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Tactical analysis: Tigres 3-2 Toronto FC (4-4 agg.)

Pack your bags, we are heading to the Estadio Azteca.

Tigres UANL v Toronto FC - CONCACAF Champions League 2018 Photo by Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images

A trip to one of the loudest stadiums in the world, the Estadio Azteca, is awaiting us because Jonathan Osorio’s late goal in the first leg against Tigres mattered a lot — A LOT. Courtesy of his winning backheel turn, as well as Sebastian Giovinco’s free kick masterclass, Toronto FC managed to punch their ticket to its second CONCACAF Champions League semifinal on away goals.

As expected, it was not a display for the ages from Greg Vanney’s clan in terms of possession and clear-cut chances, but it was not a disheartened performance, unlike some of those put up by MLS teams on Mexican soil in past editions.

TFC held their ground in a resilient and disciplined way. They might have been out-possessed by their opponents and also survived a couple of scares in the closing stages, but the MLS Cup champions have shown incredible mental toughness in front of almost 40,000 Mexican supporters — with less than 10 TFC supporters cornered somewhere at El Volcan.

Once again, their winning mentality enabled them to write another historic chapter in the club’s short history, dumping out Liga MX champions and Champions League pretenders Tigres, on their own turf.

Maverick Mavinga

Wary of Tigres’ threats, Greg Vanney did not make a single modification from last week’s starting XI. That meant that Eriq Zavaleta was part of the back three, Gregory van der Wiel was given the nod over Auro, Marky Delgado accompanied Michael Bradley and Osorio in the midfield line and Giovinco paired up with Jozy Altidore up front. Spanish duo Victor Vazquez and Ager Aketxe were both on the bench.

Entrusting last week’s winners with the responsibility of pulling it through after the second 90 minutes felt important for Vanney to help them earn more confidence in their abilities. CCL quarterfinals were uncharted territory for the entire roster, even though some of them had featured in other major competitions such as the UEFA Champions League, hence it is important that the team embraces such environments.

Tigres, for their part, made four changes from their 2-1 defeat at BMO Field. The highlight move was the introduction of French forward Andre-Pierre Gignac, whom many Mexican pundits were comparing with Giovinco prior this game (I guess we all know who emerged winner on the field).

Andre-Pierre Gignac tussling for the ball with Drew Moor.

Despite all the assumptions that the home side, trailing by a goal, would go out all guns blazing from the first whistle in an attempt to restore parity as quickly as possible, Tigres started the game in a calm way. They enjoyed the lion’s share of possession without ever really threatening — unlike last week, this time around the grass surface allowed both teams to pass the ball properly without worrying about the rough patches.

In such games, it is fundamental for the coach to have a solid bench as any substitution throughout the game might change the course of the outcome, especially in the latter stages of the tie.

However, Vanney had to use one in the first half after Justin Morrow suffered a possible ankle knock, and he was replaced by Auro, who — although he is primarily a right back — can adapt on the left-hand side, and he immediately left an impact after exchanging with Giovinco and sending inviting balls in the box, even though they never capitalized.

The first alarm bell for TFC rang on 24 minutes, when Gignac danced his way into the box past Zavaleta and sent a ground ball inside Alex Bono’s area, but somehow, Mavinga managed to clear Ismael Sosa’s effort on the line. That was the moment where TFC fans realized that they did not only boast the best Designated Player in MLS in the Atomic Ant, but also possibly the best defender in MLS in no. 23.

Throughout the rest of the first half, Tigres banked on the ability of Eduardo Vargas in inserting himself in the half-spaces to trigger crosses into the box and Javier Aquino’s pace. He was constantly attempting his own luck from long-range, though, without ever really forcing Bono into action.

While Tigres had no momentum, TFC never really pushed forward either as they just tried to defend through their rare moments of possession and limiting Tigres’ access into their own area. The biggest concern was that a couple of TFC corners turned into two dangerous turnovers for the Mexican side, and that was one thing that the Canadian side needs to avoid especially against technical players like Vargas, Gignac and Aquino.

Giovinco’s game-changer

With 45 minutes left, Ricardo Ferretti roped in Jurgen Damm, injecting more offensive numbers in his 4-2-4 shape. The Mexico players was tasked to send over aerial balls on which Gignac could connect and head home.

As time went by, their pressure started to increase and at one point, TFC seemed really suffocated. They could not string five passes together and Giovinco was clearly irritated, blasting Moor for not switching plays instead of sending a dangerous ball into their own half.

To add insult to injury, TFC’s best player at that moment Mavinga had to be called off and Nick Hagglund replaced him at the back.

Nonetheless, TFC looked like they had managed to soak their opponents pressure and Vanney realised how to exploit Tigres’ spaces: the game could actually be won on the wings.

Giovinco was constantly widening the field, waiting for the ball to drop on his feet and face his marker in a one on one situation, which most of the time resulted in either a set-piece or a long ball to van der Wiel on the other side.

At one point, the Italian trickster was sent into the box by an inspiring Osorio, but instead of finishing himself, he attempted to send the ball towards Altidore but Rafael Carioca anticipated him and send the ball into the net as TFC earned a massive lead.

It was too good to be true that Tigres would not stick the ball into net at home, as Vargas managed to head home from a corner to level terms and pull Tigres one goal away from extra time. Despite man-marking, the 5 ‘7” Chilean midfielder out-jumped TFC’s defenders, and those are situations which Vanney should highlight when they watch the video of this game.

Many must have said that TFC were now doomed as Tigres would attack in more numbers, and the Canadian side would not manage to handle all that pressure. But when you have a worldwide talent like Giovinco in your roster, you can never be ruled out. His majestic trajectory which neutralized Nahuel Guzman to send TFC up 2-1 away from home was a moment that TFC supporters will forever remember.

After deciding games on his own in MLS, he has finally stepped up on the biggest stage in North America, and what a way to do that. Money well spent, we shall say.

In terms of environment, given that Tigres fans were booing Giovinco every time touched the ball and the stadium was crowded with loud supporters, this goal can be compared with another of Seba’s amazing free kicks, against Atlanta last season when he fired a well-taken set-piece which stunned the entire Mercedez-Benz Stadium, which had 70,000 people on that night.

Another situation which TFC should avoid against such opponents is trying to pass the ball inside your own 18 when under pressure — case in point, Hagglund’s pass attempt which led to Gignac’s first goal of the night.

Late in the game, Tigres made their pressure count again when they were awarded a soft penalty for van der Wiel’s handball and the former Marseille striker sent the ball past Bono, but TFC had already done enough to engrave another history-making night.

Something that may have been underrated after the game was the fact that TFC did not celebrate in an exaggerated way. First of all, they know that this is just another round after all, second thing they respected their opponents given their pedigree and most of all, it speaks volumes about TFC’s ambitions — they are not satisfied of a place in the last four only, they want to complete the journey claiming the ultimate prize.

Club America is next (unless Tauro score five)

TFC’s ninth loss in the Concacaf Champions League has been by far the most irrelevant (what a time to be alive). The MLS Cup champions are expected to face another Liga MX side Club America in their second ever semifinal of the competition.

While the first leg at BMO Field is most likely due to be played April 3, the second leg, at the 87,000-seater Azteca, is scheduled tentatively for April 11.

It might look a mammoth task for TFC, but there has already been one player from the Reds who actually managed to leave his mark on that turf...