Over the past two months, Toronto FC’s strikers, Ayo Akinola and Jesus Jimenez, have scored one goal between the two of them. Jimenez has been unable to replicate his early-season form and Akinola has not fulfilled the potential many expected when he signed his new lucrative contract during the 2022 offseason. After watching many games, I’ve concluded that much of the seemingly individual problems regarding these strikers come from the way Toronto FC plays. With that said, I want to highlight some of the tactical issues that I think are holding these two men back from unleashing their true potential in Toronto.
The Big Picture
Toronto’s strikers have not been scoring for a while. Statistically speaking, Jimenez has scored nine MLS goals in 2095 minutes this season (0.39 goals per 90 minutes), and Akinola has scored one league goal in 1002 minutes (0.09 goals per 90 minutes). For both, a large reason behind their lack of goal-scoring is because they are not getting enough quality chances when they play. While wingers such as Federico Bernardeschi are racking up 5.21 shots per 90 minutes, Jimenez and Akinola are taking 1.98 and 1.89 shots per 90 minutes, respectively. To put this in perspective, most of the top goal scorers in the league average above three shots per 90 minutes. As has been said time and time again: if you don’t shoot, you won’t score. Toronto FC has a clear issue with chance creation for their strikers, which is an issue that will be focused on in this article.
Ayo’s Poor Shooting
Before describing the issues with positioning or chance creation, it would be good to mention that Jimenez has been far more clinical (particularly at the start of the season) than Akinola. Jimenez gets 37% of his shots on target and scores 20% of his shots – on par with many of the top goal scorers in the league. On the other hand, Ayo Akinola has declined in the finishing department, only getting 29% of his shots on target while merely converting 5% of his shots. In previous years, he converted about the same amount as Jimenez. This would explain why their goal counts are quite different, but much of their collective struggles seem to be for similar reasons.
Poor Playmaking in the Center of the Field
Since Jimenez normally starts as a striker, I asked myself: when does the Spaniard normally score? After watching most of goals, I found a few patterns: he likes through balls down the center of the defence, and short passes/crosses where he can finish them off with one touch. Watching TFC play recently, they don’t make many through passes anymore. There are a few half-hearted efforts from the midfielders where they’ll lob a ball or two behind the opposition, but normally they are accurate enough to provide a legitimate chance for either Akinola or Jimenez to score.
Another issue with the midfield is the pure lack of quality in chance creation. Alejandro Pozuelo was traded away, who is one of the best central attacking midfielders in the league and could’ve provided a long-term partnership with Jimenez or Akinola for the coming years. Jonathan Osorio has been out for a while, and he had chemistry with Jimenez in particular, providing five assists to the No. 9 thus far in 2022. Jimenez and Osorio worked well together in the box, pulling apart defences with short passes to each other, making space for Jimenez to score goals. With Osorio still out for the time being, this interplay has not happened and has hindered the performance of Jimenez as a result.
Then there are issues with our youngsters. Kosi Thompson and Noble Okello have faded in and out of the first team, while Jayden Nelson has found himself in the lineup consistently. Nelson has clear talent but tends to dribble too much and lose the ball instead of going for a simple pass to keep the attack going. He has improved over the past few games with this but has cost many attacks throughout the the season due to his excessive ‘showboating’.
The bottom line is that with Pozuelo out the door, and our two more advanced midfielders (Osorio and Mark-Anthony Kaye) out for extended periods, we have struggled to create chances out of the midfield, which has resulted in fewer quality passes through the center of the pitch for Jimenez and Akinola – chances that strikers typically thrive on.
The Insigne-Bernardeschi Show
Given the poor chance creation from the midfield, the wingers have had to pick up the slack. Luckily, they have been able to step up to the challenge, with Insigne and Bernardeschi netting 13 goals and providing five assists in a collective 1507 MLS minutes – a total that has kept TFC’s playoff hopes alive. Typically, their attacks work like this: one of them will get the ball, lob it to the other Italian who cuts into the center of the field on their strong foot and takes a long shot. This ‘brute-force’ attacking style has worked thus far, with TFC scoring the most long shots in the league, 10 in total. However, this attacking style is not sustainable, as we’re solely relying on the quality of Insigne and Bernardeschi to push us through games, as opposed to creating a coherent attacking style that involves all three of our forwards. Other teams have caught on to this as well, as many players on the opposition now exclusively cover those two whenever Toronto FC goes on the break.
Poor Positioning of Strikers
While our strikers haven’t been helped much by Bob Bradley’s tactics, and by the performances of their teammates, I think it’s fair to criticize them as well. Both have struggled to find good positions in the box where others can reach them, which has led to them not getting the chances they want. For example, in the attack shown in the video below, Akinola is standing outside the box instead of running into a scoring position. There are times when you go out of position to support the team, but I’ve found that they’ve both struggled to get into proper scoring positions with crosses and counter-attacks. Osorio seems to have the attacking intuition they don’t have this season, which is why he has scored the same amount of MLS goals as Jimenez (nine goals), and converts 36% of his shots. Most of these goals are inside the 18-yard box (8/9 of the goals), in positions that you would think the strikers would be scoring in.
Specifically, with Jimenez, I’ve also found that he has gotten a bit sluggish with his movement to get into attacking positions. Akinola moves around the field to get the ball when he’s not involved in the game, but Jimenez stands around too much, hoping that someone will find him. This has hindered his performances more and was probably one of the reasons why he was dropped from the starting lineup for Akinola.
In the video below, Osorio scores a quick kick within the 18-yard box. This goal is a great demonstration of the difference between players like Osorio and Jimenez at the moment. While Osorio is mobile, moving around to place himself in the optimal scoring position, Jimenez stands like a tree, hoping that he might get a rebound or pass. This lack of aggression has been a consistent issue with him over the past few months and has hindered his ability to get quality chances from teammates.
With Jimenez and Akinola both struggling to get on the ball in good positions, it is time for Toronto FC to rethink how they should incorporate them into the attack. They’ve both had their moments with TFC: Jimenez’s early season form and Akinola’s performances in the MLS is Back tournament. However, their performances have regressed for months, which should make Bob Bradley reconsider his tactics. We can’t rely on the Insigne-Bernardeschi show forever, and thus it is time to rethink the way our striker plays so that our attack can feel truly complete – the way it was back in 2017.