Javier Hernandez was meant to ‘replace’ Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the LA Galaxy. But in reality, the problem is not replacing Zlatan. It is something else entirely.
Two years ago today Zlatan Ibrahimovic signed for the Los Angeles Galaxy. He was one of the top-three players in Major League Soccer. Bar Josef Martinez and Carlos Vela, no other player in the league came close to his impact and quality. He scored at almost a goal per game, would have been named MLS MVP in almost any season bar the two he played in thanks to the historic achievements of Martinez and Vela, and was entirely dominant throughout his two years in the league.
When it was announced that he would leave the LA Galaxy in the offseason, a certain degree of panic set in. Zlatan was the LA Galaxy. How could the team even be vaguely competitive without the man who accounted for a greater proportion — a ridiculous 51.7% — of their goals than any other player in MLS?
Well, the LA Galaxy simply turned to the next great ageing European star centre-forward who would provide outrageous commercial potential, Mexican demi-god, Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez. However, while Hernandez fills the off-the-pitch void that Zlatan leaves behind, on the pitch, the early results are concerning.
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He has no goals through two games. He had just 32 touches in the Week 2 loss to Vancouver, two fewer than goalkeeper David Bingham. He had just one shot, which was blocked, failed on his only dribble attempt, and completed only 73% of his passes. Zlatan would never.
But the LA Galaxy’s issue is not replacing Ibrahimovic. Rather, it is providing a cohesive, connected unit that come together and forms a team, not a collection of players with a brilliant spearhead who can carry them further.
In fairness to the LA Galaxy, they are clearly aware of this tension. This week, General Manager Dennis Te Klose explained to TUDN that the Galaxy’s plans were never to simply swap Hernandez and Zlatan:
“We acquired Javier Hernandez with the intention of building a team that did not depend on individuals. When Ibra left, it was impossible to replace him. There’s no other Ibra in the world. The idea was how we could shape the team in a different style with a philosophy that was attached to pressing together and attacking as a team.”
The approach is the right one. Brilliant individual players are needed to build any successful team, of course, but they must fit together. You cannot simply rely on individual inspiration. However, while the overall philosophy might be the correct one, you could question whether the Galaxy have executed it well. Te Kloese certainly believe they have:
“Obviously, it’s a different style with Ibrahimovic than without him — they’re very different things. But the reality is that he’s not here. He’s at Milan and we are currently building [our team]. And with the team we have, we think we can do well in MLS this year.”
But the early results portray a very different landscape. Obviously, two games is not a large enough sample size to draw meaningful conclusions, but the defensive problems of recent years still persist, Hernandez has found himself painfully isolated in the centre-forward role, and only Cristian Pavon looks capable of truly dominating an MLS game. That is not what a cohesive team looks like.
So yes, replacing Zlatan is a problem for the LA Galaxy. But it is not the problem. That is building a cohesive team. And thus far, with or without Javier Hernandez, they have failed to do so.