As the unstoppable Los Angeles FC (LAFC) rolled up to the Gillette Stadium to play the New England Revolution, the excitement was building. The New England Revolution had been on an 11 game unbeaten run. Winning seven and drawing four, The Revs went from -19 goal difference to a +14 goal difference.
The arrival of Bruce Arena has sparked up the Revs into an unstoppable team. Combine an emerging team against one of the best teams in the MLS, and you have an excellent match up. In this tactical analysis, we analyze the tactics of each team and do an analysis that details to you how and why one team lost while the other won.
Arena only made one change to the team that beat Orlando City 4-1. Wilfried Zahibo was dropped for Juan Agudelo. For LAFC coach, Bob Bradley, the team only warranted one change from the team that beat a crazy Atlanta United 4-3. Goalkeeper Pablo Sisniega was dropped for Tyler Miller. Apart from that, both sides were unchanged but both did enact formation changes.
Arena changed the Revs from a 4-2-3-1 to a 4-4-2 while Bradley changed his 4-3-3 to a 4-1-4-1.
LAFC’s brilliant buildup gets past the Revs’ press
One of the main traits in a possession-based system is the usage of buildup. A concept that has become synonymous with attractive football, build-up involves playing in certain movements and executing certain tactics to attract the opposition.
While the tactic is certainly risky, as dispossession means the team will have a shorter distance to the goal and can attack quickly, it also rewards the team if the actions are carried out perfectly.
The reward is a chance at counterattacking the opposition with some of the team’s best men still in advanced positions.
As such, it was no surprise seeing LAFC play out from the back. However, the patterns and movements executed by LAFC were in specific regards to the pressing patterns utilized by New England.
Lining up in a 4-4-2, New England changed their formation to a 4-3-1-2. This formation, when pressing LAFC in the buildup, was made to combat to LAFC’s structure.
Lining up in a 4-1-4-1, LAFC split their fullbacks and moved them upfield. Meanwhile, the centrebacks split up, increasing the distance between them. Here, LAFC’s defensive midfielder, Eduard Atuesta, would drop in between the two centrebacks.
As one can see, this created a triangle in the middle of the pitch which would allow LAFC to bypass The Revs’ two forward press. However, with New England supplying another midfielder to mark the defensive midfielder, LAFC had a 3v3 situation in the defensive third. As such, the Los Angeles team had to get creative and look for other options.
To combat this, LAFC had one of their fullbacks, the left fullback, drop to the defensive line of the centrebacks. This created a backline of three defenders which created a situation of 4v3 in the defensive third of LAFC. As such, LAFC used this numerical superiority to bypass the New England press.
Here we see the three centrebacks in formation. Notice how without the fullback, shown in red, there is a 3v3 situation. The two forwards man-mark the two centrebacks with the trailing midfielder marking the central defensive midfielder.
Moreover, the diamond structure of LAFC allows them to play quick 1-2s and get past aggressive pressing from England. As such, this buildup combines the free man concept and diamond structure to alleviate pressure from one side of the pitch and vertically progress.
The numerical superiority present allows the ball carrying centre backs to play a chipped ball to the free fullback. This ball can eliminate the three forwards with one single pass and as thus, LAFC can get out of this pressing structure.
Once the free centreback receives the ball, he is tasked to dribble upwards and then release the ball to a nearby LAFC player. This meant that LAFC had eliminated three players from the opposition’s defence.
The free third centreback concept is also important because, in addition to providing a complex buildup action as described above, it also allows for direct penetration. Since the centreback is free and has time, he can launch vertical balls to his respective side winger. In fact, this specific movement was what transpired the first goal.
Here the fullback was free, the England player coming only after the pass had been made. This characteristic allowed the fullback to notice Diego Rossi’s run, which starts from a wide positioning. As such, the fullback makes a long ball into space in front of him, shown in blue.
Notice how the England fullback, behind Rossi, has been drawn out of position. Combine this with one of the centrebacks being drawn deep and a 3v2 situation has been created in the defensive third of New England.
This 3v2 situation created a numerical superiority for LAFC which allowed Rossi to have enough space to pick out his location and how much power he wants, all of which eventually lead to the goal.
Simple long balls like these allowed LAFC to pose frequent attacks against New England and consequently, put the Revs under much pressure.
New England’s pressing structure also included another obstacle that LAFC had to bypass.
