MLS Tactical Analysis: Toronto FC vs Real Salt Lake 3:1



Toronto FC

  1. Irwin / 96. Auro, 9. Van der Wiel, 3. Moor, 5. Morgan / 26. Hasler, 4. Bradley, 21. Osorio / 18. Delgado / 17. Altidore, 10. Giovinco

Real Salt Lake

  1. Rimando / 12. Lennon, 30. Marcelo Silva, 15. Glad, 17. Philips / 5. Beckerman, 6. Kreilach / 7. Savarino, 11. Rusnak, 10. Plata / 20. Luis Silva

Real Salt Lake’s horrendous defense gifted Toronto FC’s their first win.

Toronto’s dominant attack

Toronto lined up a 4-1-2-1-2 diamond. Like a 4-3-3, the playmaker Michael Bradley dropped in-between the center backs and pushed the fullbacks to the midfield to provide width. Unlike the 4-3-3, Toronto didn’t use the inverted wingers.

They commanded the possession during the build-up; the goalkeeper Clint Irwin, Bradley and the center backs – especially Gregory Van der Wiel who used to play as an attacking fullback in Europe – have great ball-playing technique. They could resist the pressings from Real Salt Lake and found the optimal passing lanes to move the ball forward.

The 4-1-2-1-2 is a narrow formation. The diamond in the midfield dictated how Toronto functioned in the attack and the transition; it has three layers in the central midfield and maintains multiple triangular passing lanes between the players, so the ball can skate through the middle. Toronto didn’t focus attacking the flanks, but the surging fullbacks stretch Real Salt Lake’s defense to open the central area. The midfielders could create an overload with Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore, and the support fullbacks and lure the defenders toward the ball-close side. A switching pass to the ball-far side could find the teammate(s) with a lot of space to attack.

The narrow and multiple-layered positioning of the players not only created numerous waves of vertical off-the-ball penetration but also facilitated the zigzag passing game:

The sudden change in the ball’s trajectory confused and overwhelmed Rea Salt Lake’s defenders. Even when a player lost the ball during an attack, his teammates were close to the ball and ready to counter-press the loose ball. The multiple layers of the players prevented visitors from penetrating them and facilitated the repossession of the ball. Real Salt Lake’s players couldn’t transition into the offensive phase. Toronto kept attacking the visitor over and over until they broke.

Toronto maximized the potential of their diamond formation and controlled the tempo of the majority of the game.

Real Salt Lake’s horrendous defense

Real Salt Lake didn’t just defend poorly; they opened themselves for Toronto.

Real Salt Lake’s defense did everything wrong. They switched between in a 4-2-2-2 or a 4-2-3-1. The front four players pressed high without applying enough pressure. They didn’t close down Toronto’s players, so the ball handler had time to survey the possible passing lanes and found his teammates. As their first line of the defense pressured the center backs and Bradley, the second line didn’t follow close enough. The space between them was huge, and Toronto’s players had a lot of freedom to operate in these areas. When you position high, a bad pressing is worse than no-pressing. You open yourself and create space for the opponent.

When they sat back, the first line didn’t maintain a tight line, and Toronto’s passer could penetrate them with a simple forward pass. Real Salt Lake had another problem in their second and last lines of the defense. Kyle Beckerman and Damir Kreilach focused on the ball and didn’t guard space. Their positions were critical because they were the last line of the midfield’s defense. They moved away from their positions to chase the ball and exposed the defenders. When Toronto’s players – especially Giovinco and Altidore – moved to those areas, no one would mark them. The attackers had the freedom to receive the ball, turn and advance the ball.

Real Salt Lake’s center backs couldn’t mark them because they would leave a gap in the defense. Someone needed to take over the marking duty. Beckerman and Kreilach should have done that, but they didn’t. They only fixated on either the ball or the closest player. Either they ball-watched and marked no one, or they marked the same player with their teammates and left someone unmarked.

Toronto found a lot of success attacking the right flank in the first half. Kreilach was bad. Van der Wiel was also on that side, and they had more right-footed players than the left-footed ones.

Real Salt Lake’s defense was terrible because they did what they shouldn’t have; the attackers didn’t have enough pressure when they pressed. And the midfielders didn’t guard the zone when they sat. The visitor waited when they should have attacked, and they attacked when they should have waited.

Real Salt Lake’s tactical change in the build-up

The visitor couldn’t build up in the first 30 minutes. Toronto’s strikers guarded Justen Glad and Marcelo Silva’s forward passing lane toward the double pivot and forced the center backs to play wide. They aimed to prevent Beckerman and Kreilach from dictating the possession. Toronto’s midfielders, especially Bradley, followed Beckerman almost every possession during the opening period. Beckerman’s passing range is too good and can’t be left alone. He initiated Real Salt Lake’s transition into the offensive phase. When he had the ball, he could send a long pass to the flank. The fullback could push to the midfield and combine with the winger and one of the double pivots to lure the defenders. They would then send a diagonal pass toward the center. Albert Rusnak, Luis Silva, and the ball-far winger would overload the area:

The home team’s defensive strategy minimized these things. Real Salt Lake couldn’t use their double pivots’ distribution to stretch Toronto during the build-up. The center backs often had to pass to the flank horizontally, and the fullbacks could only find vertical pass toward the wingers. Their attack wasn’t effective.

Mike Petke modified the build-up’s strategy after 30 minutes. They switched to a three-man back line with one full-back staying with the center backs and one pushing up as a winger. The formation became an asymmetrical 3-4-3 with a 2-1 set-up in the central midfield. Real Salt Lake’s backline now had a 3 vs. 2 advantage against Toronto’s strikers, so they could advance the ball. The asymmetry became difficult for Toronto to defend in the midfield; Real Salt Lake’s fullbacks occupied different lines, Toronto’s midfield’s defense became disorganized when Nicolas Hasler and Jonathan Osorio marked them. The visitors opened the channels in the middle. With Rusnak moving back to help the build-up, Real Salt Lake also gained a 3 (or even more when the strikers dropped to the midfield) vs. 2 advantage in the central midfield. Bradley and Marco Delgado couldn’t close down all of the visitors’ midfielders. Their front line’s defense would have failed if they insisted pressing Real Salt Lake, so Toronto sat back and the visitors regained some control of the offensive phase.

Real Salt Lake glided between the 3-4-3 and the 4-2-3-1 throughout the game. That transition is difficult to achieve. Their success in managing that balance shows Petke’s quality. But their horrendous defense put them in the worst possible situation. They won’t win too many games defending like this.

Toronto were brilliant. But you can’t read too much from this match; their opponent’s fragile defense meant Toronto didn’t have to do much. Their failure to finish off an opponent should be a concern.

PS. MLS will be a regular feature from now on. Will cover at least one game a week. Leave a message if you want a game to be covered. Will avoid covering the same team for the consecutive weeks. Also won’t do LA Galaxy for the next few weeks since they will be covered by the others. The goal is to cover as many teams as possible.

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