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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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TFC hit MLS Cup road-block against robust Sounders defensive display

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The interesting feat about the Seattle Sounders’ MLS Cup triumph involved Brian Schmetzer’s men failing to record a solitary shot on target. The result didn’t justify TFC’s territorial superiority, but the Sounders remained resolute out of possession, containing the Reds’ main attacking threats.

This wasn’t a memorable cup final and fairly scrappy at times, which in truth, benefitted Schmetzer’s men who aimed to disrupt arguably the best attack in the league. 18 post-season goals prior to the final highlighted TFC’s strength around the box, but Seattle had only conceded three goals in that same span – this was a great advert of attack vs. defence. Yet, following an impressive defensive display at Portland, and TFC’s difficulty scoring from open play against the Montreal Impact, Schmetzer’s decision to base the attack solely on the counter was logical.

Seattle’s 4-2-3-1 features an additional central midfielder ahead of Cristian Roldan and Osvaldo Alonso to free Nicolas Lodeiro of his defensive duties in certain phases of the game. If Lodeiro was caught out of position centrally, one of the spare midfielders would press Justin Morrow. But the main intent of the Sounders approach was to clog space in central areas.

Where Seattle retreated into their half in a variation of a 4-5-1, Nelson Valdez worked hard to limit Michael Bradley’s threat from deep. Therefore, TFC’s best moments were quick direct moves between Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco. Within the opening minute, Altidore flashed a shot wide of the Sounders goal via Bradley’s deep free-kick, whereas the Reds’ best chance stemmed through quick combination passes between the strike duo and an advancing Jonathan Osorio.

Schmetzer’s reactive approach meant the full-backs rarely ventured forward, and it was interesting that Vanney didn’t encourage his attacking players into wide areas to create overloads considering protection was scarce. Essentially, the key to Seattle’s successful approach was the standout performances from centre-back duo Chad Marshall and Roman Torres.

With help from Alonso, Giovinco was constantly harried and forced into mistakes by the Seattle centre-backs. Altidore, on the other hand, posed issues when he dropped into midfield to receive the ball and run at defenders, but for the most part, the Sounders back-line coped with the American internationals physicality around the box.

Meanwhile, though the away side failed to record a shot on target throughout, the reliance on the attacking trio presented nervy moments for the TFC back-line. Valdez was the key man dropping off into midfield to play Jordan Morris and Friberg into the box, but both moves were dealt with by the TFC defence. Valdez’s selfless play was pivotal to the rare moments Seattle offered a goal threat in normal time, and his early departure forced Schmetzer to rejig his attacking approach.

But the decisive element of the match witnessed both sides struggle to impose their dominance for extensive spells in the attacking third, which is equally associated with standout performances from Bradley and Alonso’s destructive role ahead of the back-four. Likewise, there were clear tasks from the opposing managers to negate the hold midfielders threat from deep. No player recorded more tackles than Bradley and Alonso (6), and the latter’s four successful take-on’s from midfield was a game high.

While Valdez monitored Bradley, Jonathan Osorio quickly closed down Alonso when the Sounders midfielder received possession. Osorio nicked the ball off Alonso around the Sounders penalty box and immediately played Giovinco into the box, but the Italian oddly squandered his effort. As the match wore on both men received more time on the ball to start passing moves, but preventing Lodeiro and Giovinco from creating chances led to an uneventful final.

Neither manager made significant tactical alterations in the second half, and replaced the tired midfield starters with role players possessing similar traits. Morris’s pace behind the defence helped Schmetzer’s men alleviate lengthy spells of possession following Valdez’s departure, but the rookie lacked the required support to fluster the TFC defence.

Meanwhile, Vanney also turned towards pace upfront when Giovinco was unable to continue. Ricketts easily utilized speed to evade weary Seattle challenges and also created the best chance in extra-time that forced Sounders keeper Stefan Frei into an incredible save to deny Altidore.

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Seattle weren’t convincing from an attacking sense, but they offered a definitive attacking-minded approach in transition that was stifled due to TFC’s spare numbers at the back. But the performance vividly illustrated Seattle’s commitment and defensive discipline in tricky away games throughout the post-season.

Overall, the result does put TFC’s 3-5-2 under the spotlight for potential criticism. Although Seattle deserves credit for their work-rate out of possession, TFC once again failed to score from open play against a midfield devoting their time to congest central space ahead of the box. Certainly fine margins separate goals from near misses, but Giovinco and Altidore’s quiet final’s outing reiterates the notion that defence wins’ championships.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2016 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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Tactical Preview: Toronto FC – Seattle

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Toronto FC reaching its first MLS Cup final is a huge landmark and this would be the ideal manner to claim the club’s first piece of silverware. In terms of overall depth and home advantage, TFC are genuine favourites, but this is a battle between an in-form attack, and the best defensive unit in the playoffs.

