Sunday night football(or soccer) in the MLS played host to many important contests, with the regular season drawing near to its conclusion. Playoff scenarios are shaping up with each passing matchday, and various teams fought in a bid to acquire the coveted positions.
Within the jam-packed eastern conference, Toronto FC played against Inter Miami in a match that had its ramifications on the latter. The David Beckham-owned debutants, starting the matchday at 12, had the opportunity to rise as high as ninth with a win. As teams Montreal Impact and DC United failed around them, they had control over their destiny. Two wins in the two matches would see them go through to the knockouts. However, they were coming into the game in erratic form.
Toronto, too, had the Supporters Shield to play for, an award presented to the best MLS side in the standings. A win would take them on level terms with Philadelphia Union on points, retaining a shot at their first trophy ever. Although, they were looking to shun a two-game losing streak to achieve the feat.
In what was ultimately a close affair, the side from Canada squeaked out a 2-1 victory over their opponents, landing a heavy blow in Miami’s playoff chances. This tactical analysis will break down how Toronto managed to thwart off the Miami side.
Toronto started the game in their usual formation, which was the 4-4-2. Greg Vanney’s side received a boost with the return of Chris Mavinga from injury, who slotted right into the team. Ayo Akinola, Toronto’s joint top-scorer, also made his first start after coming back from his own setback. Alejandro Pozuelo occupied his conventional role off of the target man, flanked on either side by Nick Deleon and Tsubasa Endoh. Vanney opted to play Auro Jr. and Ralph Priso, deciding to bring Richie Laryea from the bench.
Diego Alonso shaped his team in an ultra-compact 5-4-1 formation in a bid to shield the backline from the creative hubs of Toronto. After a frantic start to life in the MLS, Gonzalo Higuaín started upfront. The ex Serie A striker played alongside Lewis Morgan and Rodolfo Pizarro, the latter drifting behind the Argentine centrally. World-Cup winner Blaise Matuidi also started for Miami. James McCarthy kept his place in goal, with first-choice Luis Robles out due to injury.
Toronto robust in midfield
Greg Vanney’s team entered the match in a defensive set-up that mirrored a 4-4-1-1. Endoh and Deleon had defensive tasks to shut down the opposing flanks while pressing high up. The side went with a high line to exert pressure on the Miami frontline. Crucial to this tactic was the confidence in the DMs Priso and Micheal Bradley to pinch the ball from the attackers. Rather than taking a conservative approach to keep retreating, the duo often indulged in crunching tackles. This was especially the case during the early stages of the game.
In this picture, Pizarro receives the ball with acres of space to operate. With Morgan and Higuain poised to make runs, and given the technical ability of Pizarro, this could very well result in a good chance for Miami.
This snap portrays Bradley sensing the danger and tracking Pizarro back. By the time he catches the Miami attacker, he has already negated the option on the left side.
Having forced Pizarro to his right, Bradley makes a sliding challenge at the right moment. He nicks the ball cleanly, allowing the defender to clear the ball away.
Bradley, however, was not the only shield to the defence. His midfield partner, Priso, was just as decisive in snuffing attacks and clearing the danger. Handed a start after a considerable while, he covered more ground than anyone and performed his duties to a tee.
Despite playing only for 72 minutes, he made eight recoveries and led both sides in recoveries made in the opposition territory. His passing was also pristine, completing 51 of his 55 attempts.
Miami favouring the right
Alonso and his crew came in with a clear strategy to attack Toronto’s left flank. Morgan and Dylan Nealis, in particular, exerted immense pressure on Tony Gallacher and continually ventured ahead in the first half. This bias in attacks also occurred as a result of Pizarro playing centrally, contrary to the formation. Combined with that, Deleon often occupied central positions in the offence, becoming all the more difficult for him to trackback.
The statistic above supports the fact, with almost two–thirds of their xG coming from attacks from the right. Morgan and the bombarding Nealis pressed high up from the early proceedings, with Gallacher looking more unstable by the minute.
