Toronto FC got a 3-1 win in their opening match against the Vancouver Whitecaps but it really was a tale of two distinct halves for both of the teams. Vancouver came out flying in the opening 45 minutes and it would be fair to say that based on the run of play their were deserving of much more than the 1-1 scoreline after the opening period of play. Toronto answered back in the second half with an even more dominant performance and wound up looking good value for their 3-1 win.
When the two halves of a game are so completely different from each other it raises the question of just what adjustments were made that turned the game on its head so completely. In the case of this game it really came down to Greg Vanney realizing the short comings of his own tactics and correcting them but also an improved performance from his squad after the break.
What became clear through the preseason and the first match of the new MLS campaign is that Vanney is not going to rely on his midfield to provide much of the width in his tactics. Rather, he prefers to get that width from his outside backs who are tasked with getting up and down the flanks on a consistent basis. That allows him to utilize the likes of Jonathan Osorio and Benoit Cheyrou as "wide" midfielders since they are given the freedom to tuck inside on a regular basis without the team conceding the flanks completely. There is also little width being provided from the attackers in this tactic as Robbie Findley, Jozy Altidore, and Sebastian Giovinco only drifted wide on the odd occasion.
The average position of players over the course of the match provides a static glimpse of how the tactic played out on the field. It certainly does not paint a complete picture given that positioning on the field is not something that is static but rather it is constantly shifting. The following is the average position of TFC players in the game via ESPNFC.
That puts a lot of pressure on Justin Morrow and Warren Creavalle to get up the field and support the attack and they did a good job of that throughout the entire 90 minutes on the weekend. According to WhoScored the duo registered 100 touches against the Caps and just less than half of those touches were registered in the opposition half. The same is illustrated by their passing as they completed a combined 89 passes with slightly more than half of their total passes taking place in Vancouver's half of the field.
Touches by Morrow and Creavalle via WhoScored.com
It is clear that Vanney does not intend to use his outside defenders as stay-at-home options but rather to have them really push forward to try and support the attack. Having them down the field certainly made TFC more dangerous on the attacking side of things but the issue seems to be how the team deals with defending once the ball is turned over. Having two defenders pushed well up the field means that the central defenders and holding midfielders suddenly have a lot of ground to cover.
That issue was only exaggerated by the tactics that Vanney employed in the first half against Vancouver. If you are going to do most of your defending with only 3 or 4 defenders most of the time you are going to be asking each defender to cover a lot of space. When you push the defensive line high up the field to try and press your opponents the amount of ground each defender has to cover only increases.
So by playing a high defensive line and getting his wide defenders involved with the attack it is clear that Vanney was trying to take the came to the Caps and defend on the front foot. It is an admirable tactic and could have resulted in some easy chances had the team been able to create turnovers but that was not the case on Saturday. Instead, Toronto found themselves asking Steven Caldwell and Damien Perquis to cover a lot of ground against a very fast attack and it proved to be a bad recipe.
In that opening half we saw the Whitecaps winning the midfield battle which resulted in a number of well placed ball over-the-top of the TFC defence. With all of that space in behind Caldwell and Perquis it made for a big target for the likes of Matias Laba and Russell Teibert to aim for as all they needed to do was play the ball in behind the defenders and allow Kekuta Manneh or Rivero to run on to it. It was a very simple recipe and it worked on a number of occasions including the pair of clear cut chances that fell for Rivero in the first half.
Anyone watching the game could see that given all the space the defenders had to cover they were not going to have enough pace to get the job done. It was clearly something that Vanney also noted and he decided to make a switch in his tactics at the break to address the issue. He got lucky though that the game did not get away from his squad before the break as Robbie Findley's goal came very much against the run of play and the Whitecaps squandered a fair few decent chances to add to their early lead.
What Vanney did for the second half is bring his defensive line a bit lower which limited the amount of space that Vancouver had to play the ball in to. It took away that simple chipped pass over the top and gave Caldwell and Perquis far less ground to cover.
What he did not do is ask his wide defenders to stay at home more as they continued to get up and down the wing on a regular basis in the second half. The result of that was Morrow and Creavalle continuing to be involved in the attack with Morrow picking up an assist on the team's second goal. With a few less turnovers from the team in the second half it also meant that they were caught up field with far less frequency. That combination of better play and the central defenders staying at home more allowed the wide defenders to be that much more dangerous in the second 45.
So Vanney was able to address his team's short comings of the first 45 with a simple change that left the bulk of his tactics from the start of the match in tact. It was not some radical shift to ask his defenders to sit a bit deeper and have Bradley and Cheyrou provide a bit more coverage but it was just enough to cause a major shift in the game.
The lack of space behind the defenders meant that Vancouver was forced to play different passes than the ones that were working for them in the first half. Rather than easy balls over the top and in to space they were being forced to play right through the middle of the park which played right in to the strength of this TFC team.
It is not likely that many teams will have a lot of success playing through the middle of the park against TFC this season as that will mean trying to break down the heart of the team with Osorio, Bradley, and Cheyrou all more than capable of getting in the way of a pass of getting involved with a tackle. It also plays to the strengths of the central defenders who are much better defending in tight spaces than they are at chasing down attackers in space.
This tactic for TFC is going to be a bit of a work in progress over the next few weeks but if Vanney can continue to make the right adjustments it might just be a tactic that works in the long run. It certainly gives TFC the ability to get forward but the question will continue to be just how strong this team will be defensively. Is having the wide defenders getting up the field worth the trade off of asking the central midfielders to play deeper?