TFC’s defensive issues were exploited on the counter-attack against the Montreal Impact, and coincidentally Seattle offers a similar threat with slight variations. The Reds are expected to dominate possession in front of their home crowd and onus will be on Seattle to remain compact and resolute.

The Sounders proved they’re capable of the aforementioned traits in their second leg victory at Colorado by defending narrow around the penalty area – the approach Montreal adopted against Greg Vanney’s men. TFC, however, rely on width from wing-backs Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour, whom will push forward to help create space around the box.

However, the Seattle midfield consists of the dynamism Mauro Biello’s men lacked in central areas, whilst still maintaining a solid base ahead of the back four. Therefore, Osvaldo Alonso’s fitness is a key talking point ahead of kick off.

The Sounders will play in a hybrid of a 4-2-3-1 /4-3-3, deploying a midfielder slightly ahead of the double-pivot, but Alonso’s presence enables Cristian Roldan and Erik Friberg the freedom to drive forward and join the attack. Alonso’s passing range is also an outlet utilized to build attacks from deep areas and Vanney will need to instruct Altidore or a member of his midfield trio to limit the Cuban’s threat.

Although Jonathan Osorio’s guile is an asset to the TFC midfield, Vanney will likely name an unchanged midfield trio. Will Johnson’s experience and grit in midfield ensures Michael Bradley isn’t overrun, whereas Armando Cooper’s ball-winning skills and tireless work-rate has helped the Reds win midfield battles throughout the second half of the season.

Another interesting aspect of the match takes place in wide areas. Seattle’s full-backs, specifically, Joevin Jones – Tyrone Mears gets forward but his influence in the final third is scarce –  who’s recorded three assists in this year’s post-season offers an additional source of creativity. But Sounders coach, Brian Schmetzer may encourage his full-backs to remain deep like they did in Colorado to prevent Giovinco and Altidore from drifting into the channels in transition.

Still, TFC’s defence remains their weak point, and Seattle’s attack contains various threats. Jordan Morris’ pace and willingness to break beyond the defence could trouble Beitashour and Eriq Zavaleta. Nelson Valdez is a penalty box poacher, but his ability to link play with the midfield and runners beyond the opposition’s defence means the Reds can’t afford the Paraguayan time to receive the ball.

Ultimately, Lodeiro is the key man behind Seattle’s success during the second half of the season. Capable of playing behind Valdez or off the right flank – Schmetzer should and probably will opt for the latter – Nicolas Lodeiro drifts across the pitch finding space to receive the ball and push his teammates forward.

Besides direct pacy dribbling, in many ways Lodeiro is similar to Ignacio Piatti, and equally completes his defensive work diligently. If Lodeiro drifts laterally and is unable to find pace between the lines, the Sounders creator is willing to move into midfield to build passing moves. This is one of the few reasons why Vanney will persist with Johnson in midfield: solely with the aim to help Bradley contain Lodeiro’s touches on the ball within the TFC half.

Nevertheless, despite Seattle’s competent attack and well-rounded, dynamic midfield, the key to the away side’s success hinges on their ability to contain Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore. Altidore’s varied movement – coming short and drifting beyond the defence – has proved a nuisance to opposing defenders, but more importantly the American’s physical advantage against the Sounders back-line could be decisive.

Elsewhere, Giovinco is due for a big game, but attempting to dominate in a congested area isn’t the solution here. Apart from their renowned transitional attacks, Giovinco may be instructed to drift towards the left to create overloads and ensure Mears doesn’t push forward to provide width when Lodeiro drifts centrally in search of possession.

Here, the key for TFC is patience and quickly switching the play out into wide areas to stretch the Sounders back-line. But unlike their tie with Montreal, a level of caution must be instilled to cope with Morris’ pace and Lodeiro’s ability to pick out the correct pass from practically any area on the pitch.

Several match-winners off the bench, and countless goal-scoring threats in the final third suggests the Reds should triumph on home soil, but Vanney’s tactical dexterity has equally been pivotal, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the TFC manager was the pivotal factor once again. The Sounders possess the personnel capable of playing on the counter, and given TFC’s issues against Montreal, can the Reds rectify the defensive errors made in the conference final?

