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Three things I’m thinking after Toronto FC’s draw with Atlanta United

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In praise of Chris Mavinga.

MLS: Toronto FC at Atlanta United FC Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Sunday’s 2-2 draw against Atlanta United was one of the most entertaining and intriguing games of Toronto FC’s season so far, and worthy of a little further examination.

Before we completely turn our attention to the playoffs, here are three things on my mind after Decision Day.

1. This was Toronto’s best performance in over a month

Toronto came into this match on a two-game winning streak, but they had not hit the heights they are capable of against the New York Red Bulls or the Montreal Impact and they knew it. There was no attempt by any member of the team after either of those fixtures to persuade themselves that a win was a win and they were right where they needed to be going into the playoffs.

They did have legitimate mitigating circumstances to point to in order to ease any fears of an oncoming slump, though, and Greg Vanney was confident the time he had available with a full squad either side of the Atlanta game would allow him to get his team back into a groove.

On this evidence, he was right. That may seem strange to say given Toronto had another Sebastian Giovinco miracle to thank for a point but when a team as good as Atlanta is gifted a lead at home through a bit of wacky VARing, you should be doomed.

But the Reds had controlled the game up until that point and stuck to the task without chasing the game to such an extent that they left themselves exposed.

The first graphic in that tweet is a progression of each team’s expected goals through the 90 minutes - that is, the number of goals they would score on average with the chances they created.

The ‘final score’ (Atlanta 2.63, Toronto 1.49) and the match odds do not look especially good from Toronto’s point of view, but you need to dig a little deeper to tell the full story.

If you do, you’ll notice that until the 70th minute Yamil Asad’s penalty was the only chance of quality Atlanta had mustered. Toronto, on the other hand, had a couple of decent looks before Jozy Altidore equalized just after the hour mark.

In short, the numbers are skewed by a penalty Atlanta didn’t even appeal for and the goalmouth scramble that drew an unbelievable save from Alex Bono late on.

You can’t pick and choose which chances you include in the overall picture, and the impact Miguel Almiron had after coming on showed that he will be a massive extra headache for TFC to deal with should these teams meet again.

But for the majority of this game Vanney will have liked what he saw. When you’re hit with that tough penalty call and Josef Martinez converts the only real look he gets and you still come away with a 2-2 draw against a team as good as Atlanta, that’s a job well done. If this had been the first leg of a playoff tie, TFC would be set up nicely.

(By the way, check out how Giovinco’s free-kick doesn’t even register on the xG plot. The odds of scoring from that position must be almost impossibly low.)

2. Vanney’s annual formation change

He did this last year, remember?

Just like on Decision Day in 2016, Vanney switched to a formation he has toyed with at various points this year from the start against Atlanta.

I don’t care for people obsessing over labels when it comes to formations but it was basically a 4-3-1-2, with Victor Vazquez playing off Altidore and Giovinco. You could also call it a 4-4-2 diamond and that would be fine.

It’s an interesting switch and while I don’t think the system is changing for good on the eve of the playoffs this season, I’d be surprised if that is the last we see of the four-man backline.

After the Montreal win, Vanney spoke about how adding another man to the midfield in the second half changed what he called the reference points for the Impact, which referred to the way in which they were pressing when TFC had the ball.

Everyone has had a good look at how Toronto set up attacks when they play out of their three-man defence by now, and we’re increasingly seeing opponents press in an organized way in order to counteract those routines.

With that being the case, it’s obviously helpful to be able to jumble those reference points. One of Toronto’s best chances of the first half came when both Vazquez and Altidore dropped deep, but Jonathan Osorio’s presence ensured Giovinco still had plenty of support:

The switch to the 3-5-2 turned out to be an inspired move last year but one of the less glamorous reasons for it was that neither Eriq Zavaleta nor Nick Hagglund, at the time, looked particularly convincing as a partner for Drew Moor. When they were both on the field, they lessened the load on each other.

That’s not really a problem anymore - more on that in a minute - so there is not really any reason for Vanney to feel tied down to a three-man defence. Manchester City are a prime example of how useful it can be to be able to switch between a three and a four.

3. Chris Mavinga’s incredible turnaround

I’m more than happy to front up to the fact that I had doubts about Chris Mavinga for quite a while.

After his debut against Atlanta at BMO Field, it was hard to imagine him simply living up to his contract. That may sound like a ridiculous judgment to come to after one game, but a guy earning $300,000 on a championship contender needs to be more than just okay and Mavinga did not even look that early on.

Even as he gradually improved and established himself as a starter, I still wondered whether the unit as a whole might be more familiar and in sync with Hagglund slotted back in to the left of Moor.

Mavinga has barely put a foot wrong for a couple of months now, though, and it was an apt encapsulation of a remarkable turnaround that his performance in the rematch with Atlanta might have been his best yet.

He completely overpowered Martinez, who had only two touches in the Toronto box all game. To his credit as arguably MLS’ top striker, one of those ended up in the back of the net; he deliberately steered clear of Mavinga on that occasion, with Julian Gressel occupying his attention instead before Martinez beat Moor for pace to a low cross.

Mavinga can still occasionally toe the line, as he did here:

He’s got to be careful in his own area, of course, and he was probably a bit too close to completely cleaning out Tito Villalba in that instance.

But Villalba snatches at that shot quickly in a way that suggests he knows exactly what’s coming, and that’s a nightmare as a forward. Mavinga is so fast and rangy that Martinez was - metaphorically, at least - looking over his shoulder anticipating his arrival every time he got the ball, and then gesturing helplessly whenever he was stripped of it.

In short, Mavinga got in his head. He’s horrible to play against in this form, and long may that continue - his place in the lineup is now more than assured.