Major League Soccer is finally back and in this tactical analysis we will look at two teams who are surely eyeing the top spot of Group C. This analysis will evaluate an established powerhouse in Toronto FC and the surging New England Revolution who keep getting better under new manager Bruce Arenas.
The MLS is Back Tournament promises to excite even without the fans, and these two organizations will surely be hoping that they can both string together a good run of results as all 26 teams compete for a spot in the 2020 CONCACAF Champions League and vital points towards the 2020 MLS regular season
Toronto FC so far
The runners-up of the 2019 MLS Cup have stayed true to their reputation two games into the 2020 season. Toronto FC have been the kings of steadiness in the Major League Soccer regular season and a respectable four points from two matches has ensured that Greg Vanney’s men will go into the MLS is Back Tournament with confidence. Let’s take a look at how the Reds will set up and approach the guaranteed three matches of soccer they have lined up in Orlando.
Toronto have been a mixed basket in terms of performances in their first two matches. On one hand, they’ll probably be disappointed to have let a 2-0 lead slip against San Jose, but they redeemed that lacklustre display with a comfortable 1-0 win against Eastern Conference rivals New York City FC. These two matches proved much different in terms of the team’s setup and mentality during the 90 minutes.
In a different approach to last year, Greg Vanney sets his side up in a traditional 4-4-2 rather than the 4-3-3 commonly used by the American in 2019. Without the ball, this stands true. In the image below, Toronto have four men in the middle who all take up a deeper position while the backline moves a bit further up to stay connected. We can also see Jozy Altidore in the frame next to his striking counterpart Alejandro Pozuelo who is off the screen. Both take up higher positions and act as outlets for quick counter-attacking moves.
With the ball, Toronto’s tactics operate a bit differently to a standard 4-4-2. As seen in their average positions, Pozuelo tucks in behind Altidore to become a more traditional number 10 who links the midfield and attack.
From this graphic, we can also see that the two wingers, Erickson Gallardo and Ifunanyachi Achara, take up much more narrow positions in the midfield than what would be expected of a typical winger. This is not without purpose though as Greg Vanney has effectively connected his midfield with this move. So far, Toronto has been extremely proficient with passes under five yards, a 54.2% completion rate puts them just behind Sporting KC in accuracy. While Toronto have not been the most possession-oriented team in the league, their ability to keep the ball within the midfield could be very important in producing better chances and building up play through the middle of the pitch.
Fast and Furious
Modern soccer is ever-changing and Toronto’s style of play is a clear representation of that fact. Toronto FC have proven in just two games that possession is not everything. While ranking 23rd in average possession, Toronto have made it clear that they don’t always need the ball to still be a top attacking side.
As seen in this visual, the darker the box, the more shot-creating actions per 90 minutes a team will have. Toronto are very far right on this chart because of their lack of possession, but they have found a way to become a top-three team in attacking efficiency as seen by the dark blue shade. In other words, Toronto know where the goal is because despite having far less possession than the likes of the Seattle Sounders and Los Angeles FC, they are right up there with how many attacks they are formulating.
Toronto FC have reinvented themselves as a very dangerous counter-attacking side. Alejandro Pozuelo is one of the main reasons for this change. A common attack is more likely than not started with Pozuelo. In this example, as Achara wins the ball in the midfield, Pozuelo checks into space to be the main outlet of attack. His teammates know that if they make the run, the Spaniard will find the final pass. The fluency in the team’s transition from defence to offence is a major factor in why they are effective in these moves. Again, we can see in this example the brilliance of Pozuelo in his role. Toronto has the speed to burn past any backline in the league and they have the playmaker to supplement that pace. Pozuelo is the heartbeat behind every attack and his teammates can see that.
Out of possession, Toronto have not been too keen on pressing. Their allowed 11.64 passes per defensive action is a clear effect of the low-block that Greg Vanney has instilled into his 4-4-2. Much of Toronto’s pressing come after possession has been lost in the opponents’ side of the pitch. In the image below, Toronto’s centre-midfield pairing of Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado stay connected while both shifting over to the side where the ball is. To cover the space left by the two, Achara slides into the middle and is able to prevent any switch of play to NYFC’s right-back. While not a full press, Toronto have found success with their organized trapping.
