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Atlanta’s Miguel Almiron shines brightest in entertaining draw at Toronto FC

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The recurring theme witnessed throughout the start of Toronto FC’s 2017 campaign involves Greg Vanney’s Reds serving as frustrated figures against organized defensive units. However, stylistically, Atlanta United FC’s visit to BMO Field presented a contrasting challenge that should’ve favoured last year’s MLS Cup finalists.

But despite TFC’s star-studded attacking options upfront against a fairly open travelling Atlanta side, the Reds designated players were outshone by Miguel Almiron and Hector Daniel Villalba. The former’s appreciation of space exposed TFC’s imbalanced midfield, whereas the make-shift back three, featuring Chris Mavinga’s first home start, were terrorized by the latter’s pace.

Almiron’s threat was evident in the opening two minutes when the Paraguayan drifted goal side of Bradley to received possession to ignite an attack, whilst minutes later dribbling past the TFC captain before being shrugged off the ball by Armando Cooper. This year, teams have preferred to sit back and attempt to nick a goal on the counter attack against the Reds, but Atlanta’s proactive approach flustered the hosts.

One aspect of TFC’s game that’s often overlooked is their vulnerability in central areas out of possession, particularly when Bradley is forced to mark an intelligent no.10 in the mould of Almiron. Likewise, the aforementioned threat of Almiron and Villalba led to Atlanta’s opener, as the former received the ball in acres of space to the left of Bradley and instantly slid a through ball behind Mavinga resulting in Villalba slotting his shot past goalkeeper Alex Bono.

In recent matches, TFC encountered periodic difficulties because opposing forwards and advanced midfielders would solely focus on limiting Bradley’s time on the ball. Here, Almiron dominated the TFC captain in both phases: The Paraguayan harried Bradley when he received the ball, but also cleverly received possession in pockets of space across the final third. Almiron’s teammates also aided the Paraguayan with his defensive duties to force Bradley into conceding possession cheaply, as Martino’s men were comfortable in possession and utilized the pace of the forwards and Almiron’s creativity.

Still, the issue with playing so open against the hosts equally presents space for TFC to utilize in the final third. Ultimately, TFC’s equalizer was a combination of Victor Vazquez’s advanced positioning and the link-up play between Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. It was one of the rare moves where Altidore moved towards the ball – as he often aimed to charge behind the Atlanta back-line or dart into the channels – when Giovinco dropped into midfield.

Altidore and Giovinco were both guilty of spurning opportunities around the box, with majority of the chances stemming from Giovinco’s deep positioning, Bradley receiving the freedom to push forward, and Vazquez playing closer to the opposition’s penalty box. TFC took the lead in the final minutes of the first half via Jeff Larentowicz’s poor clearance that led to Vazquez guiding Steven Beitashour to the byline to combine with fellow wing-back Justin Morrow for an easy tap-in.

Nonetheless, Atlanta equalized within the first minute of the second half following another defensive lapse from Mavinga, which invited Villalba to latch onto a simple long ball over the TFC defence and coolly notch his second goal of the night. Martino’s men increased the tempo of their game and successfully dispossessed Bradley and Vazquez to ignite swift transitional breaks with Almiron being denied twice by Bono.

Where the Paraguayan’s threat briefly decreased in the first half when he dropped ahead of the TFC midfield, the variation in movement towards the channel and beyond the defence reinvigorated Atlanta’s offensive threat. Almiron and Villalba continued to pester the Reds with their direct counter-attacks, but apart from audacious long distance efforts from Vazquez, Vanney’s men were quiet in the second half.

Martino’s men dropped closer towards goal in the second half to limit space behind the defence, but the congested midfield zone, and diligent defensive work from the away side’s wide players nullified TFC’s productivity in the final third. With Yamil Asad wrongly sent off in the final 15 minutes, Martino sacrificed his star players to preserve a point in what will be classified as a remarkable away performance.

Very few MLS sides can come to BMO Field and outperform Vanney’s Reds, but here, Almiron dominated the centre of the pitch, and displayed a proactive method to exploit Bradley’s deficiencies as the sole pivot. Stifling Bradley has developed into a pattern that most sides are leaning towards, and though TFC’s profligacy in the final third may eventually translate into goals, their productivity on both ends of the field can no longer be taken lightly.

