A Different Look at TFC’s Unconventional Formation

After Toronto FC’s home draw against the New York Red Bulls mlssoccer.com’s designated tactical guru, Steve Davis, wrote an article about how it gave the Red Bulls fits. You can read the article by clicking here, and I recommend reading it before reading this article as I will be referring to it often.

While the formation is unconventional these days, and while it did give the visitors fits, there are a lot of points in the article that I either disagree with or there are important observations that were omitted.

First off though, a conclusion that I do agree with. When Aron Winter drops Torsten Frings into central defence, the German captain becomes the initiator of attacks from very deep. However, although this seems like a somewhat extreme ploy, it isn’t necessarily, especially not when you consider Winter’s Ajax background.

When Rinus Michels transformed Ajax from relegation battlers to title winners in the 60’s a large part of that success was a Yugoslavian defender named Velibor Vasovic. Vasovic was a great ball playing center back that was often deployed as a central midfielder. Dropping a central midfielder into defense is becoming more in vogue recently. Davis mentioned Barcelona at the end of his article, and Pep Guardiola, who is almost directly influenced by Michels, is probably the most proactive proponent of this tactic regularly employing natural midfielders like Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano at the heart of his back line, not to mention that he started Yaya Toure at central defence when Barcelona defeated Manchester United in the Champions League final of 2009. Marcelo Bielsa often played central midfielders in defense with the Chilean national team and continues to do so at Athletic Bilbao, while Villarreal have experimented with this concept as well.

So while that can help explain or at least shed some light on to the rationale behind dropping Frings into defence, why does he employ three central defenders?

Perhaps the most glaring omission from Davis’ article is the simple, wide spread concept of a spare man at the back. When a team plays three central defenders against two central strikers, like New York did in Thierry Henry and Luke Rodgers, it allows two of the central defenders to man mark them while leaving the third man as a spare sweeper. Oscar Tabarez of Uruguay, probably the best national team manager at the moment, used the philosophy of a spare man at the back (3v2 and 4v3) to help his side win the most recent Copa America. Davis touched on this when he said Ty Harden and Andy Iro were “locked on early and aggressively, often following Henry high up the field” but he continues by saying that this created gaps that weren’t exploited by Teemu Tainio or Rafa Marquez because they didn’t have “the willingness or energy to push into those areas”. I think Davis is missing the point here. If Toronto were playing a standard back four then these gaps would indeed have been created, but the entire idea of a spare man at the back is that the man markers can follow the strikers and the sweeper fills in the gaps that would have been created.

1. Red has 3v2 at the back, SW is free to initiate attacks with ball and fill gaps without as DCs man mark. 2. Wing backs push up high against midfielders taking away time and space

He also mentions how New York’s speedy right winger, Dane Richards, seemed confused by Toronto’s set up. A large reason he was so subdued is because of Ashtone Morgan’s positioning. When a wide midfielder in a 4-4-2 comes up against a flat back four he has time and space when he receives the ball and to a player like Richards this makes him dangerous because he now has the ability to accelerate against the full back. In Winter’s 3-4-3 the wide players are basically wingbacks whose main job is to mark the opposing wide midfielders high up the pitch so they don’t have a chance to accelerate, while at the same time providing support to their own wingers.

Davis’ advice to New York was to have Richards come inside and force Morgan and Iro to make a decision on who marks who. New York’s wide players often do this, it’s why Jan Gunnar Solli has so much space to get forward and provide the team with his many assists, but really this probably would not have bothered Morgan or Iro much – Morgan would just have followed Richards.
A good example of how Toronto’s defence was unsuccessful would be to compare the recent 1-1 draw with New York’s 5-0 thrashing of TFC earlier in the year. In that match Hans Backe played his usual 4-4-2/4-2-2-2 formation while Winter played a 4-2-3-1. This meant Toronto didn’t have a spare man (two central defenders vs. two central strikers) which in turn meant that if a central defender was pulled out of position his defensive partners now had to cover for him. It also meant that New York’s wide men found space easily and allowed their full backs to get forward well. In the 1-1 draw Toronto’s defence had insulation and as such was less prone to being bent out of shape.