In New England’s pressing structure, the three midfielders behind the front trio were spread out strategically. Two midfielders covered the halfspace while the central midfielder was in charge of controlling the central corridor.
This was done as it allows easy convergence on the wing or in the centre. If the ball is brought the centre, the two midfielders from the halfspace can converge in the centre while if the ball is brought onto the wing, one midfielder can step out and provide protection to the fullback.
However, LAFC got around this strategic positioning by moving the left fullback upfield after the Los Angeles team had gotten past the first press. This created a total of five players in the centre, creating a 5v3 situation. This numerical superiority proved too much to deal with as LAFC were now free to combine in the areas they pleased.
We can see that the fullback comes from his position inside the midfield. There are now 5 LAFC players against the three midfield of New England. This numerical superiority allows them the opportunity to make intricate linkups and progress vertically.
Notice how the ball carrier can choose to either dribble or make diagonal passes to the opposite side, where the midfielder will receive the ball with ample space and time. Additionally, the three England midfielders cannot stop this vertical progression as there will always be two free LAFC players.
This control in midfield, consequently, spills into attack as the LAFC midfielders have enough time and space to find the runs of the forwards. Moreover, the midfielders can penetrate with their dribbles and consequently, play 1-2s with the forwards.
LAFC also employed another strategy to get past New England’s press, this technique using fewer passes. Maintaining the 4v3 situation in the defensive third, one of the wing forwards, mostly Carlos Vela, dropped deep.
By this forward dropping deep, the opposition fullback had to follow him to prevent the forward having too much space. In doing so, the fullback would leave space behind him. At that moment, the LAFC fullback on the respective side of the forward would make a vertical run and would receive a ball from one of the midfielders or the forward himself.
Here Vela drops deep into the midfield. His action causes the respective fullback, Edgar Castillo (8), to follow him into the midfield. This leaves space on the wing flank which can be exploited by LAFC.
Vela, here, is making a forward pass. LAFC can easily take that pass and switch to the left-hand side, where the opposition fullback left his position, and attack the defence. At that same time, the LAFC fullback can make a vertical run to receive the ball and provide a wide attacking option.
This movement is also important as it allows the forward to be involved in the midfield buildup actions.
Seeing that the forward turned out to be Vela, most times, LAFC could now have more creativity infused in their midfield. Vela, with his supreme technical abilities, could play 1-2s, dribble through the New England midfield, or simply provide a clean pass into a running LAFC player.
Poor decisions fail New England’s attacks
A tactic used in New England’s attack was the inversion of roles. Inversion, whenever it is used, is a good tactic as it forces the opposition to react to a change in roles. Inversion can throw off a team’s pre-planned movements allowing for space to be created in the hesitation of players.
New England employed an inversion of roles, with the forwards going wide. With this movement, the left and right wide midfielders would, in turn, invert their positions to occupy halfspaces and central spaces. This inversion of roles allowed New England to create space in the midfield as the separation of forwards separates LAFC’s defence.
With the wide midfielder coming narrow, it allowed the wing flank to be vacated and as such, fullbacks could now make overlapping runs. As such, oftentimes, triangles between the striker, wide midfielder, and the fullback could often be found in England’s attack.
One of the first ways these triangles were utilized was through a simple hold up play between the striker and the wide midfielder. The forward would receive the ball and hold it, as he was guarded by a defender, and wait for a vertical run from the wide midfielder.
With the midfielder making the run, the striker would play a diagonal ball to the midfielder and all of a sudden, the midfielder could attack the defence.
The forward drops deep, bringing an LAFC defender with him. The inverted wide midfielder positions himself near the forward. This allows him to receive a pass from the forward. This pass is dangerous as it allows the midfielder to attack the space that the defender left behind.
Since the Revs have two forwards, the inverted midfielder can attack that space and combine with the second forward, resulting in a quick and dangerous attack.
Another relationship involved the striker and the wide midfielder coming in narrow to be in the central corridor while the fullback went up to be in the wing flank.
This allowed one more player to be in the centre which allowed England to have numerical equality in the midfield.
This addition of a man allowed England to form triangles with the other players and play simple one-touch passing to get past LAFC pressure and progress forwards. On the other hand, the movement of the forwards and the midfielders coming inside also opened the wing flank for the fullback to make vertical runs.
