Tag Archives: tfc

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.

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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.

Is De Rosario’s best position a false nine?

Dwayne De Rosario is without a doubt one of the best players in the MLS. He scores, he sets up, he runs, he can win a match by himself. But he has always been plagued by the question of what his best position is. Early on in his MLS career he was a striker, then he got dropped back into an attacking midfield role. He gets deployed as both at times by Preki and has even been put out wide. Fans of TFC will tell you he gets offside too much when asked to play as a traditional number 9. Now, as you may have surmised, I don’t have much time for a traditional 9 but I do have time for false nines.

To understand what a false nine is you need to know what a traditional 9 is. In brief, I won’t take too much time because the term is well documented and frankly uninteresting, the traditional 9 is strong, powerful in the air, a poacher. He ‘leads the line’ so to speak. Think Alan Shearer or Duncan Ferguson. Traditional 9s are seldom found in modern high level football because the game is now so shrunken. That is to say there is less space. This is due to a number of things including how smart managers are about tactics nowadays, the importance of pressing, and the athleticism of today’s footballers. Even the ‘newest 9’, Andy Carroll of Newcastle, is adept at dropping deep, laying off passes for midfield runners, and moves into space between the channels to drag defenders around.

A false nine then drops back into space a lot to help move defenders around. If the center back follows him this opens up a giant hole. It is in my opinion a cardinal sin of defending as a center back to follow a striker all the way to the midfield. If you don’t follow him and he drops back the onus is on the manager to station his midfielders correctly and the midfielders to pick him up. Carlos Tevez is perhaps the world’s foremost false nine at the moment. Mancini instructs to drop well deep, sometimes as far as if not further than Yaya Toure. If the center back follows him this allows the inverted wingers Mancini employs or the ever willing runner Gareth Barry to fill that pocket of space. If the center back stays Tevez has the skill to play the ball in midfield and the creativity to launch an attack from deep.

So with that quick primer I ask, is Dwayne De Rosario’s best position a false nine?

Most people would say De Rosario’s best position is between the lines of midfield and defense, that is the space between the two bands of four in a 4-4-2. The problem at the highest level is that a 4-4-2 is rare to see, many sides employ a defensive midfielder specifically to pick up a playmaker. It’s how TFC shackled Morales (de Guzman man marking him) and why De Rosario was invisible in the second half against RSL (Beckerman shadowing). De Rosario actually had more joy in the first half of the match when he started high and dropped deep. He was never going to win a header versus Borchers or Olave (or any other prototypically tall and strong MLS center back for that matter) but he could outwit and outpace them with the ball at his feet. The other plus of him starting high was he made Beckerman redundant. When De Rosario dropped deep Beckerman was often confused, having picked up Labrocca or someone else higher up the pitch.

De Rosario is not a traditional playmaker. He is not a trequartista by any stretch of the imagination, even though he enjoys playing deep. He does not play those slide rule passes with perfect weight, though he is capable of creating chances for others. De Rosario’s best aspects are his determination, heavy finish, running at players with the ball, and ability to maintain possession. It is unfair to expect him to control the ball, turn, and play a perfectly weighted pass to a striker, he simply isn’t that kind of player. What he excels at is running into space at others which opens up subsequent space for his teammates.

How TFC might line up with De Rosario as a false nine

For De Rosario to work as a false nine in Toronto he needs the appropriate personnel. Chad Barrett is slowly turning the tide of TFC support his way and he seems to have the hallmarks of an inverted winger in this type of system. He has the pace and will to track back but also the clever runs and attacking instinct to get into good positions. His lack of natural finishing ability makes many a fan groan but no one will deny the amount of chances he creates for himself. Cutting in on his right foot from the left wing into space vacated by De Rosario seems like the best way to maximize his skills. The unfortunate part of this is that Toronto does not have an adequate left back to fill the space that Barrett would then in turn create. Truthfully Toronto has many holes in their line up, another one being that of an attacking midfielder.

No one would confuse Martin Saric with an elegant footballing talent but he runs well, fills space, and is actually willing to bomb forward from midfield. He is the only person in the Toronto squad who could conceivably fill the role of a midfielder supporting the attack from deep but even then his limitations are well established. He is not the best passer, he doesn’t have the greatest first touch, and he overall isn’t the biggest attacking threat. The problem is there are no other viable candidates for this position. de Guzman has time and time again shown his best position is breaking things up in front of the back four and it would be foolish to use him any other way. He single-handedly handcuffed Morales recently and stymied Cruz Azul earlier in the month. Him being suspended for the 4-1 drubbing at the hands of New York was not a coincidence. As mentioned in my previous entry Labrocca is a good midfielder to have when you want to keep possession but he doesn’t have the athleticism to attack from deep or to be a ball winner. He needs to be in a midfield three where his cleverness on the ball can be shown.

All this is without mentioning the last player of the front 6. Mista is a talented footballer, of that there is no doubt, but there is doubt concerning his fitness and pace. Like De Rosario he likes to come deep for the ball but I think that if placed high on the right wing he can benefit the formation. Whereas Barrett would act as a more traditional tornanti on the left, tracking back to help his side stabilize, Mista has the pedigree and ability to pin back a full back. He would naturally drift into the central because that is his tendency as a footballer. Wherever Preki has put him he does well in drifting into pockets of space and if De Rosario is operating as a false nine the space would be, presumably, where De Rosario was. This would allow him to use his natural goal scoring ability and left foot to attack.

