Landon Donovan will soon stand alone atop MLS' all-time goalscoring chart, but he could spend a good chunk of his time in midfield this season.
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Landon Donovan isn’t the sort of player best tethered to a certain function or location. Donovan’s performances for LA Galaxy and the U.S. national team usually reinforce the thesis: he poses the greatest threat when handed the freedom to attack defenses from a variety of angles and positions.
Donovan’s partnership with Robbie Keane over the past few seasons reflects those characteristics. Keane’s instinctive and predatory work in the final third accentuates Donovan’s ability to adapt to different situations, combine neatly, float into dangerous areas and highlight the strengths of his teammates accordingly.
Donovan and Keane may form the league’s most dynamic tandem, but they may not play together as often this season despite the unassailable results. The close season arrivals of Rob Friend (a prototypical target man) and Samuel (another robust option) will likely inspire Galaxy manager Bruce Arena to reassess Donovan’s ideal deployment heading into this season.
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The presence of two viable alternatives up front in Friend and Samuel could prompt Arena to use Donovan to cure the lingering width concerns in midfield. Arena spent the past few seasons rotating through several options – a mix of miscast central midfielders, out-of-position forwards and underwhelming wingers for the most part – in that department without finding a satisfactory solution. If Friend or Samuel can partner Keane adequately, then Donovan – poised to claim MLS’ all-time goalscoring mark by himself with his first goal this season – could fill the void by dropping into a deeper starting position on the left.
“I can play wherever I’m needed,” Donovan told LA Galaxy Insider after the Galaxy’s 2-1 victory over Armenian side FC Shirak on Saturday. “But it would be nice to have some other guys take some pressure off. Those guys seem eager and hungry to make an impact. I think when you look at some of the qualities we have on our team, you would expect that I would play at midfield to some extent. But if there’s times in the year I play forward, that’s fine, too.”
Donovan and Robbie Keane form the league’s most dynamic strike partnership. Even if Donovan features in midfield at points this season, the duo will still present a threat to opposing defenses.
Donovan will undoubtedly join Keane in the front two at some stage given the potency of their partnership, but there are reasons to prefer him in midfield for both club and country for the moment.
Arena needs balance on the left to extract the best out of recently imported Stefan Ishizaki on the right. Donovan provides the necessary counterweight without sacrificing his usual qualities. A wider starting berth on the left provides him with the latitude to isolate opponents in one-versus-one situations (always a benefit for him and a threat to his marker) and slash diagonally toward the middle to overload at important times to stress the opponent’s shape. The shift leaves him a bit further away from goal at the outset, but his altered starting position – and, really, it is only his initial spot given the freedom usually afforded to him – does not restrict his ability to get there when required.
United States boss Jürgen Klinsmann prefers to deploy Donovan in a comparable wide position when Donovan features for the national team. The responsibilities aren’t quite the same given the disparate setups – Arena prefers a 4-4-2 formation, while Klinsmann usually plumps for a 4-2-3-1 (or 4-3-3, depending on the personnel grouping) – employed, but they both require some attention to defensive duties. Donovan exhibits the necessary work rate and tracks well when expected to do so. He doesn’t need the practice at this stage, but the repetition cannot hurt as he prepares to challenge for a starting berth at the World Cup.
Those overarching goals aren’t the concern of Arena or the Galaxy at the moment, though. Donovan will play wherever Arena feels he needs him most. The requirements may change as the demands evolve, but, for the moment, he might fit most comfortably in this squad as a winger instead of a forward.
Fortunately for the Galaxy and the U.S. national team, Donovan’s contributions are not predicated by his starting position. He finds the game wherever he is asked to do so. It is a precious quality that will serve both Donovan and the Galaxy well as Arena sifts through a host of enticing options heading into 2014.