Tag Archives: pressing

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.


Greece 1 – 0 Canada: Halftime switch lets Greece dominate 2nd half

How the two teams lined up

Both Canada and Greece went into their friendly with an interesting mix of veterans and youngsters. It created for a fairly disjointed affair which was definitely not helped by the pitch and after a fairly even first half a tactical switch from Fernando Santos helped give Greece a victory.

Mirrored formations

Without Julian de Guzman Canada lined up in a 4-2-3-1 shape. This somewhat mirrored Greece’s formation which oscillated between a 4-3-3, 4-4-2, and 4-1-4-1. When Canada had the ball De Rosario naturally found himself beside Karagounis who played deeper than Katsouranis, and when Greece had the ball de Rosario in turn was the one pressing Karagounis. It meant that the two key playmakers for each side were canceling each other out.

When each player has someone they are naturally lined up beside it makes pressing easier. Since you are usually stationed beside an opposition player anyway you are able to easily press him and Greece was finding joy disrupting Canada’s passing by pressing in Canada’s half. When either Cann or Jakovic had the ball Lymberopoulos would cut off a passing angle and the Greek midfielders would press their counterparts. This didn’t let Canada settle into a rhythm and forced de Rosario to drop deep to help Canada maintain possession.

The problem was that when Canada did maintain the ball it was hard to break down the Greek backline which was insulated by Karagounis and another bank of four. Canada needed some sort of clever movement, a combination of full backs bombing forward, Hutchinson or Johnson making an unexpected run, or the front three of Simpson, Occean, and Jackson exchanging space. Occean tried hard but he was physically over-matched by the back four of Greece. It probably would have been better for Hart to play Jackson up front with Ricketts on the right wing in order to try and beat Greece on the ground.

Teams more dangerous without the ball

As a result of the teams canceling each other out each team actually looked more dangerous without the ball. Greece pressured Canada in their own half and looked like the only way they could break down Cann and Jakovic would be to win the ball high up the pitch. They kept attempting to play the ball over the top which is not a good idea against the pair. On the other hand Canada got their best chances from poor passing at the back from Greece. Both Jackson and Simpson had Canada’s best chances when a pass around Greece’s box fell to them but they ended up shooting wide. Canada’s front men should have been instructed to hound the Greek defenders, the pitch offering no advantage to the man on the ball.

Half time switch proves crucial

After a straightforward first half in which one could argue that Canada could have won Fernando Santos made numerous changes in player personnel and one tactical change that allowed Greece to dominate. In the first half Hutchinson and Johnson had two players to press but in the second half Santos introduced Mitroglou to play behind Lymberopoulos. This meant that when Canada’s central midfield pair pressed like they did in the first half the space behind them was naturally filled by Mitroglou. This has a knock on effect as the central defenders now have a decision to make whether to follow him or not. If they do they create even more space behind them which is even more dangerous and if they stay the attacking midfielder has the ball at his feet with time. Time and time again Canada was cut open by Mitroglou and in truth it wasn’t so much his skill as his positioning that wreaked havoc. The goal came after Greece had dominated the entire half although the goal itself wasn’t inherently tactical. Straith should have cleared the cross easily but it’s worth pointing out a couple things. First is a simple statistical phenomenon, if you throw a large number of balls into the box there is a higher chance one will be mis-cleared or bobble your way. Greece was launching attack after attack and by random error one was bound to create a good opportunity. Secondly Canada looked tired after having to defend for so long. Many of the players are still in their pre-season and playing without the ball is always more fatiguing than playing with it.

Centre of the pitch for the start of 2nd half. Johnson and Hutchinson pressed too high giving Mitroglou free space. He would then be unmarked or draw out Cann to create more space.

Why didn’t de Rosario find space after Greek switch?

One might ask the question why Mitroglou found so much space after Santos made his switch and De Rosario didn’t. The difference was that Karagounis was able to recognize the new set up and when Greece lost the ball he immediately dropped back to shadow De Rosario. While it’s probably true that Santos instructed Karagounis to do so, after all he was the one who changed the shape of the game, it is disconcerting that not one of Hutchinson, Johnson, or Hart realized the danger before it was too late.

Hart identifies problem but too late

Shortly after the goal Hart brought on Edgar for Jackson and switched to a 4-3-3, presumably in order to field an anchor man to deal with Greece’s attacking midfielder. Canada immediately looked better defensively and this change in formation was probably a better move than simply asking one of the central midfielders to drop deep because it moved Canada’s playmaker away from Greece’s deep lying midfielder. It also afforded Hutchinson more freedom to get forward and his deep runs often caught Greece unaware as Canada pushed forward for an equalizer.


A good match to show how a change in formation needs to be accompanied by a change in individual tactics. Fernando Santos made the switch and Stephen Hart was late to respond. By the time he did he had run out of time and his team had run out of energy. Canadian fans can take solace in that for the first half they were at the very least equal to a decent line up and that Hart at least has the ability to recognize tactical issues, they now just have to worry if he will be able to realize them quicker and when he does if he has the depth to change the match.

