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What Just Happened? Toronto v Columbus: The Crew’s Opening Strike - Something’s Rotten in the State of De…fending

A look at what led to Columbus' goal on Saturday, and how it shows off a problem that's popping up again and again for TFC.

Don't let him get that step on you - Oduro exploited Morgan, but was it all the Toronto defender's fault?
Don't let him get that step on you - Oduro exploited Morgan, but was it all the Toronto defender's fault?
Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

Upon initial viewing, Dominic Oduro’s opening goal is pretty straight-forward.

Columbus, simply, moves the ball around the back before playing out to the left-back Agustin Viana. The pass is slightly behind him, so he checks back to Matias Sanchez, who once more tries to play up the left. Bernardo Anor hits it sharply back to him.

Now it where it starts to get interesting:

On his right foot, taking a moment to look up – he is well aware of where Oduro is, just needs to take measure of the distance the pass requires – he strafes an inch-perfect ball out to his teammate on the right flank, diagonal to the corner of the box.

Oduro settles it, lets it sit down and stop bouncing before hitting a right-footed effort low to the short-side, beating Joe Bendik, shamefully, at the near-post.

Leaving aside that the keeper should not be beat from there – it will be addressed further before the end – this trouble began brewing much earlier.

Already by the third minute of play, Columbus had flashed their hand. By focusing and compressing the play on the left-side of the attack, they were spreading out the opposite flank, softening it up for the precise pace of Oduro.

Oduro, throughout the opening fifteen minutes, would constantly be looking to stretch out towards the far touchline, not seeking to get involved in any build up, but merely to create space within which to run and to establish separation from Ashtone Morgan, who was stuck in the tough position of whether to stay within range of Oduro or risk getting drawn too far out of position, fracturing a compact back four.

To make matters all the more dire, Federico Higuain was also shading towards that side, doubling the Crew’s advantage and further stressing Morgan’s disposition, while Jairo Arrieta was either trying to pull Steven Caldwell in the opposite direction – towards the attacking left – or occupying Doneil Henry, Morgan’s best hope for cover.

Two minutes before the goal was scored, this doubling up on Morgan created a great chance when a low diagonal ball from Wil Trapp in the middle was slipped between the spheres of influence of Matias Laba and Jonathan Osorio (momentarily out on the left) finding Higuain tucked up against the touch-line.

Morgan stepped up to Higuain, confronting the ball and holding up progress – the sensible thing to do - allowing Oduro to slip underneath him with an inside-out run to collect a ball laid down the line from the Argentine playmaker.

Henry had tracked over to back up his teammate, but Oduro managed to touch the ball past him around the outside to the end-line, just reaching it to hit a cross towards the back-post – luckily for Toronto, nobody was on hand to capitalize on the service.

Even after Columbus had scored, the lesson was not learned, as the same tactics – outnumbering and stretching wide – led to another Oduro chance that was parried by Bendik; a swift bit of redemption.

There is a drastic imbalance in the Toronto back-line; all the experience is on the right-side – Caldwell and Richard Eckersley – leaving youngsters - Henry and Morgan - to fend on the left.

This weakness has not been overlooked by opponents.

Columbus, as many others before, would repeatedly look to exploit that side, either by overloading or by isolating.

Recall the Montreal counterattack goal from their first meeting back in March, both Andres Romero and Andrea Pisanu – nominally on opposite flanks (to quote from the linked post) – have drifted over to that side. Darren O’Dea, compensating outward to assist Morgan ends up leaving a gap through the middle, which is exploited by Davy Arnaud and Marco Di Vaio to create the goal.

Much has changed in the Toronto back-line since then – O’Dea and Danny Califf are both gone – but still there is something wrong. The easy solution is to say that Morgan is the problem.

The easy solution is often a lazy one; it is often far more complex than it first appears.

Against Montreal, Jeremy Hall, the left-sided defensive midfielder, is caught stepping up to the centre-circle to apply pressure – much like Laba is seen to do in the Columbus goal.

