Counterattacking soccer seems simple on its face. But peel back the layers on the good tenets of defend-and-counter soccer and you’ll see there really is depth to the approach.
This is not playground soccer. And by deconstructing the LA Galaxy counter, you’ll see why.
The basis for spinning on the axis of a counterattacking plan lies in its risk aversion. It’s a pathway to results that takes the fewest chances; the calculated prudence and discretion of this style reduces opportunities for mistakes.
So manager Bruce Arena and his men are subscribing to a larger sports philosophy that says games are often “lost” more than they are “won.” That is, they prefer to let the other guy make the mistakes - and then turn the screws, making the opposition pay mightily for those errors.
Not all counterattacking teams look the same. In the Galaxy’s case, they don’t necessarily need to press high into the opposition end to create the turnovers that lead to goals; so even LA’s style of counter-attack is more risk-averse. Some teams do function the other way – but those teams don’t have David Beckham.
WATCH: Beckham, Donovan and Magee
Much of the Galaxy counterattack is about Beckham’s peerless playmaking from deep-lying areas. As such, stalking for those turnovers in midfield (rather than in higher areas up the field) becomes an effective tactic, one slightly less risky than stretching your 11 over an entire field. His passing over long range means counterattacks can successfully start in deeper areas.
That gives the Galaxy the ability to sit back a little more and begin applying real pressure around midfield. The defenders, in turn, keep the game in front of them.
That ability to absorb pressure may be an underestimated aspect of counterattacking soccer. A hardy backline is essential; anything less is asking for trouble.
The Galaxy have just such a rear anchor, one that allowed a league-low 29 goals this year.
The Galaxy back line’s ability to remain organized and mostly facing forward, keeping the action in front of them, doesn’t just help on defense. Defenders facing forward are also supporting the counter attack since they are positioned to make immediate outlets to Beckham or central midfield mate Juninho, getting the ball moving quickly and decisively.
Of course, the backline enjoys a lot of protection from the midfield. Again, because the Galaxy can score off counterattacks and from Beckham’s brilliant set piece delivery, LA can reliably generate offense without committing overwhelming numbers into the attack. By doing their play-making from more recessed areas, Beckham and Juninho don’t need to insert themselves too far, too regularly into the opposition third of the field. That’s why the Galaxy so rarely become stretched and lose their shape.
Beckham’s intelligence and world-class first touch in orchestrating the thrusts forward make it all happen. First, the former England captain can create just enough space for himself to pick up his head, quickly scan the field and pinpoint the best target. But he’s doing something else, too; he’s protecting possession. Because the whole counterattacking modus operandi breaks down if a team sits back, absorbs pressure, hunts and stalks for those turnovers – and then gives the ball right back willy-nilly.
So another underappreciated element of the counterattack is Beckham’s and Juninho’s ability to open up and present themselves as targets immediately. While the central midfield tandem is stationed thusly to protect the backline, Beckham and Juninho also stay close to defenders to create obvious links and to act as a springs for the next big attack.
Once one of that pair does gain the ball, they require intelligent running and positioning of the men in front of them to get the most from those accurate long- and medium-range passes. The Galaxy’s counterattack was springy and effective before Robbie Keane arrived late summer and has only improved by his addition.
The English Premier League veteran knows just when and where to make those runs, those diagonal or well-timed vertical dashes that are sometimes meant as primary target runs, but sometimes diversionary runs bent on opening spaces for others. Keane is a goal-scorer, of course, always stalking his next chance near net. But he knows that initial run on the counter might serve only to pull a defense apart, to pry open gaps; he can always circle around and make a run toward goal if the initial pass goes elsewhere.
Keane’s teammates know how to launch constructive runs, too. Fellow striker Chad Barrett and flank midfielders Mike Magee and Landon Donovan have rehearsed certain structured, pattern-play movements since Day 1 of training camp in February.
How the Galaxy adjust without Barrett will be one of the big questions of the weekend. Adam Cristman has been effective as a banger, but he doesn’t have Barrett’s instincts on the counter, and he and Keane have struggled to get on the same page in their limited reps.
Speaking of adjusting, that’s another strongpoint of the counterattacking game: it frequently forces the other side to shift and adjust its attack.
That’s because as the Galaxy patiently sits back and confidently absorbs some of the opposition attack, pressure is building on the other side. When opponents can’t break through, they might be tempted to adjust, to add men into the attack or to shift the pieces in exploratory fashion. All of that, of course, can leave more space available in areas behind the opposition, exposing more room for the Galaxy’s potent counterattack to unleash further damage.
It’s a good bet Dom Kinnear and the Houston Dynamo have already spent a lot of time on this. They’ll try to keep Beckham from getting on the ball in space, and in Geoff Cameron, have a central defender whose athleticism and instincts allow him to cut out passing lanes.
But as they’ve done all year, the Galaxy can afford to be patient and pick their spots to counter. It’s their pathway to the result they want.