Nelsen’s shape and the need to drop a striker

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.


Poland 1 – 0 Norway: Center backs dominate lackluster game

Starting line ups for the match. Obraniak and Lewandowski often switched wings.

The Polish national team won their third successive match but like their victory against Moldova it was another slow and uneventful 1-0 win. The result itself is something Polish fans can be proud of but Norway carried much of the play in the second half following an attacking switch. This game showed that individual tactical instructions can compensate for formational shortcomings. It also showed that that doesn’t always necessarily lead to a win.

Norway start rigid

Immediately one could see Norway’s formation without the ball. The team was obviously very disciplined and when not in possession they almost instantaneously lined up into a 4-1-4-1 formation. Two solid banks of four were separated by a midfield anchor man to fill in any space between the lines. Poland’s 4-3-3, which seems to be the preferred choice of Franciszek Smuda given he has used it in three straight matches, had trouble finding space in the attacking third. When you combine a lack of movement from an out of form Jelen, positional discipline from a tough defending side, and a lack of a true offensive creator, you’re always going to struggle for chances.

Norway seemed content to let the Polish back line have the ball and only pressed when the ball came near half. Eventually Tettey and Grindheim started pressing slightly higher but only pressed the midfielders, not the Polish defenders. Norway let Poland have the ball in non-threatening positions and cut off passing lanes before pressing their opponents when the ball entered the final third. Lewandowski and Obraniak took turns trying to drop into space beside Hauger but they often found themselves closed down either by him, a full back, or another central midfielder. It was going to take some bit of creative movement for Poland to get a chance be it a deep overlap from a full back, a central midfielder bombing forward, or Jelen dragging defenders around for the attacking midfielders. It was in fact a forward run from central defender Kamil Glik that began the move that gave Poland the goal.

Glik found himself with acres of space in front of him as the Norwegian midfield was concerned Poland’s more creative players. Eventually he went so far that he had to be closed down which is when he dumped the ball off immediately to Dudka. This slight change in Norway’s shape gave Poland the slightest opening and it still took a nice bit of skill from Lewandowski to score but it showed just how rigid Norway were. It would have been nice to see a ball playing defender, someone like Sadlok be able to exploit the time on the ball but he probably would have struggled with Norway’s ‘route one’ attack.

Norway direct in attack

On the other side of the ball Norway played a very simple, direct game. Carew operated as a lone striker and the Scandinavian side relied on long balls directed at him to be turned into a free kick or a chance for the ball to be held up and let the midfield to join the attack. Carew had some measure of success against the Polish pair of center backs but both Glowacki and Glik held their own. Norway looked the most dangerous on set pieces or Riise’s long throws. There is nothing you can do tactically about this except practice for it and maybe inject some extra height in your side.

When Poland got in their shape there wasn’t much Norway could do other than lump the ball forward and hope Carew could fashion a chance. The only other times Norway looked dangerous was when Poland gave the ball away cheaply which didn’t happen too often because of the lack of pressure in dangerous areas.

Norway switch to a higher pressing 4-4-2

At half time Norwegian coach Egil Olsen made two substitutions which led to a change in formation for his side. He switched to a 4-4-2 which theoretically would give Poland the advantage. Having an extra man in midfield means you have the opportunity to pass around the opposition’s midfield two. Usually a team will compensate with this lack of midfielder by dropping a striker deep when out of possession to close down the deepest midfielder, however if the team with the 4-4-2 presses as a unit and the team with the 4-3-3 doesn’t have the ability and/or doesn’t present themselves for a pass then the advantage is negated. This is very much what happened in this match, even though the Norwegians may have lacked numbers in midfield they made up for it with systematic pressing ensuring that in the part of the pitch where the ball was they had enough men. Poland needed to make quicker, decisive passes and anticipate the closing down but often were forced backwards to Szczesny whose own distribution has been questioned.

Norway's 4-4-2 to begin the second half

Offensively Norway found much joy out wide in activating their full backs and in between the center back and full back channels as they were able to use their wingers and full backs to get around Poland’s midfield three. That being said they rarely threatened directly on goal as the Polish center back pairing, perhaps the biggest question mark in the squad, had a solid game. Despite getting forward more Norway’s best chances still came on set pieces. Riise’s throw ins were dangerous and his free kick forced Szczesny into the best save of the match. Eventually Grosicki came on for Jelen and while he was immediately more mobile and provided another passing option Poland still struggled to retain any possession or hit Norway on the counter. They relied on defensive solidity and a lack of ingenuity from Norway for the win.

For a 4-4-2 to be able to cope with a 4-3-3 without a striker dropping to midfield you need systematic pressing. In this example the M LC for Poland has the ball and every Norwegian midfielder takes away a close passing option, leaving the open man a long pass away in a non-threatening position. If he does complete the pass each Norwegian would shift over (the broken lines) again leaving the extra man a long distance away and in a non-threatening position.


Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this lackluster match was the idea that a theoretical miscue in formation shift (i.e. going to a 4-4-2 versus a 4-3-3) can be compensated for by good individual tactical instructions (the pressing of Norway). This micro versus macro tactical idea can be a good debate but the correct answer is that getting both levels correct gives you the best chance of winning. Norway lost at the macro (formational) level but won at the micro (individual tactical) level. This meant they played better than in the first half but still weren’t able to pull out a win. There are many factors that lead to a win, tactics is just one amongst others such as luck, individual talent, and random error.

For Poland we learned that Smuda seems to have settled on a preferred formation. The 4-3-3 he played today is the same as the one that he played against the Ivory Coast with similar individual instructions. We also learned he’s willing to move players around within the formation with Blaszczykowski playing the deep role that Mierzejewski usually plays and Lewandowski filling the attacking midfield role vacated by the aforementioned Kuba. It wasn’t a pretty win but if you had asked any Polish fan before the match if they’d take a 1-0 win over Norway the answer would be a resounding yes. It remains to be seen if these wins are flukes or the side truly coming together as a cohesive unit.