By Anay Patel (@anaypatel)
In addition to being one of the most storied rivalries in MLS history, the California Classico has an extra flair to it in 2019. New San Jose manager Matias Almeyda played for and managed Argentinian giant River Plate, and new LA Galaxy manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto played for and managed their hated rival Boca Juniors. In addition to that, Almeyda managed Banfield for a period, the rival of Lanús, where Schelotto managed his first side. So on paper the coaching matchup should be about equal. In reality, it hasn’t been.
Following San Jose’s 3-0 win in the first edition of the 2019 California Clasico, LA Galaxy manager Guillermo Barros Schelotto and captain Zlatan Ibrahimovic dismissed the win, claiming that the scoreline was not reflective of the close nature of the match. After all, the Galaxy were missing key players Jonathan dos Santos and Uriel Antuna, who were away on Gold Cup duty. Earthquakes homegrown player Tommy Thompson was dismissive of the comments, remarking that “there’s always a scoreboard, after the game and it said 3-0.” For the rematch only two weeks later, the table was set for a very interesting tactical matchup between two new managers trying to implement their philosophy into their clubs. In actuality, Almeda’s side came out on top again, this time by a score of 3-1.
Matias Almeyda’s San Jose Earthquakes have been one of the hottest teams in the league since April 1st, following getting zero points from four matches in March. Almeyda’s team is playing an attacking brand of soccer which has created some very exciting moments for the club. Against the Galaxy, Almeyda fielded a 4-2-3-1 that has brought out the best in San Jose’s attacking players. The club has been very effective in the attacking phase with Vako dribbling at and around defenders, Cristian Espinoza using his pace to get behind defenders, and Magnus Eriksson combining with others in the middle to create chances. Judson provides defensive cover and Jackson Yueill’s vertical passing ability helps bypass the opponent’s defensive block. Marcos Lopez and Tommy Thompson frequently push far up the sideline combine with the attacking players and midfielders in the final third. San Jose peppered LA Galaxy goalkeeper David Bingham with 32 shots and 16 shots on target on the night.
Schelotto’s 4-2-3-1 is centered around LA’s biggest attacking threat: Ibrahimovic. LA’s offense has been very reliant on Zlatan, so one of their main sources of chances comes from crosses in from the wide areas. Against San Jose, attacking midfielders Efrain Alvarez, Fabio Alvarez, and Uriel Antuna struggled to get into those wide areas with the ball and cross it into the box. Joe Corona and Jonathan dos Santos sit in the central midfield, though they also struggled to do anything of effect against the Earthquakes. Fullbacks Rolf Feltscher and Jörgen Skjelvik push up the pitch or provide service for Ibrahimovic with any consistency.
From just the eye test, it appeared that San Jose dominated possession throughout the game and overwhelmingly controlled the momentum apart from a few short periods. Following Rolf Feltscher’s early goal off of a corner kick, it seemed that the field was ‘tilted’ in San Jose’s favor for the remainder of the match. ASA’s GameFlow xPG, a metric created by Cheuk Hei-Ho, Eliot McKinley, and Jamon Moore, told a similar story. San Jose controlled the momentum for an overwhelming majority of the game, and did an excellent job in the second half of making the most of their chances and their momentum.
LA struggle to build through San Jose’s defensive pressure
San Jose’s style of applying defensive pressure made it difficult for LA to build from the back and advance the ball with vertical passing. In this match in particular, San Jose were able to win the ball high up the pitch with some regularity thanks to their well-organized pressing that denied LA’s defenders the opportunity to advance the ball to their midfielders.
In the 22nd minute, LA had a throw-in in their own half where San Jose forced LA into a turnover by tightly marking any player in the ball-side half and denying them space. This creates a 7v7 situation, which means there will be a San Jose player that can immediately access the ball and contest the possession once the ball is thrown in. Even the player throwing the ball in has a defender marking him, eliminating the possibility of a one-touch pass back to the thrower. This defensive scheme’s success is contingent upon the ability of San Jose’s players to apply the pressure at the same time, and to win some of the 1v1 situations it creates.
