ST. JOHN’S, Canada— Following in the footsteps of Greg Vanney was always going to be a tall task for new Toronto FC manager Chris Armas.
Add in the complications of a COVID impacted preseason all while trying to implement a virtually brand new playing system and the challenge becomes that little bit greater.
There’s plenty of clear tactical tweaks when you start to contrast Armas’ TFC with the Vanney era Reds that had so much success as a possession-based side, but pressing is perhaps the most obvious facet that stands out through four competitive matches played.
In Concacaf play, Toronto managed to get by Mexican outfit Club León in the Champions League round of sixteen thanks to some fortuitous bounces and brave defending across the two legs.
Over in MLS action, it’s been a little shakier at the back as the Reds have conceded six times in two matches played, following up a 4-2 loss against CF Montreal in their opener with a 2-2 draw against the Vancouver Whitecaps on the weekend.
Key injuries to reigning MVP Alejandro Pozuelo, first-choice defender Chris Mavinga and a string of others have surely played a major factor in Toronto’s slow MLS start — rotation as a result of midweek Concacaf fixtures can’t be dismissed either.
But when it comes to the parts of the games that Armas can control, has the new system hindered TFC so far this season?
The short answer is no. Sure, pushing bodies high up the pitch in hopes of winning the ball back as quickly as possible has left some defenders in suboptimal 1v1 scenarios (see the goal from Montreal’s Romell Quioto last weekend below for evidence.)
But upon exploring some of the fortune surrounding finishes at the other end of the field, the correlation between the risk of pressing and the subsequent reward of scoring more often starts to become clear.
Toronto’s first goal of the campaign came on the road down in Mexico courtesy of a León own goal — a bad bounce that ended up being crucial in the context of the tie.
GOAL— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) April 8, 2021
Erickson Gallardo (kind of) equalizes for Toronto FC, forcing an own goal off the foot of Club Leon defender Andres Mosquera
Club Leon 1-1 #TFClive
Perhaps it’s a 1 in 100 (or worse) result in that scenario but without the aggressive press of Erickson Gallardo and initial squeeze from Michael Bradley, there’s a 0 per cent chance the ball ends up in the back of the net on that play.
Fast forward to the second leg and the Reds press is once again rewarded with a far from picturesque finish — this time it’s Justin Morrow who applies the final touch after some great pressure from the forward line and a smart step from Ralph Priso.
And finally, skip ahead to this past weekend against the Whitecaps and a third Toronto goal in four matches that has no chance of hanging in the Louvre but once again comes from heavily applied pressure in the attacking third with the opposing team in possession.
Chasing the game trailing 2-1 with less than 10 minutes to go, three TFC midfielders (Osorio, Delgado, and Bradley) squeeze into the far corner of the screen to try and win the ball back following a failed cross from Jacob Shaffelburg.
The comedy of errors that follow this pressing sequence from TFC can’t be understated but this initial move from the midfield trio (Delgado, Bradley, Osorio) is vital to the ensuing goal and a key bright spot in the Armas system to date— Brady Reid (@BradyReid_) April 26, 2021
More in-depth look to come @WakingtheRed pic.twitter.com/36YvAMdsBh
After forcing the Caps into a turnover, Bradley switches the play for Ayo Akinola and the hilarity that ensues for the equalizer is fittingly capped off by an Osorio goal after playing his part in the initial effort to win it back.
Jonathan Osorio with his first goal of the 2021 season pic.twitter.com/tk7EmeRcXZ— Canada Soccer (@CanadaSoccerEN) April 24, 2021
Along with the scrappy nature of the goals themselves, the three plays also share common ground in another fashion: the supporting pressure the midfield provides the forwards in trying to win the ball back.
The presence of Bradley in all three goals is no coincidence either as Armas hinted before the season started his captain would have a more progressive role than years past, with MB4 playing a pivotal role in kickstarting the press from the middle of the park.
In the grand scheme of things, plays like the Osorio goal and the OG down in Mexico aren’t reliable sources of scoring to lean on throughout the season.
They are however evidence that the high-press can work when executed effectively and that opposition mistakes are inevitable when the energy to force them is present.
The sample size might be small to this point and perhaps it is way too early to try and draw too many conclusions from this TFC team just yet, but it’s not far fetched to suggest without the high-tempo Armas press this team could be out of the Champions League and still searching for its first MLS point of the season.