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What can Toronto FC do to fix their early season defensive woes?

Examining two potential defensive adjustments for TFC after conceding five goals in their first two games.

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

We are only two games into the 2022 MLS season, but the recent defeat against the New York Red Bulls, at our much ballyhooed home debut, no less, surely raised some alarms for Toronto FC supporters.

As I explore some relatively straightforward defensive fixes for Bob Bradley and company, it is important to recognize that it is still very early into the new season, and that it takes time for players to adapt to a new system and for new players to develop chemistry with one another. Expecting immediate defensive improvements from prior seasons because of better individual additions is not always wise. With only one defender, CB Chris Mavinga, being carried over from the 2021 MLS season, it should be no surprise that defensive improvements will take time to take shape (if ever).

While I’m no fan of impulsive changes two games in, the following could serve as two focus areas that could help to paper over TFC’s early season defensive frailties if they continue to persist:

  1. A shift to a more defensive formation.

The most straightforward fix to TFC’s early season defensive frailties would be to shift from a back four to a back three (or five for some). Teams that employ a back three do so to compensate for a lack of quality central midfielders and/or to add defensive stability through an extra defender. The subtraction of one midfielder from a back four formation generally means that a back three/five formation is more reliant on wide players (wingbacks and wingers) for building up and attacking. Wingbacks are arguably the most important players on the pitch in a back three/five formation, as they are expected to provide extra support in both defense and attack.

Evident from conceding four goals in last Saturday’s match, TFC could serve to add some extra defensive stability and currently have the pieces more suited for a back three/five formation. TFC lacks good, experienced fullbacks to play a back four formation with Shaffelburg and Marshall-Rutty both recently converting to the position this past off-season, while Chung and Petrasso just played their first MLS minutes this past weekend. Moving to a back three/five formation would reduce the defensive burden on all four fullback/wingback options, while also allowing them more freedom to contribute to the attack.

TFC also has three starting caliber MLS CBs in Salcedo, Mavinga and O’Neill to help make this formation work. A back three/five formation that reduces the emphasis on central play via midfielders equally benefits TFC. Michael Bradley is not getting any younger and the emphasis on a two-man midfield that can capably run the entire length of the pitch and contribute at both ends may make the transition to younger options in Priso and Okello more justifiable.

2. Establishing better structure when defending in transition.

Teams thrive in attack when they are able to pull opponents out of their defensive shape. NYRB are especially adept in transitioning from defense to attack and it should be no surprise that TFC conceded three of their four goals on the counter attack. In transition, one TFC error led to another as players started scrambling to cover gaps in the defense and to make up for previous errors. Osorio and Shaffelburg frequently pushed too far up field to be able to recover and help reset the defensive shape for the team, which exposed Michael Bradley’s lack of pace and inability to defend in space, as well as Marshall-Rutty’s inexperience in the defensive third.

Marshall-Rutty is still learning the nuances of defensive play at the fullback position, so the inability to establish defensive structure once losing the ball exacerbated his shortcomings - he was noticeably in no man’s land for all three of those transition goals. Putting a formation change aside, if Bob is planning to stick with a back four that includes the inexperienced Shaffelburg and Marshall-Rutty along with a slower Michael Bradley, TFC will need to better understand who needs to stay back when another teammate pushes forward. The players who stay back to cover the vacated space from a defender joining the attack will also need to excel at stalling counter attacks by shepherding opposing players to the touch lines. This will provide their attacking teammates with time to recover and help to regain their defensive shape.

There are benefits and drawbacks to a shift in formation change. By moving to a more defensive formation, teams will often lack control in midfield simply due to inferiority in numbers. Bob may also want the team to get used to the formation he plans on eventually playing, instead of sacrificing the long-term vision for short-term results. However, a good coach will adapt the system to the pieces at their disposal. From assessing the current TFC roster, it does appear that the team may benefit from a temporary formation change to provide cover and more adjustment time for Shaffelburg and Marshall-Rutty, while offsetting their relative lack of CMs by emphasizing play to the wide areas of the field. Regardless of the formation change, establishing better defensive structure in transition should be the team’s number one priority ahead of next Saturday’s match against Columbus FC.