By Sean Steffen (@seansteffen)
With the retirement of Landon Donovan, the Galaxy have lost a player who in large part defined their identity. To say that the LA Galaxy are a team in flux is an understatement, which makes making predictions about next season a fool’s errand. But the fear of looking foolish has never been an adequate deterrent in my writing career, so let’s give this a shot.
Let’s make no mistake about it: Landon Donovan was a chance creating God. Last year 32.2% of the Galaxy’s total xG came from either a Donovan shot or pass. His stylistic impact on the team was perhaps even greater. This can be backed up by my own recent passing analysis of the team which can be read here.
In short, I isolated two distinct buildup styles that the 2014 Galaxy employed to score and Donovan was involved in 75% of them. He was also the driving force behind the famed "Tiki-Taco" style of play which lead to Gyasi Zardes getting so many uncontested shots within the box, a phenomenon I wrote about here. Now that 75% is admittedly skewed somewhat by my methodology since my article was aimed more at analyzing style than overall number, however, if does show that Donovan either scored or was within four passes of a bare minimum of 39% of the Galaxy’s assisted non-set-piece goals.
It took a lot of math, but I think we've finally proven this Donovan fellow was pretty good at soccer. The obvious question becomes, who replaces him, and how does that effect the Galaxy’s xG numbers? This is a huge question mark because the Galaxy have played few preseason games and have rotated players at left mid to a point that it’s impossible to guess who will be starting. As of now, Bradford Jamieson IV looks to be Bruce’s pick to be the starting left mid on opening day (whenever that will be). We have no data available on Jamieson, but his season in USL Pro last year suggests he will be a player that will contribute mainly by way of expected goal and will have few expected assists. Now, from a numbers standpoint, a goal is a goal, however, the expected goal numbers of an entire team fall when chance creation is depleted, which is a very real possibility for the Galaxy next year.
Luckily for the Galaxy, however, their expected goal difference totals from last year were so great, that they actually have a considerable amount of xG to give, if the defense can remain consistent. I addressed this quite thoroughly in this article, but here is a key takeaway
|Team||Expected Goal differential per 90|
|2014 LA Galaxy||0.88|
|2012-2014 Avg. Supporters Shield Winner||0.28|
|2012-2014 Top of the West||0.34|
The Galaxy somehow managed to lose the Supporters' Shield race last year despite a redonkulous xG differential. This is can be viewed as a cushion, of sorts, because it means that, with a bit more luck and better game management, the Galaxy can lose a lot of xG and still be a top team. Here are the quick hit points.
From a numbers standpoint, the Galaxy could replace Donovan with a player that contributes 0 xG by way of shot or pass and would still have a 0.43 xG lead on the Supporters' Shield average over the course of a full season. If you apply the same neutral left mid scenario to the average for teams that finished top of the west over that period, the Galaxy only fall under the western mark by 1.39xG. And finally, subtracting Donovan’s output last year still only puts the Galaxy 3.88 xG behind Seattle in xG differential. That’s a marginal difference, and one that can be easily overcome by a combination of Stefan Ishizaki shouldering more of the chance creation load, and the xG Bradford Jamieson IV brings to the table.
There is also the matter of Steven Gerrard, who arrives in mid July, and will surely boost the Galaxy’s numbers; however, his impact on the Galaxy’s xG Differential numbers will probably be a bit more complex than him boosting xGF. History suggests that his addition might be at the expense of more shots against.
You see, the data we have on the Galaxy is interesting. The first year available is from the famous 2011 team, who many consider to be the greatest MLS team of all time. Of the four total years of data, we have two years in the Beckham era and two years in the post Beckham era. During the Beckham years, the Galaxy played a lethal brand of counter-attack soccer. In the years following Beckham, the Galaxy became an elite possession team. Over the four years of data, the Galaxy won three MLS cups, but by using two very distinct styles of soccer.
Why do I even bring this up? The data clearly shows that the Galaxy’s defense improved by leaps and bounds in the post Beckham years. This may come as a shock to some, as the 2011 LA Galaxy team is generally regarded as one of the best defensive sides of all time, sporting a goals against average of 0.79 a game, however, the data suggests that the Galaxy’s goals against numbers were anomalous that year.
Now I do not know if this jump in improvement is related more to tactics or personnel, since Beckham wasn't exactly the best defender, but I can say with much confidence that the Galaxy were simply a better defensive team post Beckham.
Let’s dive into the data and look at goals against average.
As you can see above, the Galaxy’s goals against average has consistently been well below that of the conference for three of the four years. The problem, however, is that the xGoals against data shows that the 2011 Galaxy’s numbers may be a bit of an outlier. From an xG standpoint, there is a very clear distinction between the Beckham and post Beckham years. Take a look.
The very same thing can be said for shots against.
Well what about shot leverage? That is, the positions of the field he Galaxy are giving up shots. Has that remained constant?
At first glance, yes, despite the varying levels of shot volume faced.
|Avg Shot Leverage against||0.095||0.104||0.09||0.093|
The problem, however, is if you plot it against league averages, the Galaxy during the Beckham era were giving up shots of leverage consistent with the rest of the league. Over a four year span, shot leverage has climbed league wide, however, in the post Beckham years, the average shot leverage given up by the Galaxy was in decline.
The Beckham years saw a very defensively oriented Galaxy team. Ironically, however, it is the post Beckham years that have yielded the best defensive numbers (ignoring the anomalous goals against totals of 2011 for the reasons shown above.)
This is in large part thanks to the staggering decrease in the number of shots the Galaxy give up. Now some of this probably correlates to possession, however, if you look at the Goals 3.0 table, you’ll find that possession is a poor corollary to shots against. In fact, there isn't a stat listed on that page that isn't.
Now, perhaps buried deep in the numbers is a great explanation as to why certain teams are so good at limiting shots, however, I would postulate that it is in large part tactical and linked to how many men you have tracking back.
If I am correct in this assumption, then I feel that the Galaxy will continue to dominate MLS in terms of giving up the least number of shots next year, at least until the arrival of Gerrard, as their shape and general personnel make up hasn't changed. Yes they lost Marcelo Sarvas, but Baggio Husidic is a player who tracks back just as much and makes as many tackles.
Of course, when Gerrard arrives, it’s anybody’s guess how the Galaxy will utilize him. Bruce has stated that he wants him closer to goal, which seems to rule out the possibility that we see Gerrard play in the role of deep-lying playmaker which we saw David Beckham play so well. This could suggest that the Galaxy’s xGA numbers will not rise above the totals we saw in the Beckham years, and the same can probably be said for shots.
While Gerrard still has some legs in him and still averages about three defensive actions a game, his ability to get back into the Galaxy’s shape will probably be less than whoever it is he replaces in the lineup. This means that the Galaxy probably will give up more shots against per game after he arrives. This more than likely means higher xG against, and higher goals against, but again, not as high as the Beckham years.
In other words, the Galaxy data during the Gerard era may fall about halfway in-between the 2012 and 2013 numbers.