Gordon or Keane up top? Bruce Arena's tactical dilemma explained

Keane John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

Robbie Keane has arguably been MLS' best player over the past four years, but he doesn't fit the current Galaxy setup. The reason? Giovani dos Santos, in part. Scott French explains:

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CARSON, Calif. -- Robbie Keane is healthy again, but Bruce Arena instead had Alan Gordon up top as the LA Galaxy opened the Western Conference semifinals on Sunday with a 1-0 victory over the Colorado Rapids.

There's no certainty that's going to change for this weekend's second leg in suburban Denver, where a win, draw or one-goal defeat in which it scores sends LA within two steps of its fourth MLS Cup title in six seasons.

What gives?

Gordon has been in his finest form since that 13-goal campaign four years ago with the San Jose Earthquakes, with four goals and two assists in his last five starts, including a goal and two assists in the knockout-stage win over Real Salt Lake. Keane has been sparingly used the past three months -- he's been in the lineup just four times since early August -- as he endures his toughest MLS season. That's got something to do with it, but so do tactical considerations, especially as they relate to Giovani dos Santos.

Injuries and international duty with Ireland has deprived Keane of all but 18 starts this season, two of them in the CONCACAF Champions League quarterfinals eight months ago. Only once, in a six-game span from July 4 to Aug. 7, has he started in more than three successive MLS matches, and an ailing hip has kept him out of the XI since the Oct. 1 loss at FC Dallas ended LA's Supporters' Shield hopes.

The Galaxy captain saw 40 minutes off the bench, with minimal impact, in Wednesday's playoff-opening victory over RSL, but he was ready to resume his role atop the 4-2-3-1 in the opening leg with the Rapids. Arena, however, stuck with the same lineup that beat RSL and brought Keane on for dos Santos in the 82nd minute.

The Irishman, after just five years, already is a club icon, but he represents what was more so than what is to come."

“Really, coming back from an injury,” Arena, in his postgame gathering with media following Sunday's victory at StubHub Center, responded when asked why Keane hadn't started. “And having a team that played a good game on Wednesday, and deciding not to change the lineup. And I think Alan Gordon has played well and deserved to get the start today, and I think the decision was made that this was the right team to start in this game today.

“I can promise you: Robbie's not happy about it. It's the way it is.”

Subplot: It’s Gio’s team now

Keane averaged nearly 18 goals through his first four full seasons with the Galaxy and, was widely considered the league's best player -- maybe the best MLS had seen, at least before Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sebastian Giovinco. He served as the true face of the league's signature side, even if it didn't appear so until after Landon Donovan's retirement.

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

The Irishman, after just five years, already is a club icon, but he represents what was more so than what is to come. He's 36, his contract is up at season's end, and if it wouldn't be much of a surprise if he returns next year -- nobody's expecting him to retire yet -- it wouldn't be if he didn't, either.

Either way, the Galaxy is dos Santos' team now, or at least going forward, and the best XI is one that best enables the Mexican star to engineer the attack from just behind the striker.

Dos Santos has done so nicely in stretches this season, at times attacking from the right flank. He led the Galaxy with 14 goals and 12 assists in the regular season. Four of those assists were to Keane, but dos Santos scored 13 of those 14 goals with Keane off the field. 

Dos Santos has the ability to take over games in this manner but did so only sporadically. In his first year with the Galaxy, until the past couple of months, he often disappeared in matches, or did nice work in front of the opponent's box but flailed with the final ball. He was least effective when deferring to the fiery Keane and to Steven Gerrard, given their experience and status. When he was “the man,” he could take over. When he wasn't, he didn't.

That was a problem, and the solution arrived with Keane's and Gerrard's repeated absences. Gerrard, also in the last year of his contract and not expected to return in 2017, has repeatedly dealt with hamstring issues. 

Keane/Gordon/Dos Santos: It’s about the system

The Galaxy, which has traditionally played in a 4-4-2 system under Arena, toyed with the 4-2-3-1 early in the year, while Keane was sidelined with a knee injury, and then installed it as the primary system in late June or early July. One of the reasons for the change was to get the most out of Gerrard, who was dynamic in the attack when positioned higher and given fewer defensive responsibilities, while maintaining proper coverage in front of the backline.

