Welcome to Partially Obstructed View. We are each restrained by the limits of our own perspective, but when we meet to share information a clearer picture of the truth can be revealed. Comments & criticisms are welcome.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

First Person View – Diagnosing and Correcting Why Toronto FC Lose in the League, but Fared Well in the Champions League, and Addressing the Calls for Change.

     I wrote this the night I got back from Montreal. Weary from the road – and the result; I thought I'd rewrite it and hope to make a more complete argument, but upon review I think the frantic search for answers is an apt reflection of the situation many found themselves in after the loss.

     Toronto FC has struggled mightily switching from league to cup play with varying results. Many are left puzzled by this apparent two-faced nature.

     It is really quite simple.

     The Dutch 4-3-3 is built upon players with immense skill, who are comfortable on the ball, and an innate understanding of tactics. Ajax, the main historical proponents of Dutch Total Football, have fallen behind in the financial arms race that is European football, but they still produce some of the top individual footballers in the world.

     Toronto is attempting to replicate this smooth system with players that simply are not proficient enough to pull it off. Watch a Dutch team – or Barcelona for that matter, the current masters of the style - the first touch is not only to control the ball, but also to set up the infinite possibilities of the next step.

     Added to that precision is the autonomic manner in which it is carried out. Players do not have to look for the open man, they know exactly where he will be. The full-backs run into the space as a weighted ball is played into their path. They then know that the wide attacker on their side will either be pushing up the flank, or checking back for them, something they can observe as they run onto the pass. Should that alley be clogged they know that a ball back to the central midfielder or defender who played to them is possible, or they have the option of switching the play to the opposite flank, the there target will be in position of course, to expose the space opened up by the defensive structure shifting towards the ball carrier.

     It's all very fluid. It's all second nature.

     Poor control, a second touch, that fraction of hesitation eliminates the spectre of a chance from coming into being. That is what is killing TFC, that minute waste of time foils the good work of the forwards in attempting to stretch the play. These players have not been ingrained with the where and when's of to be, to move and to place the ball.

     In CONCACAF, Toronto had that extra fraction of time they required to put their system to good use. That smallest of differences is the margin between success and failure in a such a fine and regimented system of play. MLS takes place at far too frenetic of a pace for that surety to take hold; it's hit and hope. Hesitate in the physicality of MLS and you have two men upon you, pressuring the ball, especially in an undermanned midfield.

     That is where the system breaks down and why it works so well – comparatively at least - under the leadership of Torsten Frings and why playing Ryan Johnson as an attacking midfielder, especially when he is clearly exhausted, is a liability.

     Against Montreal with Johnson at the top of the midfield triangle, Julian de Guzman and Terry Dunfield are left to do all of both the defensive and transitional play in the midfield. Heroic though they may be – and make no mistake they have both been fantastic this season; it is a shame that their work is only highlighted when it breaks down and is costly – two men do not stand a chance through the ninety minutes when they repeatedly come up against four or five rivals.

     They will lose possession, they will be caught out of position, both because they lack outlets and have far too much field for which to be responsible.

     With Frings holding the fort in the middle, the full-backs are given total license to play as wide midfielders, both providing extra man power in the midfield and in attack. Without Frings, their defensive duties prohibit them taking risks and contributing equally to either of those duties.

     With Frings in place, Dunfield and de Guzman then no longer have to function in those dual roles of ending and beginning, they become a link in a chain rather than the lever to the flood gate.

     So how is this fatal flow to be addressed.

     Aron Winter and Bob de Klerk will constantly be working on the players, making their movements and passing more succinct with practice. It is no surprise that when de Klerk speaks of tactics he refers to the positions as numbers, as in - I don't care who this person is, this is what the role is meant to fulfill.

     As a side note, it is not a coincidence that such faith has been shown under the Dutch tenure to younger, more malleable players – they have the ability to learn more and are less set in their methods. After the Santos debacle I tweeted out something to the effect of ... A sixth year club played in a regional semifinal and three of the players that took to the pitch that night were graduates of the academy. The implementation of this system will have its ups and downs, but it will be worth it in the end, for Toronto and of Canada.

     That is not to say, of course, that old dogs cannot learn new tricks. Professionals are always up for a challenge and if there is one compliment that must be paid to MLS, it is that these guys are not afraid of a little hard work. This is a challenge to their rote knowledge. Adapt to the new ways, we dare you. However, there will always be mistakes, especially at the beginning.