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2016 in Published Work

 

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TFC’s set-piece execution overwhelms Biello’s Montreal Impact

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Toronto FC leaned towards training ground execution to avenge last year’s MLS playoff exit to rivals Montreal Impact with an emphatic 5-2 victory at BMO Field. If Gregg Vanney didn’t receive plaudits for TFC improvement this season, then this two-legged fixture ensures that he should have very few critics going forward.

Falling to a three goal deficit with nearly half and hour remaining at Olympic Stadium should have placed Mauro Biello’s Impact within touching distance of an MLS Cup appearance, but Vanney’s tactical shifts – moving from a 3-5-2 to a 3-4-2-1, and then finally to a 3-4-1-2 – resulted in two away goals from Michael Bradley and Jozy Altidore. Though Vanney’s alterations ignited a response, identifying a ploy to avoid a similar first half outcome at BMO Field presented a test of his tactical acumen.

Opposed to straying away from the 3-5-2, Vanney’s sole change involved Will Johnson moving into midfield ahead of Jonathan Osorio. Biello, on the other hand, named the same starting XI for the fifth consecutive match, which heavily relies on the counter-attacking threat of the wide players, and the midfield trio’s ability to protect the centre of the pitch.

One of the issues TFC encountered from open play last week was their intent to simply dump balls into Altidore. Although the American international can operate as genuine target-man upfront, Altidore can simply be classified as an all-rounder at this level if you exclude his play-making skills.

Where Sebastian Giovinco once again dominated headlines throughout the regular season, Altidore was arguably the most impactful TFC player during the latter stages of the season and this current playoff run. With so much attention emphasized on negating Giovinco’s threat upfront, Altidore received additional space around the final third to influence the match.

Altidore quickly imposed his authority on the match within the opening six minutes, as Clint Irwin’s basic punt saw TFC striker shrug off Laurent Ciman and Victor Cabrera only to see Marco Donadel’s last-ditch recovering tackle prevent Giovinco from a potential opener. Ciman was subsequently booked for hauling down Altidore, and therefore it was unsurprising to see the American’s surging run into the box earn the corner that led to Armando Cooper’s equalizer.

The other aspect of Altidore’s impressive performance was the American’s work-rate out of possession. There were moments when the American tracked runs near the TFC box to help the hosts regain possession and charge forward. It was refreshing to see Altidore find ways to contribute on both ends given that the two sides were so familiar with the opposition that they often negated threats from open play.

Johnson was selected to offer improved protection of the back four to cope with Montreal’s threat on the counter. Meanwhile, Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow were cautious with their positioning, which also limited the away side’s threat down the flanks. However, despite Vanney’s minor adjustments, Matteo Mancosu still held off defenders and drove towards goal to create Dominic Oduro’s opener, subsequent to Patrice Bernier dispossessing Bradley at the halfway line.

Although Montreal increased their lead via another counter-attack, TFC still failed to bypass the away side’s narrow positioning ahead of the box. Frankly, TFC’s productivity from open play was tedious, as they were unable to provide a legitimate solution to the Impact’s shape. Nonetheless, Vanney’s alternative rested in training ground set-piece work: a day prior, the Reds reportedly spent additional time fine-tuning set-piece procedures.

The Impact back-line were shaky from the opening whistle, and here, they simply couldn’t cope with TFC’s aerial threats. TFC regained the lead in an eight-minute spell that witnessed Nick Hagglund and Jozy Altidore rise above their marker to connect with Giovinco’s corners – the former’s header was cleared off the line only for the rebound to be converted by Cooper.

Oddly enough, when TFC opted to retreat in their half, Biello’s wide-men easily equalized. Following an uneventful opening half, Oduro and Piatti adopted narrow shapes, and were within close proximity of the midfielders to receive service and run at the TFC defence. Piatti and substitute Venegas combined for the equalizer, thus forcing Vanney to react.

Vanney summoned Johnson for Tosaint Ricketts and moved to a 3-4-3 with Giovinco moving to the left flank – the front three were interchanging throughout; Giovinco moved laterally across the final third with Altidore and Ricketts predominantly in the box – and risked being exploited on the counter against the Impact’s deep defensive line.

Oduro and Piatti may have spurned quality chances in transition, but the Impact remained susceptible to crosses in the box. Hagglund put TFC ahead from another corner kick, whereas a piece of individual brilliance rom Altidore to evade two Impact players nearly won the game. As the Impact tired, it was only logical that TFC kept flooding the box, and it was fitting that substitute Benoit Cheyrou – introduced for the injured Giovinco – and Ricketts converted deliveries from six-yards out.

Perhaps Vanney’s preference to persist with TFC’s base shape never resulted in success, but mid game fine-tuning proved decisive, nonetheless. Giovinco’s minimal influence over both legs illustrates the overall depth of the side, but equally highlighted Altidore’s significance to the club.

