Los Angeles Galaxy 1-0 Houston Dynamo: Donovan moves upfront to score the winner
LA Galaxy dominated for almost the entire game, but had to wait until the 71st minute to go ahead through Landon Donovan.
Galaxy coach Bruce Arena made one enforced change from the win over Real Salt Lake. Chad Barrett’s ankle injury meant he was unavailable, so Adam Cristman was given the nod to play upfront alongside Robbie Keane.
Dominic Kinnear was without Brad Davis in midfield, so pushed Corey Ashe forward to the left of midfield, and brought in Jermaine Taylor at left-back.
Neither the scoreline nor the statistics really sum up how dominant Galaxy were – they didn’t have more possession and struggled to get shots on target, but they were more expansive throughout and simply had more quality in the final third.
Formations and positioning
In broad terms this was 4-4-2 against 4-4-2, albeit with subtle positional differences, as depicted on the left. Whilst tactics is about a lot more than pure formations, that match-up of systems is perhaps the least intriguing tactical battle possible, which didn’t bode well.
However, there were some interesting features. The man most obviously trying to break the rigidity of the systems was Donovan, who typically came in from the right to a central playmaking role, as he did well during the World Cup. He was trying to add extra creativity in that zone, because the partnership between Cristman and Keane didn’t quite work – Keane generally made runs in behind and Cristman dropped deeper, but they rarely combined.
The most obvious difference between the two side was the roles of the full-backs. Dynamo were essentially playing four centre-backs across the defence, and from a very early stage it was clear to see that they wanted to defend very narrow across the width of the penalty box, trying to prevent Galaxy playing through them.
On the other hand, Todd Dunivant and Sean Franklin broke forward very well throughout the game, constantly providing overlaps. They weren’t necessarily in advanced positions full-time, they just timed their runs well to stretch the play and provide passing options for the wide midfielders, both of whom played quite narrow. The chalkboards below show the difference – Dynamo’s full-backs stayed in position and played lots of passes, but rarely got into positions level with the edge of the opposition penalty box.
The second thing Galaxy did very well was to close down in midfield, and to press as a unit, bringing the defence up and remaining compact from back to front. Dynamo were a little more naive – Camargo and Adam Moffat tried to track David Beckham and Juninho, but were dragged around too much, out of position and too far away from their defence. In turn, that created space for both Cristman and Donovan between the lines.
Dynamo’s best chance was to break quickly down the flanks, to take advantage of the fact that Donovan was coming inside and leaving his full-back exposed, whilst Mike Magee was slow to get back into position. It was probably only in the 65th minute that they actually created a goalscoring opportunity through this approach, however – Moffat played the ball out to Ashe, continued his run, and headed Ashe’s cross wide from a very good position.
One key substitution was enough to swing the game in Galaxy’s favour – Cristman was removed with Chris Birchall taking his place. Not literally taking his place, though, because Birchall went out to the right of midfield, and Donovan came into the centre to play upfront alongside Keane.
This worked in two separate ways. First, Birchall stayed much wider and stretched the play on that side, which was particularly important as the runs from full-back were less frequent after the break, maybe because of fatigue. The new challenge from wide put Dynamo on the back foot and resulted in their back four getting into some terrible positions, having been so solid early on.
More importantly, it meant that Donovan and Keane could combine, and Donovan was closer to goal to provide a direct threat. It proved crucial – Keane got the ball on the left, ducked inside, and slipped it through to Donovan who made a good diagonal run and poked the ball home.
The first goal always looked set to win it – Galaxy played well after going ahead, not dropping deep and maintaining a high line. If anything, they should have extended the lead when Donovan shot rather than slipping in Keane for a second.
Galaxy were better all over the pitch. In tactical terms, there were two key factors – the runs of the full-backs to stretch the play and pile the pressure on Dynamo, and then the substitution that pushed Donovan into the central position he scored the winning goal from.
In raw terms, Galaxy simply had much better players and much more experience. The two star men were perhaps the pick of the players – Beckham with his constant accurate crosses and passes into the box, and Donovan for his clever movement and positioning in two different roles. That may have a long-term impact – it was significant that the three Designated Players combined for the goal, the first time such a player has picked up a winners’ medal. “Finally, we can retire the notion that teams who are willing to drop some coin for star power are at a competitive disadvantage in MLS,” as Grant Wahl puts it.
To speak of the difference in quality without mentioning the absence of Davis would be unfair. Along with Beckham he had provided the most assists in the MLS throughout the season – and created 126 chances throughout the season, 54 than any other player. As Donovan admitted, his absence was key.