Since their first MLS Cup win in 2017, Toronto have so far failed to push on and cement their place as one of the more lucrative franchises in the MLS. They are currently just as likely to finish outside the play-off places as they are to finish in them after playing out a disappointing 1-1 draw with fellow stragglers Vancouver. This tactical analysis explores where the current roster is struggling and how they are coping without previous cult hero Sebastian Giovinco.
With Toronto’s Michael Bradley missing through injury, 21-year-old Liam Fraser was brought into a midfield trio that placed Alejandro Pozuelo behind a two-man strike pairing. Vancouver were lucky enough to put out a side at relatively full strength including ex-Sporting striker Fredy Montero and Iraqi international, Ali Adnan.
A change of position for Pozuelo
In a bid to turn around his side’s fortunes, Greg Vanney opted to play Pozuelo in his more natural ‘ten’ position. This allowed the Spaniard the license to roam freely across the width and depth of the pitch in a bid to manipulate the Vancouver shape as well as find space for himself to receive the ball.
Dropping Pozuelo into this position meant that whilst the ex-Swansea man dropped deeper in search of possession, Terrence Boyd could be bought into the side to partner Jozy Altidore. This would make it harder for the Vancouver backline to isolate Altidore and mark him out of the game.
Pozuelo’s movement also added a distinct fluidity to Toronto‘s buildup play which was significantly harmed as a result of Michael Bradley missing the game through injury. Laurent Ciman was also having a rather disastrous game at centreback, accomplishing a measly 84% pass completion rate despite rarely being pressed into making errors. With Pozuelo offering his abilities earlier on in the buildup of possession, this largely helped to negate the effects of the Belgian’s poor game.
Despite these benefits, Pozuelo’s roaming didn’t appear to help Toronto create many quality chances for their strikers. His deep and wide movements often took him away from the spaces in between the lines of Vancouver’s midfield and defensive lines, leaving Toronto without an offensive presence in this area.
Pozuelo can’t do it alone
Another reason for Pozuelo’s frequent movements inside and out of the Vancouver block highlighted the rigid structure off the ball for the home side. The Whitecaps backline was screened off by a narrow midfield three who sought to congest the space between themselves and their backline instead of aggressively pressing the opposition. Despite the best efforts of Pozuelo, the strict defensive nature of Vancouver’s defence illustrated just where the number 10 was being let down by his teammates.
Vancouver sacrificed a lot of space on the flanks and behind their defence in order to maintain a stranglehold on the central ‘ten’ space in front of their penalty area. This could’ve left them vulnerable to more aggressive wing-backs surging down the flanks or more accurate through balls being played over the top of their defence but the Canadian side lacked the quality to exploit these holes.
A problem for Toronto was the fact that their strikers seemed content with just hanging off the shoulders of Vancouver’s last defenders no matter what stage of the game it was. Even with some simple combinations or mirrored movements with one striker dropping deep and the other seeking to exploit any space this created, this would’ve done infinitely more to disrupt the opposition’s defence. As it stood, with the Altidore and Boyd making very little movement, the Vancouver backline merely had to maintain a flat structure in order to nullify the opposing threat.
Counter-attacks make the difference
Neither side demonstrated the tactical nous to break down the opposition team through their possession play and so the best chances of the game were created during the transitional phases of the game. Both teams deployed a similar strategy upon losing the ball in retreating to the halfway line almost immediately. The centre-backs of both sides were left relatively unpressed by the opposing strike force which encouraged the last line of defence to push further up the field.
This created vast amounts of space behind the opposition’s last line of defence which could be exploited upon a quick turnover of the ball. This is exactly the strategy that both teams employed in order to get the most out of their respective strike partnerships. Upon winning the ball back, both sets of players resolved to move the ball quickly into the opposition’s half in order to take advantage of the unbalanced or weakened blocks.
It was this precise tactic that allowed Vancouver substitute Yordy Reyna to pick up speed and drive at the heart of the Toronto defence which resulted in the penalty converted by Fredy Montero to give the Whitecaps the lead.
Somewhat perversely, despite this tactic creating Vancouver’s only goal of the game, I feel it would’ve been more prosperous for the home side to press the Toronto backline more aggressively. Considering Ciman’s struggles in this game and the early disruption caused by Chris Mavinga’s early injury, Vancouver could’ve done more to upset Toronto’s rhythm in this game by pressing their opposition higher up the field. By forcing the Toronto backline into more mistakes higher up the field, this would’ve allowed the BC Place residents more control over the game by reducing the away side’s influence over preceding. By creating more counter-attacking opportunities in this manner, they may have also managed more shots on target in this game as opposed to just the one they created otherwise (which was from the penalty).
A poor game played out to a bore 1-1 draw for these uninspired sides. Neither side did enough to take the initiative in this game and a draw was perhaps the fair result here despite Toronto perhaps wrongly being denied a penalty of their own.
Whilst it’s apparent that Toronto are still adapting to life after Giovinco, and missing talent such as Michael Bradley never helps, this side isn’t doomed in their bid for playoff success just yet. Simple changes in tactics and application could’ve easily awarded them more than just a draw in this game which would’ve strengthened their bid to finish in the MLS Eastern Conference playoff spots.
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