Major League Soccer is in full swing for the 2019 season. After a disappointing loss to Vancouver Whitecaps earlier in the week, Los Angeles FC (LAFC) hosted Seattle Sounders FC on Sunday night. LAFC needed a win to maintain the gap between themselves and Los Angeles rivals, LA Galaxy, at the top for the MLS Western Conference. Seattle were coming off back to back wins against in form Toronto FC and mid-table Real Salt Lake City. LAFC won the game 4-1 by winning the midfield battle, handing Seattle their first loss of the season. This tactical analysis will explore exactly how they did it.
Bob Bradley made some much-needed restorations to his LAFC lineup after resting his starters. He suffered his first loss of the MLS season against Vancouver in midweek. Niko Hämäläinen, Danilo Silva and Shaft Brewer Jr. were all dropped from the defensive lineup with Jordan Harvey, Eddie Segura and Steven Beitashour returning to the back line with Walker Zimmerman.
Mark-Anthony Kaye also returned to the LAFC starting eleven, replacing Peter-Lee Vassell in the midfield. The goalkeeper, remaining midfielders and inform front three remained unchanged. Latif Blessing was a welcome returnee to the lineup after he was forced off with a shoulder injury against Vancouver.
With his injuries preventing Marc Dos Santos from playing his preferred starting eleven, the Sounders manager made two personnel changes to his squad. Maintaining a 4-2-3-1 shape, Román Torres replaced Chad Marshall in the back.
Jordan Morris was moved from the right midfield position to replace injured Will Bruin as the team’s striker. Harry Shipp was introduced into the lineup to replace the vacancy at right midfield. Raúl Ruidíaz was a notable absentee for the Sounders, with the star striker out with a prolonged heel injury.
How it happened
LAFC seemed to be in control from the opening minutes of the game. Carlos Vela opened the scoring in the 12th minute after Mark-Anthony Kaye made a brilliant penetrating pass from deep. LAFC seemed comfortable for the remainder of the half and doubled their lead in the 39th minute through Eduard Atuesta.
The chance came from Atuesta and Kaye’s counter pressing of Nicolás Lodeiro in Seattle’s defensive third. Kaye intercepted Lodeiro’s pass, allowing Atuesta to run at the Seattle backline. Román Torres went to ground much too quickly, allowing Atuesta to simply step around the defender and finish past Stefan Frei.
Early in the second half, Seattle found themselves back in the game. Harry Shipp had acres of space in the penalty area in the 51st minute. This was a result of good combination play down the left side. Seattle played through LAFC’s high pressing with quick passes and penetrating runs. Morris did well to create space for Shipp at the back post by making a darting near post run.
The momentum didn’t last long with Vela scoring his 10th goal of the season just four minutes later. Seattle’s poor defensive shape allowed Atuesta to play the ball into the box with ease. Vela rounded the goalkeeper and slotted home to restore the two-goal cushion.
LAFC sealed the three points in the 61st minute when Kaye’s pass found Ramirez in the area. The pass once again split Seattle’s defender, leaving Stefan Frei out to dry for the third time in 10 minutes.
Closer to the matches conclusion Seattle began to find a rhythm but it was too little too late. LAFC were cruising to the finish line and saw the match out to win 4-1. In this tactical analysis, we will analyse where LAFC won the match.
A notable theme in the early stages of the match was the attacking nature of full-backs Steven Beitashour and Jordan Harvey. Both played an important role in the team’s overall attacking shape, however, Steven Beitashour became a genuine goalscoring threat as the match wore on. The advanced positions he occupied further up the field made life difficult for the Seattle Sounders defenders.
The following images showcase the areas Beitashour occupied. The first shows Beitashour in an advanced area to receive a pass during the LAFC buildup. This showcases LAFC’s determination to get players forward before the ball arrived in the final third. Three of LAFC’s goals came from penetrating passes through the Sounders defensive lines. Beitashour’s presence high up the field helped provide space for LAFC’s goal threats in Carlos Vela.
LAFC were not shy to commit defenders high up the pitch in possession, despite it leaving them exposed in the wide areas on the counter-attack. We will discuss how LAFC prevented these dangerous counter-attacks from occurring.
In the earlier stages, Beitashour had a few decent chances to get himself on the score sheet. He held a much narrower position than right winger Carlos Vela, occupying space inside the area. When Vela was in possession of the ball on the right, Beitashour often positioned himself in the channels to offer a linkup option.