Defensive solidity is commonly associated with a title-winner, and though TFC were poor in that respect, Vanney’s attention-to-detail and tactical prowess witnessed the Reds manager utilize width and set-piece efficiency to overcome set-backs. On recent evidence, even if the opposition identifies a solution to limit Giovinco’s threat, TFC possess the resilience, and ample goal-scoring options to win games.

 
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Posted by on December 3, 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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Giovinco and Piatti’s MLS dominance defines different breed of No.10’s

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The admiration of the traditional No.10 remains one of the iconic facets in modern football. A player of this mould is highly appreciated for his selfless ability to consistently create chances for others, but the constant evolution in philosophies throughout the sport ensures the significance of the role can decrease during certain spells.

But following the turn of the century, the box-to-box midfielder’s knack of covering ground on both ends of the field was pivotal in the popular 4-4-2 shape. Elsewhere, the deep-lying creator quietly gained prominence as well, but there’s something about the 10 jersey that always grabbed the eye.

Frankly, the diminutive creative players capable of slaloming into open space and creating key goal-scoring chances remains the most revered role in this sport. It’s the popularized jersey number that represents a side’s key player – if you go through youth systems across the world that don’t assign kits based on positions, the No. 10 is arguably the most popular jersey number apart from seven and nine.

More so, teams switching to a more expansive 4-2-3-1 reinvigorated the significance of the roles. The 4-3-3 presented too much congestion in central areas for intelligent playmakers to find space, and it was rare to see these players operate in wide areas during the mid-2000’s. This is not to say that creative players didn’t operate in a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, but they were strictly all-round dynamos opposed to solely basing their game around creating chances.

Perhaps there was a fear of being heavily reliant on one-source of creativity, whereas the emphasis on power and dynamism ensured the role was hardly decisive in most systems throughout the game. The other factor was that these decorated playmakers lacked the versatility to influence a match in a similar manner across the front-line – to be frank, they were solely creators.

In truth, the no.10 role has diversified over the years, and it’s difficult to identify various men that define the position. Mesut Ozil is possibly the only top-class player that ticks all boxes: a selfless, slender magician that solely strives in a central position, yet equally capable of making improving his side’s overall play by placing teammates in goal-scoring positions via perfectly weighed passes.

It’s the selfless intent to create space for others with his movement combined with the precise incisive passing that’s reminiscent of a throwback playmaker. Nowadays, a second striker playing off the centre-forward will be deemed a no.10: Wayne Rooney operated in this role during the latter stages of Sir Alex Ferguson’s tenure, but he was more about goals than creativity.

Then there are players utilized as pure destroyer to negate the opposition’s deep-lying playmaker, but still capable of transitioning into a third central midfielder. Oscar was expected to thrive in this role for Chelsea but solely excelled with the former, whereas Toni Kroos’ success under Jupp Heynckes – largely remembered for his impact against Real Madrid in the 2011-2012 Champions League semi final – involved the latter.

In Italy, there was a spell were trequartistas – the term used to describe a playmaker in Italy – were merely energetic runners. Subsequent to Wesley Sneijder serving as the catalyst for Inter Milan’s successful second half of their treble season, the likes of Fredy Guarin and Kevin-Prince Boateng’s ball-carrying skills linked midfield and attack, whereas Juventus relied on Andrea Pirlo’s passing from deep areas – incisive passing to unlock deep defences within the final third was a rarity.

During Jose Mourinho’s second stint at Chelsea, the Portuguese manager offered a concise, yet valid description to define the role.

“For me a No.10 does a lot of things, with the ball and without the ball. So for me a No.10 is a very special player in my team,” said Mourinho.

“A No.10 for me is an eight-and-a-half when the team loses the ball, and a nine-and-a-half when the team has the ball. Who is my perfect No.10? Wesley Sneijder and Deco. They could defend, get in the box and finish.”

Though the conclusion to Mourinho’s comments were slightly incorrect – Deco and Sneijder received free roles as their teammates were responsible for their defensive work – it goes to show that the focus on pressing and defensive structure has largely extorted the requirement of a natural playmaker.

Even in MLS, a league driven by a creative player in the hole is now shifting in this direction. Look no further than the Eastern Conference final between Montreal Impact and Toronto FC – a heated rivalry, labeled the 401 Derby, that will ensure a Canadian team will make an appearance in MLS Cup for the first time in league history.

