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Non-Fungible Tactics - Part 2: What midfield pieces are Toronto FC missing for the 4-3-3?

An evaluation of Toronto FC’s current squad and whether the team has the right pieces to play Bob Bradley’s preferred 4-3-3 system.

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

In Part 1 of this article series, I reviewed what the 4-3-3 formation is, why the formation is so popular and assessed whether TFC’s defensive pieces were a good fit for this system. In Part 2, I will evaluate TFC’s midfield players to see whether they are ideal fits for the 4-3-3 formation.

The midfield is undeniably the most important part of any formation. Midfielders are generally the main links between the defence and attack, and are also tasked with contributing at both ends of the field. Three midfielders are used in the 4-3-3 formation and each have very specific roles.

There is typically one defensive midfielder who protects the back four and is important in progressing the ball out from the back, one shuttler or box to box midfielder who sets the tempo for matches and finally one attack minded midfielder responsible for creating the majority of the chances.

All three midfielders need to have good endurance, be good passers and understand how to intelligently press opposing teams high up the field and how to quickly re-establish defensive structure in their own end. Ideally, all three midfielders are also good at picking out passes between the lines (i.e. the space between either the lines of forwards and midfielders or the midfielders and defenders).

As a reminder, this article series is not meant to be a debate on whether Bob Bradley is the right coach for TFC or whether he should be pragmatically changing the formation to suit the players he does have. Instead, the series serves to evaluate what positions TFC needs to improve this off-season if they continue with Bob Bradley and his preferred 4-3-3 system.

Assessing whether TFC’s current players are a good fit for the 4-3-3 formation continued

All stats referenced below are courtesy of fbref and statsbomb.

Defensive Midfielder

Since the 4-3-3 is designed to press opposing teams in their own end, the defensive midfielder is crucial for stopping opposition build up if the initial high press is beaten. The defensive midfielder should be fast and intelligent in order to thrive at stopping opposing counter attacks. This midfielder should also be a good tackler and/or interceptor of the ball. They are the main link between defence and the attack, so they should excel in all passing distance types, progressive passing and passing under pressure.

Michael Bradley is currently TFC’s defensive midfielder. While his leadership qualities and dedication to TFC are irreplaceable, at age 35, he is no longer the same player that he was when TFC last won the MLS Cup in 2017. He still has plenty of endurance and still rates out as one of the better passers in the league at CM (73rd percentile for passing accuracy, 90th percentile for progressive passing, 80th percentile and 72nd percentile for short and medium passing completion % respectively).

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

However, Michael was never fast to begin with and has slowed down even more as he ages. This lack of pace means that he is unable to stop quick opposition counter attacks and he is unable to maintain the ideal spacing with the back four to keep a solid defensive structure. Opponents will look to prevent teams that play the 4-3-3 from building out from the back so his inability to pass well under pressure (35th percentile) is also a problem.

Michael’s tackles won (52nd percentile) and interception (55th percentile) numbers have traditionally been low, further supporting the idea that defensive midfield is not his ideal position (Defensive midfielders playing in a 4-3-3 should typically be at least in the 80th percentile in one of tackles won or interceptions).

Michael is better suited to play the shuttler/box to box midfield role in the 4-3-3 formation. He still has value as a rotational player and spot starter for the club. His game reminds me of Granit Xhaka’s at Arsenal who has been rejuvenated in that same shuttler role this season when he is freed of the defensive responsibility and can play further up field. Both are good passers when given time but are slow and do not pass well under pressure.

Verdict: TFC needs to buy a new defensive midfielder this winter who is fast and excels at short, medium and long passing completion %, progressive passing, passing under pressure and at least one of tackles won or interceptions. This would significantly help TFC’s ability to defend counter attacks and build play out from the back in the 4-3-3.

Box to Box Midfielder

In the 4-3-3 system of play, the box to box midfielder needs to be relentlessly running with or without the ball, to have a great understanding of when to attack and defend, and to continuously keep the ball moving laterally or vertically. This midfielder is also a key component to a team’s high press. The box to box midfielder analyzes the pressing of their attacking teammates, in order to find opportunities to win the ball back as quickly as possible.