     In that spirit, it must be appreciated that Toronto has been the more attacking side in virtually every match they have played. The cost of such an outlook is that one is always susceptible to the sucker-punch - a tactic well practised in MLS. Should they be more cautious? Perhaps, but sometimes to make something beautiful, risks must be taken. To paraphrase Jose Mourinho mixed with some general cooking knowledge - if you want to make a good omelet, you will have to crack a few good eggs; sometimes the eggs they are not so good, and the omelet will suffer, so you try again.

     You don't give up on the idea of the omelet; you keep cracking.

     The oft-repeated call for better defenders, while not completely without merit – who wouldn't want better players in any position – is not helpful. Even the least capable defender will look better when they are not repeatedly exposed by constantly being caught in transition without the proper protection.

     There is a reason why when Barcelona looses the ball they collapse upon it, pressing as high up the pitch in an attempt to win it back as quickly as possible. In a possession system where the defence is called upon to be so involved in the build-up, there is no way for them to maintain perfect positioning on the defensive side of the ball.

     With full-backs and defensive midfielders pushed up in support of the attack – removing potential cover - every mistake is magnified. Watch how regular MLS defences work, particular in defending Toronto. They maintain a very rigid shape, with players hustling back to get into position to fill those passing lanes, when a full-back rampages forward, somebody slots into his position. By not sustaining attacks for long periods of time, their defensive structure is less compromised by the efforts of moving forward.

     When the keeper collects the ball, Toronto's centre-backs immediately spread wide, while the full-backs charge forward, as do the wide attackers – it's all about creating options. But in doing so, massive gaps are opened, that upon one mistake can prove catastrophic.

     MLS is not a league where one can expect the best of something; you have to make do with what is available.

     So how does Toronto FC deal with this mess.

     For starters, that attacking midfield role must be filled with more of a two-way player than Johnson. Somebody who will get involved in winning the ball back, showing for passes, covering acres of ground, and moving the ball quickly.

     The full-backs need to get into positions where they can provide outlets to those in the centre of the pitch when they run into trouble.

     A regular problem since Toronto went to a back four is that the full-backs have continued to bomb forward as though they were still playing the same system. Both are young and are itching to get involved in the build up, often at the expense of a compact defense.

     The centre-backs and defensive midfielders need to more the ball more quickly and more confidently.

     One of the core principles Winter and de Klerk are trying to instil in the club is the desire to always seek to play out of difficulties. A worthy goal, but this will eventually – and predictably - lead to getting caught in possession. Toronto needs to learn that sometimes it is best to put a foot on the ball, do nothing, and wait for the foul. It's MLS, you know that foul is coming, whether it is called is another matter, but that ability to break up the flow of the game by accepting a tactical foul will prove very helpful in preventing those turnovers when caught in a dead-end that leads to the fast breaks that have proven so costly.

     The wide attackers need to not always look to stretch deep. With both pushing forward the options for ball movement are limited. The idea is have them isolated on the opponents full-backs, but if the ball does not arrive that advantage is useless. It would be better if one or the other sought that advantage while the other tucked it or dropped back to add numbers to the midfield.

     Another consequence of both wide men pushing up in search of an isolation that may never come is that all of a sudden, it is no longer dangerous to have that advantage. With each one occupied by a lone defender, Danny Koevermans is confronted with two centre-backs to battle, and he no longer becomes an option, removing the possibility of moving the ball up to him, to hold up and bring others into play.

     And we're back to the ball not moving through the midfield quick enough, which stifles the good work done all over the pitch.

     It's a deadly cycle; a feedback loop. One that TFC is currently stuck in. But take heart in this, Frings will be back soon enough, and as they team learns and adapts, they can only get better.

1 comment:

  1. awesome piece. and the whole playing instinctively and quickly bit is exactly why they looked so insipid against montreal. the 4-3-3 plan is nowhere near second nature to most of these guys, which means it's slow enough to be easy to defend. maybe they can pull someone out of position with the possession play, but you have to be able to capitalise on that quickly or the chance will be gone.

    when they went down to ten men and had to adapt and think for themselves to compensate, all of a sudden they looked a lot better, because they were scrambling and reacting and instinctive rather than having to think too much within the plan.

    It's gonna take time.