Widzew 0 – 0 Polonia: Kretek’s pressing almost earns him an upset

Widzew's interesting shape with Duric running back and forth vs. a classic 4-2-3-1

Jose Maria Bakero has had a great start to the season with Polonia Warszawa. After taking over at the end of last year and performing above expectations his now money laden side was the only team in the Polish Ekstraklasa to take maximum points from all of their matches, that is until they traveled to Lodz. While the media was busy asking how Widzew would contain both Smolarek and Sobiech, the two Polish internationals starting together for the first time, Kretek was busy coming up with the answer: don’t let them get the ball.

The first thing to note is how Widzew’s shape mirrors a 4-2-3-1. It is a bit of a lopsided 4-4-2, sometimes it looks like a 4-1-3-2, and without the ball it resembles a 4-1-4-1. All of this sounds like Widzew are disorganized but that could not be further from the truth. Kretek has a clear plan and his side bought into it today and they were rewarded with a clean sheet against a side that was up to this point unstoppable. The key men in this set up are Duric and Pinheiro. Kuklis started last week against Wisla in place of Bruno Pinheiro and subsequently found himself on the ‘Worst XI’ of the Ekstraklasa website for that week. Pinheiro is a defensive midfielder who gives the players in front of him license to break forward. He rarely makes forward runs, is good in the air, not afraid to tackle, and most importantly positionally aware. His lack of movement is in fact an asset. Duric, on the other hand, has an endless motor. He needs it as Kretek asks him to play two positions; both central midfield beside Panka when not in possession and as a second striker to Sernas when they attack.

Polonia lined up in the now standard for world football, 4-2-3-1. Bakero also decided to invert his wingers with Bruno on the right and Smolarek on the left. However, it was not uncommon to see Smolarek and Bruno switch sides in the first half. Neither is what you would call a natural winger and so both gravitated towards the middle. Unfortunately for Polonia neither of their full backs seemed too intent on attacking the space this created. Mynar made the occasional forward run and looked good doing so but Brzyski seemed content to let Smolarek try and do everything.

Set up when Polonia has possession; Widzew mirrors their opponents with each player assigned a specific player to press

So with all this as a set up it was not surprising to see a disjointed start to the match. Neither side was able to sustain possession in the opposition’s half but for two different reasons. For Polonia the story was just how hard and where they were being pressed. As shown in the second figure when Widzew got in their 4-1-4-1 shape each Polonia player had at least one person instantly pressing them, save one of the center backs or the goalkeeper. Not only was each Polonia player being pressed by a specific Widzew defender, they were being pressed all over the pitch. Tralka and Mayoral had real trouble linking up with the front four. Duric hounded Tralka, the man Polonia attempted to play through, and he was a thorn in Polonia’s midfield all match. This meant that Sarvas, Sobiech, Smolarek and Bruno needed to drop deep to get near the ball but they weren’t all too interested in doing so. Even if they did Widzew’s pressing was so good that Polonia were forced into long balls.

Widzew, on the other hand, simply didn’t commit enough players forward to sustain any kind of attack. Mindaugas Panka would be the man expected to drop and get the ball from defense, turn and play a pass but he was effectively man marked out of the half by Mayoral. Mayoral was afforded the ability to track Panka all over the pitch because Sernas was dealt with by the center backs and Tralka had Duric under wraps. Widzew’s attacking game plan resorted to thumping balls towards the athletic Sernas and have him either control the ball, earn a free kick or throw in, or try to beat out a defender.

There was barely a chance in the half, in fact the first shot on net came right at the end of the half but it was a good chance. Brzyski had the ball deep in his half and played a delightful long diagonal ball for Sobiech to run on to. Sobiech in fact found this space because of Widzew’s intense pressing. Broz was following a Smolarek run back into Polonia’s half which created a space between the full back-center back channel. Sobiech was clever enough to find it but his shot was saved by the tandem of Szymanek and Mielcarz.

The second half also started tentatively, neither side able to fashion any sort of attack. Bakero responded by subbing out Sarvas, who had an anonymous match, for Gancarczyk, a more classic right winger with lots of pace. As a result Bruno went to the attacking midfield position. Because of this Bruno was given more space in the center of the park than Sarvas ever had and he managed to find the ball a few times but Pinheiro was usually there to shackle him.

However not long after that substitution Widzew enjoyed a spell of dominance where they should have scored. The first signal of intent was from Dudu who was one of the only Widzew players to have the will to attack and he saw a strike go wide. Then a long ball caught Mynar sleeping and Sernas was well saved by Przyrowski. This seemed to give the hosts confidence and now Widzew were more inclined to engage their midfield. Perhaps their best chance came when Pinheiro made a fantastic sliding tackle in the middle of the park and joined the attack for what seemed like the first time in the match but Sernas could not finish. Widzew’s pressing had been their defensive trademark in the first half but now it was providing them with offensive chances.They routinely won the ball in good positions as a shell shocked Polonia were out of sorts for about 15 to 20 minutes. Luckily for the visitors Przyrowski stood tall and they regained their bearings.

After the string of chances for Widzew the game died down and settled back into it’s defensive beginning. Kretek’s men remained solid at the back while Bakero’s squad settled down and were seemingly happy with the draw. At half it seemed like Widzew were hanging on and would have to tire because of their intense pressing but the pressure eventually broke down Polonia and created a few glorious opportunities. Were it not for some poor finishing and good goalkeeping Kretek would be celebrating a deserved victory over the league leaders. The lack of mobility and willingness to drop deep and play long balls cost Bakero another chance at three points, Widzew were simply not willing to sit back and let Polonia have the ball.