Finally, it would be unjust to mention the flexibility that captain Michael Bradley will give to Vanney when he makes his return from injury. Not only is Bradley still one of Major League Soccer’s top defensive-midfielders, but he’s one of the most tactically accomplished players in the league. As seen below, Bradley can see the gaps in his team and cover those spaces. In last year’s Eastern Conference Final against Atlanta United, one of Toronto’s centre-backs stayed up in the attack and left a massive gap in the four-man backline, fortunately, Bradley saw this and dropped into that position to link-up play. This ability only comes from experience, and Bradley has plenty that will enable Toronto to be a little looser in their rigid 4-4-2.
If it wasn’t made clear already, there is an overarching pattern in Toronto’s successful attacking actions: with every move, Pozuelo is at the centre of that action. Since coming into the league, the 28-year-old has been one of the most productive players in the MLS, managing 25 goals and assists in 35 appearances. We’ve already seen his impact in a free-roaming role with Toronto, and the return of Jozy Altidore will be a massive boost for the team.
The understanding between the American and Spaniard is clear in just about every match they play together. In a 2019 regular season matchup against Colorado, Pozuelo finds himself on the right flank with a defender in his way. But, he sees space in behind Colorado’s disconnected left-back and centre-back which Altidore also recognizes. In a blink of an eye, the two link up with a beautifully weighted ball into the box which results in Altidore being fouled.
Toronto are a team to seriously watch throughout the MLS is Back Tournament. The squad is more balanced than ever and Greg Vanney will have a fully fit side in Orlando. A further boost will be the expected debut of recently signed Designated Player Pablo Piatti from La Liga side Espanyol. His presence could match that of a certain DP named Sebastian Giovinco, who is arguably the most successful DP signing in the history of the league.
One area of concern is how wasteful Toronto have been in the final third. There is no doubting Altidore’s finishing record in front of the goal, but with defences marking the proven goal-scorer with extra caution, Toronto have been extremely lacklustre in taking their chances. In just two games, Toronto have had nearly five expected assists, but due to the lack of end-product in the sidebar Altidore, they are yet to take any of those chances. This reliance on one player to finish chances is concerning, and something that will need to change if Toronto want to contend for the tournament title.
New England Revolution so far
Since Bruce Arena’s appointment last June, the experienced manager has turned New England into a very formidable side and even led them to a 2019 MLS Playoff appearance which marked the first time in four years that the Revolution would see postseason soccer. Arena, in just 24 games, has reshaped New England’s future and got the organization back on track in hopes of eventually returning as a true MLS Cup contender. For now, however, the Revs will just want to find some consistency during the MLS is Back Tournament as they head into Orlando with one draw and one loss from their first two matches.
Like Toronto FC, the Revolution have opted to start their season in a traditional 4-4-2 that provides stability in every part of the pitch. The more defensive-minded Wilfried Zahibo complements the more attacking Diego Fagundez to form a solid midfield pivot, while the striker partnership of Adam Buska and Gustavo Bou can be a deadly one-two punch of size and creativity.
New England’s setup is based around creating as much space in the attacking half of the pitch, but this also disincentives their need to for possession. Thus, New England don’t spend too much time on the ball and rank very low for passes attempted in the MLS. Nonetheless, they’ve been direct when on the ball and have managed to post an impressive 24.5 shot-creating actions while scoring in both games.
To match their high-intensity offence, New England have deployed a fairly intense press which is seen in the 9.34 PPDA. Arena starts with a standard mid-block and the press is initiated by the two centre-forwards who look to keep the ball in front of them at all times.