More interestingly, is the fact that the two-legged fixture will feature two of the best players in MLS, who were oddly snubbed of deserving MVP candidate status. Likewise, they both wear the No.10 jersey, but are far from genuine creators. Giovinco and Piatti are within the top three playoff scorers, both recorded 17 goals in regular season play to finish third behind lethal finishers in David Villa and Bradley Wright-Phillips, but don’t feature within the league’s top ten key passes-per-game figures.

Giovinco, however, recorded 15 league assists, which leaves many to believe he’s a creative lynchpin, but averaging an MLS-high 6.3 shots per-game illustrates he’s more of a second striker than a creator. Both men are fielded in the front-line of their attack, and are equally not responsible for defensive duties due to the midfield base protecting fairly mediocre back-lines – although Piatti does his fair share of tracking attacking full-backs before sprinting forward to lead counter-attacks.

Greg Vanney’s TFC side showcased tactical flexibility throughout the 2015-2016 campaign, and the switch to a 3-5-2 improved the overall balance of the side. The wing-backs offer width and remain in advanced positions, the midfield is built around a combination of Johnathan Osorio’s guile and Armando Cooper’s dynamism ahead of Michael Bradley, whereas Jozy Altidore’s improved form creates vacant space between the lines for Giovinco.

Although Giovinco is capable of locating pockets of space to receive the ball around the opposition’s penalty box, the 29-year-old’s most dangerous in transition when he instantly offers an outlet in the channels to subsequently run at defenders. It’s the Italian’s individualism that solidifies his match-winning ability, and offering the last year’s MVP space to run at defenders or time to shoot from distance is risky.

“What’s going to make you win is having that focus for 90 minutes against a player like Giovinco, who is one of the best players in the league and who could turn the game in his favour in a moment,” said Impact manager Mauro Biello.

“This is something that’s shared; it’s not just one player on him,” said Biello. “Against a player like that, you need cover from the side, from the front. “You don’t want to give him space. We’ve been watching video over and over and the games where he’s been most frustrated are the ones where he has numbers around him and where he doesn’t get space to operate.”

Piatti, on the other hand, is cut from a similar cloth, relying on an elderly midfield trio to disrupt the opposition in central areas, whilst protecting the back four before breaking swiftly on the counter attack. Operating as a left forward in a 4-3-3 with license to drift into central areas, Dominic Oduro’s pace and Matteo Mancosu’s willingness to run behind the defence has seen the Impact transition into one of the best counter-attacking sides in the league.

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While Piatti possesses the skill-set to create countless chances for his teammates, it’s the ability to dribble past defenders with ease – only Chicago Fire’s David Accam averaged more than 2.6 successful dribbles per game – and locate open space in the final third that elevates his threat. Following Giovinco’s earlier brace against the Impact earlier this year, the past two meetings against TFC – albeit the Reds operating in a 4-4-2 diamond – Piatti has been involved in all three Montreal goals.

“One of his greatest strengths is what people don’t sometimes see, what he does before he gets the ball,” Vanney said of Piatti’s anticipation. “He’s a guy who’s very, very clever about his moments when he’s helping the team defend, when he sees the team is about to win the ball.

“He quickly transitions into an attacking action before anyone else on the field is transitioning. He is already transitioning, which is what he wins, fragments of time, seconds, above everybody anyone else. That’s where he gets his space, where he gets his separation from defenders. Then what we all see is his ability to take on defenders one-on-one and score.”

First, Piatti received too much space to run at the box to curl an unstoppable effort towards the far corner. Then, the Argentine drifted laterally to the right channel to pick up the ball and charge towards the box, and was eventually clipped down to earn a penalty that he subsequently converted. Finally, Montreal defeated TFC with 10-men when Piatti drifted into the final third and latched onto Oduro’s link up play to fire a low shot past goalkeeper Alex Bono.

Last season, the Impact dispatched of TFC within 45 minutes in their single-knockout clash, but 12 months later, both sides have slightly evolved their overall game. Though TFC’s production in open-play substantially improved this season, the sudden prominence in counter-attacking football has witnessed both sides provide a platform for their star No.10’s to flourish.

Ultimately, the tie widely hinges on which side can negate the opposition’s No.10’s production within the final third. Regardless of the result, an MLS finalist will feature a creative player that serves as an “x-factor,” that can win a match on his own via goals, opposed to an outlet capable of making his teammates better.

With the influx of foreign players, the new admiration for dynamic pressing, and tactically astute managers plying their trade in the league, the brief era revolving around selfless no.10’s in MLS could slowly come to a halt. Still, the impressive individual statistics recorded by Piatti and Giovinco, along with their dominance over the past two seasons suggests the stylistic culture amongst creative players is shifting to MLS.

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2016 in Published Work

 

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