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Greg Vanney’s formation tinkering key to Toronto FC’s success

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The coach is a formation wizard.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Toronto FC John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

We have seen it throughout the past year and a half: Greg Vanney seeking an edge either through a formation change to start the game, or multiple formation changes during a game. Both are bold moves that usually result in either tremendous success or absolute failure. There is seldom a middle of the road.

Well known is Vanney’s propensity to shift between a 3-5-2 and a 4-4-2 diamond. Remember the magic that was the 2017 MLS Cup final against Seattle? The Sounders were caught flat-footed by the tight midfield diamond with streaking right and left backs exploiting wider lanes down the sides.

MLS: MLS CUP-Seattle Sounders vs Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

As good as that was, this year, Vanney has shown that he has even more tricks up his sleeve. The latest was revealed just this Friday night: a 4-2-3-1 that played masterfully to Toronto’s known strengths and also uncovered a few unknown strengths.

With the injuries to Justin Morrow, Chris Mavinga, Drew Moor, and Jozy Altidore, the Reds’ starting lineup needed to be tweaked. Add the injuries to Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta, along with the fact that Tosaint Ricketts has not been a stellar starter, and the wizard certainly needed to wave his wand to gain an advantage.

The return of Victor Vazquez, the versatility of Sebastian Giovinco, and the defensive prowess of “van der Bradley” gave Vanney the foundation that he needed. Given the injuries to his centre-backs, a four-man backline was never in doubt. But, what he did from there deserves further analysis and praise.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

First, there was his decision to play only one forward. We could have seen any one of Ricketts, Jordan Hamilton, or even Ben Spencer tag along with Seba. Vanney has done this in the past and, many times, this was to adhere to Giovinco’s stated desire to have company up front. But, none of these supporting cast members have been in particularly good form as of late. If “form” is key to “formation” then, in order to maximize his offensive weapons, Vanney needed to get Vazquez and Jonathan Osorio more involved in the play. True, he could have done so by playing a four-man midfield. But, that would have created other problems.

A flat four-man midfield proved a bit too horizontal against Chicago. Consequently, Toronto’s transition from defence to offence was laboured and sluggish. The flat formation also discouraged probing runs by the wide backs as it forced them closer to the sidelines. When pressing higher up the field, a flat four also exposed the defence to unwanted stress.

A four-man diamond might have helped to transition vertically upfield but, without Michael Bradley at its base, this may have led to disaster — especially if Philadelphia’s attacking threats through the middle were on their game (Haris Medunjanin, Borek Dockal, CJ Sapong, and David Accam).

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Enter Vanney’s key decision point: how to help the transition game, without hurting the defence, while still maintaining consistent pressure in the final third of the pitch?

The answer: employ two midfielders deeper than normal.

But, who?

Said role calls for players who are able to both move the ball quickly and read the play well enough to track back and assist on defence. The first name to jump off the page must have been an easy one for the coach: Marky Delgado. The second selection was probably far less obvious. Vanney could have engaged Hasler. But that may have meant moving Delgado to the left side of the field. It also would have meant that Hasler’s strength and size would be spent outside the final third of the pitch. Personally, I would have gone with Jay Chapman. But, that’s why Greg Vanney is where he is, and I am where I am.

The wizard astounded most of us by sprinkling his magic dust and casting Ager Aketxe in the role. Ager Aketxe? What happened to that “form” in “formation” incantation? Truly, Vanney must have seen something in training that sparked his imagination because, prior to Friday night, Ager seemed to lack the defensive foresight, confidence and work ethic to play as a holding/transitional midfielder. Yet, when cast in this complex role, Aketxe had the best game of his TFC career (to date).

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

In hindsight, playing Aketxe on the left did make sense: a natural left foot is important when playing a deeper role on the left side. It also allowed Delgado to stay in his preferred right/central slot, and it freed Hasler to push forward in support of a size-deficient offensive unit. Given his natural attacking mentality, Ager could also move higher to cover the space vacated by a pressing 3-man unit. Additionally, should Aketxe have lacked the necessary work ethic, TFC had Osorio’s engine as insurance down the left. Despite all of these factors, the decision to use Aketxe was still a gamble — one that only a confident coach would make (or, one with an amazing crystal ball).

Both Aketxe and Delgado played well. They did the subtle things that allowed a constant flow towards Philadelphia’s end. In truth, the Union did not have a sniff on goal during the entire second half. For his part, Aketxe attempted a whopping 76 passes with 89% accuracy. That was second only to Bradley’s 78 passes, with 91% accuracy. The central core of Bradley, van der Wiel, Delgado, and Aketxe accounted for 52% of all TFC passes — exactly what is expected of a transition hub. This provided service to the four attackers whose mission was to pressure a young and inexperienced Philly defence. Overall, the formation worked like a charm — each person played their individual role which, when melded together, yielded a truly magical result.

The coach’s formation allowed the best players at his disposal the space and opportunity to excel: “van der Bradley” looked strong in central defence; Osorio, Seba, and VV looked tight up the middle; Auro had fun down the right; and Aketxe found a new home. Not bad for a Friday night.

For his next trick, Vanney may have to find a way to work the returning players back into the lineup without disrupting the team’s current on-field chemistry. Let the magic unfold...