TORONTO — The element of tactical surprise served Toronto FC well during the 2016 Major League Soccer regular season, and the Reds hope it will continue to do so in the playoffs.
Most times, coach Greg Vanney used a diamond-shaped midfield formation, with captain Michael Bradley in front of the back four acting as a defensive shield, Jonathan Osorio at the tip of the diamond just in behind the forwards, and the two outside midfielders tucked in closer to the centre of the pitch.
In other instances, like Wednesday night’s win over the Philadelphia Union in the opening round of the playoffs, Vanney deployed a 3-5-2 set-up. In this formation, outside fullbacks Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour push up as wingbacks in the midfield, and Drew Moor quarterbacks a three-man defence alongside fellow centre-backs Nick Hagglund and Eriq Zavaleta.
Both formations have their advantages. Which one will Vanney use in Sunday evening’s first leg of the Eastern Conference semifinals against New York City FC at BMO Field?
Vanney knows which one he’ll start with against NYCFC—although, he wouldn’t tip his hand—but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll only see the Reds play in that one formation on Sunday. Vanney could switch things up during the game if the situation calls for it, and he thinks his players can handle it.
“As the coach, I hold the right to adjust as I see fit. But I think we’ve shown over the course of the year an ability to play in both. I was going through the stats, and a lot of our victories—a lot of our goal scoring—a lot of that came out of the diamond,” Vanney explained.
“In the 3-5-2, we’ve [become] very comfortable in it. We’ve used it at times when we’ve really needed to press a game and be more aggressive. We’ve also used it in times when we wanted to lock down a game.”
Being well versed in two tactical formations also keeps opponents guessing, which could come in handy for TFC as they make their way through the playoffs.
“The ability to play well in two different systems is something that has helped us a lot. For opposing teams not knowing entirely what to expect when they prepare for us is always a good thing,” captain Michael Bradley offered.
“Certainly, there’s parts to both ways of playing that are similar for us in terms of what we want from certain areas of the field. But they’re also very different in terms of what the other team has to deal with.”
Vanney believes the two formations are “fairly interchangeable,” and that the main difference between them comes down to playing either with an out-and-out attacking midfielder or with an extra player behind the ball when not in possession. By playing in the diamond-shaped midfield, TFC tries to dominate the centre of the field, at the expense of leaving themselves somewhat exposed down the flanks.
“The diamond gives you the extra central midfielder, which you can [use to] overload teams in the middle, [you can] create a lot of uncertainty for the opposition in terms of how to deal with all of the numbers in the middle of the field, especially when the vast majority of [MLS teams] play in a 4-3-3 or a 4-2-3-1—you can overload some spaces and take advantage of that,” Vanney explained.
When Toronto plays in a 3-5-2 it’s with an aim of using its speed to create more chances down the wings through Morrow and Beitashour.
“The 3-5-2 gives you a bit more balance in terms of the width and the ability for your wide guys to get higher [up the pitch] a little bit sooner. Sometimes it gives us the ability to press a bit easier, sometimes it gives us the ability to mange the width of the field and to lock things down. It depends on whether we want to push high or sit back,” Vanney said.
The versatility of the 3-5-2 formation, especially when the team is defending, is its greatest asset, argues Hagglund.
“You can combat the other team’s forwards in different ways—it’s not just three [players], it’s sometimes five, sometimes it’s four in the back. You can be more versatile in how you defend against the other team,” Hagglund said.
He later added: “I actually like [the 3-5-2]. It allows us to get more pressure higher up the field. For me, it suits me well with my athleticism to be able to get into spaces and close down [opponents] quickly.”
Still, Bradley doesn’t think you win or lose any game based on formations. Ultimately, the formation is just a general guideline for the players—it doesn’t alter the makeup of the side, but rather gives them different options.
“The reality is that when you watch games from around the world, the best teams have an ability, tactically, to do some different things—to be organized, to have a clear way of playing, to tweak things on certain days—so that what you’re about as a team doesn’t change, but you can adjust a few little details to make it more difficult on your opponent,” Bradley said.
Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast (featuring James Sharman, Thomas Dobby, Brendan Dunlop and John Molinaro) takes an in-depth look at the beautiful game and offers timely and thoughtful analysis on the sport’s biggest issues.