By signing Chris Mavinga to play as something of a hybrid left-centre-back next season, Toronto FC would appear to be planning to keep the 3-5-2 formation that so nearly delivered an MLS Cup going into 2017.
On the surface, that is unsurprising given the way TFC struck upon something special after making the tactical switch for their last game of the regular season against the Chicago Fire. Greg Vanney had used three at the back sporadically throughout the year, but after the permanent change Toronto won five, drew one and lost one of their remaining seven matches. They had 68% of the total shots on target in that span compared to 53% in their previous seven fixtures.
Put simply, they were the dominant team in the MLS playoffs and - this is a recording - should have won the MLS Cup. But for some, the 3-5-2 was simply the right formation at the right time and is a less desirable solution for the long term, with many doubting the benefit of removing a midfielder for an extra centre-back in a team that already utilises Michael Bradley as a shield in front of the defence.
Unless something goes wrong in the opening weeks of the season, however, we should probably expect the 3-5-2 to stay - and there is plenty of evidence to support that decision as a sound one. To break down why that’s the case, let’s go step-by-step through each ‘band’ of the lineup.
The back three
As the playoffs approached, Vanney seemed to be leaning towards Eriq Zavaleta as his partner for Drew Moor at centre-back but the former Indiana Hoosier was not playing his most convincing soccer. Nick Hagglund, the alternative, was in better form but had not really proven himself as an MLS starter at centre-back over a long period either.
The solution? Play them both. Instead of only benefiting from Moor’s outstanding play on one side of the back four, the veteran could act as a sweeper in between Zavaleta and Hagglund and move laterally across the pitch to put out fires wherever needed. The two younger players had a safety net behind them and reaped the rewards, with both hitting their best spell of form of the season by far in the playoffs.
Mavinga is no sure thing despite his undoubted talent - as confident as TFC might be about unlocking his potential, there are no guarantees when a player has hit age 25 without realizing it. But if we put those concerns to one side and focus purely on his profile as a player, he has the technical, physical and one-on-one ability to be the perfect outside centre-back for this system.
A more accurate - but frankly unnecessary - description of the 3-5-2 would be 3-3-2-2. Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow operate somewhere in between defence and midfield, vaguely in line with Bradley.
When Toronto lose the ball, Beitashour will normally drop back and ensure the Reds have at least a four-man defence. If Morrow, who is given more freedom to press and force turnovers high up the pitch, is back as well it becomes a five, but otherwise the rest of the unit will slide over and Hagglund (or now Mavinga) becomes the left-back.
It’s a nice balance, and has handed Morrow the chance to do what he does best - attack - without having to constantly look over his shoulder. In the same way that Hagglund knows he has Moor behind him as cover, Morrow can rely on Hagglund to move across and close down any imminent threats on the flank while he is getting back in position. That’s really what effective defending is all about; creating as much depth and as many layers for the opposition to overcome as possible rather than having flat lines of players that are beaten by one successful pass or dribble.
Both Beitashour and Morrow have also gained from being able to challenge players higher up the field. When Toronto were using the 4-4-2 diamond, they had deeper starting positions and no wingers in front of them, creating vast gulfs of space for opposition wide players to drop into and get on the ball.
As mentioned, one of the most common arguments against the back three is that Bradley’s position makes the third defender redundant. The captain could just as easily drop in between two centre-backs to create a three, allowing the full-backs to push up and join the midfield while retaining the extra midfielder or forward. You see this kind of movement in most 4-3-3 formations, with Sergio Busquets at Barcelona a prime example.
That kind of role inhibits Bradley, however, and it is no coincidence that he upped his game in the playoffs in the 3-5-2. Bradley is neither a box-to-box midfielder nor a deep-lying holding player, but something in between - he is at his best when he can fill gaps in the defensive line and bring the ball out in his own half, but also has the freedom to step up and cut out attacks higher up the field without exposing those behind him. In the home matches against New York City and Seattle, in particular, his ability to read the game and break up counter-attacks was outstanding.
There is also a reason Bradley will drop back to pick up the ball from the defence rather than leaving that job to the back three: to ease congestion in the middle of the field by forcing an opposition midfielder to follow him, thereby leaving open space behind. My favourite example of his works is the ‘Invincibles’ Arsenal side of 2003-04; what seemed like a large gap between midfielders Gilberto and Patrick Vieira and striker Thierry Henry would actually become an area of space in which Dennis Bergkamp could work between the opposition lines.
It’s easier to describe the benefits of the 3-5-2 in attacking terms by considering the whole team, rather than just the two strikers, but it certainly has aided the final band of two of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Put simply, dropping an attacking midfielder has proven to be addition by subtraction by creating better spacing, particularly for Giovinco.
These two diagrams - though crude - go some way to illustrating why this is the case. With the opposition, in this example, playing 4-2-3-1, against the diamond they are able to contain the front three of Giovinco, Altidore and Jonathan Osorio with not only their centre-backs and holding midfielders but also their full-backs, who can tuck in due to Toronto’s lack of high wingers. There are plenty of threats with the extra midfielder and Toronto’s attack was far from impotent in this system, but there are better ways of getting the best out of Giovinco and Altidore.
The 3-5-2 is a far better look. Firstly, Morrow and Beitashour provide much more width by attacking higher up the pitch, pulling the full-backs out. That is a big deal on the left, where Giovinco suddenly has more space in the inside channel (between the full-back and centre-back) to work in - which is exactly where he is most dangerous. On the right, the opposition left-back is less able to help double team Altidore when he has Beitashour sneaking up on the outside, leaving Jozy to go to work one-on-one with the central defender.
Toronto also got more goals out of Osorio by giving him a deeper starting position. From there, he is able to make runs through the middle when Giovinco pulls wide, taking his marker with him and leaving space behind for Bradley to step into. It is all far less static and if you draw a line under Cooper, you can visualize how Toronto are able to immediately press with six players when they lose possession while still having plenty of defensive cover. Their ability to quickly turn defence into offence was a hallmark of their postseason success.
There is no perfect system in football - formations mean nothing without the context of how each player interprets the role they are given and the way in which the team interacts as a whole. The best teams and coaches use tactics to highlight their players’ strengths and mask their weaknesses, and the 3-5-2 has so far looked like the best fit for TFC in that regard.
It is certain, at some point in the year, that Toronto will switch to four at the back in order to add a midfielder or a striker or utilise wingers in a particular game situation. They could also adapt the 3-5-2 by flipping the midfield so they have an attacking No. 10 instead of a defensive No. 4, or by making it a 3-4-3.
They have plenty of options, and the tactical flexibility Vanney has spoken about developing has become a reality and is an asset. For now, though, the 3-5-2 is the Reds’ starting point as they chase an MLS Cup.