As Arsenal looked to integrate first-team football into the promising young Mexican’s game, loan spells in the Spanish La Liga Primera División saw Carlos Vela develop for much of his teenage years away from the English Premier League side. After Real Sociedad acquired Vela in 2012, the Mexican went on to have a further six years in the Spanish league before moving on to Major League Soccer in 2018.
While July of 2017 saw Major League Soccer ‘s newest franchise, Los Angeles FC acquire a permanent move for Vela on a free transfer, Vela did not join the team until January of 2018. What a deal it would turn out to be. 2018 saw Vela net 15 times: 14 of which in MLS and an additional goal in the U.S Open Cup during the clubs inaugural season.
As the club have now found their feet in the league, 2019 became even more lucrative. Vela went on to become the league’s highest scorer with 38 goals in all competitions (xG of 25.7 for the season). During this scout report, we’ll dissect Vela’s role and influence in Bob Bradley’s LAFC side.
Upon first joining the club, Vela was initially used as an attacking midfielder in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The 2019 season saw Vela utilized as a right-forward as Bob Bradley adapted his squad to a 4-3-3 formation. During the season it seemed Bradley had new tactics for the Mexican as Vela moved into a centre-forward role and with great success.
Vela had shown tactical acuity and positional flexibility in the centre-forward role which will be broken down during this analysis.
Carlos Vela heat map 2019 MLS season.
What centre-forwards do best
As Vela enjoyed the highest-scoring season in his career, the below image illustrates the scoring opportunities he has had during the 2019 season. 134 efforts from inside the box at an incredible conversion rate of 26.1% saw Vela reach a total of 36 league goals and a further 2 in the U.S Open Cup.
Carlos Vela’s scoring opportunities in 2019 show a heavy emphasis inside of the box and towards the right side of the goal.
Creating & finding space
One of the first aspects of Vela’s game that this analysis will cover is how comfortable Vela is at dropping into wide areas in-front of the backline. Having familiarity in wide-areas allows Vela to be dangerous both centrally and wide. A benefit to Los Angeles AFC in this regard is that Vela helps to open spaces for others to exploit which is shown below. As the opposing team there is a difficult question asked of you: Do you stay compact and allow Vela space on the ball? That may be a mistake as the Mexican has the technical ability to find key passes from deep positions. The alternative option is to follow Vela when he drifts wide. This is how Vela opens space for others. It would seem opposition teams have a tough task at hand. Their best hope may be an injury that prevents him from playing.
The below image shows Vela drifting wide from the centre-forward role to get on the ball which attracts the San Jose Earthquakes full-back to engage him. Movement from supporting team-mates then helps to pull apart the backline which creates space to penetrate.
Vela drifts wide to pick up the ball in a dangerous position.
Good timing to bring others into the game allows LAFC to pull apart the LA Galaxy backline and exploit space.
Another way that Vela is able to be influential in games is through recognition of space on the outside shoulder of players. In the below image, Vela identifies space vacated by Dave Romney, the La Galaxy left full-back. When his team picks up the ball, Vela uses the vacated space to drift into which allows him to isolate the opposition centre-back into a 1v1 situation.
Vela looks to isolate Diego Polenta into a 1v1 situation and has identified space to do so through the LA Galaxy full-back being too high.
Notice how Vela again pulls away from pressure to create time and space for himself inside the penalty area via an in to out movement. Seconds later, Vela had cut back inside and opened the scoreline for LAFC against local rivals LA Galaxy.
Vela’s timing and movement help to create space and isolate players into 1v1 situations.
As mentioned in the beginning of this analysis, Vela has played as both a right-forward and a centre-forward in Bob Bradley’s LAFC team during the 2019 season. As Vela often drifts between the two positions and poses a challenge of how and when to mark him, Bradley has done a fantastic job of working the team system around the tendencies he has. Vela is firstly able to have the time to change position through the sustained possession of the ball and comfort the team has in the build-up phase. It seems that players can change positions quite freely in advanced areas, but another player should always be looking to fill areas that have been vacated.
In the below image, firstly notice how Vela has created space for himself by vacating the centre of the field and drifting into a wide area to pick up the ball. Secondly, notice how the centre-forward position has been filled in his absence. While Vela has a tendency to drift wide to get on the ball, he always looks for a way to move back inside which is where his link-up and combination play is highlighted.
Vela drifts into the right channel to pick up the ball in space before moving in off the line and looking to link up.
As Vela moves in off the line with the ball in the below image, quick combinations and inventive play allow him to create space for others to play forwards and unbalance the opposition.
Quick combinations allow LAFC to break through lines of pressure and continue to progress the ball towards goal.
Again Vela uses inventive play in tight spaces. Combining with teammates and exploiting space allows LAFC to attack behind San Jose’s lines.
Finding teammates in-behind
Although his greatest contribution to the team mainly comes in goals, Vela still knows how to pull defensive strings and create scoring opportunities for others. The technical competency he has means he’s a threat whenever he’s on the ball. A skill that top players often possess is the ability to apply disguise to their play. This often leads to increased time and space on the ball for the receiving player by catching the opposition team by surprise.
The below image shows Vela in possession of the ball with his back to goal and under extreme pressure. To have the vision, awareness, disguise and technical execution to play a reversed ball, slipped through two opposition players while under pressure is no easy task. Having this ability means whenever he’s in possession of the ball, good things can happen for LAFC.
Vela shows great awareness to pick out a run behind the LA Galaxy backline which leads to another goal for the home side.
When given space and time on the ball, Vela possesses the ability to play a killer pass from a variety of positions on the pitch. In the above situation, Vela plays a disguised pass that’s clipped over the backline which puts two LAFC players into dangerous positions on the ball.
The Achilles Heel
It would seem from this tactical analysis that Carlos Vela has it all. Where can he improve and what are his weaknesses, you might think. Well, it may not come as much of a surprise that a creative forward such as Vela really doesn’t offer too much when it comes to defensive actions. Statistically, Vela wins just 23% of defensive duels: it seems he’d choose to win his battles elsewhere.
In the below image, Vela shows little willingness to contest for the ball with his immediate opponent being merely a few yards away. Pressing and tackling are not strong areas of Vela’s game so the majority of defensive actions are to direct/deflect the direction of play.
Vela shows little willingness to apply pressure from behind.
A way that Vela is able to turn his weaknesses into a strength lie in the positions he takes up in transition. Vela often takes up good positions on the field so he can be found quickly when his team wins the ball.
Typically, Vela is quite content with the idea of staying in the middle of the pitch and being ready for attacking transition.
Vela once again drifts into a wide area and this time picks up the ball in transition with space ahead of him. Vela’s timing is to perfection as he draws pressure before releasing a teammate on the run with a bent pass off the outside of the front foot.
Carlos Vela has continued to give more and more to LAFC since his arrival in 2018. As the league’s highest scorer in 2019, there will be some added pressure as the 2020 season begins. Teams will have to regain sharpness when he picks up the ball as he possesses the skill to unlock the door and create or score goals.
A question that LAFC fans may have is where will Bob Bradley choose to use the Mexican. With the ability to play in multiple positions, Bradley’s main priority will be keeping him healthy and allowing him as many minutes as possible.
A question teams playing against LAFC will have is can Vela’s weaknesses be used to their advantage.