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Posted by on April 10, 2017 in Published Work

 

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Resilient Sporting KC stick to the script to frustrate Vanney’s profligate TFC

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Toronto FC’s issues around the opposition’s box was on full display in a scoreless draw with Sporting Kansas City. Greg Vanney’s men haven’t scored a goal from open play against 11 men since last year’s second leg conference final triumph, and their profligacy around the box is developing into a noteworthy concern.

The first half, however, was a rarely intriguing tactical battle at this level that witnessed both sides negate the oppositions threat in contrasting manners. TFC preferred to press higher up the pitch with Tosaint Ricketts and Sebastian Giovinco closing down the centre-backs, while Victor Vasquez or initially Michael Bradley pushed forward to limit Ilie Sanchez’s time on the ball.

TFC wing-backs Steven Beitashour and Raheem Edwards also aggressively stepped higher to prevent the Sporting KC full-backs from receiving space to drive forward, whereas the midfield battle was fairly scrappy. Meanwhile, the shuttlers encountered difficulties retaining possession and gaining ascendancy in central areas due to the aforementioned congestion, which therefore stifled the creative players from both sides.

The away side, on the other hand, retreated into a 4-1-4-1 out of possession with the wide players sitting narrow, and striker Dom Dwyer remaining goal-side of TFC captain Michael Bradley. It was another ploy to force the TFC centre-backs to build attacks, whereas Bradley’s inability to alleviate Dwyer’s pressure ensured the Reds were deprived creativity in deeper midfield zones.

This was essentially a major issue for the hosts with Giovinco starved of service over lengthy periods, and Jozy Altidore’s capability of dropping into the midfield zone to link play was required. Likewise, the intent to mark out Bradley has been successfully utilized by all TFC opponents this season, thus forcing the hosts elsewhere to move forward.

Peter Vermes’ men struggled going forward due to TFC’s pressing and were unable to launch proper counter-attacks. But similar to TFC, the midfielders couldn’t link play with the attackers, and the ploy to push the wing-backs forward to provide natural width – wide forward Soony Saad and Gerso Fernandes moved centrally to combine with Dwyer – backfired due to Beitashour and Edwards’ defensive discipline.

Nonetheless, TFC created the better chances in the first half through width from the left flank, and Giovinco’s diverse movement to pull the away side out of position. It took nine minutes for Giovinco to drop beyond half to receive the ball and combine with Edwards down the left and the move resulted in Vasquez locating Beitashour unmarked in half space, but his pull-back for the aforementioned Italian was scuffed. Another move following a rare Bradley switch of play saw Edwards identify Giovinco between the lines, but once again Beitashour’s great positioning was wasted following the right wing-back’s pass behind an unmarked Vasquez.

The Reds main threat involved Edwards – an academy product enjoying his first full start for the club – driving down the left flank. The left wing-back bamboozled Graham Zusi with a clever turn and played a pass to Giovinco in a pocket of space, which led to an opportunity that Jonathan Osorio scuffed wide of the net. Afterwards, Edwards play Ricketts free down the left channel, but the Canadian international’s poor decision-making halted a promising move.

Another variation of TFC’s dominance down the left occurred in the latter stages of the first half when Edwards moved to an advanced central position to drag Zusi with him, while Nick Hagglund stormed forward down the left channel. This was risky due to Gerso’s threat in transition, but it also pegged the attacker into his own half away from the isolated Dwyer. These positional alterations eventually witnessed Hagglund sneak past Gerso to cross the ball to Osorio in the six-yard box, but the TFC midfielder skied his shot over the net.

Although Sporting KC improved in the opening 15 minutes of the second half via high pressing – it led to a poor Bradley pass that nearly resulted in a Dwyer winner – TFC still found joy through Edwards down the left flank. However, the TFC homegrown product wasted a golden opportunity and was unable to connect his crosses with teammates.

Conversely, with the away side tiring throughout the second half, the TFC midfield suddenly gained control of the game, whereas Giovinco began to receive passes between the lines before charging towards the box. Vermes’ men posed a few saves from Alex Bono in the final half hour, yet TFC were unable to test Sporting KC keeper, Tim Melia, despite ample territorial dominance.

