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Taking the bad with the good: Analyzing Toronto FC’s emerging patterns of play

Evaluating Toronto FC’s play after six league games with the new summer additions.

Joshua Kim l Waking The Red

Toronto FC looks like a completely different team since the debuts of Lorenzo Insigne and Federico Bernardeschi. In their past six league games, the Reds have three wins, two draws and one loss. Both good and bad patterns of play are starting to emerge. Opposing teams are also defending the new look Reds in similar ways.

Bob Bradley and the team will need to adjust to how teams are now defending them. Eliminating some of their own predictable patterns of play should help them pick up as many points as possible in their remaining seven games. Playoffs or not, learning how to quickly adapt within and between games will be important for Toronto FC for the rest of this season and beyond.

The Good

Greater progression of the ball from tight spaces

TFC now has more technically skilled players. Better individual technical ability means that TFC players are more press resistant and are able to dribble out from tight spaces. The increase in skilled players throughout the team also means that teammates are more aware of where to position themselves to help their teammates out when pressed or in difficult situations on the field.

The Reds have used this to their advantage. If opposing teams press them in their own end, they are using their movement and passing to progress the ball. If teams sit back and give them space, TFC players are driving the ball forward themselves. This helps relieve the pressure on TFC’s defence and allows them to more easily transition to the offence.

Holding onto the ball in the attacking third

Being able to progress the ball better from your own end is useless if your attackers cannot hold onto the ball in the attacking third. Fortunately for TFC, the additions of Insigne, Bernardeschi, Domenico Criscito and Richie Laryea have meant that better ball progression from their own end has not been wasted.

The abilities of the aforementioned players, as well as Jonathan Osorio and Michael Bradley, has meant that TFC are able to be more threatening in attack. Teammates are able to join the attack and the Reds have been able to create more scoring chances than at any point in the season before the new additions joined. As a result, TFC is spending more time in the attacking third and not spending as much time defending as they were earlier in the season.

Moving passing triangles (sometimes) and overlapping runs

Bob Bradley’s LAFC teams were known for generating plenty of scoring chances through player rotations and moving passing triangles. TFC has not been able to replicate that LAFC system yet. However, there have been moments against Charlotte FC and the Portland Timbers where there have been glimpses of an offence beyond just passing the ball to the Italians.

In those two games, TFC scored a total of seven goals and generated 16 shots on target. There were plenty of beautiful team goals generated by moving passing triangles that pulled the opposing team out of their defensive structure. It’s incredibly difficult to keep your defensive shape when the attack knows where their next run and pass should be to.

Overlapping runs help to create space for wingers that like to cut inside with the ball. It forces defenders to track the overlapping runs made by fullbacks. Wingers then have more options available to them:

  1. Pass the ball to the outside to the fullback that made the overlapping run; or
  2. Continue dribbling the ball and take a shot; or
  3. Pass the ball to a teammate in the middle or opposite side of the field.

The additions of Criscito and Laryea have increased the number of overlapping runs made by TFC. The team’s attack will be more potent and less predictable if they can continue to make overlapping runs and moving passing triangles.

The Bad

Inability to break defensive blocks

I’ve previously written on the ways teams can unlock a defensive block. For the most part in the past six league games where defensive blocks have been more common, TFC has relied on long shots from distance and quick switches of play to try and beat the block. Intricate passing and movement to pull defenders out of position has been present, but only sparsely.

The increase in attacking talent from TFC’s summer transfer window additions is the primary reason why they are seeing more defensive blocks. Opposing teams are respecting their new players. The added bonus of the defensive block is that both Insigne and Bernardeschi prefer to cut inside to their favoured feet.

TFC will need to increase their variety when dealing with defensive blocks. More movement and passing triangles will certainly help. Crossing is another strategy. High-lofted crosses from wide areas will not be as effective for TFC since they lack a true target man to capitalize on those crosses.

However, more cutbacks from wide areas like we saw with Osorio’s goals against Nashville SC and the Portland Timbers, assisted from Laryea, will help to create space once near the opposition’s 18-yard box. Early, low, driven crosses from wide areas are also equally effective for breaking a block especially if your team lacks a true target man. Your team’s midfielders and attacking players will then need to make fast runs into the box to attack those crosses.

Heavy reliance on the Italians and individual moments of brilliance

Teams relying on superstar players is nothing new. These players are paid big contracts and are expected to perform at very high levels on a consistent basis. So it should come as no surprise that TFC have placed a significant emphasis on building their attacks around Insigne and Bernardeschi. Despite not being considered a superstar by many, Criscito has also been an integral piece of TFC’s defence and a big contributor in building attacks from the left hand side.

All three Italians have created individual moments of brilliance. All three have also frustrated fans within games (less so Criscito). It’s also important to realize that all three joined TFC part way through the season and were lacking full match fitness due to not training after their respective Serie A seasons ended in May (along with a calf injury for Insigne). The condensed recent schedule (three games in one week) has also led to some sub-optimal performances.

Six MLS games into their careers and it’s clear that the team is relying too much on their two superstar Designated Players. Since Mark-Anthony Kaye’s injury absence after the Charlotte FC match on July 9th, the team has lacked the tone setter for the press, the proper three midfield shape and progressive passing to fully support Insigne and Bernardeschi. Both players have been asked to do too much and create scoring chances mostly on their own (part of it is their own doing in wanting to take over games on their own).

Without these individual efforts and moments of brilliance, TFC surely would be in a worse position. The three Italians have combined for 10 of the club’s last 14 goal contributions. Six of those have been wonder goals that have come out of relatively nowhere and were not the result of repeatable, team play.

The individual moments are amazing and it’s obvious that all three Italians are capable of scoring more of those if needed going forward. However, it would be more optimal to rely on them a bit less and for the team’s attacking system to generate more chances on its own.

Goalkeeping errors

Alex Bono’s errors in the past two games have cost TFC three points. Bono can be a great shot stopper when his confidence is high. Unfortunately, the recurring errors he makes when his confidence is low have been a recurring theme during his TFC tenure. If TFC are unable to make the playoffs this season, fans will likely point to his errors in the recent New England Revolution and Inter Miami CF games as reasons why.

Beyond the obvious shot stopping errors, Bono also has a penchant for wasting possession when playing out from the back. He’s rarely able to make accurate medium and long distance passes to teammates. Instead, he often kicks the ball out of bounds or gives possession back to the opposing team. Sometimes, Bono’s decision making is so poor that he misplays the ball directly to the opposing team in TFC’s own half, putting pressure on the team to stop clear cut chances.

Enough is enough. TFC is losing momentum within games and in their playoff push from Bono. TFC’s backup goalkeeper, Quentin Westberg, is still out with a rib injury. However, there is a third option, Greg Ranjitsingh, available to Bob Bradley and he needs to make the difficult, but necessary decision to start him. Despite not being an ideal option to start, Ranjitsingh has some previous MLS experience and the team is in need of a change to see if he can produce without the same errors as Bono.

There are many more good and bad patterns of play emerging for TFC that this article did not cover. How Bob Bradley and the Reds reduce the bad patterns and execute the good patterns of play will determine how the rest of the season goes. Better adjustments to unlocking defensive blocks will be crucial lessons learned for this season and future years. Hopefully, Bob is up to the task.

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