Welcome to a new series breaking down individual player performances from Major League Soccer and beyond.
This past Sunday’s edition of the Los Angeles SuperClásico once again featured two teams on opposite sides of the table. The Galaxy, statistically the best team in MLS, faced struggling Chivas USA, statistically the worst team in the Western Conference and second worst in the entire league. Despite the gulf in league points, the contest presented a tighter challenge for the Galaxy as they have been dealing with poor form over the second half of the season, seemingly unable to conjure up the team chemistry representative of the best team in MLS.
Last week’s egg, which LA laid against the Red Bulls, revealed a discombobulated midfield which was incapable to generate either positive possession or meaningful distribution to the forwards. Comments made after the game by the coach and players highlighted the fact that the Galaxy midfield lacked the semblance of “shape” which gave the New York midfield too much space to exploit. It was clear that simply placing the Galaxy’s best players in the midfield (Donovan, Beckham, and Juninho) was not good enough to have an impact on the game. The challenge throughout the week going into the derby, for coach Arena, was to find a way to put the correct pieces on the field in order to complete the puzzle. He was going to have to put a new combination together, to hopefully access the players’ talents, while creating chemistry, flowing from the back line up through the forwards.
In the previous game against New York, Beckham played on the right wing and ran into problems as he stayed further back, content to whip hopeful crosses halfway up field into the box. This strategy was met with little success, as he completed only 37% of his 19 crosses, turning the ball over as a result. Since Beckham sat so far back, he encroached upon holding midfielder Juninho’s territory, thus confining the Brazilian to limited space and distribution opportunities. This lack of chemistry forced the midfield into many mistakes and stranded the forwards with little quality service throughout the entire game. The Galaxy was dominated by a flowing and aggressive New York midfield and they lost handily, 2-0.
Arena’s solution on Sunday was to counter act Beckham’s propensity to sit back by playing him as a center midfield. Filling David’s spot on the right from last game was Chris Birchall, who, unlike Beckham, has the legs to run up and down the midfield in workman-like fashion. On the left was Michael Stephens, the talented rookie out of UCLA, slotting in for Donovan who was moved up top with fellow striker Buddle. Behind Beckham, in his classic defensive midfielder role, was Juninho. Obviously, Arena knew if any chemistry would be formed, things had to change from the week before.
The result of Arena’s experiment on paid off on the field, as the Galaxy defeated their arch-rivals with a convincing 2-1 win; the midfield being a huge reason for the team’s success.
Today, we examine Beckham’s level of play in the new position of central midfield to see how Arena’s experiment paid off. Below is his performance whiteboard:
Beckham’s stats are as follows:
13 passes completed, 4 incomplete for a percentage of 77%
6 incomplete crosses, 0 completed for a percentage of 0%
2 successful tackles
1 foul committed
1 missed shot
Beckham once again put in a mixed performance for the team; one with many ups and some downs. Using the figures above we will analyze both the good and bad of his game.
As you can see from the whiteboard, the majority of Beckham’s touches were centrally around midfield, not wanting to commit too much to tracking back on defense. He only recorded two successful tackles, neither of them coming deep into the Galaxy side of the field. Early on, Beckham looked as though he was taking it easy, more content to walk around the center instead of running back to get numbers behind the ball when Chivas was pushing. Perhaps Arena gave him less of a defensive assignment, but it was clear that Beckham was more than happy to stay upright on the field.
His lack of interest in tracking back affected the amount of times Beckham saw the ball. By the time he was subbed out in the 64th minute, he only had 26 meaningful touches on the ball (0.4 touches per minute) compared to his 47 touches (0.52 touches per minute) in his 90 minutes against New York. With two minutes left to go in the half, Beckham settled into the game and clearly realized that he was going to have to do more running in order to see the ball and began to work his way back to receive passes from Juninho. This is when he was most effective, yet he shouldn’t have waited until the 43rd minute before he increased his effort.
The most glaring statistic, however, was his crossing inaccuracy. Beckham completed none of his cross attempts, compared to 37% from the game prior (still poor). While the crosses stretched the defense on occasion (two of them were incorrectly deemed offsides, to be discussed below), the team will still benefit from his discretion when thinking about lobbing 60 yard bombs up field to defended strikers. Play-by-play commentator, JP Dellacamera commented, “How many people would have even thought about playing that ball to Buddle,” on a long cross to the streaking forward. The answer is “very few,” because most players would be confronted by their coach on some of the crosses Beckham attempted and missed. This is a part of his game that could use improvement.
Though he missed on all of crosses, he did take many fewer than in the previous game. In 64 minutes, Beckham only attempted 6 crosses (0.09 crosses per minute) compared to 19 crosses (0.21 crosses per minute) in his previous full game. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he got many fewer touches, but some of it can be attributed to him being fitter and less pressured to get the ball up field in one big hoof.
Aside from crossing less, Beckham was simply more dangerous in the center of the park. He should have had an assist by playing an excellent through ball to a wide open Buddle, who hit the crossbar on a cheeky chip over Chivas’ keeper, Zach Thornton. The striker should have put that one away. Despite his 0% cross success rate, the Englishman did get unlucky on two deep crosses incorrectly called offsides. (These are not shown on the whiteboard, because I wouldn’t penalize him for being unlucky due to a poor call.) One was a 60 yard searching ball to Landon Donovan, who was wide open and onsides, while the other was to Buddle who was similarly falsely flagged after being found open in a dangerous position. It is because of these occasional threatening crosses why many people tolerate Beckham’s misses. On any given day, the side judge could allow these crosses, and Beckham would be given credit for some great looks up field. Sadly for him, his stats will still show that he did not complete any crosses this day, and we can’t get too excited about passes that could have been, but never materialized.
By moving Beckham up to the center, the midfield rediscovered its missing shape. There were no signs of chemistry issues with the him and Juninho on Sunday, as the Sao Paolo youngster was left with plenty of space to distribute the ball to the wingers as well as to Beckham himself. Juninho looked revived in this space and rewarded the team with many good tackles and passes around the field. Juninho’s ability to dispossess Chivas’ attackers eased a lot of defensive pressure from Beckham, who could then focus on linking with Stephens and Birchall. The Galaxy were dangerous up the wings, with Stephens’ long cross finding Buddle who blasted an amazing one time volley into the back of the net for LA’s first goal of the game. On the other side, Birchill had a very industrial game, making good defensive efforts and finding space in the attacking third as well. His crosses into the box were very dangerous throughout the game. In this formation, with Beckham pulling the strings in the center, the midfield looked much improved over their lackluster performance just a week prior. Without a doubt, Arena will most likely be starting Beckham in this position for weeks to come.
Of course, Beckham’s most positive contribution was his game winning goal. When Buddle was fouled near the top corner of the box, you had to feel good about what was going to happen on the ensuing free kick. Beckham got the ball above and around the wall, Thornton was a split second too late to react, and the ball banged the back of the net as we’ve seen the dead ball specialist do so many times throughout his career. This is why it pays to continue to find a place for the Three Lions’ hero on the field; because these moments of brilliance can win ball games. Surely, Arena knows this, and was determined to piece a midfield together that would help Beckham shine.
While he was hardly the best player on the field for the Galaxy (man of the match could go to Juninho, Stephens, Buddle, or DeLaGarza), Beckham performed admirably in only his second start since his injury and showed much improvement in just nine days. We’d like to see a bit more defensive effort and fewer blind crosses up field, but his goal and improved chemistry with the entire team has given Galaxy fans hope that the team can win with him on the field. Overall, a B performance.