When Zlatan Ibrahimovic scores the winning goal, it is easy to believe that he beat you. After all, Zlatan himself certainly believes he can beat anyone and everyone. But on Saturday night, the Union really beat themselves. And, ironically, that’s much better than being beaten by Zlatan.
Ibra laced in the winner and assisted the tying goal, but both came after the types of errors that the Union have largely avoided this season. First there was Ale Bedoya’s midfield giveaway that Jonathan Dos Santos immediately put onto Ibrahimovic’s feet. Then there was David Accam losing Romain Alessandrini and Ray Gaddis missing a tackle on the Frenchman, which left Mark McKenzie in a 1v2 against a pair of players — one of them a generational goalscorer — that are true punishers in the box. These are the types of mistakes the Union have not punished when others make them, but the Galaxy’s galacticos were lethal.
Beyond those moments, though, there was little to separate the two sides, and Philly created good chances in the LA box in both halves that could have tilted the match in their favor. The story for the Union remains the same: Strong play without the finishing touch.
There was a big push from Sigi Schmid’s team to prevent the Union from switching fields with the ball, especially once Philly was deep in the LA half. The Galaxy would commit both holding midfielders and, when he was up for it, Gio Dos Santos to one side to prevent switches of play, with Ola Kamara dropping a few steps to take away square balls to Medunjanin and Bedoya in the center. In this clip, LA accepts that the Union can be dangerous up the right, but they try to ensure that they don’t commit men to stop that right-sided attack while still allowing the home side to switch fields into open space.
As a result of the Galaxy’s good control of passing lanes to the center, Philly ended up attacking down the flanks and forgoing their usual patient ball rotation, particularly in the second half (the weather, of course, also played a role). They found success by attacking Tomas Hilliard-Arce with Fafa Picault, but at halftime Schmid bowed to the obvious and replaced Hilliard-Arce with Alessandrini, moving Dave Romney across to provide a more experienced response to Picault.
The Union got behind the Galaxy defensive line multiple times in the first half without scoring the goal that would have punished Schmid for taking a flier on Hilliard-Arce. As has been the case throughout much of the season, a combination of finishing and a lack of coordinated movements in the attacking third undid a Philly team that looked capable of controlling the match in the first half. Unlike some past iterations of the Union, this group can throw punches with the big boys, they just aren’t landing enough of them.
When the Union were able to play quick combinations in front of the Galaxy back four, they created opportunities. Philly’s goal was the result of one such combo, with Ale Bedoya drifting into a gap between the left center back and wingback to return the ball to Borek Dockal.
But with the Galaxy’s midfield determined to cut off balls through the lines, Dockal found himself coming deep to receive the ball and less influential near the box than Philly needed against such a potentially porous defense.
Alessandrini and Dos Santos on the left
In the second half, the Galaxy’s formation remained the same but Alessandrini had freedom to roam infield off the left wing. In the clip below, you can see how he joins an attack when he thinks he can create a numerical advantage, even though the attack is up the right side. The Frenchman’s movement often took him into spaces Jonathan Dos Santos would have occupied in the first half, and this allowed Dos Santos to sit deeper and play a coverage game in the second forty-five.
Once Los Angeles penetrated Union territory, however, Dos Santos would step forward to help hold play in on the left, giving the Galaxy an extra body and forcing the Union to defend deep in their right corner.
On the Galaxy’s second goal, you can see how they use Dos Santos and Ibrahimovic to build a triangle in the corner and exploit the moment when Accam loses Alessandrini.
Kamara, King of Movement
Gregg Berhalter’s system has received a lot of the credit for turning Gyasi Zardes into a credible goal threat, but Ola Kamara is showing he is no “system” striker. Aside from scoring the opener, the Norwegian’s alert movement wreaked havoc on Philly’s ability to effectively control space on the pitch after turnovers. This, in turn, meant the Union could not counterpress as well as they normally do.
Below, you see Kamara’s early run force Fabinho deep, opening the wing for LA.
And again you can see Kamara pinning Fabi deep so the Galaxy have a 3v2 on the wing in the clip below.
Two themes to work on going forward
The two big themes of the match were that turnovers in midfield cost Philly dearly (below, you can see the Galaxy’s other great chance, which came from a turnover at the top of the Union attacking third) and that going away from their game is a big no-no. When they move the ball out of the back with patience and drop Medunjanin to spread the field, Philly can pick apart a team. But when they are encouraged to play vertically early, they move away from their strengths.
And this is not to say that the Union cannot be effective vertically, but only that they need to set up the longer balls with their passing to draw teams forward, or they need to be quicker to recognize when they have long balls on in transition moments. For example, this second half play by Medunjanin is brilliant because it takes advantage of the Galaxy’s poor defensive shape in back.
Compare that to the second clip in this article (see above) in which Philly does not quickly identify a chance to release Picault when Hilliard-Arce is caught upfield. The difference is simply speed of recognition.
Overall, the turnovers are unfortunate but fixable, and the defensive breakdown that led to the second goal — Accam losing his man and Gaddis beat 1v1 — have been far less common this year than in the past. Philly took one on the chin, but, tying one game’s themes into the larger narrative of the season, they have the ability to hang with the Galaxy if they can take advantage of early chances.