This instance depicts Matuidi offloading the ball to Morgan on a Miami counter. There are two things to note here. Firstly, Gallacher attacks Morgan right away, knowing his threat as a dribbler. He, in turn, leaves vast grass for Nealis to cover on the Toronto side of the pitch. Secondly, Leon is situated very high up to give Pozuelo room to operate in the middle and make runs. Hence, he is unable to back his full-back up.
While the attack didn’t amount to much, it gave us a glimpse of the trend followed in the entire first half. The relentless pressure sustained even when Toronto had possession, forcing the left-back into uncomfortable situations. One such press helped Miami get off the mark, directly leading to a goal.
In these snapshots, Gallacher brings down a long ball. Sensing a struggle to keep the ball under control, Morgan immediately pounces on the defender. He manages to brush the Scotsman off, instantly putting his team on the front foot.
Once he is past the defender, he sends in a cross that bounces right back to him. Gallacher, now recovered, does a poor job once again in defending the second cross. Palmed away by the goalkeeper, the ball reaches straight to Matuidi at the top of the penalty area, with every defender camping the six yard-box. The midfielder, bought from Juventus, slots it in with impeccable precision to give Miami the lead.
Inefficiency of Pozuelo
Pozuelo, Toronto’s creator-in-chief, entered the match off of two disappointing displays. He started this game well, finding pockets of space to operate in between the defense and midfield lines of Miami. However, as Matuidi got into the game better and Wil Trapp covered him well, he faded into obscurity.
During the infancy of the game, Pozuelo completed one key pass to Auro, which was the only chance created by the player. He also dribbled less and lost the ball more times than usual. The creative hub’s lack of impact on the team had its effect in the first-half, creating only 0.05 xG. For Toronto to have a chance, Vanney needed to shake things up, and shake up he did. In the next section, we look at the analysis of how Vanney outwitted Alonso in the second half.
Impact of Toronto subs
Vanney replaced the ineffective Endoh with Mullins at half-time, altering his tactics. Before this change, the attack remained static, with Deleon failing to provide runs up top. The defence was also suffering negatively due to Deleon’s absence in covering his full-back. Once Mullins entered the fray, he went straight to occupy Pozuelo’s role, as the latter shifted towards the right.
The photo above displays the scenes before Toronto’s equalizer. Giving life to an attack devoid of it, Mullins made a well-timed run past the defender. With movement amounting to null in the previous half, this was exactly the task assigned to him. It immediately put pressure on the trailing fullback.
While Mullins did not get played in instantly, he did eventually attain possession of the ball. He took a second to look into the box and played a first time ball in the direction of Akinola. Devoid of service the entire game, he promptly received it on his chest and slotted it with the utmost composure.
Quite evidently, the change worked out in the attacking end. Mullins’ runs often caused trouble to the opposition and kept them on their feet. Despite that, his effect on the defensive side was arguably more influential, albeit indirect. His introduction meant Pozuelo had a runner to pass to, thus relieving Deleon to his favored flank. It meant the wide midfielder could provide much-needed protection to Gallacher, stymying the approaches of Morgan and Nealis.
In the simple sequence, Matuidi sprayed a pass to Nealis, who was hogging the right flank. Now, the two highlighted positions are that of Deleon and Mullins. If it were the first half, Deleon would have been in the place of the fellow American. Hence, he would not have been able to help the defender. As it is, Deleon can now operate deeper and close to the touchline. Nealis can no longer ponder forward, bringing the counter to a close.
Mullins was not the only substitute that turned the game on its head. Laryea entered the pitch after 73 minutes of action, giving an instant boost to the side. His pace was crucial in winning the penalty for Toronto that Pozuelo converted. Moreover, he also shunned any attacks on the right. His speed and sense to sniff out danger brought three interceptions and two clearances within 20 minutes of play.
In what was a tightly contested matchup, substitutes proved to be the ultimate key factor. The more proactive manager reaped the benefits of his changes, while the other one wondered what could have been.
Toronto needs to win their next match and must hope Philadelphia loses points to secure their trophy. Although, they have kept themselves in contention with the victory. Miami, on the other hand, have squandered a golden opportunity. They now need many results to go their way to punch a ticket to the playoffs in its inaugural season.