I don’t expect Preki to ever consider a formation and tactics like this but it is something I continue to think about when I watch De Rosario play. He is a talented footballer who is one of the best at this level and yet I feel he can contribute more; not that he is in poor form but that he isn’t being utilized properly. So to answer my own question, yes I believe De Rosario’s best position is a false nine but for it to be Toronto FC’s best option we would need help in multiple areas, most notably left back and central midfield.

Toronto FC 0 – 0 Real Salt Lake: Narrow game ends in scoreless draw

Line ups at the start of the match

Call it the curse of TFiS but another reviewed game ends in a scoreless draw. Toronto FC needed a win at home to roar back into the playoff race and Real Salt Lake had just come off a tough loss to Cruz Azul so the momentum seemed to be in the hosts favour but they couldn’t gain maximum points. Both sides lined up in a narrow formation, RSL in their familiar diamond shape while Preki opted for a 4-1-3-2 as opposed to the 4-3-1-2 he had been using recently, probably because of a lack of healthy (Barrett, Santos) or competent (Ibrahim, White) strikers which meant captain Dwayne De Rosario was deployed up front beside Mista.

From the off Toronto looked invigorated and Gargan’s trade mark long throws caused Salt Lake problems, Gargan himself hitting the bar after one of his throws caused confusion in Rimando’s box. Once the game settled down a bit it turned into what we expected, a narrow game congested in the middle. For Toronto Julian de Guzman was tasked with marking Javier Morales, Salt Lake’s most dangerous attacking player. Morales was invisible the whole match until he started drifting wide right in the later part of the second half to escape the Canadian’s marking. Saric, Labrocca, Nane, and Sanyang may be termed as defensive midfielders but none of them could have shackled Morales as de Guzman did.

The hosts were happy to play through the middle although they did not get much joy, they were after all playing two central midfielders and a full back ahead of de Guzman. Their strikers liked to drop deep, both De Rosario and Mista preferring the ball played to their feet so they could keep possession and try and create. Neither forward had any chance of beating Olave or Borchers in the air. Unfortunately for them no one filled the space they created, the midfield not comfortable in bombing forward. On the other hand RSL were countering well with great movement from everyone except Saborio. His strike partner, Espindola, seemed to do enough running for the two of them however. His pace and strength caused endless problems for the TFC backline.

It was no shock that the players with the most time and space on the ball were the full backs. TFC had Usanov going forward with some degree of success but at left back they had Nick Garcia, a right footed center back by trade with limited skill. Kreis seemed happy to give him almost unlimited time on the ball and Garcia didn’t offer much in the first half. On the opposing side of the pitch Beltran was fairly subdued but Wingert often got forward. Wingert played as in inverted left back but unlike Garcia he had the mobility and skill to get forward often, his wind aided long range effort forcing Frei into the best save of the half. Toronto’s chances came from their two most creative players, De Rosario and Mista, dropping deep to facilitate the offense. This caused the middle of the park to become too congested for the Reds and with the lack of skill in midfield Toronto were restricted to long range strikes.

At the start of the second half Preki made a change taking out Usanov for O’Brian White while switching to a 4-3-1-2 with De Rosario in the hole behind the two strikers. In theory this move made sense, it allowed a more physical presence up front to challenge Borchers and Olave whilst stretching the field for Mista and De Rosario. The problem with this is that it placed De Rosario right beside Beckerman. Whereas in the first half one of the center backs would mark him at the start of the move then be reluctant to follow him now De Rosario was automatically picked up by Salt Lake’s defensive midfielder.

Preki's 4-3-1-2 at the start of the second half, putting De Rosario right beside Beckerman

Espindola continued to run and he caught TFC’s defense off guard and should have scored but for a poor finish. His running was dragging defenders everywhere and creating space that Saborio was unable to exploit. Espindola created another good chance within the hour mark when Morales’ audacious header was tipped wide.

De Rosario had been invisible for the first 15 or so minutes before he figured out that he needed to drift wide to find space. He often moved to the left to get a chance on the ball but he often found himself with no outlet. It was around this point Garcia started to get forward. Williams paid him no attention and Garcia waltzed into the middle of the pitch with the ball. In truth RSL were not pressing well all match but how Garcia walked into a shooting position with no one within 10 yards of him the whole time was inexcusable and Garcia forced a jumping save from Rimando. This earned TFC a corner which is where they looked most dangerous. They were struggling to create from open space all match and Salt Lake had a real tough time dealing with red shirts in the box on corners and throw ins.

Meanwhile Wingert was continuing to be Salt Lake’s most dangerous man and he became even more dangerous when Will Johnson came on and played on the left side of the diamond. Johnson is simply a better player than Grabavoy and he and Wingert caused Toronto’s right side problems, not only because of their skill but because, contrary to what many believe, Labrocca is not a defensive midfielder. Labrocca is great at keeping possession and in the middle of the park is positionally aware but he is not a ball winner by any means. RSL could have won the match with two strikes from the left wing, both Wingert and Johnson hitting the frame of the goal.

In the end Toronto FC looked listless in open play, the only times they seemed to threaten were from set pieces. Real Salt Lake got men forward well and showed much more quality on the ball, their midfield just simply being more skilled than Toronto’s. Preki was forced to play an attacking midfielder up front alongside a player who, at this point in his career, is more of a 10 than a 9, along with three central midfielders and a full back as his midfield four. Toronto simply do not have the players and depth to seriously challenge in the MLS and until they do we will not know how good of a manager Preki really is.