This past weekend of MLS action saw the Western Conference’s top two take each other on as Minnesota United welcomed LAFC at the Allianz Field. After feeling each other out for the better part of the first hour, the visitors were able to go ahead via a Carlos Vela strike. The Mexican international’s goal was his 31st of the season, equalling Josef Martínez’s single-season tally.

LAFC’s lead, however, wouldn’t last long as Minnesota’s Michael Boxall found the equalizer just five minutes later. The draw maintains the visitors’ 16-point lead at the top while the point was good enough for Minnesota United to remain equal on points in second with the Seattle Sounders. This tactical analysis will evaluate how this draw came to be.

Lineups

Bob Bradley stuck with his preferred 4-3-3 and fielded the Uruguayan duo of Diego Rossi and Brian Rodríguez alongside talisman Vela in attack. Behind the front three, Canadian international Mark-Anthony Kaye played alongside Lee Nguyen while Eduard Atuesta anchored the midfield.

Tristan Blackmon got the nod in central defence alongside Eddie Segura while Diego Palacios made his MLS debut at left-back.

MLS 2019: LAFC vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis - tacticsIn an attempt to nullify the visitors, manager Adrian Heath mirrored LAFC’s setup and fielded a 4-3-3 of his own. Veteran Ike Opara started alongside Boxall in central defence while Lawrence Olum shielded the back four in defensive midfield.

In attack, Heath deployed Mason Toye as a central striker with Darwin Quintero and Robin Lod flanking him. Hassani Dotson and Ján Greguš rounded off the hosts’ midfield ranks. This analysis will now show how these elevens played out.

Overloading early and often

While LAFC were the visiting team, Bradley’s men had no intention of sitting back and were aggressive early on with their pressing schemes. Not allowing Minnesota United to settle into a rhythm, LAFC dictated the tempo from the get-go and were on the front foot for the better part of the first half.

A key feature to LAFC’s pressing was their desire to overload the hosts in wide areas. As Minnesota were keen to play out of the back, LAFC’s forwards got in positions to restrict their passing lanes in the first phase of buildup. With much of their primary passing lanes clogged up, Minnesota were forced to go wide. LAFC used the wide pass as a trigger to press the hosts and often overloaded them in an attempt to win back possession.

Pictured below is one instance where LAFC get the hosts to shift the ball wide and subsequently force a turnover through an overload. MLS 2019: LAFC vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis - tacticsAs you can tell by the scoreboard, this was only the second minute of the game, illustrating LAFC’s desire to get in the driver’s seat early on. In this instance, LAFC commit five of their men high and wide up the field to deal with Minnesota’s three players. Inevitably, the hosts would turn over possession, allowing LAFC to hit them on the counter. This was a theme that persisted throughout the early goings of the first half.

Below is yet another instance in which LAFC block off Minnesota’s primary passing lanes in a wide area, forcing a turnover through an overload.

MLS 2019: LAFC vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis - tacticsOnce again, LAFC created a numerical advantage, committing four men to Minnesota’s three in a wide area, restricting Romain Métanire’s options. Eventually, the fullback would lose the ball trying to play himself out of this tight situation.

Disciplined in transition

While LAFC’s overloads helped them win possession in dangerous areas, Minnesota United grew into the game and began playing through them with ease. When this would occur, LAFC’s 4-3-3 reverted into a more defensive 4-1-4-1 with Atuesta acting as the anchor. You can see this shape highlighted below.

MLS 2019: LAFC vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis - tacticsWith Vela ready to run beyond the hosts’ backline, this setup makes LAFC a truly devastating team on the counter. Factor in Rodríguez and Rossi’s pace and Bradley’s men are among the most dangerous on the break. People are quick to shower LAFC’s front-line with praise, yet it’s their defensive discipline that separates them from the rest.

As Minessota started dominating possession, LAFC wanted to limit the damage. In order to do this, Bradley employed a mid-block in his own half and forced much of Minessota’s possession wide. Once the hosts would spread the ball to their wide men, both LAFC’s winger and fullback were there to meet him with the rest of the team shuffling over. Illustrated below is the mid-block in question.

MLS 2019: LAFC vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis - tactics

In this sequence, the ball was eventually played to the free man on the right. Despite being in space before receiving it, Quintero was quickly closed down by Palacios and Rossi and had nowhere to turn but back.

Throughout the first half, LAFC altered their tactics regularly, alternating between aggressive overloads and this more reserved shape looking to hit Minnesota on the counter. As their final ball was lacking, nothing came from it.

Back on the front foot

After spending the second half of the first forty-five deep in their own zone, Bradley instructed LAFC to get high up the pitch and employ a high line. Given their back four is relatively pacey, this tactic proved fruitful for LAFC and they were able to take control of the game once more.

Despite Minnesota United’s intricate buildup, the visitors pressed them off the pitch in the first ten minutes of the second half. Pictured below is an instance where Blackmon steps up into Minnesota’s half to press the striker. As the game wore on, LAFC grew with confidence and instances like this occurred regularly.

MLS 2019: LAFC vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis - tacticsAfter a quick exchange between the striker and Lod, Blackmon was able to easily win back the ball and set the visitors back in possession. With LAFC looking for the crucial go-ahead goal, their line remained high up the pitch and often found themselves in the opposition’s half.

LAFC’s X-Factor

While Vela’s 31 goals steal all the headlines, it is LAFC’s Atuesta that makes this team tick. Deployed as the number six in Bradley’s setup, the Colombian is responsible for quarterbacking LAFC’s attacks. Against Minnesota United, the 22-year-old put in an excellent shift, completing 87.9 percent of his 107 passes.

Playing at the base of midfield, Atuesta has the whole pitch in front of him and is often tasked with finding LAFC’s speedy attackers with direct long balls. One pass that is typical of Atuesta’s game is a long ball over the opposition fullback into his winger’s path. Pictured below is one example of this type of pass.

MLS 2019: LAFC vs Minnesota United - tactical analysis - tacticsIn this instance, Rodríguez is in his fullback’s blind-spot and is well on his way on goal. Atuesta takes notice and quickly lofts a ball into his path. The Uruguayan would eventually carve out a good scoring opportunity from this pass, hitting the post on the play. Rodríguez would rue his miss as moments later Minnesota equalized via a set-piece.

Atuesta would finish the game with four successful long ball attempts out of nine and three key passes. While LAFC’s front-line is filled with impact players, Atuesta and his eight assists on the season is what’s quietly making the difference.

Conclusion

The draw doesn’t change much in the standings for LAFC while it allows Minnesota United to maintain the pace with the Seattle Sounders. If anything, this game demonstrated LAFC’s tactical flexibility and their ability to alter between aggressive and conservative setups.

Had it not been for a set-piece, Minnesota wouldn’t have gotten anything from this game and will need to go back to the drawing board. If the sides meet in the post-season and the game plays out in similar fashion, LAFC will like their chances.



Artwork by @chapulana

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Greg Caltabanis

When I'm not writing about the beautiful game, you can find me between the posts yelling at my defenders.
Greg Caltabanis
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