Toronto FC’s flexibility has been on full display throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, but the late season shift to a 3-5-2 enabled manager Greg Vanney to get the utmost best from his Designated Players. Sebastian Giovinco, Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore have been in fine form towards the end of the campaign in a system that provides gusto, width, and defensive stability to a side that’s struggled to identify proper balance throughout its existence.
Yet it took Mauro Biello’s Montreal Impact no less than 15 minutes to exploit the Reds’ weakness. TFC’s discipline and compact shape is one of many improvements witnessed this season, and though they failed to beat Montreal in their predeceasing 4-4-2 diamond, it was peculiar to see Vanney persist with a three-man back-line.
Dominic Oduro’s pace and Ignacio Piatti’s dynamic dribbling were expected to serve as creative outlets for Mancosu’s willingness to run beyond the defence and poach goals. Therefore, the Impact’s wingers were legitimate threats to a TFC back-line that features fairly adventurous wing-backs.
In truth, TFC’s first half downfall illustrated one of the few flaws associated with a three-man back-line. Arguably one of the best left-backs in MLS, Justin Morrow, and Steven Beitashour, were caught out of position in the build up to the goals, but as the match wore on, they received adequate aid from the exterior centre-backs to negate Montreal’s threat from wide.
Vanney didn’t align his side to soak up pressure and play on the counter, and the hosts’ ability to quickly break forward on the counter perplexed the Reds. More so, ineffective performances from Jonathan Osorio and Armando Cooper weren’t beneficial to the TFC midfield, which is another factor responsible for the away side’s poor structure.
First, there was no legitimate press on Marco Donadel from a deep-lying role, and prior to the quick opening goals Mancosu easily stormed past Cooper and Bradley, thus reaffirming TFC’s fragile shape ahead of the defence. Perhaps Vanney wanted to limit Montreal’s counter-attacking threat by opting to retreat into a 5-3-2 base shape, but the hosts’ first half goals exploited poor positioning from the Reds defence – in particular the full-backs.
Montreal’s quick lead may have thwarted TFC’s prepared approach, but it also proved to be the hosts’ downfall. The onus on preventing an away goal became priority, thus leading to Biello’s men subsequently sitting off the Reds’ back three and compressing space in central areas. However, TFC’s production from open-play was erringly underwhelming, often reverting to hopeless long-balls into Altidore.
Biello’s side flustered the away side with swift transitions that were ignited no lower than the half-way line, and as the hosts dropped deeper towards their box, they simply failed to produce a quality chance in the final third. Piatti’s audacious chip via Hernan Bernadello’s outlet pass and Mancosu’s linkup play with Oduro that forced Clint Irwin into a key save, served as the sole chances created subsequent to the opening goals.
Vanney, however, deserves credit for his proactive second half gambles, albeit falling three goals behind before the hour-mark. Montreal’s decision to defend on their penalty box saw Mancosu pressing the ball 30-yards from goal, whilst occasionally aided by Bernier and Bernadello by applying pressure when TFC’s midfield duo monopolized possession. TFC transitioned to a 3-4-2-1 aiming to facilitate the ball to Giovinco and Osorio in dangerous positions, but the former was still forced to drop deeper, whereas the latter remained non-existent.
Afterwards, Vanney summoned Tosaint Ricketts for Osorio, and Will Johnson for Cooper, which flipped their attacking shape by having Giovinco float behind the two strikers. The problem with Montreal protecting their penalty box was that it encouraged TFC’s wing-backs forward. Consequently, with two strikers in the box and the centre-backs were occupied, Bradley and Giovinco received ample time to gain ascendancy.
The hosts proved they’re an efficient counter-attacking side, but their reactivity enabled TFC’s designated players to receive the ball near the box, while the wide players provided the essential width required to unsettle the Impact defence. Although TFC’s 3-5-2 has been a revelation this season, Biello’s wide players temporarily posed several issues for the away side, and they never really identified a solution for Bernier’s advanced positioning.
Nonetheless, Vanney deserves credit for adapting – though it was heavily delayed – and gaining control of the match via slight tweaks to his system and logical personnel alteration. It would be surprising to see TFC move to a four-man defence for the second leg, but it’s evident the Reds need to impose further caution in both phases of the game to progress to the MLS Final.