Toronto FC were one of the most exhilarating teams to watch in the MLS is Back Tournament. At the helm, is manager Greg Vanney, who is coming into his sixth year managing the Canadian side. In these six years, Vanney has been predominantly successful. In 2017, he won the MLS Cup, which made history by being the first Canadian team to win the trophy. They came close again in 2019, however, they fell short in the final against the superior, Seattle Sounders.
The MLS is Back Tournament, for Toronto, may have seemed like a failure to many Toronto fans and pundits alike, however, whilst failing to progress past the last 16, they did not fail to entertain football fans, and were by far one of the most entertaining sides in the tournament. This entertaining, attractive style of football can be credited to Vanney and his coaching staff. Toronto play without fear, and with efficiency.
Vanney usually sets his side up in a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2. Since the restart with the MLS is Back Tournament, this has been Toronto’s typical starting line-up;
Their backline and goalkeeper have been immovable so far in 2020. However, the midfield and the forward line has been rotated quite a few times. Michael Bradley and Marco Delgado have been stalwarts in the heart of the midfield for Toronto and have played more games than any other central midfielders at the club. However, the greatest number of changes have come from the wingers and centre-forward. Alejandro Pozuelo has played every game this season, operating in the number ten position or playing as a second-striker.
Ahead of Pozuelo, is Ayo Akinola, who has been Vanney’s go-to main striker in recent matches. However, Jozy Altidore has also played in this role, as well as natural winger, Nick DeLeon. In the wide areas, ex-Valencia winger, Pablo Piatti is a mainstay on the right-hand side. Vanney has tried many different players on the left side of midfield. Tsubasa Endoh has started more games than anyone on the left-wing for Toronto, with two appearances. However, youngster Jaydon Nelson, Ifunanyachi Achara, and even DeLeon have also been given starting minutes in this position also.
Role of the single pivot:
As I stated before, Toronto have been one of the most exciting sides in the MLS this season. Vanney has his team playing some incredibly attractive football. Toronto are very free-flowing and dynamic on the ball, but very defensively structured and ugly off of it.
His formation has not changed so far this season. Vanney has deployed a 4-4-1-1/4-4-2 in all of Toronto’s matches so far. When they are in possession of the ball, the formation tends to shift to resemble a 4-1-4-1.
The footage above is the usual offensive structure that Vanney has his Toronto side set-up in once they have possession. Bradley is deployed as the single pivot player in this offensive structure. His role as the pivot is to bring the ball from the backline into the advanced areas of the field. As Toronto are a team that likes to build their way through the thirds of the pitch with their possession style of play, Bradley is one of Vanney’s most important players for his system.
Many clubs, particularly top sides such as Manchester City and Liverpool, like their pivots to drop into the backline and act as a third centre-back during the build-up phase. This is to allow the fullbacks to advance higher up the field, on the flanks, and play as wingers. However, during Toronto’s build-up play, the fullbacks stay back with the centre-backs to circulate the ball around the backline. Bradley does not have to drop as a third centre-back because there are already four players to circulate the ball.
Once the backline finds a gap behind the opposition’s first line of the press, Toronto looks to find Bradley. Bradley has to keep moving to the ball-side in order to be a passing option through these gaps;
He performs this pivot role very well. His job is quite basic, but this simplicity is key to Vanney’s system at Toronto. Bradley tends to just move the ball from one side to the other with short and lateral passes rather than opting for a spectacular long-range pass. So far in 2020, Bradley has made 217 accurate passes. 130 of these accurate passes, were backward and lateral passes. A job as simple as acting as a wall pass in order to retain possession, which Bradley does very efficiently, is extremely important to their build-up.
Use of advanced midfielders:
To shift the defensive 4-4-1-1 shape into a 4-1-4-1 offensive structure, Delgado pushes up between the lines. Pozuelo also drops into this area alongside Delgado. Having these two players in between the lines allows Toronto to have two passing options behind the opposing midfield line.
Both of these men have been the most important creative outlets for Toronto, especially Pozuelo. The ex-Swansea man has made 7 key passes already this season, five more than the second-highest key passer, Delgado. Depending on the ball-side, the ball-near player of these two pushes into the halfspace also. Toronto always look to get into this area of the pitch and to get these two men on the ball in order to split the opposition’s defence. A lot of the time, the wingers will stay wide also. This stretches the opponent’s defensive block and allows the creative outlets to have time on the ball. For instance;
Importance of wide overloads:
Getting Pozuelo and Delgado on the ball is not the only way Vanney likes his side to attack, nonetheless. Toronto attack down the flanks more than any other areas of the pitch. They do this by creating numerical overloads to be able to break the opposition’s defensive line. 78 of Toronto’s 114 attacks in their previous three matches have been in the wide areas. 46 were down the left flank, with 42 down the right flank.
