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Time to change? An alternative to Toronto FC’s 3-5-2 formation

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After a disappointing start to the 2017 season, Allan Singh presents his case for a change in system.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s get straight to it: something has to change. This season, Toronto FC has only scored two goals from open play against 11 men. Those two goals came in the same game – the draw against Atlanta United. Other than that, Toronto’s goals have come either against 10 men, or off set pieces. For a team with TFC’s offensive potential, this is quite disappointing. So, what do the Reds need to change? For starters, their formation and their starting XI.

The formation

The 3-5-2 is dead. The secret is out. The opposition will junk up the middle with a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 and wait to hit TFC with counter-attacks and set plays all season long. Every opponent has shown that they are quite content to employ this strategy. In short, they are more than happy to play for the draw. If you’re the opposition, taking a point off of TFC (and maybe three if you’re lucky) is great. Knowing this, Toronto must find a way to break through.

The Reds’ 3-5-2 is too lateral a formation. It does not do anything to penetrate the midfield gridlock created by the opposition. In fact, it only adds to it. This is the main reason why TFC spends so much time passing the ball in their own end; there are not enough players vertically forward to play to. Against Atlanta and Columbus, Toronto was most dangerous when they played an informal 3-1-3-3, the three at the front being (from left to right) Sebastian Giovinco, Jozy Altidore and Victor Vazquez. If not for Michael Bradley’s ability to link defence and offence, this setup would be a traditional 4-3-3. Regardless of what it’s called, Toronto needs to play this formation all game long.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

By keeping the front six players tight on offence, this formation provides a vertical array of players to pass to. The short passing lanes, and ensuing quick passes, keep the opposition off balance. This, rather than the long ball, is the proven way to thwart a clogged midfield. On defence, this formation can fan out to provide greater coverage while still maintaining a keen forward press deep in the opponent’s end. The pressure created by this forward press leads to mistakes by the opposition; mistakes that TFC can exploit. Sounds like a good theory, right? Well, this is more than just a theory. This is based on TFC’s actual performances over the past two games. The first half against Atlanta and the first 30 minutes against Columbus were the best 75 minutes that the Reds have played this year. They achieved this success by employing these tactics.

But as both games wore on, TFC’s formation changed. It morphed into what resembled a traditional 3-5-2. Players were scattered horizontally all over the pitch. Giovinco played too deep in midfield, Vazquez was invisible, and Altidore was everywhere. Several times Altidore was caught playing at the tip of his own 18-yard box. Unless he is defending a set piece, Altidore should never be that deep in the defensive end. Most times, when the ball was advanced upfield, there wasn’t anyone to pass to.

In both games, substitutes were then brought on to help salvage the night but adding offence across a horizontal formation only confused matters. By abandoning the 3-1-3-3, the Reds’ attacking threat was gone, and they played right into their opponents’ hands.

The starting XI

Based on their play as a trio, Giovinco, Altidore and Vazquez should be the starting forward line. The only negative is that, by playing the left side, Giovinco is forced to use his weaker foot more than most Reds fans would like. Still, this is better than the alternative of having him revert to his natural tendency of playing deep when the 3-5-2 is pinched off by the opposition.

In midfield, the starting three (again, from left to right) should be Raheem Edwards, Benoit Cheyrou and Jonathan Osorio. Missing from this trio is Armando Cooper. Given his success in last year’s playoffs, the inclination may be to continue to start Cooper. But, aside from the Atlanta game, he has not played very well this season. Greg Vanney is a big proponent of encouraging competition amongst his players. This is a great opportunity to do just that.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Cooper needs to improve defensively, and he must also develop greater vision, concentration and speed in order to win back his starting job. In the meantime, Cheyrou offers a different, and much-needed, skill set. He is more experienced at playing both sides of the ball. Better than Cooper, he can drift back and cover for Bradley when the captain drifts too far up front. A player with greater concentration and defensive ability will also help to reinforce the formation should the younger Edwards play out of position.

As mentioned, above, Bradley bridges the defence and midfield, so the ‘1’ in the 3-1-3-3 is a special role created just for him. When he is absent (as will be the case during the Gold Cup), the formation can revert to a traditional 4-3-3, with minimal loss to the offence.

Finally, the suggested back three is Justin Morrow, Nick Hagglund and Steven Beitashour. Once Drew Moor returns to full health, he assumes his rightful spot in the middle, with Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta providing necessary depth off the bench. Returning Morrow and Beitashour to full-back roles should provide TFC with strong defenders who can also make over-lapping runs down the wings, providing attacking options along the wide flanks when necessary. This is identical to the service that they provided when TFC played a diamond midfield last year. But the key is that both men must play as full-backs, providing occasional offensive support. Under this formation, they are no longer wing-backs. This transition may prove difficult, as they have both played the wing-back role for the past 13 games stretching back to last season (including the playoffs). Nevertheless, this needs to be done if the frequency of defenders being caught upfield is to be reduced.

Toronto’s next game is against the Chicago Fire. If the Reds do not play differently against an 11-man team with a natural 4-2-3-1 formation, then they will probably get the same result: a tense draw or a tight loss. But, with the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Dax McCarty and Nemanja Nikolic rounding into form, a refusal to change may burn TFC far worse than they have been to date.