Broadly speaking, there are two distinct types of tactical battle. Sunday's MLS Cup final, which saw the L.A. Galaxy beating the New England Revolution 2-1 after extra time, was particularly interesting because everyone expected one type of tactical battle -- instead, it was the other.
Explaining the different types of tactical battle is simple: it's either about style, in terms of how the opposing sides are attempting to play -- or it's about location, and a specific zone of the pitch.
Usually, in top-level modern football, it's the former, about style and approach. It can be anything from the overall shape of the teams, to their level of pressing, to their strategy with possession. The latter is simpler: a team being overloaded in a particular zone, perhaps, or outmuscled in a one-versus-one battle.
Ahead of this final, everyone anticipated the former, a stylistic mismatch. The Galaxy are pass masters, a team who retain possession for long spells, have the intelligence of Juninho in the deep-lying midfield role, and boast crafty attackers such as Landon Donovan and Robbie Keane, creators as well as goal scorers.
In stark contrast, the Revolution are more direct. They are counterattackers: Lee Nguyen speeds through the center, Teal Bunbury charges down the right, and Charlie Davies offers sheer pace in behind the defence. Like Barcelona versus Real Madrid or Bayern Munich versus Borussia Dortmund, a simple possession versus counterattack battle seemed set to decide the title.
Yet, in reality, this wasn't the case whatsoever. By halftime, amazingly, the Revolution had enjoyed 57 percent of possession when the score was 0-0, and by the end of extra time, when they'd spent periods chasing the game, it was 58 percent. Their 4-2-3-1 formation helped them compete in the midfield, as did the scrappiness of the game overall -- but either way, this wasn't a stylistic battle.
Instead, it was about one particular area. The danger zone was apparent from within the opening 90 seconds, when Galaxy left back Robbie Rogers darted forward to combine with left midfielder Landon Donovan, then found himself shooting from point-blank range. He couldn't convert, but that was the Revolution's warning.
The problem was in the zone around Andrew Farrell. He had a difficult game individually, but it was more about the space between him and right-winger Bunbury (a converted forward who offers little defensive protection) and also between him and center back A.J. Soares, who was always occupied with a Galaxy forward, so couldn't assist Farrell in wider areas. Farrell and Soares exchanged angry words, and one moment -- when Farrell had ample opportunity to cushion a header back to goalkeeper Bobby Shuttleworth, but instead knocked the ball into a dangerous position -- summed up the nervousness.
Farrell's struggles were particularly stark in comparison to the performance of his opposite number, Galaxy right back A.J. De La Garza, who made the best defensive contribution of the game to halt Davies with a stunning last-ditch sliding tackle.
The Galaxy made inroads down the Revolution's right flank throughout the first half. Donovan started on the left in his farewell game, and therefore theoretically had opportunities to find space -- but he played more of a facilitating role, encouraging Rogers forward. Instead, Keane found room between Farrell and Soares, and a curler from that inside-left channel, in the 32nd minute, showed his goal-scoring threat. He continually peeled out wide, receiving crossfield balls -- one piece of juggling control, from Stefan Ishizaki's switch of play, was beautiful.
In truth, however, it was more about the Revolution struggling, rather than the Galaxy excelling. That's why Bruce Arena made a significant switch at the start of the second half, swapping Donovan with Gyasi Zardes, who had started upfront. Now, Donovan was alongside Keane, and Zardes went left. Now, the Galaxy really pressed home their advantage.
It's unusual for a striker's goal-scoring threat to increase having been moved to the flank, but that's what happened with Zardes. He'd had little joy against imposing Revolution center back Jose Goncalves in the first half, but absolutely terrorised Farrell after the break. Galaxy looked toward Zardes whenever possible, and he outwitted Farrell for the opener, converting Ishizaki's long cross neatly.
Zardes' left-wing positioning was extraordinary at times, hanging out wider than Farrell, even when Galaxy were building moves down the opposite flank. He combined well with Rogers, encouraging the fullback forward on the overlap to dribble past Farrell, but offered a more direct threat than Donovan had been. Shortly after the opener, Farrell was booked for tugging back Zardes, having got too tight near the touchline, and been spun easily.
The secondary impact of the halftime switch was equally noteworthy -- it put Donovan and Keane together upfront. The Revolution went chasing the game at 1-0 down, removing holding midfielder Scott Caldwell, opening up space between the lines, and therefore Donovan and Keane could combine in that zone.
Donovan nearly put Keane through on goal with a clever flick after an hour, then Keane dummied a pass from the right to allow Donovan a shot from the edge of the box. A little later, Keane missed a glorious one-on-one chance with Donovan sprinting forward to his left, desperate for a pass, and then Donovan's pass saw Keane flagged for offside, with Donovan complaining the Irishman should have left the ball, allowing him to sprint onto his own through-ball. In truth, the Galaxy had enough chances to put the game out of Revolution's reach, and were punished for their sloppiness by Chris Tierney's equaliser.
Fittingly, however, Keane won the game in extra time -- from the position he'd been working all game. It was a simple goal, courtesy of Marcelo Sarvas' chip, and Keane -- played onside by Tierney, who had been excellent until that point -- finished with typical calmness.
Zardes' opener came from a cross into the inside-left position, while Keane's winner came from a chipped through-ball into the inside-left position. The two goals summarised Galaxy's approach, and illustrated where this final was won.