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Breaking down LAFC’s successful formation change against the Whitecaps

The switch to a 3-4-2-1 did wonders for Bob Bradley’s men.

MLS: Los Angeles FC at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Football Club broke out of their first-ever losing streak with a crucial 2-0 win over Vancouver Whitecaps FC at BC Place on Friday night, not only taking three points on the road against a quality team, but breaking a scoreless drought of 192 minutes and getting their defensive act together.

The catalyst for all that was when Bob Bradley chose to line up the team in a 3-4-2-1 formation, instead of the 4-2-3-1 that LAFC had been operating under for the past five games. In the past three halves, the 4-2-3-1 formation got pretty well exposed, letting in a total of nine goals and producing just one goal.

The three at the back, without the suspended Joao Moutinho, included Walker Zimmerman, Laurent Ciman, and Dejan Jakovic. The center of the midfield remained the same with Mark-Anthony Kaye and Benny Feilhaber, followed by Carlos Vela and Diego Rossi as forwards. Marcos Ureña topped off the formation as the point striker.

The main difference in the 3-4-2-1, of course, is the presence of Jordan Harvey and Steven Beitashour as wing-backs, tracking back to defend on the edges as well as moving up to attack and whip in crosses and passes to the forwards.

This also includes taking out Latif Blessing from the attack, but adds more of a system in which the attackers get service from the outside via the wingbacks. Instead of having Beitashour and Moutinho on the right and left in a back four, where their main responsibility is defending and the furthest they move up is around midfield, Harvey and Beitashour would move all the way up and add to the attack, making up for the lack of a strict forward.

This 3-4-2-1 did wonders for a team that needed a boost. For one, LAFC’s defense seemed to be more organized and compact with Jakovic in the center three alongside Zimmerman and Ciman. The defense, with the addition of Beitashour and Harvey coming back from the wings, dealt with the press from Vancouver very well and was able to keep track of where Alphonso Davies was and keep him under wraps. The back line did not seem to panic or fall into pieces, as happened multiple times against the Galaxy and Atlanta United. They were not out of position, either, as had happened in the previous two games. Man marking was not an issue, as there were plenty of men back to help and disrupt what Vancouver was trying to put together.

The formation switch also allowed the duo of Kaye and Feilhaber to work their magic in the midfield, more so than in previous games. In the past, the two were responsible for more defensive work. In this formation, they were the midfield, not the defensive midfield, which allowed them both to move forward and be creative in attack, as well as getting back to defend. Mark-Anthony Kaye, one of our nominees for the player of the game, as well as a player highlighted in our takeaways from the Vancouver match, had a particularly good game, being aggressive on both offense and defense. Our own Matt Clark said Kaye played like a man on a mission, which he did. He was all over the pitch and seemed to constantly be involved in the attacking phase of the game. He did not get beat on defense, and he was physically tough whenever someone came near him. We had not seen a match this good from him yet this season.

Vela and Rossi had, you guessed it, pretty darn good games against Vancouver. Both grabbed a goal, and Vela could very well have had a hat trick if two headers had bounced more his way. But the man who made them both happen was Ureña, who had the assist on both goals (one was really from a Vela cross that went into the air after a deflection, and Urena just got a boot on it before Rossi finished it, but we’ll take it). Urena had, yet again, a very good game. He was constantly in open space as the head of the formation. He used the freedom he had up top to find pockets to exploit, and then that would open up more space for Vela and Rossi, who were often just a stride behind him.

Ureña also made the most out of the space and the passing from Harvey and Beitashour on the wings. The two of them, playing their first match as wing-backs for LAFC this season, played out of their minds in those positions against Vancouver. The two were constantly opening up space on the wings for the forwards, or even the midfielders, to get into. The crosses that were whipped in, by Beitashour in particular, opened up opportunities to score on more than one occasion. That piece of the offense was missing before, as Beitashour was one of just four in the back, and had the primary responsibility of defending instead of the freedom to move forward, which is what he had in Toronto.

Overall, the change to a 3-4-2-1 from Bob Bradley for LAFC was the spark that led the Angels to a much-needed victory over the Vancouver Whitecaps. The space created and the passing from the players on the wings helped the forwards produce some crucial chances, and the midfielders were able to get more involved in the match. The defense was compact and had more help, and the whole team was more organized against a quality opponent. Not only did it help LAFC get back on track, but the formation change could prove crucial moving forward — now Bob Bradley knows he can have success with this formation, which gives him another option if he needs.

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