In another match this season where a narrow back-line left the Reds perplexed, Vermes’ approach can be classified as an efficient defensive scheme several MLS teams may adopt on their travels to BMO Field this season. In truth, it limits TFC’s option to utilize their pace on the counter-attack, and with no players capable of building attacks from deep in the current setup, this appears a logical method to disrupt arguably the best offence in the league.

Abandoning the system that provided last year’s success would be extreme, but it’s certainly time to consider instilling flexibility to a rather bland Reds attack.

 
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Posted by on April 1, 2017 in Published Work

 

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MLS Cup success would elevate Sebastian Giovinco towards local immortality

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Although Toronto FC players have harped about collective squad unity during MLS Cup media day, it’s difficult to overlook Sebastian Giovinco’s aura during the Reds’ playoff run.

TFC’s privileged to host the biggest game in the club and country’s soccer history, and it’s ironic that the smallest player on the pitch’s significance can inevitably determine the final result. With the opportunity to give the city of Toronto it’s first championship in nearly 25 years, and who better to do it then arguably the best player to ever play in the league’s history.

Although Giovinco didn’t win the MLS MVP award this season, the public outcry when the announcement was made suggests that perhaps the Italian should have retained that honor. But what awaits Giovinco on a frigid Saturday night could be the biggest moment of his career.

The Italian was never a core component during his tenure at Juventus, and he’s failed to make a regular contribution to the Italian national team. But the 29-year-old can call BMO Field home. A club that appreciated Giovinco for his many strengths, and provided the Italian a platform to dominate a league that craved a genuine star

That’s what simply increases the significance of the final: a possible sellout home crowd consisting of 36,000 fans anticipating one more moment of Giovinco individual brilliance that would shift the state of Canadian soccer forever. In ways, the similarities between the Italian and the Canadian soccer landscape is conspicuous. Never really provided a chance to flourish, but once under the spotlight, could evolve into something great.

Giovinco’s arrival to TFC came at a dark time at the club. The ambition to become an MLS superpower hit a roadblock following the Jermain Defoe experiment, and though stylistically the duo’s compatibility was low – given the talent around the Englishman – the belief that TFC could outdo their error offered skepticism.

But with Michael Bradley already at the club, and the arrival of Jozy Altidore, TFC’s designated players were approaching the peak years of their career, thus ensuring longevity. Two seasons together with consecutive playoff appearances – a milestone for a club that once appreciated simply fighting for post-season contention – deems the early stages of the project a near success. Put simply, Saturday night’s clash with the Seattle Sounders represents the final test.

Where the designated players deserve credit for their influence throughout, manager Greg Vanney is also responsible for building a stable side filled with tons of depth – which could be a decisive factor Saturday night. TFC have made many smart moves following the Defoe failure, but Giovinco’s impact across the league sets the bar.

The mazy dribbling, unthinkable ability to evade several challenges in tight spaces, while proving to be a devastating finisher separates Giovinco from the rest. Operating in a two-man attack, Giovinco serves as a hybrid playing off Altidore, who equally creates space for the Italian with his physical presence upfront.

The 29-year-old phenomenon isn’t a traditional centre-forward, nor is he a creative no.10 that solely creates around the final third. In truth, Giovinco’s strongest trait since moving to TFC involves swift counter-attacks that witnesses the Italian drift into space in the left channel to receive passes and instantly break towards the box.

Then there’s set-piece proficiency: Giovinco’s threat around the box is unprecedented, and it was vividly displayed most recently against the Montreal Impact. A threat in both phases of attacking play, the Italian’s 39 goals and 31 assists in two MLS regular seasons – 61 games to be exact – further reiterates why Saturday night could be the defining moment to a truly remarkable career.

But for all of Giovinco’s brilliance, the Italian’s post-season production is concerning. Practically anonymous in last year’s exit to the Impact in a single-game knockout, Giovinco’s brilliance has been overshadowed by Altidore’s great run of form and standout collective performances. His hat-trick against a poorly organized New York City FC side was just a glimpse of Giovinco’s threat during his MLS tenure, but the Italian’s lacked consistency during the post-season.

“He’s quick, fast, skillful, scores goals, set pieces, leads by example, can run all day,” Sounders coach Brian Schmetzer said in listing off Giovinco’s qualities.