Backe’s best bet was probably to push his wingers up and drop a striker for a central midfielder and go a 4-3-3. This would give New York a spare man in midfield while at the same time forcing Toronto’s wing back’s backward and making one of their central defenders redundant. In fact, the advent of three man attacks is largely responsible for the decline of three man back lines. The beauty of playing Frings as the sweeper, however, is that Winter can move him forward into midfield and change his side from a 3-4-3 into a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1 – all without making a substitution.

1. Red has 3v1 at the back making a player redundant. 2. Wide forwards exploit space behind high pushing wing backs. 3. DM is spare man in midfield to control possession.

The final point I will make is when Davis mentions that the “3-4-3 isn’t some crackpot scheme to frustrate another team’s talent; the world’s best team just made a similar switch, albeit mostly because Barcelona’s first-choice center backs, Gerard Pique and Carles Puyol, are injured.” In fact, Barcelona did play three at the back to frustrate another team’s talent, and they didn’t exactly play a 3-4-3. Guardiola lined up his side in a 3-3-1-3 formation. The difference may seem subtle, but it’s important because he didn’t employ wing backs specifically because of Villarreal’s narrow tendencies. It also seems an odd conclusion that Barcelona were forced into playing three central defenders rather than two because they had multiple central defenders unavailable.
If the author wanted to cite a modern, high profile side playing a formation similar to TFC he could have mentioned Serie A darlings Napoli. They are fairly similar to Toronto’s 3-4-3 in terms of base positioning, but there are differences in individual instruction, philosophies on pressing and countering, and of course skill, but a similarity Davis would have enjoyed is Walter Mazzari’s stationing of Ezequiel Lavezzi on the left wing as an inside forward.

In conclusion, there were some points I agreed with, some I disagreed with, and some points that I thought were omitted. Overall I was pleased that there was a more in depth discussion on Winter’s use of Frings at the back beyond the obvious statements of ‘he’s gone to a back three (or back five)’ and ‘Frings can distribute from the back’ that most media outlets make, but I don’t think the discussion is yet adequate.

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3 responses to “A Different Look at TFC’s Unconventional Formation

  1. Excellent post.

    At times I see TFC’s lineup as almost a 2-3-1-3-1, with a very narrow midfield that relies on the full/wing-backs covering a lot of ground and the wide attackers hustling back to fulfill defensive duties to give it some width. I think that’s why they’re so susceptible to counterattacks; positioning is key and if they’re caught out the centre-backs don’t have the pace to recover and snuff out danger.

    I think that wide responsibility is the big difference between early and late season TFC (aside from the addition of a true centre forward in Koevermans and a central general in Frings). Too often the wide men (Plata, Soolsma, Martina) were pushing far too forward, getting caught upfield and not working back. With Johnson, more athletic than the others, and Plata and Soolsma showing a much better work rate it’s been less of an issue.

    I shudder at the thought of what would be without Eckersley and Morgan – two guys who could run for days and never give up.

    Great analysis, look forward to more.

  2. Thanks for the comment.

    I definitely agree — Harden and Iro are not ideal when it comes to covering wide. Players like Sebastien Coates for Uruguay and Liverpool are a rare breed, one who can cover out wide, sweep behind, or man mark across the pitch. However at least when TFC play this formation it allows for an extra DC to cover, and it means that Harden and Iro have the relatively simple task of man marking a striker, which for them is probably their bread and butter.

    And yeah TFC really do need their athletic wing backs here. Morgan, Eckersley, and now Stinson show good stamina and pace. It especially important in the MLS imo, because of the crazy travel and squad restrictions, but that’s an article for another day. 🙂

  3. How do you feel the team was impacted by Winter’s substitutions late in the game? By my count, there were 7 defenders on the pitch at the final whistle (if Frings is included) and one of the midfielders, Dunfield is a defensive midfielder.

    I’m sure it was a case of trying to hold on to the one goal lead but having that many defenders on the field and still conceding a goal seems disappointing to say the least. Perhaps it’s a sign of the players, especially the substitutes still not knowing the roles in Winter’s system.

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