As previously explained, Toronto’s fullbacks stay back during the build-up play. This means that the wingers have spaced out wide in order to stretch the opponent. However, When Toronto attack on the flanks, the winger pushes inside, allowing the fullback to advance further up the field.
In the footage above, we can see Toronto utilising the wide overloads to full effect, leading to a goal. Pozuelo, the ball-near advanced midfielder, has drifted into the halfspace, allowing for Piatti to move centrally. Piatti pushing inside has allowed the right-back, Auro, to venture forward on the right flank. Toronto have matched Montreal with three players each on the flank, in this image, and they capitalised on the fact that the Montreal midfielder could not get across in time.
Since the opposition does not have sufficient midfield cover on the flanks, as well as a lack of co-ordination from the Montreal backline, their centre-back is forced to be pulled out of position to close the halfspace. Piatti exploits the space left by the centre-back and makes a run in behind, which leads to an excellent goal.
Again here, Pozuelo sees the opportunity to create a numerical 3v2 overload on the flank. The player in the halfspace vacates it, creating space for Pozuelo to collect the ball in the dangerous area and pick a pass.
A major weakness for Vanney’s men is their ability to win offensive duels. Toronto have to rely on quick combinations in the wide or central areas in order to break the defensive line. This is because their players are extremely poor at take-ons and struggle to beat their defender in a 1-on-1.
Taking the number of offensive duels from their fullbacks, Auro and Laryea, both of their main wingers, Endoh and Piatti, their advanced midfielders, Delgado and Pozuelo, and finally, their main centre-forward, Akinola, all of these players have been involved in 216 offensive duels in total. However, they have only won 79 of these offensive duels combined. This is only a success rate of roughly 37%, which is extremely poor for attacking players.
Toronto’s defensive set-up:
Through the analysis of Toronto’s most recent matches, it is very clear that Greg Vanney wants his team to always be on the front foot. His philosophy and team tactics revolve around his side being efficient with possession and to press when they don’t have it. Regardless of this though, Vanney still likes his side to be defensively sound.
Typically, Toronto’s defensive structure would be a 4-4-2 mid-to-high block., as can be seen here;
In this defensive structure, Vanney wants his team to force the opposition out wide. This has been relatively successful as Toronto have won more defensive duels in the flanks, this season, than any other area of the pitch. Vanney feels that Toronto are quite strong at defending crosses, and so by cutting off the central corridors, he is forcing Toronto to defend in areas that they are comfortable in. Their centre-backs have won 57 percent of their aerial duels in the penalty area, so this decision is justified.
A big emphasis for Toronto, off the ball, is marking the opponent’s midfield pivot. Once the opposition has played through Toronto’s high-press, they drop off into their 4-4-2 mid-block. As they have two strikers acting as the first line of press, the ball-far player sits on the pivot. This is to cut off the passing lane into him, as the pivot role is such an important position for teams that like to play through the thirds rather than play long. The other centre-forward presses the ball-carrier. Both of these actions can be seen in the previous image.
When Toronto press high, they still make sure that the pivot player is being tightly marked.
We can see Toronto’s pressing scheme, under Vanney, in the above image. It is a man-oriented pressing system, which means that the structure of their press may change depending on the opposition’s players and formation.
Nonetheless, in this footage, is a man-oriented pressing system against New York City’s 4-2-3-1. Both of Toronto’s strikers each press the centre-backs. Delgado takes up the role of marking the pivot player now that Toronto’s forwards have a different task in the press. Bradley stays deeper, marking the more advanced of NY City’s double-pivot. Meanwhile, both wingers are tasked with marking the fullbacks. However, the wingers must maintain an average distance between their marker and their own midfield. This is so that they are at a close distance to help cover for a teammate.
This pressing system has worked quite well for Toronto throughout their previous three games. In these three matches, they have completed 206 ball recoveries. 71 of these 206 recoveries have been in the opponent’s half of the pitch. More impressive is that 37 of their 71 recoveries have been in the final third, with the majority from positional pressing.
Through this tactical analysis of Toronto, it is clear that Vanney has built a certain culture at Toronto during his six years in charge. They are now a team built around playing exciting attacking football, with an emphasis on fluidity and wide attacking. The Toronto fans get treated to the best football in the MLS. However, there are still quite a few problems, particularly with Vanney’s defensive system. He deploys a very high line at times, yet Toronto are not very quick, especially their centre-backs. This leaves them quite susceptible to balls in behind, and at times look defensively weak.
Nonetheless, they are extremely potent, scoring 8 goals already this season, so if Vanney can manage to bring one or two new signings into the starting eleven, especially defensively, his Toronto side will be able to challenge for the MLS Cup once again.