. They separated into two units with a back six and a front four. Most of LA’s long passes were not successful. Because LA’s two units had a significant distance between them, they couldn’t carry out a robust counter-pressing to retrieve the ball. Ibrahimovic and Giovani also almost never attack the loose ball after losing the possession:
Houston’s players could always counter-attack because no one pressured them after the defense-to-offense transition. LA’s back unit couldn’t cover all of the available space. Houston’s attackers found a lot of opportunities to attack, but their lack of offensive quality prevented them from taking advantage of these chances. LA lost the control of the game with a lack of connection between the defenders and the attackers; even when they could find the attackers in the offensive phase, their fullbacks and central midfielders stayed too far away to support the attack:
Alessandrini often found himself isolated on the right flank against at least two defenders. Houston didn’t always retrieve the ball from him, but they delayed him enough and allowed the defenders to move into the proper defending positions.
LA adjusted their build-up play after about 25 minutes in the first half; Kitchen and Lletget stopped sending those hopeless long balls. Kitchen dropped between Michael Ciani and Jorgen Skjelvik so that one of them could bring the ball forward and search for a pass receiver in the space between the lines. Ibrahimovic dropped to the midfield to receive the entry pass and helped the transition. Dave Romney and Ashley Cole could push up from the defense to support the attack. LA now had more attackers, and their pass pattern became more unpredictable than before. Houston responded by having their attackers chasing LA’s center backs during the build-up. Schmid should have started Jonathan dos Santos or Servando Carrasco; they have the passing range and creativity to distribute the ball from a deep position. Once Jonathan had entered the game, LA could circulate the ball between the flanks. They passed with a higher success rate than before. They could transition into the attack without losing the ball during the process and risked being counter-attacked.
Houston’s amazing set pieces
Houston struggled to convert from the regular play, but their work in the set piece ensured themselves three points:
They scored about 0.6 goals per game from the set piece, the highest in the MLS (alongside with Chicago Fire and New York Red Bulls). They have different solutions for the set pieces from different positions; in the first goal, Adolfo Machado first set a screen for Andrew Wenger and Alberth Elis. The screen was a trap to lure LA’s defenders’ attention toward them. When Wenger and Elie moved in with their markers, they dragged the off-side line back, and they could connect the ball closer to the goal. Wenger then became the second screener to rid Alejandro Fuenmayor of his marker so that he could make a clear shot. In the second goal, Machado again set a screen, this time to block David Bingham’s and Ibrahimovic’s visual on the ball. Neither player could react to the shot. Houston’s success in the set pieces shows the intelligence of the coaching staffs and the hard work of the players.
LA have had the same problems this season; they can’t find the best solution to attack. They have the best attackers in the MLS, but they don’t know how to work together. Schmid wants to play all his best-attacking players, but the technical quality isn’t LA’s problem; they need more runners to support the attackers. Ibrahimovic is their best attacker and needs to play, but they don’t need that many other dribblers. Only one of Giovani, Lletget, and Alessandrini should start. Ibrahimovic is most dangerous not only when he is inside the box but when he drops to the midfield and confuses his marker or pulls him out of the position. They need to take advantage of these opportunities with a runner moving into the space he creates. Kamara (who has been playing well with his work ethics) and Giovani / Lletget / Alessandrini need to run inside but not to dribble from the outside.
They also struggle to morph into the attacking phase and become lost in the transition. The defense and the offense separate into two units. They need to start one of Carrasco or Jonathan and pair him with Kitchen Baggio Husidic. Playing Lletget in the midfield only delays the ball progression. They need better passing range in the midfield so that they can stay as a coherent unit.
Houston did well to win this game, but they don’t have the quality to contend for the title. They are likely to stay in the middle of the table.