No records were set on Saturday night in The Home Depot Center, and the game wasn’t reinvented at any point in the 90 minutes.
What we got, instead, was a double-dose of fundamentals. Both the Galaxy and the Red Bulls play within the understood confines of the modern game, trusting to the talent on the pitch to justify the tactics on the drawing board.
There was no trickery or obfuscation, just two heavyweights throwing punches and covering up when appropriate — and walking away with a 1-1 result.
Watch: Full Match Highlights
Both teams came out in 4-4-2s, though with different midfield shapes. Bruce Arena’s LA Galaxy played a flat-4 midfield line with David Beckham and Juninho central, and Landon Donovan and Mike Magee on the wings. Donovan typically started wide then cut centrally in the attacking third, helping with both possession and creativity.
Hans Backe’s 4-4-2 lines up with a diamond midfield, though on Saturday night it was more of a Y-shape, with wingers Joel Lindpere and Dane Richards staying higher than Dwayne De Rosario, nominally the point of the diamond. Mehdi Ballouchy, deputizing for the injured Teemu Tainio, played as the sole pivot in front of the back line.
That back line is where the Red Bulls throw in a tiny wrinkle, as Tim Ream tends to play slightly deeper than partner Rafa Márquez. Ream almost acts like a sweeper in the old German style, while Márquez pushes into the central midfield to create numbers-up situations.
It’s a strategy that works for New York, but one that can put pressure on the flanks.
Wide Play Dominates Early
The fourth minute of the game would dictate the pace and tempo of the first 45. LA charged out of the gates, gaining possession and working the ball toward the left touchline. Once New York committed to defending the flanks, Juan Pablo Ángel smartly cut the ball back to Beckham, who was actually drifting away from goal.
Beckham controlled and, as precious few can, launched a 40-yard ball over the top of Red Bulls’ left back Roy Miller’s head. Miller had been drifting centrally to cover for the New York defenders that had been pulled to the left touchline, and gave Donovan room to sneak in on the back post.
The play didn’t create a goal – Bouna Coundoul made a fairly routine save on Donovan’s full volley – but it presaged LA’s attacking preferences for the evening.
Of course, it also gave the Red Bulls the chance to do some attacking of their own.
Almost immediately after the Donovan chance, New York marched down the field and scored the first goal of the game.
The difference was telling: Rather than playing over the defense to a back-post run, New York played through the defense as Thierry Henry got inside of Sean Franklin. Whether Dane Richards’ through-ball was intentional or not — from the pressbox it rather looked like it was — is immaterial. What matters is that going through the heart of the LA back line was an early reveal of New York’s intent.
LA Fight Back
The early goal made for a wide open and wildly entertaining game. The Galaxy launched attacks mostly through Donovan and left back Todd Dunivant, who probably had the most exhausting 45 minutes of his soccer life in spearheading the offense and trying to track back and keep Richards under wraps defensively.
While this kept with the theme of the Galaxy’s plan to attack from the flanks, it also relegated Beckham and Juninho to bit-players throughout. LA ended up having very little possession in the center of the field, instead going direct at every opportunity.
That suited New York as well, as the Red Bulls were happy to match every Galaxy foray with a counter of their own. Both teams had chances they should have put away, and Ángel had one that he did, in fact, bury, ruled offside. And it was – just. But both ‘keepers stood firm.
The tying goal eventually came in the 41st minute on a corner kick. The Red Bulls use man-to-man coverage, and in this instance they were burned for it. Hard pre-service runs from Ángel and Omar Gonzalez cleared an area for Donovan to sneak into, and the Galaxy captain headed home the equalizer.
WATCH: Donovan ties the game
Two minutes later, he nearly put LA ahead when he beat the offside trap – again it was Miller to blame – then rounded Coundoul only to have his shot cleared off the line by Ream.
And while the fireworks didn’t precisely end there, they were of a lesser magnitude in the second half. The major change was tactical on the part of Arena, who dropped Juninho deeper to protect Gonzalez and A.J. DeLaGarza from Henry’s diagonal runs across the defense while, at the same time, pushing Beckham higher up the pitch in an effort to force Ballouchy into giveaways.
This made Beckham much more influential, though Ballouchy did a solid job of handling the pressure, save for a late giveaway that almost cost his team the point.
In the end, the draw was probably a just result, though as Backe said it should more properly have been 3-3 than 1-1.