But even if the throw-in recipient is able to successfully possess the ball, the number of San Jose players in the immediate area and the poor spacing between the LA players makes the probability of San Jose winning the ball back very high. LA is put in a difficult situation here, because trying to create an overload will just bring more defenders into the area, and really any conventional strategy will require the LA player to win the ‘duel’ with their defender.
If San Jose is able to win the ball back successfully in these situations, their players are also positioned to transition into attack quickly. When the San Jose player wins the ball, he has two immediate passing options without any LA players in between. The team’s defensive ideas have an immediate impact on their offensive ideas, and vice versa. This makes it easier for San Jose to regain possession, move the ball forward, or to switch the point of attack.
The situation being examined is a dead-ball situation, which makes it easier to observe the offensive and defensive objectives of both teams. San Jose was particularly effective in winning the ball back and transitioning into attack immediately in this situation, but the same can be said for several other situations in the match.
When LA was in possession and building from the back line, central midfielders Santos and Corona almost always had a San Jose player within a few yards of them. When they were able to receive the ball, they struggled to progress the possession to one of the four attacking players, as San Jose’s marking in the midfield held up strongly. For an LA team that has seemed committed to building from the back in 2019 and playing a non-direct style, this presents some major problems.
San Jose play through LA’s midfield with ease
While San Jose’s pressing was effective in the match, LA’s press was disjointed and often ineffectual. LA has been committed to pressing high up the pitch all season long, but they haven’t been a team that does it with striking efficiency as teams like LAFC, Sporting KC, NYRB, or NYCFC do. Doing this successfully requires a high level of preparation and training, which some of these teams have been working towards for several consecutive seasons. When a player presses the opponent, they leave the space they previously occupied open. A team that presses well will account for this open space by having the other players collectively move to eliminate any immediate passing options for the team in possession.
In the 47th minute, San Jose’s center backs moved the ball from one wing to the other, from Guram Kashia to Florian Jungwirth. When Kashia received the ball, he was pressed by Corona and forced to play the ball back to goalkeeper Daniel Vega, who immediately passed the ball to Jungwirth. As this happened, Zlatan left his position in the middle of the field to pressure Jungwirth.
What followed was a simple square pass to Jackson Yueill. Ibrahimovic’s pressing was bypassed with one pass because his teammates were not in a good position to cover the area Yueill and Judson were occupying in the midfield. To prevent this from happening, strikers often make curved runs to try and ‘cut the field in half’ and force the player into passing the ball wide. In this case, there was far too much space for Yueill and Judson for Ibrahimovic to be able to defend with just his cover shadow. Corona being out of position and fullbacks Tommy Thompson and Marcos Lopez maintaining their position high up the field also made it more difficult for LA to press the ball collectively in this situation.
Once Yueill received the ball, he was able to advance it with ease thanks to all the space that was left. No LA player was able to pressure him until he had nearly reached the center line. As Yueill dribbled with the ball towards the goal, LA’s midfielders dropped further and further back, and the defensive line did the same. While this seems like the intuitive thing to do when one is defending, in reality LA also conceded a lot of space by doing this, and opened up the opportunity for an attacking player like Espinoza to drop back and receive the ball from Yueill.
This lack of organization when applying defensive pressure made it easy for San Jose to pass through LA’s midfield, and it made it easy for San Jose to pass the ball from sideline to sideline to open up spaces. That is what ended up happening in this possession for San Jose.
The league table has suggested that the LA Galaxy are far better than the San Jose Earthquakes for several months now, but these two wins for the Almeyda’s Quakes coupled with their good run of form indicates that that may change in the near future. LA’s reliance on Zlatan Ibrahimovic for their offense created some great moments for them early in the season, but it has also created a one-dimensional attack that has been somewhat exposed by San Jose in their two matchups this season.
These two teams are trending in different directions, but LA will have a big opportunity to right the ship with a match against league-best crosstown rivals LAFC on Friday.