The Galaxy's forwards are a versatile lot. Dos Santos, naturally a second forward, and Gyasi Zardes, who can play as target, fit nicely on the flanks, with Gerrard between them and Keane up top.

Except it didn't click, for myriad reasons.

Chemistry all over the field, after so much offseason turnover, was a work in progress; it was slowed by Keane's absences (and Zardes', for international duty and then injury), and a new system required some getting used to.

Once Keane returned from Euro 2016, he struggled to fit into the new formation. LA's attack had always worked best through constant movement -- of the ball and of the players off the ball, with considerable interchange among the front six and outside backs -- but Keane was required to stay high, as the “1” in the 4-2-3-1, and that's not his game.

Keane likes to roam, coming deep for the ball, showing up on the flanks, in midfield, sometimes in front of the back four. It's part of what makes him special: Defenses have no idea where he's going to be, and then he carves them up through the savviest of runs. He's a scorer/playmaker hybrid, and he wilts when he has to wait for service rather than hunt for the ball.

Keeping the team’s most dangerous goalscorer close to the goal seems like a good thing, except that's not necessarily so. Keane scored 16, 16, 19 and 20 goals, respectively, over the past four years. He doesn't have to stay high to hit the net, so wouldn't having the most dangerous goal-scorer in his comfort zone be more desirable?

The connections to Keane haven't been as secure as they had been, and his injuries and fitness and form play a role here, too, of course. His 10 goals came in eight games, and LA lined up in the 4-2-3-1 in three of them. He has started only seven of the 22 games in which LA began in a 4-2-3-1.

The decision: Gordon or Keane?

Dos Santos, who scored the goal that beat Colorado, has been in the No. 10 hole in every game that he's started when LA has been in the 4-2-3-1 since late August, and he's grown in the role. He has developed a nice partnership with Donovan, who returned from retirement in September and has started on one flank (with speedy Emmanuel Boateng usually on the other) since mid-October -- their work together on Gordon's goal against RSL was sublime.

LA hasn't put together a great 90 minutes in months, but it’s looking more substantial as the postseason gets rolling and wouldn't look out of place in the Dec. 10 MLS Cup final, especially with the West's top two seeds fighting for survival this weekend. That has occurred largely with Gordon up front.

He fits in, at that spot in this system, better than does Keane.

Gordon, 35, is a true target striker, with all that entails: the size, the strength, the physical dimensions, the ability to dominate aerially, to hold the ball, to keep opponents' center backs occupied. And he's pretty much the only one LA has -- the other real targets are Zardes, who is hoping to return from a broken foot before the playoffs are done, and Jack McBean, who has scored seven goals on loan to Coventry City's U-23 side.

Keane is something of a hybrid. He's a second forward, in terms of how he's built and what he does, but is deadly in front of the goal. That precision when it counts is what separates him from dos Santos, Gerrard and Donovan, who are otherwise similar players. These four can play together beautifully in the right system, one that requires that movement and interchange that defined LA in recent years; it doesn't work so well in the current system.

Gerrard, who was on the bench Sunday after missing the previous three games and seven of the previous nine, is best at this point as a late-game substitute, when LA needs some offense.

The one plus of Nigel de Jong's departure, which made the Galaxy a lesser side, was Sebastian Lletget's revelatory play as the front man next to Baggio Husidic or Jeff Larentowicz on the holding line. Gerrard replaced Lletget in that spot in the Dallas loss at the start of October; it wouldn't be wise to do so again. Gerrard is an expert at linking the attack from there, but you don't want to surrender Lletget's superior ball-holding skills and defensive acumen.

The only other place to play Gerrard is in the No. 10 hole, and that would mean moving dos Santos back to the flank, which would mean either Donovan or Boateng go to the bench, and how would that work after their performances in the past two games? Is it possible? Sure. Likely? Not so much, not if Arena & Co. have in mind what's best for the team, now and into the future, and you know they do.

Keane is a vital figure for the Galaxy, and he's going to play a role if the club's going to make a real run at the title. But it’s going to be a different role than usual, because Gordon looks like the best fit for the system. How that balances out may determine how far LA goes in these playoffs.

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Scott French is a reporter for FourFourTwo. Follow him on Twitter @ScottJFrench.