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How should Toronto FC play without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore?

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Greg Vanney will have to go to plan B against the Columbus Crew.

MLS: New York Red Bulls at Toronto FC Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

After a crazy home leg against the New York Red Bulls, Toronto FC head out on the road to take on their Trillium Cup rivals the Columbus Crew.

But without Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore, TFC’s 3-5-2 set up could make way for another formation to better suit the players available. This article looks at the options available to Greg Vanney after Altidore’s suspension was upheld.

All statistics are from WhoScored.com, unless otherwise stated.

Key considerations

When choosing how to set up against Columbus, Greg Vanney has a few options by virtue of the fact TFC have played each of the 3-5-2, 3-5-1-1, and 4-4-2 diamond at least a few times during the season. In making a decision for this game, I think there are a few factors which should be considered.

First, TFC is away from home and must ensure that they return to BMO Field with a chance to win on aggregate. Naturally, teams set up more defensively away from home and try to make it a low-scoring game to keep themselves in it for the return leg.

Vanney has shown a tendency to be more defensive away from home against top teams, especially when missing one or more of the designated players. Due to TFC’s excellent record at BMO Field, I’d suggest continuing the trend and taking a slightly more defensive approach to the game.

Second, Columbus is led by a strong attacking unit that makes up for an average to below-average defensive group which is often bailed out by strong play from keeper Zack Steffen.

Looking at the Crew’s list of top performers this season (with at least 10 games played), it is dominated by the front four attackers. Federico Higuain (7.19 WhoScored rating), Justin Meram (7.16), and Pedro Santos (7.07) are skilled players behind striker Ola Kamara (7.04) who scored the fifth-most goals in MLS during the regular season. Toronto must be set up to contain this strong attacking unit and limit its time on the ball.

The Crew front four

Player Appearances (sub) Minutes Goals Assists Passing accuracy (%) WhoScored rating
Player Appearances (sub) Minutes Goals Assists Passing accuracy (%) WhoScored rating
Federico Higuain 29 2537 9 10 80.2 7.19
Justin Meram 35 (2) 2807 14 6 75.2 7.16
Pedro Santos 11 (1) 918 0 2 66.8 7.07
Ola Kamara 36 (1) 3154 19 4 74.2 7.04

TFC should also be aware of Columbus’ tendency to create most of its chances in the middle of the park. This leads to most of their shots coming from the middle of the park (65%). Central to their style of play is Higuain, who acts as the main creative outlet in the No. 10 position and who averaged 2.3 key passes per game (almost one more than any other Crew player) during the regular season. TFC would do well to stack the middle of the field and take Higuain out of the play.

Finally, Columbus has lined up in a 4-2-3-1 for all its playoffs games so far, as well as in one of its games against TFC this season. Interestingly, they also used a 3-4-1-2 and 4-1-4-1 against TFC. I’d expect them to stick with what has worked recently and use the 4-2-3-1. That means a strong midfield contingent to go behind striker Kamara. TFC will need to ensure they aren’t dominated by the five-man midfield group, and must have enough midfielders to match them.

Without Altidore

MLS: Eastern Conference Semifinal-Toronto FC at New York Red Bulls Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

If Altidore’s suspension had been rescinded, I think sticking with the 3-5-2 would’ve been the best choice. Without Altidore, things become a little more complicated.

TFC could stick with the 3-5-2, but I don’t think Ben Spencer or Jordan Hamilton should be starting in this game. Spencer hasn’t show enough quality, and I’d rather add an extra midfielder away from home. Jonathan Osorio would add more to TFC’s game than either Hamilton or Spencer, and so I don’t think it makes sense to play with two traditional strikers.

In addition, I don’t think using Osorio or Vazquez in a secondary-striker role will be successful against a good team (even though TFC won 4-0 against the LA Galaxy with Vazquez as a secondary striker).

So, it comes down to the 3-5-1-1 or the 4-4-2 diamond. With the task of containing the Crew’s attackers, I’d opt for the more defensive 3-5-1-1 with Vazquez playing in attacking midfield behind Tosaint Ricketts as the striker. That way, if the wing-backs and midfielders push forwards there will always be at least three defenders ready to stop the counter.

Once TFC gets into their defensive shape in a 3-5-1-1, the defenders and four midfielders will form a solid wall of players to push Columbus away from the middle of the field and keep play out of the box. The 3-5-1-1 also allows Vazquez to pressure the Crew’s defensive midfielders – Wil Trapp and Artur – to limit their time on the ball and add an extra defensive player behind the ball than would be available in the 3-5-2.

Playing Vazquez as an attacking midfielder also makes use of his best qualities – passing and composure on the ball. He can look to spring Ricketts on the counter or hold onto the ball to recycle possession, giving the defence time to push up after a clearance or sustained attacking pressure from Columbus.

I don’t think that any striker available for TFC offers that same ability and it will be crucial in this leg to be able to retain possession and not always be forced to defend.

Conclusion

With Giovinco and Altidore unavailable, TFC should look to play a 3-5-1-1 as it gives them the ability to maintain a solid defensive shape while making the most of Vazquez’s passing and composure.

I would push Vazquez into an attacking-midfield position where he can link the midfield with Ricketts while also dropping back to pressure the Crew’s defensive midfielders. I’d also move Osorio off the bench into midfield in Vazquez’s position from the last game.

How do you think the Reds should line up against Columbus? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.