It’s perhaps the most crucial aspect of decision-making when defending; when is the right time to press the ball and when is it better to stay in position?
For Toronto FC, the months Greg Vanney has spent preaching the importance of a compact, ‘connected’ shape, experimenting with different formations and rotating through personnel is now paying off.
The Reds know when to sit, soak up pressure, keep their shape and launch counter-attacks from deep. They know when to go hunting, aggressively pursuing turnovers higher up the field and forcing their opponents into mistakes in areas from which they can swiftly punish them.
Against New York City FC at Yankee Stadium, they gave their most accomplished demonstration yet of the art of transition, from defence to attack and vice versa, to win 5-0 and seal a 7-0 aggregate progression to the Eastern Conference final.
It starts with the formation. In their three playoff fixtures so far - and the last game of the regular season against the Chicago Fire - Toronto have lined up in a 3-5-2 system with exactly the same 11 players.
Clint Irwin in goal. Eriq Zavaleta and Nick Hagglund either side of Drew Moor in defence. Michael Bradley anchoring the midfield with Armando Cooper and Jonathan Osorio flanking him. On their outside, wing-backs Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow. Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco up front.
The setup gives them a flexibility their 4-4-2 diamond did not. That shape allowed TFC to congest the middle of the field effectively - which is, of course, not unimportant - but there was always an out-ball for opposition teams to the flanks due to the lack of wide midfielders. Toronto were often hurt by quality wingers - hello, Ignacio Piatti - who had the speed, skill and smarts to create one-on-one situations with their full-backs.
As wing-backs, though, Beitashour and Morrow are able to meet their opponents much higher up the field, preventing them from building up a head of steam, with the insurance of having an extra defender behind them. When Morrow, for example, presses on Toronto’s left, Hagglund slides across to a left-back position, Beitashour tucks in as an orthodox right-back and the defence becomes a regular back four.
That is one of the ways in which Toronto have established a highly effective pressing game. In particular, Morrow and Osorio have tended to lead the charge due to their natural athleticism, with Beitashour playing a safer game on the opposite wing. In the clip below, Beitashour and Cooper hold their position as New York City look to work the ball down their left. Due to the lack of gaps available, they are forced to switch the ball and before the rest of the team can shift over to the right side of the pitch, Toronto have made their move.
First, Osorio sneaks up the field to lead the midfield and defence forward. Then Morrow strikes quickly, forcing R.J. Allen to cut inside - right into the space in which Osorio is waiting. Moor intercepts the rushed pass that follows and chips the ball forward to Morrow to counter, and while this particular attack came to nothing it is a good example of the situations Toronto created by forcing turnovers in dangerous areas.
It should be said that this was particularly effective against New York City for two reasons; one, the pitch at Yankee Stadium is very small and two, Patrick Vieira insists on his team playing out like this. It is for that reason that Eirik Johansen, a former Manchester City youth player, started in goal over the more experienced Josh Saunders. Johansen was brave in possession of the ball, but he is not playing for Barcelona and occasionally he played passes that, though accurate, left team-mates with technical limitations in uncomfortable positions.
While there were circumstances to the individual match that Vanney read and planned for superbly, the 3-5-2 has also solidified Toronto in terms of their more orthodox defensive shape. It wasn’t often that New York City played through the Reds’ midfield, but on the rare instances that they did the five-man defensive line presented another layer of resistance.
Below are two instances of New York City players running at the Toronto defence. In the first clip, as Tommy McNamara advances towards goal, the Reds congest the inside channel - the most dangerous spaces on the pitch - really well. Bradley does not overcommit and leave Frank Lampard open, and Beitashour tempts McNamara into the pass out wide knowing it is less dangerous than a through ball to David Villa. Hagglund intelligently steps up to ensure Lampard is guarded and though the eventual cross is a pretty good one, it is preferable to combination play around the edge of the penalty area and Morrow is able to deal with it.
The second clip was one of the best bits of build-up New York City managed all game in terms of moving the ball out of their own half - but thanks to Toronto’s ability to drop into a flat back five, there is still little danger. Zavaleta and Moor have Villa double-teamed, and Morrow stays deep enough to ensure Jack Harrison cannot make a run behind him before swooping in to intercept an obvious pass. Once again, the counter-attack does not result in a chance but TFC cycle the ball back and keep possession.
The challenge posed by the Montreal Impact will be an entirely different one (more on them in the coming days) and, despite New York City’s higher finishing position in the regular season, promises to be more testing on current form. But Vanney has proven his credentials as a playoff tactician this season and could not have hoped for a much better situation in terms of his team’s familiarity with each other, the system they are playing and the principles he has set out for his players all season long.