Overloads, overloads, and more overloads
Defensively speaking, New England are a typical mid-table MLS team. They defend well, but the lack of enormous individual quality tends to hurt them. New England’s 4-2-3-1 shape cost them on a few occasions and could be a reason for Arena’s more organized 4-4-2. When they aren’t trying to press the opponent into a trap, the Revolution can drop back and take up a very compact shape. The two forwards stagger where one is behind the other, the midfield keeps connected while eliminating any penetrating passes into the front line, and the defence pushes up relatively high to condense the pitch. Conceding three goals in two games is far from a good return, but New England have the foundation of a strong defensive team.
What catches the eye about New England is their attack and the simple fact that they are yet to even scratch the surface of what that collective unit is capable of. Led by an experienced ex-Premier League star in Carles Gil and a supporting cast of proven finishers, New England have all the pieces to solve the puzzle. New England are third in the league for total shots per 90, and they manage to still be above the league average of shots on target per 90. A team with a high-volume of shots will usually score more goals than a team with fewer shots, so it’s just a matter of time before things start clicking.
New England have shown their positional flexibility and that has proven key for getting their playmakers on the ball. Rather than wasting time by playing the ball back and forth between the backline, Gil drops deep into the midfield to help the team progress the ball up the pitch. If it isn’t Gil, it’s Gustavo Bou who drops into the midfield to progress play. Either way, both players are very capable of progressing play. The ability to get your most technical players on the ball is often overlooked by some of the best possession teams in the world, but New England see the value in doing this. Furthermore, they have players all over the front line who can rotate between each other, like in the example where Bou drops in, Teal Bunbury simply drifts into the middle to occupy the centre-forward role temporarily.
The most significant approach New England takes in their positional setup is how their full-backs operate. Brandon Bye has proven himself to be the perfect man for the right-back role because of his ability in attack.
As seen below, Bye is afforded acres of space because the right-midfielder (Gil or Penilla) will slide into the middle and drag the opposition left-back with them. Thus, Bye is given free-license to get as far up the pitch as he likes. The asymmetrical shape has been used by Arena in his past jobs at the LA Galaxy and with the U.S national team with success most of the time. The only danger of playing with such high full-backs is the space left vacated in those areas which can be exploited if the opposition utilizes the width of the pitch.
Carles Gil’s return to the side after missing the start of the season will be a massive boost for Arena. Like Pozuelo, Gil is the heartbeat of the team and almost everything good that happens is a result of Gil, who managed 22 goal contributions in his first 35 matches as a Revolution player. He has shown his flexibility by being able to operate in the middle as the main number 10, or on the right side where he cuts in on his left. Both examples usually end with one outcome, and this unpredictably is a key highlight of the Spaniard’s game.
Gustavo Bou and Adam Buska round off the attacking talent in this team. Like it was mentioned earlier, the two complement each other very well. Buska has been more of a target man who will maintain a large presence in the opposition’s box. His size and stature make it difficult for any defender to mark him. If the delivery is solid, Buska will produce more often than not. Bou, meanwhile, has done a little bit of everything. He can drop into the middle and operate as a 10, while he has also shown his ability to be a poacher inside the box. At the end of the day, Bou spends most of his time outside of the box which clears space for Buska. Bou’s striking ability has already won the Revolution points and there’s no doubt that he will continue to produce the unthinkable if he’s afforded any space.
New England have been a steady presence in the league for the past 12 months, and the MLS is Back Tournament provides them an opportunity to prove to the league that they are more than just average.
If the Revolution bring their shooting boots and limit the opposition’s ability to counter-attack in the space that they tend to leave vacant, the sky is truly the limit for what this team can do.
Bruce Arena has the experience to lead any squad to success, and with an abundance in attacking talent, New England look well poised to improve on their seventh-place finish in 2019.
The MLS is Back Tournament is an opportunity for so many clubs to prove their worth and with such a long break after the stoppage of play in March, it is anyone’s best guess as to which teams perform.
While we may not be able to definitively say who will be crowned champions in Orlando, this tactical analysis of Toronto FC and New England exhibits the depth of quality in the league. No matter what happens in Orlando, the MLS is Back Tournament will be good viewing for die-hards and neutrals alike.