The Toronto system of pressure works well, but in the current formulation - a flat 4-4-2 - a big pocket of space is occasionally vacated in the centre of the park, especially when the industrious forwards are pressing the opposition centre-backs, while the rest of the team sits back in defense.

If that pressure fails to recover the ball, it will in turn force the defensive midfielders to abandon their roles as additional cover and press the ball, exposing the defenders to one-on-one (or worse) situations.

For pressing to really work, it must be expressed in unified groupings or by the team as a whole – will not use the B-word here. The constant shuffling of the Toronto lineup – so many in’s and out’s – has made the familiarity that such a system requires impossible to develop, perhaps with time it will come to fruition.

The ripple effect created by both spreading and thinning the lines is that passing through the pressure becomes easier, negating its effect.

Further adding to the frailty of this situation is that none of Toronto’s flank midfielders are particularly classic two-way players.

Jonathan Osorio will put in a shift, but is more suited to going forward. Reggie Lambe too has grown that side of his game in his time with TFC, but is still not as defensively sturdy as one would like or, at times, require.

And Bobby Convey, who has slowly come alive since he joined the club after an unhappy spell in Kansas City, does not track back as much as is needed – not that, as one of the few offensive sparks the team has had of late, Ryan Nelsen is necessarily commanding that of him.

Laba and Hall do their best to cover that ground, clogging those holes whenever possible, but it is not always possible to both clog and press at the same time.

So the question in turn becomes, is the side set-up to succeed, or is there an inherent flaw in the system, given the players available?

Ryan Nelsen, as a centre-back himself, can be expected to have his side drilled and detailed in a defensive plan. Granted, he joined the side late and has been in the midst of a season-long rebuild, but perhaps the best indication of how prepared the team is for an opponent can be seen on set-pieces; that is where it becomes worrying.

In recent weeks, Morgan has somehow been left to mark players on set-pieces that should never be his responsibility.

Against New York, regularly, despite being beaten by Tim Cahill for the late winner on the last meeting between the clubs, Morgan was again, inexplicably, the marker closest to one of the Red Bulls most dangerous targets.

Cahill is particularly adept at finding those pockets of space – as his goal against Salt Lake evidences – but any side that scouts and prepares properly will be sure that one of the smallest members of their defense – and one of the weakest in the air – is nowhere near such a dangerous target.

Toronto is a small team on the whole and New York has a number of potential aerial targets, but surely there is somebody else who should be assigned the marking of Cahill.

The match before that against Chivas, a team much more comparable with Toronto in height, Morgan once more was shockingly paired up with the opponent’s most potent aerial threat, Carlos Bocanegra.

Sparing the discussion about whether zonal or man-marking is the way to go, there truly is something rotten in the state of defending when Morgan is handed such disproportionate assignments.

So, what to do.

Other than being more explicit in terms of who picks up whom on set-pieces, the simplest solution, though not entirely ideal, would be to swap Caldwell and Henry, moving the former to the left-sided centre-back and the other to the right.

Not an ideal situation – potentially weakening a strong part of the lineup to reinforce a weaker one, but that is a worthy sacrifice and would at least address the imbalance in experience along the back-line, allowing Caldwell to talk to Morgan more freely.

Another solution could be to commit the central midfielder on the left to staying more at home and perhaps cheating over that flank, remaining in place to provide cover, while also freeing Convey to create going forward without defensive obligations holding him back.

Or perhaps sit Osorio in the centre of that hole, play with only one forward and see what Alvaro Rey can do on the outside – he did look interesting in his cameo, thereby decreasing the need for the defensive midfielders to leap to fill those gaps.

All that from a goal that took seconds to craft and a match that Toronto would eventually win anyways. Some people are never satisfied.

And briefly, the keeper simply cannot be beat on a shot from that position; Bendik has repeatedly saved the side’s bacon this season, so for now, he gets a pass on that error.

However, somewhat disturbingly, he had been caught flat-footed by a shot to the near-post before - by Soony Saad in Kansas City.

It is something that the scouting departments – assuming they exist – of other teams will have noticed by now and will surely be addressed in training by Stewart Kerr and company; Joe is still a young, inexperienced keeper and he will learn.