“We’ll try and cut off his service and make it difficult for him to run at us — normal defending things,” said Schmetzer. “It’s going to take a complete team defending-type performance.”

Perhaps Montreal’s swarming-defensive approach was highly effective and could be replicated by Seattle this weekend, but for a player of Giovinco’s quality, you simply expect more in the biggest games. The Impact clogged space in central areas by sitting deep and narrow, and therefore every time Giovinco received the ball there were two Montreal players within close proximity.

Nevertheless, in a one-game knockout final, preparations are slightly tweaked as the away goal rule doesn’t apply. This presents Giovinco with another opportunity to dominate a significant playoff game at BMO Field, and there would be no better time than an MLS Cup Final to solidify the Italian’s greatness.

The city of Toronto is undergoing a major transition when it comes to successful sports teams, but the Reds are always overlooked in comparison to the Raptors or Blue Jays. Oddly enough, so is Giovinco, who could arguably be the greatest sports figure to ply his trade in the city.

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Mats Sundin, Roy Halliday, Jose Bautista and Vince Carter are the most recent iconic figures to represent Toronto teams, but unlike Giovinco, they weren’t capable of guiding their respected club to a cup final. Giovinco, on the other hand, receives the ideal chance to be recognized in the same breath as Joe Carter to bring the city back to prominence in the sporting world.

Earlier this season, Giovinco mentioned the pleasure of being able to walk the streets of Toronto and live a normal life. Not many Torontonians are familiar with the diminutive superstar, though his arrival to the league has gradually improved the clubs following throughout the province.

Any significant influence in a positive result over the Sounders would elevate the Italian amongst one of the greatest sports figures this city has ever seen. The unpredictable dribbles, swift body feints, proficient set-piece efficiency, and sheer determination to find the back of the net won’t go under the radar against a Sounders defence that will be tasked with halting history.

It’s been nearly a decade of heartache for TFC fans dreaming of one day fighting for MLS top honours, and their designed scheme to build a dynasty is 90 minutes – potentially an additional 30 if extra-time is required – from being successful under Giovinco’s guidance.

Toronto awaits a new sporting hero, and one more breathtaking moment of brilliance separates Giovinco from joining the city’s higher echelon. It simply doesn’t get bigger than this.

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Vanney’s Toronto FC lived and died in wide areas at Montreal

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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.

 
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Posted by on November 26, 2016 in Published Work

 

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Orlando City SC 0-2 Toronto FC

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Toronto FC snapped a four game winless streak in Orlando courtesy of two-second half Jozy Altidore goals.

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Greg Vanney made two changes to the side that fell to Dallas last week, recalling Benoit Cheyrou and Robbie Findley to the starting XI.

Adrian Heath transitioned from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1 following Orlando City’s three goal defeat to Columbus, replacing Cristian Higuita for Eric Avila, while Tyler Turner started at right back for the suspended Rafael Ramos at right back.

TFC went back to the basics to secure a vital road victory in Orlando: They were organized out of possession, and relied on individual brilliance from their designated players for goals.

Orlando possession/TFC reactivity

Pragmatism was expected from Vanney’s TFC following their first half debacle in Dallas a week prior, and their reactive approach was evident from the opening minute. TFC weren’t eager to push higher up the pitch or swarm the ball to quickly regain possession, thus leading to Orlando’s territorial superiority.

The Reds maintained a low block, dropped into two banks of four to contain space between the lines. Michael Bradley and Cheyrou allowed Darwin Ceren and Amobi Okugo to operate in deeper positions. However, when the Orlando midfield duo moved into the final third, Bradley and Cheyrou quickly harried the opposition.

Orlando’s issue, however, involved Avila and Kevin Molino moving infield into a congested midfield area. Heath’s midfielders often moved into these central positions to receive the ball, and although they found openings in tight spaces, TFC’s back-line cleared their lines continuously.

Orlando’s intent to play through the middle was beneficial to the away side due to their narrow shape. Ramos’ absence deprived Heath’s side of creativity from wide areas, and the production from the fullbacks was underwhelming. Apart from an early Joe Bendik save on Kyle Larin – stemming from Findley being dispossessed in TFC’s half – the Reds’ goalkeeper was untested throughout the first half.

