As any Toronto FC fan will tell you, the team has a lack of quality strikers. Robert Earnshaw scored a few goals to start, went on a cold streak, then finally scored yesterday before (after?) injuring himself. That leaves the newly acquired and unproven Bright Dike and the consistently underwhelming duo of Andrew Wiedeman and Justin Braun as the only fit strikers at the club following the departures of Jeremy Brockie and Maxi Urruti and the injury to Danny Koevermans. With that in mind we need to ask ourselves, why does Ryan Nelsen insist on playing with two strikers?
Dropping one of the two strikers for a midfielder is an obvious solution on so many levels, starting with the lack of talent. TFC currently don’t have a single fit MLS quality striker, let alone two. Even Earnshaw when he was healthy showed he doesn’t have the ability to be an every week starter on a competitive team. The other problem with these strikers is their lack of versatility. Brockie may not have had a good scoring record, but of all the strikers contracted by Toronto this year he is arguably the only one who could competently link up with midfielders and his other strike partner. The rest are mainly poachers. This is the big criticism with two striker systems these days. Teams are packing the midfield so much that playing with three central midfielders has almost become a necessity to compete in that area. Playing two strikers is a luxury stronger teams or teams with extremely versatile forwards can do; TFC is neither.
One could argue that Ryan Nelsen and the Toronto brass have made it clear that they want to spend big DP money on a class striker (or two), so why change the shape now if in the future the 4-4-2 is what they’ll be running? If this site has taught you anything it’s that you cannot look at players and shapes in a vacuum. The answer to this lies not in the new striker(s) coming in but in Toronto’s two young players who have been the brightest spots in an otherwise dull season: Jonathan Osorio and Matias Laba.
Osorio was initially played in a wide role before being shifted inside to partner Laba before the Argentinian injured his ankle. The idea was that Toronto needed more creativity centrally as the duo of Laba and Jeremy Hall were too negative to add any thrust. While it did give Toronto an extra creator it’s not necessarily true there was any net gain in attack. It gave Osorio an added defensive responsibility as he and Laba were the sole holders, and if he did go forward to join the attack it left Laba alone in the middle, and as good as the young DP is and has been his biggest weakness is probably his mobility — a key attribute for the more defensive midfielder in a midfield two.
On paper the pairing of Laba and Osorio makes a lot of sense: a forward thrusting creator and a positionally sound destroyer who both can and like to keep the ball, but the more one plays to his personal style the more he exposes the other. That’s why a third midfielder would help maximize their abilities. Playing Osorio ahead of the two holders in a 4-2-3-1 allows him less defensive responsibility. He is also a better attacker closer to goal. Although he’s probably Toronto’s best passer from deeper positions that’s more an indictment on the rest of the squad. He’s at his best when he can arrive in the box from deep positions and combine with the forward. Defensively he’d now either be pressing a center back if the opposition were in a 4-4-2 or their deepest midfielder if they played a midfield three, which is ideal since Osorio is better as a presser than as a tackler.
It also helps Laba, too. His aforementioned (relative) lack of mobility would be less of an issue with him having to cover less lateral space. He would be free to anticipate passes higher up the pitch or to go win the ball with the knowledge that he had another sitter beside him.
Since one of my points is that TFC should drop a striker due to lack of able personnel in that position it is a fair question to ask: Do they have the right personnel to play a system with three central midfielders? I have already outlined why I think Osorio’s and Laba’s talents are maximized in a 4-2-3-1 shape but the question is who is appropriate for that other midfield spot, and do Toronto have him? Frankly, the answer is probably not, but I still think they’d be better off switching to such a shape. So who does fill in? Again, vacuums. It depends on the style Nelsen would want to play. Want to use that extra man to sit back in a deep line before hitting on the counter? Might be a good idea to play the defensive minded Hall and free up Laba a bit to play ambitious forward passes. You’d leave Osorio high up with little defensive responsiblity and so would need two dedicated holders to form two narrow banks of four. If you want to use that extra man to dominate possession and press high up the pitch then the underused Kyle Bekker may be a better choice. He values the ball and is not afraid to pick up the ball deep as a first function midfielder and play forward passes in central zones, leaving Laba to be the more patient possession keeper.
Looking at Toronto’s squad it’s probably best if they went with the former strategy. Although I think a midfield trio of Osorio-Bekker-Laba could actually do a good job of keeping the ball, especially when you add Bobby Convey into the mix, the problem lies in the back line. Steven Caldwell and Doneil Henry have grown in recent weeks but they’re both adept at defending a deep line while full backs Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan are relatively poor passers in their positions. This is not even mentioning Joe Bendik whose two biggest flaws — agility and distribution — are the two most important attributes for a keeper in a press-and-possess system.
While Toronto don’t necessarily have the current players to play a certain system perfectly, the truth is the current squad probably doesn’t have the ability to play any system very well. But Nelsen can build around his current core of players and help maximize their abilities which is not being done in his current 4-4-2 system. The other criticism of Nelsen is his lack of creativity, he remains stubborn in his shape and style and reluctant to make substitutions until late in matches. He needs to get more creative and now is the perfect time of the season to do it. Play Bekker in a midfield three, push Osorio up behind the striker, heck maybe even try Convey behind the lone striker as a central winger to help overload the flanks. All these ideas have the potential to improve TFC and maximize the potential of their best players. And really, at this point Nelsen has nothing to lose.