Los Angeles FC – Seattle Sounders: Seattle’s Low Block Out-Wits And Outlasts Los Angeles Offense (1-3)
Seattle Sounders arrived in Los Angeles having won three of the last four Western Conference Finals, but despite this success, they were considered heavy underdogs to an offensively vibrant Los Angeles FC side. Nonetheless, Seattle proved the doubters wrong, as they used all their cunning and pragmatism to dispatch a static and somewhat naïve home side, to book their place in the final.
Tactical analysis and match report by K.T. Stockwell.
Los AngelesFC ran roughshod through the regular season, setting an MLS record for points and tying the record for goals scored in the process. Manager Bob Bradley crafted a dynamic offense centered around Mexican international Carlos Vela, who himself broke the record for goals scored in a single season. Los Angeles’ success had many going as far as to say they were the greatest MLS team of all-time.
In their previous match, LAFC exercised the demon that was the Los Angeles Galaxy – defeating their cross-town rivals for the first time in their history and in the process earning a spot in the Western Conference Final. Bradley’s approach ran counter to what his side had been doing all season – he instructed his team to sit back, absorb pressure, and look to hit the Galaxy on the break. The game plan proved fruitful, as LAFC notched five goals against a confused Galaxy defense.
Injuries had forced Bradley into changes against the Galaxy and similar adjustments were necessary on Tuesday night against Seattle. Fortunately for the home side, Walker Zimmerman was deemed fit and returned to central defence, alongside Eddie Segura, while Jordan Harvey reprised his role at left back, and Tristan Blackmon took over duties at right back. In midfield, Bradley went with the same group that delivered the victory over the Galaxy with Eduard Atuesta at the base of the three-man midfield – joined by Lee Nguyen and Latif Blessing. Up front, Carlos Vela reprised his role as the false nine, A striker that constantly drops deep and plays like a number ten. flanked by Diego Rossi on the right and Brian Rodríguez on the left. As usual, Tyler Miller featured in goal.
In their Western Conference semi-final, Seattle made quick work of a flustered Real Salt Lake side. Manager, Brian Schmetzer’s team had little issue earning their place in the Western Conference Final with a dominant offensive performance. Nonetheless, the game plan would have to change when faced with the much more proactive LAFC.
Schmetzer stuck with a 4-2-3-1 formation, but was forced into one change to his starting eleven, as MLS veteran and Seattle’s emotional leader, Román Torres, was withdrawn due to injury. In his place Schmetzer elected to use center-back Xavier Arreaga, who slotted in alongside Kee Hee Kim – the tandem flanked by Kelvin Leerdam and Bradley Smith at right and left back respectively. Cristian Roldán and Gustav Svensson maintained their partnership in defensive midfield – tucking in behind an advanced three of Jordan Morris, Nicolás Lodeiro and Joevin Jones. Up top Raúl Ruidíaz maintained his role as the lone striker.
Seattle’s midfield overload proves fruitful
LAFC started the half in direct contrast to the way in which they played against the Galaxy. This was a more familiar style, as Bradley’s side looked to press Seattle high up the pitch and with great intensity. It was clear that Seattle were well prepared for this eventuality – wasting no time dropping back into a stubborn 4-4-2 / 4-1-4-1 low block. A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. Schmetzer’s side packed the midfield tightly and were diligent in providing cover shadow When a player is positioning himself between the opponent that has possession of the ball and another opponent, he is blocking the passing lane. When applied the right way, his ‘shadow’ is effectively taking the opponent in his back out of the game, because the pass can not be played. for their backline.
Seattle’s stubborn low block against LAFC’s narrow offense.
LAFC poked and prodded at the center of the Sounders’ defense, but were unsuccessful in creating meaningful chances in the area. Instead resigned to swinging the ball around the periphery of the final third, The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. while Vela circled in his false nine position, trying to create overloads. When one team has more players in a certain area or zone than the other team.
Eventually, Vela was able to find a bit of space between the lines and did enough to earn his side a promising free kick. Vela and Atuesta lined up for it, and it was the midfielder that delivered a stunning ball, which flew past the stretched Stephen Frei in goal. The fact that Atuesta delivered the kick with his preferred right foot, as opposed to the left-footed Vela, seemed to stagger the Sounders keeper.
— LAFC (@LAFC) October 30, 2019
However, only six minutes later, a bit of casual play from the LAFC right back, Blackmon, released the ball to Lodeiro, who made a quick pass to Ruidíaz at the top of the box; the striker deftly slipped his marker and despite the fact that he was surrounded by six LAFC players, was given a clear path to shoot and made no mistake – drawing the match level in the twenty-second minute.
