Tag Archives: mls tactics

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.


Vancouver 4 – 2 Toronto FC: Direct hosts pummel visitors

Vancouver Whitecaps FC resoundingly won their first ever match in MLS and they did so by playing simple and capitalizing on the mistakes of Toronto FC. Vancouver manager Teitur Thordarson lined his side up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation with two powerful strikers while Aron Winter had Toronto play in their preseason favoured 4-3-3. He did spring a surprise, however, playing Adrian Cann at left back. Even though Cann played there in their final friendly no one realistically expected the center back to line up on the left side.

Toronto control ball early

Early on in the match the visiting team did well to keep the ball and get it forward. Emotions were high and the pace was electric but Toronto did well to pass it around. On goal kicks Toronto’s two center backs would go very wide, being to the side of the vertical lines of the 18 yard box. This allows for the full backs to push up much higher than usual however Toronto could not use this strategy effectively for two reasons: 1) Their full backs are not mobile or technical enough to support the attack, and 2) Nathan Sturgis was having trouble finding space deep. Both of Vancouver’s strikers did well angling the TFC center backs away from the middle. Once in a while when Sturgis did drop deep and find space he had no one to pass to forward — De Rosario and Peterson failed to drop deep as well.

That being said Toronto found a little joy with the ball in the opening 15 minutes. This is because after knocking the ball around at the back they fired quick, long diagonal balls to the wings. This helped stretch a compact Vancouver defense but for some reason they did not continue to exploit this tactic.

A final interesting tactical note to observe from a Toronto point of view was the switching of positions between Maicon Santos and Dwayne De Rosario. Maicon would often drop very deep creating space where he began the move. De Rosario is naturally a more forward player than his deep starting position and so he was naturally inclined to find this space.

Whitecaps play direct to win possession high up the pitch

Vancouver on the other hand did not care much about building from the back. Their main strategy was to hit balls forward toward Eric Hassli. However, these weren’t long hopeful balls praying for a flick on. Rather than passing through the middle where TFC enjoyed a 3v2 advantage, Vancouver bypassed the midfield and had Hassli (and less often Atiba Harris) win the ball with his strength and reset possession — this time 40 yards further up the pitch. This is exactly how Vancouver scored their first goal. A long ball was well held up and Vancouver reset possession high up the pitch, Chiumiento put in a cross and Hassli finished for Vancouver’s first ever MLS goal.

The key here is that Vancouver’s long balls were not aimless thumps. Clearly they had a plan to hit it into Hassli and support him. They weren’t running ahead of him, rather they expected him to hold it up rather than flick it and they supported him to reset their move nearer the box.

Quick pace eventually dies but pattern remains

After a frantic start the match eventually started to slow but Toronto’s goal came from the aforementioned Maicon-De Rosario swap. Maicon found himself near the half way line and De Rosario found himself in a forward position. While neither of Vancouver’s center backs was actually drawn out of position it is not a stretch to think the confusion of De Rosario suddenly bombing from deep into space usually filled by Maicon made it difficult for them to pick up the move. A fine diagonal ball into a diagonal run made for a great ‘pattern’ goal — an algorithm of sorts in football. However Toronto rarely found the ball in a good position to make a good final pass because their midfield had trouble finding space and showing for the man in possession.

However Vancouver answered quickly in a familiar way. A long ball was won by Vancouver, their midfield supported Hassli and Chiumiento played a delightful ball into the streaking Dunfield. Toronto FC simply could not cope with the physicality of Vancouver’s forwards or the mobility of Vancouver’s midfield, Cann regularly being dragged around by Chiumiento.

Pace lessens in second half, TFC can’t crack Whitecaps

The pace and pressing of the second half was much less than the first which was to be expected. Vancouver stood off much more than in the first 45 minutes and made it difficult for Toronto to break them down. Offensively they kept their game very direct and physical, winning corner after corner as the visitors just couldn’t cope with the strength and tenacity of the hosts. Eventually one of the corners dropped for a Vancouver player, it’s no secret that the chances of scoring off a corner go up with the higher number of corners you have.

Winter responded by subbing on Mikael Yourassowsky and Gianluca Zavarise, two players who instantly added more mobility to the side and Toronto immediately looked better going forward. This of course had an effect defensively and Toronto were more exposed at the back with Toronto’s back four playing higher and with less midfield support. This was suicide for Toronto as 3/4 of their back line (Gargan, Harden, Cann) show well below average pace and Toronto was constantly torn apart by simple balls. Vancouver scored on the break and could have had more had they capitalized on tired distribution (especially from Harden) and Toronto scored after good work from fresh legs on the left but the damage was already done, Vancouver were never going to lose this game.


Toronto and Vancouver came into the match with two opposing styles and one prevailed over the other. One cannot claim from this that one style is inherently better than the other, there are other variables to consider. First, both sides had major roster turnover from last season and both are still very unfamiliar with each other and so a simple and direct game is easier to play than a possession based game relying on intricate off the ball movement. Second, Winter made a couple of baffling personnel decisions that hampered the athleticism of his side which played right into Vancouver’s hand. Vancouver fans can be happy they won and that their designated player looks like the real deal however they should refrain from getting too excited. Toronto fans should hope Winter learns from this match. A real left back and Julian de Guzman will help but Toronto really need to work on their off the ball movement if they want their team to be successful. Regardless, there is much to talk about this Toronto side and it will be interesting to see if and how they evolve.