When the ball found its way to the opposite side, Beitashour made darting runs into the area to get on the end of crosses. In the following frame, we can see Beitashour attempting to get on the end of a Diego Rossi cross. The delivery was a bit too far in front of him. However, this image highlights how Beitashour’s position opened up space for Carlos Vela (shown in red) on the opposite end of the pitch.
This wasn’t the only chance that Beitashour had during the game either. He found himself on the end of a header that flashed past the far post in the 22nd minute. As the game progressed and LAFC scored Beitashour’s offensive commitments became much less aggressive.
LAFC midfield battle
Standout performances from LAFC’s midfielders was the key difference throughout the game. Kaye, Atuesta, and Latif Blessing seemed to cover every blade of grass. Kaye registered three assists, with Atuesta bagging himself a goal and assist. Blessing’s speed and energy was too much for Seattle Sounders to handle. This made building out from the back a dangerous option.
In the following images, we look at Latif Blessing’s positioning and how it affected the Sounders performance. Blessing’s starting position is very deep as his team loses possession. Left-back Harvey is the second most advanced player, leaving LAFC vulnerable to a counter-attack down that flank.
Blessing’s position allows him to provide cover to Harvey as the ball is lost. Cristian Roldan attempts to dribble into the free space but Blessing tracks his run to make the tackle.
Between them, the midfield trio contributed to seven of the team’s 18 successful tackles. Much of the midfield’s defensive success was a result of their counter-pressing effectiveness. Whenever LAFC lost ball possession high up the pitch they would suffocate the Sounders player in possession.
LAFC’s second goal came as a direct result of their counter-press. As Nicolás Lodeiro received the pass, Atuesta closed him down, forcing him to move into a more central position. Lodeiro attempted a penetrating forward pass, but Kaye was positioned to make the interception. Atuesta went on to score the goal on the counter.
Kaye, Atuesta, and Blessing combined to make up four of LAFC’s eight interceptions throughout the match. Three of these interceptions were in Seattle’s half and the other was just inside the LAFC half. Of the remaining four interceptions, two were made by LAFC full-backs defending in Seattle’s half. Another was made by Atuesta’s 89th minute replacement, Peter-Lee Vassell in Seattle’s own half.
The counter-press effectively slowed down the Sounders’ attack, preventing quick buildup play. Covering runs from the likes of Blessing prevented dribbling penetration, limiting the options of the Sounders’ midfielders.
If Seattle had possession for an extended period of time, LAFC were still willing to press high. Here is an example of Latif Blessing anticipating the pass to Roldon and making an interception. This once again allowed LAFC to begin the counter high up the field.
Seattle’s defensive shape
LAFC’s midfield dominance provided structural problems to the Sounders’ defence. Midfielders Kaye, Atuesta and Blessing combined in the middle of the pitch, breaking Seattle’s lines with penetrating passes. As LAFC moved the ball between these lines, the Sounders’ defenders would step or drop accordingly.
LAFC took advantage of Seattle’s inability to step as a defensive unit, making runs past their defender while staying onside. The two following images showcase how Sounders’ right-back Kelvin Leerdam’s poor positioning keeps Carlos Vela onside during LAFC’s third goal.
Only four minutes later Sounders’ Harry Shipp keeps both Diego Rossi and Jordan Harvey onside. Rossi received the pass and had a free shot on goal inside the area which Stefan Frei saved.
Seattle’s lazy defensive structure was a common theme throughout the match and cost them dearly. In fact, they were fortunate not to suffer more from it. Three of LAFC’s four goals came from penetrating passes that split the Sounders defence.
The right side of the Sounders’ defence were the regular culprits, failing to step up with the left side. Blessing almost split the defence early on when Beitashour occupied a position between Kim Kee-hee and Brad Smith. Despite being slightly more advanced than them, Román Torres and Kelvin Leerdam keep Beitashour onside. Fortunately for Seattle, Víctor Rodríguez intercepted the pass.
What was meant to be a competitive match between the two league leaders turned into a walk in the park for LAFC. Seattle showed their threat during Shipp’s goal, but their defensive shape and lack of midfield impact hurt them. Seattle’s next game is against San Jose, where Marc Dos Santos will expect his team to return to winning ways. The two teams face off again only a week later, as LAFC travel to Seattle on 28 April.
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