Casual play became a hallmark for LAFC, as the home side showed little resolve on the ball and an unwillingness to mimic Seattle’s physicality. This bashfulness cost them again in the twenty-sixth minute when Ruidíaz recovered a ball in the middle third of the pitch and started the Sounders on the counterattack. In this moment there was an obvious case for Atuesta to make a tactical foul – his side was scrambling to recover their defensive positions and Seattle was moving forward with purpose. Instead, Atuesta bailed out of the tackle and Ruidíaz continued his run – linking with Jones in acres of space on the right wing. The Sounders midfielder was then able to put an easy ball into Lodeiro at the edge of the area and the number ten gave the visitors a 2-1 lead – stunning the home crowd in the process.
The remainder of the half saw LAFC struggle to breakdown the Seattle lowblock. Continuously Bradley’s side elected to try and move the ball through central areas, however, Seattle had packed the box and the home side lacked incision.
Furthermore, LAFC moved the ball slowly from side to side – making it easy for the Seattle defense to recover their positions, as the ball shifted across the field. The home side attempting only one direct switch of play the entire half. The languid nature of the offense was especially noticeable on the right side, where Rossi and Blackmon were holding very similar positions with neither attempting to provide the height necessary to stretch the Seattle defensive block. A defensive block is the compact group of defenders that defends a particular zone, either their own half in a medium defensive block, or the zone around their own box in a deep defensive block.
Evidently where LAFC had the most success was on the left flank where Rodríguez was maintaining a more stretched position. The winger was able to progress the ball into dangerous crossing areas, but with Vela receding into a false nine position and the diminutive Blessing the only one making darting runs into the box, there was little to aim for and the moves fizzled.
In fact, it was in the 45th minute when Blessing was forced off with an injury and replaced by Mark Anthony Kaye, that LAFC showed glimpses of their attacking nous. Kaye’s passing range and comfort in a holding midfield role, allowed Atuesta more freedom in the attacking third. In this short period LAFC did have a few moments in which they seems to find larger gaps in the Sounders defense, but were unable to capitalize before the half time whistle.
Kaye’s entrance temporarily adjusts Atuesta’s positioning.
LAFC’s rigid tactical approach
Rossi started the second half on his preferred left flank and it was only six minutes into the restart before Rodríguez, who had arguably been LAFC’s most incisive offensive player, was subbed off for Adama Diomandé. The forward assumed Rodríguez’s role on the right side, but was periodically switching with Vela, who was searching for a way into the match.
The first ten minutes of the half were dreary for the home side, as the ball circulated around the midfield – Diomandé’s desire to occupy space in the box severely limiting their width. However, it got worse for LAFC, as their laissez-faire defensive attitude reappeared with Zimmerman nodding down a routine long-ball just outside his own box. LA’s midfield was lethargic in their recovery runs and the second ball was won easily by Lodeiro, who once again found Ruidíaz in plenty of space at the edge of the area and the striker stroked home his second of the match.
Now up by two goals, Seattle made no apologies in their further recession into a low block. The guests invited LAFC to test their defensive resolve, the hosts continued to slowly shift the ball around midfield in an attempt to try and find an entranceway through the heart of the Seattle defense.
In order to try and combat the stubborn Sounders midfield, Bradley elected to have his two fullbacks hold inside positions, in an attempt to overload the area and work the ball through the lines. This was particularly evident on the left side where Harvey frequently pinned the Seattle backline along with Diomandé. It became increasingly clear that LAFC were taking far too many touches in and around the same area of the pitch and as their frustrations grew Vela began trying to dribble through scores of Sounders legs – combining with Rossi to turn the ball over 42 times in the entire match.
LAFC packed the midfield in a bid to create overloads.
Seattle periodically shifted into a back six – completely unwilling to allow LA to get in behind their defensive line. A scatterplot of the Sounders recoveries reveals that they were predominantly collecting the ball nearer to the middle third and were only forced into four aerial duels within their box. The rigidity of the LAFC offense made it much easier for Schmetzer’s side to identify and pack the appropriate areas of the pitch. The consequence of which was Seattle professionally grinding out the final thirty minutes of the match and earning their place in the finals.
Questions will now undoubtedly arise around whether or not LAFC are the greatest side in MLS history. Another playoff loss at home and their failure to get to the finals will, for some, have an impact on where this side ranks on the list of the league’s all-time great teams. However, whether Bob Bradley’s side if the greatest, the second great, or the third, is largely irrelevant. The reality is that the 2019 version of LAFC reframed the debate around what was tactically possible in MLS – particularly from an offensive perspective. The high intensity pressing and the fluidity of the front six was something MLS had not experienced previously and going forward will be the litmus test for the league’s dominant offensive teams.
As for Seattle, they booked entrance into their fourth final in five years – a remarkable achievement for a side to which winning has become a habit. As much as will be taken from LAFC’s 2019 campaign, an equal amount will be gleaned from the continued success of the Sounders franchise. The consistency with which Schmetzer has been able to deliver success in a league so hell-bent on parity is remarkable.
The Sounders defensive approach has become a staple of their playoff success and they will wait to see which side they meet in the final, as Atlanta United and Toronto FC do battle on Wednesday night to determine the matchup.
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