In the picture shown above, the wide midfielder comes in the middle. In combination with that, the forward comes in a bit narrow. This vacates space on the wing flank, as shown in yellow. This space means that the fullback can run forward and get into a position where he can deliver a dangerous cross.
Yet another relationship with the triangle primarily involved the fullback.
In this movement, the striker would go into his normal position while the wide midfielder would stay wide. This meant that the central corridor and the wing flanks were occupied, leaving only the halfspace free.
The fullback inverts his position, occupying himself in the halfspace. This allows the fullback to run and combine with both the forward and the wide midfielder. This will inevitably attract LAFC players, at which point, the fullback can release the ball to one of his free teammates.
Here the wide midfielder, true to his position, stays wide. The forward stays in his position. This combination vacates the halfspace and allows the fullback, the deeper New England player, to occupy that space and affords him full freedom.
Notice how this positioning leaves a space in the LAFC defence. The fullback’s freedom means that he can play chipped balls into those spaces and as such, link up with the Revs’ forward.
Relationships like these helped New England progress upfield and threaten the defence. However, poor decision making and mistakes such as an overhit pass meant that New England could not take advantage of their attacks.
There were various times that New England got into the 18-yard box and one of their players was through on goal. However, mishitting the ball or a poor touch let these players and the team down.
New England’s weak right-hand side
As good as LAFC’s attack was, part of what helped the Los Angeles team score goals was New England’s weak right side.
This defensive weakness on the right-hand side can be seen in the statistics from the game. Out of the 20 key passes made by LAFC, 14 of those were directed to the right-hand side and had a target zone of the final third. What this means is that 70% of key passes made by LAFC were intended to go to the final third and to the right-hand side of New England.
This same pattern of LAFC targeting the right-hand side of New England is seen in the passes made. 54.5% of all of LAFC’s passes were directed towards the right-hand side. Both of these statistics indicate that LAFC were targeting the right-hand side, purposely, which only means that New England had a weak right-hand side.
But why was it so and how was it being used by LAFC?
Part of the reason is England’s narrow back four. This narrowness means that England left a lot of space on the wing flanks. However, this doesn’t fully explain why LAFC chose the right-hand side. They could have equally chosen the left-hand side.
The reason is due to the positioning of the wide forwards. Vela remained close to the left fullback. This is because Vela, often, dropped into the midfield and helped provide through balls and engage the LAFC in creative plays.
The left wide forward for LAFC, Diego Rossi, positioned himself on the very wide. This left the right-back for New England, Brandon Bye, in a dilemma. As such, LAFC knew that if they played the ball on the right-hand side, Bye would either have to come out or stay in position.
If he came out, then LAFC players could get inside the space between him and the centrebacks and as such, pose a danger. If he stayed in position, Rossi, with his pace and trickery, would have enough time to come in and give a dangerous cross or shoot.
This positioning meant that Bye was often being pulled in and out of position, allowing for great spaces near the right-hand side of New England. LAFC used this space to often make a low cross, as was the case in the second goal.
In the picture above, there are a lot of elements happening so let’s break them down, element by element. Vela, shown in red, is tightly marked by one of the Revs’ defenders, shown in purple. Notice how the defenders are very close, shown with solid blue lines, and don’t leave big spaces between them.
On the far left of the picture, we can see the wide positioning of Rossi. The distance, shown in blue arrow, between him and Bye is large and as such, Bye has a choice. Either he can drift and mark Rossi or remain narrow.
Here, Bye remains in position. This means that the wing space is left undefended meaning that one of LAFC’s midfielder can make a long ball to Rossi. With no one defending that space, Rossi has full freedom to dribble directly at the goal.
This full freedom can translate into Rossi getting into dangerous positions, positions where he can unleash his right foot or deliver a sneaking through ball to the far post. Either way, Rossi, with that pass, increases the chances of LAFC getting a goal.
While LAFC might have won this match, they will be wary of the Revs in the future. New England came very close at killing off LAFC. Arena and his men should be happy. Even though their 11 game winning streak came to an end, they came close to uprooting one of the best teams in MLS.
For Bradley’s men, it was another win in the park. Now sitting 14 points clear from Minnesota United, LAFC will be happy with the win. However, they must not get too complacent. Bradley will have noticed their defensive issues against the Revs and must enact on them.
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