Kaka

In fairness, the match was filled with several marquee players, but none as big as former World Player of the Year, Kaka. Operating in the no.10 role behind the striker, Kaka was likely expected to provide creativity, yet TFC didn’t go about neutralizing the Brazilian.

The common misconception throughout Kaka’s career is that he’s a natural no.10 capable of playing incisive passes to unlock organized back-lines, but his display against TFC vividly epitomized his style of play.

In the first half, Ceren located Kaka in a deeper position, and the Brazilian zipped past three TFC midfielders to combine with Molino to surge clear on goal, before Perquis quickly intervened. It was a vintage Kaka move that lacked a goal: at his best with Milan, Kaka played behind several playmakers and was provided the freedom to use a sudden burst of pace to evade defender.

Likewise, it was one of the rare occasions were Kaka varied his movement in central areas. The Brazilian was floating on the last shoulder of TFC’s defence, equivalent to forward Cyle Larin. Considering TFC’s line sat on the edge of their 18-yard box, within close proximity of the second band, Kaka was isolated upfront, deprived of service into his feet.

Bradley and Cheyrou’s protection of space in the final third improved throughout the match, thus leading to Kaka drifting into the channels for freedom. However, the Brazilian failed to provide a positive influence as his final ball was underwhelming. Kaka was unable to make penetrating runs into advanced zones due to TFC’s organized shape out of possession, and his reluctance to constantly vary his movement limited his threat.

TFC attacks

With Orlando monopolizing majority of possession, it was always going to be interesting to witness TFC’s method of attack. Nevertheless, Jackson nearly scored a remarkable opener from distance, following Larin’s clearance from a corner, but Donovan Ricketts made a key save to keep the scoreline leveled.

Jackson received plenty of the ball down the right flank, but the Brazilian stagnated quick attacks, opting to pass, opposed to taking on his defender. The Reds relied on opportunistic pressing to surge forward on the counter with Bradley and Sebastien Giovinco driving into Orlando’s third on a few occasions, but neither player offered a final ball or finish to punish the hosts.

TFC’s goals followed the same suit. A quick Altidore free-kick saw the American combine with Giovinco, before storming past Ceren and Seb Hines to open the scoring. This was ultimately about the DP’s combining as minutes prior to Altidore’s second, Giovinco and Bradley’s neat combination passes led to the former nearly doubling the Reds’ lead.

Minutes later, Altidore scored a truly remarkable goal. Orlando pushed men forward in search of an equalizer, which could explain why it took Vanney’s men 82 minutes to ignite a counter that didn’t involve powerful running. Cheyrou launched a sensational ball over Hines, and Altidore’s brilliant first touch set the American free to secure maximum points.

The Reds soaked up pressure for long spells, and heavily relied on the quality of their DP’s in transition to punish Heath’s side. Vanney made straight player swaps on the flanks to ensure his full backs were protected, and later turned to Collen Warner to provide additional defensive solidity in midfield.

Conclusion

TFC currently sit at a crossroad. They’re much better in possession this season, but tend to concede goals when their defensive line is higher. On the other hand, although it’s impractical to play reactive football on a weekly basis, TFC have recorded two victories in this manner.

Still, we learned very little about either side. Very few chances were created in open play, with Orlando struggling to get behind TFC’s back-line, whereas the Reds relied on Altidore’s individual brilliance to push them over the line.

 
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Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Match Recaps, Published Work

 

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Southampton 1-1 Sunderland: Match report

Jose Fonte’s 88th minute equalizer denied Sunderland their first win of the season, in a thrilling match at St. Mary’s stadium.

The two sides that flirted with relegation last season were keen on bolstering their squad, by adding a few marquee signings to their roster, this summer. Mauricio Pochettino acquired the likes of Victor Wanyama and Pablo Daniel Osvaldo, while Paolo Di Canio snagged Jozy Altidore and Emanuele Giaccherini.

After suffering a heart-wrenching opening day loss to Fulham, it was the Black Cats that got off to a great start, taking the lead in the second minute. Giaccherini was allowed a free header off a Sebastian Larsson corner kick, and the Italian nodded the ball past Artur Boruc. It was the ideal start for Di Canio’s men, who dictated majority of their match against Fulham last week, but was unable to find a goal.

