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Defensive Postures: Who belongs in Toronto FC’s first-choice back line?

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A more detailed examination of who should be making up the defence for the Reds down the stretch.

MLS: Toronto FC at FC Dallas Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

A couple of weeks back, I took a look at who would make up the ideal starting XI for Toronto FC (assuming everyone was healthy) - and, admittedly, the selection process was done by gut feeling and eye test.

Then, prior to the game against D.C. United, fellow WTR writer Charlie Clarke and I got into a discussion on Twitter about the ideal back three for TFC. A few other fans pitched in, and what we found was that there wasn't much consensus on the exact three players that should be making up the back line for this team as it heads down the stretch of the regular season.

I saw every combination possible of Drew Moor, Chris Mavinga, Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta. The question then begged to be asked in my mind... take away the names on the jerseys, take away the reputations, and from an objective standpoint, who should be starting?

Here's what I found.

All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com.

Drew Moor is playing today at essentially the same level that he has in previous seasons. I always assumed that Moor's selections were primarily earned on reputation, but he is still a solid contributor on the back line. He is second on the team in clearances out of the defensive zone at 4.4 per game and second in blocks at 0.8. His interceptions per game is also a respectable 1.5, which puts him into top-five territory for the team.

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

If Drew is second in these stats, then who is first? That would be none other than the 'Zelda Master' himself, Nick Hagglund.

Nick leads the team in clearances at 4.8 per game and blocks at 1.1. His overall game-impact rating is a 6.92, just slightly behind Moor at 6.97. Hagglund also gets dribbled past less than anyone else on the team at 0.1 against per game; he is a solid pillar back there and not getting beat one-on-one in open play.

Where Hagglund makes his biggest impact on this team, however, is in 'aerials won' with 2.4 per game. For comparison, no other central defender on TFC is over 1.7. It's been argued that his athleticism can snuff out a lot of long balls and aerial attacks, and certainly the statistics bear that out.

MLS: Toronto FC at Columbus Crew SC Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

With Moor and Hagglund making strong cases for two of the three spots in central defence, the remaining place becomes a direct battle between Zavaleta and Mavinga.

Zavaleta averages 2.5 tackles, 1.5 interceptions, 2.6 clearances, 0.7 dribbles against and a 0.5 blocks per game for an overall WhoScored rating of 6.80.

Mavinga averages 1.8 tackles, 1.8 interceptions, 3.6 clearances, 0.8 dribbles against and 0.3 blocks per game for an overall WhoScored rating of 6.89.

Take a step back from the individual statistics and it's clear that both are solid players who excel at different things, but do everything fairly well... albeit at a level slightly below Hagglund and Moor.

This is where statistical analysis in a vacuum can be a moot point, because it's difficult to choose one above the other. Rather, let’s assume that Hagglund and Moor are solid locks for two of the three positions. Based on what they do well, and what this team needs, which of Mavinga or Zavaleta is a more complimentary piece to that back line?

MLS: Toronto FC at New York City FC Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Toronto FC have been excellent in the 3-5-2 at building sustained offensive pressure and making quick tackles to prevent counter attacks. The problem becomes that once teams do get to the 18-yard box, it often leads to TFC having difficulty clearing the zone and watching Alex Bono either have to make a spectacular save or not have any chance as the opposition numbers overwhelm the ball.

I believe a complimentary piece should, then, be someone who has a high clearance rate, but also the speed to track back and make tackles or win back the ball with a low foul rate. In fouls per game, Mavinga just beats out Zavaleta (0.9 to 1.1), but couple that with the better interception rate and it's hard to make the case (from a statistical standpoint) that Zavaleta should be starting over Mavinga, and especially not over Hagglund or Moor.

Over the next two months, it is going to be pivotal for TFC to get everyone healthy and set up their starting XI for continuity going into the playoffs. It can easily be argued that any three of the four starting-calibre centre-backs can be placed into the lineup, and TFC would still have a back line that would be the envy of half of the teams in the MLS.

But from an objective standpoint, it may be time for Greg Vanney to give the Mavinga-Moor-Hagglund combination a try, as that may be the best trio to trot out in the quest for the treble this season.