The excuses were made after the Seattle game by many including myself many times over, Seattle are a good team who were chasing the game, they were obviously going to dominate possession so no need to worry that it was so lopsided, that's obviously not going to be the regular game plan. The second game, at home to DC, well there are potential excuses there as well, the pitch was in a rugged state so trying to play some kind of pretty passing game would have been foolish, so again no need to worry about the lopsided possession, especially with 6 points in the bag already. The 3rd game, well Real Salt Lake love to keep possession so more than likely there'll be another low number there as well, but again no need to worry, that other stuff will happen.
But will it? Or is what we've seen actually the plan? After watching two games now, and especially after watching the highlights and seeing how Toronto's chances have been created, it doesn't seem like this is happening against the team's will, it seems very deliberate and so far quite effective. After the Seattle game, I jokingly referred to it as the Waterboy offence, after the Adam Sandler movie where the team gets all it's points from the defence rather than from the offence and that's what we got again against DC. We remember the Seattle goals, Henry interception to Osorio, Osorio to Defoe, goal, then Defoe interception, goal. Let's watch the Captain Morgan game in six from the DC game, and go through the build up to TFC's chances.
1) Well this one's from a set piece but Osorio gets the loose ball to Henry, fancy footwork from Henry, back to Osorio, into the box for Defore, just wide.
2) Jackson interception just inside the half, to Gilberto, to Defoe, saved
3) Osorio long ball down the wing for Jackson, cross to Defoe, saved.
4) Morrow interception, to Gilberto, to Morrow to Bradley, long ball to edge of box, move breaks down, Osorio intercepts to Gilberto to Bradley to Rey, miss
5) Henry clears long, Gilberto to Jackson to Gilberto, cross to Defoe, hits the post
6) A few neat passes around the box eventuallly gets it to Defoe who knocks it wide
7) Long kick by Cesar gives up possession, but Caldwell intercepts, Osorio to Bradley, long ball to Gilberto, rebound to Defoe, goal.
8) Henry interception, Morrow up to De Rosario, back to Bradley, to Defoe to De Rosario, bobble, shot saved.
9) Morrow interception to De Rosario, long ball to Defoe, shoots wide.
Yes, it's only two games, with extenuating circumstances, even if those circumstances weren't there, it's only two games, but there's a definite pattern here. TFC are direct. It's not just cherry picking highlights either, let's cherrypick some stats. TFC have had 32.3% and 38% possession in their two games so far. That's with passing accuracy of 72% and 62% on 312 and 327 attempted passes. For a bit of context, remember the 2013 team? Pretty horrible right? Can't hold a candle to these guys? They averaged 396 attempted passes, 72% passing accuracy and 46% possession. So far, they've actually regressed in those areas.
The players haven't got worse, so this is definitely a plan (perhaps one to overcome the circumstances of the first two games) and it seems to be win the ball, and immediately look to set Defoe or Gilberto free, perhaps if you're a defender the instructions might be to find Michael Bradley and let him do it for you.
It's not the worst plan in the world given the players we now have, Bradley is very good at winning the ball and then making that outlet pass, and Defoe's speed and movement (as well as Gilberto on the basis of his one game so far) mean he'll very often find space for a quick counter attack. Also, TFC are far from alone in capitalising on the counter attack, when the opponent is at their most vulnerable, not in their defensive positions. Even the most possession hungry team out there will take advantage of that whenever they can, though this analytics article suggests 10% of a team's goals is about average, a figure much lower than I would have thought, maybe depends on the definition of a counter attack.
But so far, there hasn't really been a whole lot else, even when the opposition have been defensively set, still TFC seem to be trying to find that quick opportunity rather than playing any kind of patient game to probe for weaknesses. In 2 games Bradley has just 111 pass attempts, 76 of them successful, while Osorio has 80 attempts, 59 successful which are both lower numbers than you'd expect from your central midfielders. It's as if the strategy is to look for the low percentage high impact pass which brings a couple of benefits, firstly if it comes off, then it's a very dangerous play, the amount of quality chances created in the last game is testament to that. If it doesn't, well at least the ball's far away from your goal thus minimising the chance of being caught on the counter attack yourself, and hey now you've got another chance to force a turnover and the defensive scrambling that might lead to a chance.
There's a bit more of a plan and purpose behind this approach than just your bog standard 'hoofball', and more skillful players to pull it off, but it's not that far removed from it really and something so simple will run into problems and need a different approach, One way that could happen is this week against Real Salt Lake. They're very much a team that's based on keeping possession, making the opposition chase the ball and patiently probing for chances to come along. If TFC insist on giving the ball away as often as they did against DC, this could be a very long match, it wouldn't surprise me if that possession percentage dropped below 30%. Also what happens when teams come to BMO Field and play a more conservative game, sitting back and allowing TFC to have possession, hoping to strike on the counter attack themselves? Will TFC be able to pick them apart if denied the fast break opportunities, or will it be a dull and polite game 'you attack' 'no, you attack us' 'no, no, we insist, you attack us' etc?
So far, it's been two games and it's worked very well, Julio Cesar's had very little to do behind the well organised defence in the two matches, and if TFC can create the same amount of chances as they did against DC, they'll generally score more than just one, so it seems extremely churlish to complain. As of yet though, despite the skill upgrade there hasn't really been anything new we've seen from Ryan Nelsen, but at some point he's going to have to show us something different. When conditions allow it and the opposition tactics demand it, will TFC have the game to not just counter punch, but actually take the fight to the opposition and break them down?