Pochettino was disgruntled by the Saints’ early setback, but sees the defensive error as a learning curve in his side’s development.

“I fully take responsibility in that sense. It just shows that we have to improve. It’s not acceptable that we step onto the pitch in that manner. We were basically asleep,” Pochettino said.

“It’s a big lesson for us. It’ll help us to improve,” he said.

southampton v sunderlandJay Rodriguez found the back of the net two minutes later, but the goal was rightfully ruled offside. Southampton striker Rickie Lambert dropped deep to receive the ball, and he played a lovely pass to Rodriguez, who made a diagonal run and slipped the ball past Westwood.

Sunderland’s energetic start prevented Pochettino’s men from dictating the match. Their 4-4-1-1 became a 4-5-1 when they didn’t have the ball, with Giaccherini and Adam Johnson working hard to nullify the attacking threat of Southampton’s fullbacks – Giaccherini in particular was exceptional, keeping Luke Shaw quiet during his time on the field.

The Black Cats stayed compact and organized in their third of the pitch, allowing Morgan Schneiderlin and Victor Wanyama to have possession, but the Saints’ double-pivot struggled to play balls into their attacking midfielders. Rodriguez and Adam Lallana had to drift infield to receive the ball, but didn’t succeed when doing so. Pocchettino’s men were stubborn, and continuously persisted on attacking through the middle, but Sunderland comfortably handled every attack they faced.

With the centre of the pitch congested, Southampton found their attacking source in wide areas, courtesy of James Ward-Prowse. In the 17th minute, the 18 year-old winger nearly orchestrated the equalizer, when Lambert forced Westwood into making a great save. Ward-Prowse’s delivery from set-pieces were also exceptional, but Pochettino’s men were unable to take advantage of Sunderland’s dire set-piece defending.

Both side’s made interesting alterations at half-time – Pocchettino introduced Osvaldo and Nathaniel Clyne for Schneiderlin and Shaw, thus pushing Ward-Prowse into the double-pivot with Wanyama. Di Canio introduced Ji Dong-Won for Sessegnon, which gave the Black Cats more of a threat on the counter-attack, and Sunderland nearly put the match out of sight in the 57th minute. Ji played in a lovely ball for the isolated Altidore, but the American striker forced Boruc to make a great save – Ji and Johnson also flashed shots wide of the net, but Sunderland rarely tested Boruc throughout the 90 minutes.

Southampton’s intent on penetrating through the middle continued in the second half, and despite the introduction of Gaston Ramirez, Pochettino’s men rarely troubled Sunderland in those areas. Osvaldo’s debut was interesting, and inspiring for Saints fans  – despite showing his cynical side towards the end of the game, Osvaldo’s presence opened gaps for Southampton’s attacking three to receive balls between the lines. The Italian striker linked play with the wide men in hope of creating overloads and his off the ball movement was impressive, often drifting into key areas in the final third.

For all their dominance, Southampton waited until the final minutes to solve Westwood. Throughout the match several free-headers forced Westwood into simple saves, and Saints players failed to get on the end of Ward-Prowse’s delivery. But to Pocchettino’s delight, Fonte met the 18-year-old’s scintillating free-kick in the 88th minute, to earn his side a valuable point.

Southampton were rewarded for their dominance in possession, as Sunderland remain winless. Di Canio’s men failed to offer any variety of attack going forward, and were determined to hold on to their lead, thus allowing Southampton to assert their authority on the match. Di Canio was aware of his men’s dire performance and stated the obvious in his post-match press conference.

“We were leading at 1-0 but another set-play cost us two points. It was a cheap free-kick but 1-0 is more than acceptable. We have to be honest, Southampton deserved to win this game because they played better,” Di Canio said.

As for Southampton, they remain unbeaten in their opening matches, and have looked to assemble a side capable of finishing in the top-half, and potentially competing for a Europa league spot. Pochettino was aware that his side deserved more, but at this moment, he’s focused on their growth over the season.

“We had the best chances, and we actually deserved the three points. We just have to look ahead and prepare well for the coming games,” Pochettino said.

 
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Posted by on August 27, 2013 in EPL, Published Work

 

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