How Zlatan Solves the LA Galaxy’s Tactical Puzzle

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CARSON, CA - MARCH 31: Zlatan Ibrahimovic of Los Angeles Galaxy during the MLS match between Los Angeles FC and Los Angeles Galaxy at StubHub Center on March 31, 2018 in Carson, California. (Photo by Matthew Ashton - AMA/Getty Images)

Editorial – LA Galaxy head coach Sigi Schmid is soccer royalty in the United States of America. From his time at UCLA to his original tenure with the LA Galaxy from 1999-2004, Schmid is able to boast one of the best coaching records across all levels in this country’s still-blossoming soccer history.

However, over his first 18 games since taking over for former Galaxy boss Curt Onalfo, Schmid has accumulated just 17 points with a record of 4-9-5. Schmid’s Galaxy have a goal differential of -25. Under Schmid’s command, the Galaxy have scored 21 goals while conceding 36.

How Zlatan Ibrahimovic Solves the LA Galaxy’s Tactical Flaws

Unfortunately for Schmid, the US-Soccer landscape has been evolving. This evolution left him, and his tactical rigidity, unable to survive a now Darwinian MLS as his tenure at Seattle Sounders FCended with a mid-season sacking. Seattle would go on to win the MLS Cup that season.

Moreover, if it weren’t for the signing of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Schmid’s “doomsday clock” would also be inching closer to midnight as the end his LA Galaxy tenure neared.

Schmid Prefers to Play Down the Wings

In the Galaxy’s most recent game against LAFC, the teamsheet described the Galaxy as playing a 4-2-3-1. Based on average positions, Sigi Schmid’s Galaxy played a 2-3-5. The two-man back line consisted of center-backs Daniel Steres and Jorgen Skjelvik. The three-man midfield consisted of left-back Ashley Cole and holding midfielders Servando Carrasco and Perry Kitchen. And, the forward line consisted of wingers Ema Boateng and Chris Pontius, midfielder Sebastian Lletget, forward Ola Kamara, and right-back Rolf Feltscher.

Now of course formations are more or less arbitrary, but it does show how important the wings are for the Galaxy. In fact, 76% of the Galaxy’s attack against LAFC came down one of the wings. As a result, the LA Galaxy sent 29 crosses into the box (Feltscher sent in 13 of those). As it stands, the LA Galaxy average 22 crosses per game (5th in the MLS).

The Zlatan Factor

Even on a surface level, Zlatan will be an integral member of the LA Galaxy attack. At 6’5, there aren’t many defenders in MLS that match up. Only two players, Colorado’s Axel Sjöberg and Seattle’s Calle Brown, are taller than Ibrahimovic. Further, excluding Ibrahimovic, there are only 11 other players at 6’5 or taller in the entire league. One of those is Galaxy keeper Brian Sylvestre. Based on pure size, Zlatan improves Sigi Schmid’s out-to-in model.

As an example, Ibrahimovic used his size for the game-winner. Zlatan was easily able to win the header over the 6’0 Laurent Ciman. And it isn’t just his size. Zlatan has the experience to put himself in the right positions to create chances. He also has the confidence to do this:

The true key is that none of those players have the Zlatan factor.

Earlier in the game, Zlatan directly influenced the Galaxy’s second goal without touching the ball. As Ema Boateng dribbles into the half-space left of goal, Zlatan drifts out toward the wing. Simultaneously, LAFC defender Steven Beitashour can be seen directing center-back Dejan Jokavic to vacate the center of the field to mark Zlatan.

The likelihood of Beitashour giving those orders to mark off, say, Giovani dos Santos is extremely unlikely. That is no disrespect to dos Santos, but Zlatan commands a different type of respect from opposing defenses.

Now that Boateng notices the opening, he dribbles into the open space and serves a cross to the back-post and on to the head of Chris Pontius. Boateng was able to take advantage of space created by the LAFC defenders who were consumed with ensuring that Zlatan Ibrahimovic did not score a goal.

Moving Forward

It will be up to Sigi Schmid to determine how often to use Ibrahimovic throughout the season. MLS travel is rigorous, and transcontinental coach flights are something Zlatan won’t be familiar with.

When the Galaxy finally get healthy, there will be two lineups: The Zlatan lineup and the Galaxy lineup.

With Zlatan

With Zlatan on the field, expect a 4-4-2 with Zlatan up top with Ola Kamara. This will allow the Galaxy to use Giovani dos Santos and Romain Alessandrini as wingers, and it won’t force Cole or Feltscher to push forward as often into the attack. This will give the Galaxy some defensive structure while also allowing the overlap to be used strategically as opposed to the regular attack. The 4-4-2 is simple and allows Sigi Schmid to employ a structured shape while still having the attacking threats moving forward.

Without Zlatan

Without Zlatan, the Galaxy will play their familiar 4-2-3-1. In this situation, the Galaxy will attempt to use dos Santos or Lletget in the middle of the field to create chances for their wingers. Cole and Feltscher will be more likely to overlap with Zlatan off the field because defenses will look to mark Alessandrini and Boateng out of the game. With Feltscher’s and Cole’s lack of pace, this is where pacey opponents like LAFC and Atlanta United will be able to expose the Galaxy with quick counter-attacks. For evidence of this, look back at the three goals LAFC scored in the inaugural El Tráfico.

Ultimately, with Zlatan’s arrival, the LA Galaxy now have the deepest roster in MLS. Furthermore, they now have a striker who puts fear in defenses by simply being in the 18. For that reason, teams will gameplan against Zlatan, and that will create goals for everyone else. Consequently, those goals will change the narrative surrounding Sigi Schmid’s second tenure with the LA Galaxy. And, with any luck, they will lead the Galaxy to a deep playoff run.

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