Mark-Anthony Kaye is TFC’s box to box midfielder and was specifically identified to fill this role. He has the requisite endurance and speed for the position, along with strong pressing numbers. Among MLS midfielders, MAK ranks in the 68th percentile for successful pressures, 74th percentile for pressures in the middle third of the field and 72nd percentile for pressures in the attacking third.

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

He is also traditionally a phenomenal progressive passer (71st percentile this season but 89th percentile last year and 98th percentile in 2020) and a very good progressive dribbler (77th percentile this season, 74th percentile last season and 87th percentile in 2020). MAK’s ability to also pass (60th percentile this season, 95th percentile last season and 93rd percentile in 2020) and carry (73rd percentile this season, 78th percentile last season and 86th percentile in 2020) the ball into the opponent’s penalty area is also evidence of his ability to play the box to box role well.

Verdict: TFC has their box to box midfielder for the 4-3-3 system for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, MAK has struggled with injuries this season (missing seven of a possible 13 league games since being traded to TFC) and has not been able to recapture the ideal fitness or form required for the box to box role. Buying a new defensive midfielder would allow Michael to be a rotational box to box midfielder to start the odd game to give MAK a rest or as cover in the event of an injury.

Attack Minded Midfielder

An attack minded midfielder in the 4-3-3 is different from a traditional attacking midfielder. The traditional attacking midfielder is known as a 10 in soccer, often being deployed in a 4-2-3-1 system of play. In the 4-3-3, the attack minded midfielder has more defensive responsibility than the traditional attacking midfielder and is required to press and expend as much energy as every other midfielder in the system.

Despite this added defensive responsibility, this midfielder is still expected to be the team’s primary creator from midfield. They are expected to link play with the attacking players and to exploit space through making runs or passes to put their teammates in threatening positions to score. Ideally, this player is also a threat for goals themselves.

TFC’s attack minded midfielder is currently Jonathan Osorio. Despite missing 11 league games this season, Osorio has had a fantastic year scoring nine goals (99th percentile) and providing 4 assists (88th percentile) in his 23 appearances. He has been phenomenal in statistics CMs should traditionally be strong in such as passing completion % on short (89th percentile), medium (75th percentile) and long (94th percentile) passes, progressive passing (85th percentile) and progressive carries (94th percentile).

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

More importantly, Osorio has also been good in statistics that an attack-minded midfielder should excel in. He averages 1.23 key passes per 90 mins (76th percentile), 1.07 passes into the penalty area per 90 mins (76th percentile), 0.21 carries into the penalty area per 90 mins (63rd percentile), 0.48 goal creating actions per 90 mins (90th percentile) and 0.24 non-penalty xG per 90 mins (97th percentile).

On the defensive side, Osorio has also brought positive contributions further cementing him as an ideal attack-minded midfielder in the 4-3-3. He averages 1.71 tackles won per 90 mins (70th percentile), 18.89 pressures per 90 mins (60th percentile), 36.2% successful pressure % per 90 mins (97th percentile), 9.60 pressures in the middle third per 90 mins (65th percentile) and 4.53 pressures in the attacking third per 90 mins (82nd percentile).

Verdict: Both the statistics and the eye test confirm that TFC has the ideal attack-minded midfielder for the 4-3-3 system. Osorio scores goals, provides assists, is a phenomenal passer, is dangerous in and around the opposition’s penalty area, while not sacrificing anything on the defensive side of the game.

Osorio is out of contract after this season, but TFC should be doing everything they possibly can to extend him. He may not be on the same level as Insigne or Bernardeschi as a DP player, but his value to the club and fit in the 4-3-3 system is undeniable. However, this is also Oso’s last potential chance to play in Europe, which is something TFC cannot offer.

If Oso leaves after this season, TFC will absolutely need to replace him. TFC has no other suitable attack-minded midfielder for the 4-3-3 system in their squad. If he stays and re-signs below the DP threshold, the club would do well to recruit a backup attack-minded midfielder given Osorio’s injury history.

I specifically chose to only review the current starting TFC CMs. DeAndre Kerr and Jayden Nelson have both played CM at times this season, but both are natural wide players and should not be relied on as CM options next season. Noble Okello, on the other hand, is a CM but has been injured for most of this season so he is difficult to evaluate.

In the final part of this article series, I will evaluate the fit of the wingers and strikers in the 4-3-3 system, in addition to some final concluding thoughts.

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