Breaking the Unbreakable: LAFC is Dominating MLS but Can Anybody Stop Them? / by Cheuk Hei Ho

by @tacticsplatform

Los Angeles FC aren’t just good. They are a force:

They have 1.43 Expected Goal (xG) differential per game. No team in MLS history has had more than 1 xGD/game since 2013. LAFC’s xGD is only 0.12 fewer than Atlanta United’s and Red York Red Bulls’ COMBINED. Granted, we haven’t finished even half of the schedule. Things may change comes the last part of the season when LAFC slow down to prepare for the playoffs. But for now, you are witnessing the best team MLS has ever produced. They don’t just beat you, they obliterate you. 

The Supporter’s Shield is as good as gone; our prediction model gives LAFC 76% to win the league. But MLS is about the playoffs. In the new single game format, you only need to get lucky once. Every team has weaknesses. You just need to find those cracks.

Suffocating Tactics

Bob Bradley is destroying his opponent with a historically best counter-pressing force:

No team since 2016 has counter-pressed 10% of their mispasses. LAFC are hitting close to 12%:

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Unlike the New York Red Bulls, LAFC are not counter-pressing as a means to penetrate the defense, instead they are hitting at most of the misplaced passes or loose balls in order to never cede possession. They are using the counter-press to dominate opponents; LAFC create 0.27 xG/game from counter-pressing. The second highest team in MLS only creates 0.18 xG/game. That’s a 50% difference. Even though LAFC still create the most xG from the non-counter-pressing possession, the difference doesn’t look as striking: a 10% increase from the second best team (Atlanta United from 2018). The counter-pressing is LAFC’s biggest weapon and it’s something no one has ever done in this league. 

They are doing it while making almost 81% of their passes in the opponent’s half, the 8th highest since 2016. When they have the ball, they don’t stop until after they make a shot. And when you finally get the ball, they don’t let you move it past your half:

LAFC force their opponent to play 37% of their open play passes in its own half, the highest since 2016. The opponent is also making only 15.8% passes into LAFC’s defensive third, which is the second lowest in MLS in the last four years. 

If you are going to have any chance against them, you need to figure out how to get out of their counter-pressing trap. 

Vela the MVP

The counter-pressing gets LAFC the possessions, but how they attack depends on Carlos Vela. There are other stand-out players: Tyler Miller is possibly the best ball-playing keeper in MLS. Eduard Atuesta, Mark-Anthony Kaye, and Latif Blessing form the dynamic midfield trio that owns the transition. Lee Nguyen should win the best 12th man award (and there should be a 12th man award). But LAFC are about Vela. He is the force that drives them into the most potent offensive machine in the league.

Vela has impressive numbers: per game, he has had 0.47 xG (the 2nd highest), 0.35 xA (the 8th highest), and 0.66 xB (the 38th highest). Those are MVP numbers. No one else has better records than Vela does in all three categories. But a few players come close; take his teammate Diego Rossi as an example: 0.43 xG/game, 0.2 xA/game and 0.61 xB/game. 

Vela’s importance extends beyond primary xG indices. LAFC needs 22 and 25 possessions to create one xG with Vela’s and Rossi’s participation, respectively. The difference looks minute, but what really matters is how LAFC perform without them; without Rossi, LAFC need 91 possessions to create one xG. Without Vela? 143. Rossi gives LAFC’s possession a 280% boost in the likelihood to score (xG per possession), right around how an average inverted forward would give to his team. Vela gives them a >500% boost, top 9% among 400 qualified players since 2016. If you are the most important factor for the most potent offense, you are the MVP.

Vela’s movement and positioning dictate how everyone else moves:

He triggers most of positional movements when LAFC enter the final third. Vela is a magnet for defenders. His mere presence draws their attention. Whether he drifts inward from the flank or drops out as a false-9 in the center, the pocket he empties out is where Blessing, Kaye, or Christian Ramirez can exploit.

The positional exchange can destabilize the defense, but you always want your most technical player to go 1 vs. 1 against the opponent’s defender:

This tactic is most apparent when LAFC attack in the transition. They almost always go to Vela’s side. He always stays higher and closer to the sideline than his teammates do in the defense phase, and he doesn’t carry too much ball-chasing burden. 

To maximize Vela’s impact, Bradley uses his right back creatively:

When Vela is in the middle, Beitashour will be on the flank, and vice versa. Beitashour’s position/movement serves several purposes: one, he prevents the defenders from collapsing on Vela. He occupies some defenders, or at least distracts them enough to delay their attack on Vela. Beitashour is helping Vela by getting out of his way and clearing the path for him. Two, he sits in the middle to provide defensive cover for the counter-pressing.

Finding the Cracks

Bradley creates a dilemma for the opponent; sending help to Vela but getting overloaded somewhere else, or maintaining a proper defensive shape but conceding the 1 vs. 1 against Vela. Neither is preferable, but there are some scenarios you don’t get hit so badly:

Crossing hurts LAFC’s final third possessions by 32%, the 3rd worst since 2016. If you are facing a dilemma with Vela in the middle versus the crossing from the flank, choose the latter. 

To beat LAFC, you need to play your counter-attack well. Defending against it is not their strong suit. A counter-attacking possession is 60% more likely to score against them, the second highest in MLS. The question then becomes how and where you should hit them.

Bradley has crafted the MLS-best offense so he must be doing something right. But all those little things that facilitate Vela and the attack are creating some defensive weak spots at the other end:

The right back position is one big crack:

They concede a lot of chances from that side because they hit that side particularly hard. Beitashour spends so much time out of his position to occupy the defender. Whether he is in the middle or on the flank, LAFC rely on the center back to cover his position. When the covering distance stretches they can become exposed to the transition. 

Their counter-pressing is supposed to take the sting out of those counters, but it doesn’t work at times; LAFC want to isolate Vela on the flank against the defender, meaning the players will position far away from him. When Vela loses the ball it becomes difficult for them to retrieve it. He is also not a great ball tackler.

Eventually you need to deal with LAFC’s counter-pressing. They are too good at it. You need to find a way to handle it if you want to have any chance to win:

The best recipe is to position your best dribbler on Beitashour’s side: a possession with a dribble is three and a half times more likely to score against LAFC than the one without it. Even if your best dribbler is in the middle, as long as he can hold off the initial counter-pressing pressure you can still use all those space behind Vela and Beitashour. Just look at how Nico Gaitan wreaked havoc against them.

That weak right flank is not only a systematic issue but also a personnel one; Walker Zimmerman starts as the center back on the right side. He only succeeds in 32% of the 1 vs. 1 duels, the 6th lowest among center backs since 2016. Zimmerman has never been great in that situation, but he has never been this bad. Maybe he is now being exposed because of all the space left behind by the way LAFC attack. 

LAFC are disciplined enough to press most of the balls, except on a few occasions:

The attacking players who are involved in the move often stop, sigh, and raise their arms in protest for a few seconds after coming close to scoring. If the opponent keeper manages to release the ball early, LAFC can be caught napping on the ensuing possession because of the disorganized defense; for all the possessions that involve the keeper, LAFC are two times more likely to concede if the keeper releases the ball within six seconds after receiving it. This is an area the opponent can take advantage of: only fewer than 36% of the opponent’s possessions involving the keeper are released within six seconds, the 17th fewest since 2016. 

LAFC are an incredible team. They may very well be the best side MLS has ever seen. At times they simply appear to be utterly unbeatable. However, no side is perfect, and while exploiting these weaknesses can be difficult and doing so doesn’t guarantee you are going to win, they can at least they give you a fighting chance against the seemingly unbreakable machine.