Before entering into this match, LAFC had a four-match winless streak. Looking to break the monotony and end the frustrating results, the Los Angeles squad were looking spirited and determined to break their streak.
Toronto FC, on the other hand, were fourth in the Eastern Conference and as such, wanted to win by a huge amount. A failure to win would mean that they would fall places and so fall to fellow rivals D.C United and NY Red Bulls.
Bob Bradley’s experienced team only had one change from the team that drew to Philadelphia FC, as forward Adama Diomande was replaced by the youngster Brian Rodríguez.
On the other side, Greg Vanney’s resilient side that won against Colorado Rapids also had only one change made to it with Nicolas Benezet being replaced by Jonathan Osorio.
Toronto FC’s defensive structure stifles LAFC
There is no doubt LAFC’s attack is one of the deadliest. This can be inferred just from the goals they have scored- a gargantuan 78 goals. The closest rival is LA Galaxy who has only scored 51 goals.
What makes the LAFC attack lethal is the close connection and relation that the players have with each other. This allows them to manipulate spaces and players in a fluid and clever manner. As such, a way to stop LAFC’s relentless attacks is to control the front three, the trio that cause the most disturbance.
However, doing so is not so easy. It requires discipline, a tight defence, and solid tactics that control LAFC’s attacks and stop their structuralized attacking formation. Toronto, however, are not the most defensively cohesive unit in the MLS. This is clearly evidenced as they’ve let in 50 goals, the fourth-worst defensive record in the Eastern Conference.
So then how did Toronto FC go about controlling LAFC’s trident attack?
Vanney set up his team, when in defence, in a solid 5-3-2. This defensive formation has many benefits for the team and has many tactical nuances that allowed the LAFC attack to be contained.
The first tactical benefit of the 5-3-2 is how the formation controls the central corridors. With a back five formation and three central midfielders, the central corridor is locked for the rivals. Simply put, the sheer numerical situation that arises in the centre means that the teams cannot play through there.
Here we can see the clear 5-3-2 structure: the five-man defensive line is made with a central defender slightly stepping out of line. Moreover, protecting the five-man defensive line is the trio of the central midfielders.
The space between the lines is dense which means that central attackers are hounded from men from the defensive and midfield line.
This is a disadvantage for the likes of Carlos Vela because forwards and attackers thrive on ample space. Space gives attackers certain liberties in which they can manipulate the defensive structure of the opponents. Common themes include intentional congestion of play, stretching the play, and the use of runners.
However, LAFC were not able to utilise these common themes with their attackers as the sheer numbers of Toronto FC players meant that with every dribble or pass, there would be enough players so that a numerically inferior situation for LAFC would be created.
Here we can see an example of the 5-3-2 constricting space in the central corridor. Latif Blessing’s run here is hounded on by a group of five Toronto FC players. The ability to create these situations easily is what makes a 5-3-2 hard to get past.
As such, LAFC were starved of space in the central corridor and more importantly, couldn’t penetrate past the defensive line.
Toronto’s five man defence also means that they succeeded in stopping LAFC from exploiting the wide areas. The compactness of the defensive line meant that the full-back, with the aid of other areas of the defensive area, could defend dangerous wing play from LAFC.
Here we see the tactical efficacy of the 5-3-2. In this picture, the centre-back and the left-back, with the aid of a central midfielder, control the presence of an LAFC attacker. This allows the full-back to defend against any movements by the LAFC full-back.
Notice how the shape of these three players is in the shape of a crescent, a shape which blocks the potential passing lanes of the attacker and forces them to face away from goal.
The shape from the Toronto FC’s centre-backs allows their full-back to defend against the LAFC counterpart. Since the central attacker is being defended against, the full-back can proactively move toward the LAFC full-back which allows Toronto to block the passing lane to that area.
This efficacy in defence can be seen as the trio of Vela, Diego Rossi, and Rodriguez were simply restricted to the half-spaces and the extreme wing flanks. These positions, at first, might seem dangerous but the defensive formation stopped dangerous attacks from these spaces.
For the most part, the three central midfielders protecting the quintet were able to cover the midfield spaces well and stay compact with defence.
The forward two were charged with pressing the ball carriers and not allowing LAFC to be comfortable on the ball too much. This meant that LAFC were constantly being forced to pass the ball instead of doing so at their own will. As such, the attacks at times were poorly structured and allowed Toronto FC to have quick dispossessions.
This can be seen as out of both teams, LAFC were dispossessed 12 times, all of them coming in the central spaces in which Toronto operated in.
LAFC trident fails to produce on the right-hand side
Aside from being stopped from carrying out their regular attacking movements, LAFC were also unable to produce high quality chances on the right-hand side. While normally LAFC attack through equal sides, they especially like to go down the right-hand flank.
LAFC tried, in their normal fashion, to attack dow the right wing but to no avail. This was due to LAFC’s inability to get past the big block of Chris Mavinga, Michael Bradley, and Auro.
Here we can see how strong of a hold Mavinga, Bradley, and Auro had on the right wing flank.
Of course, there are many disadvantages to this specific positioning. For starters, Rossi was unable to attack the goal efficiently and this is seen in the fact that the right-winger only made 12 forward passes out of his total 31 passes, an involvement which is uncommon for the prolific forward.
Moreover, Rossi’s most important contributions- key passes, and dribbles, came outside that region. For example, Rossi only made two key passes, both of which occurred on the other flank. Moreover, Rossi’s four dribbles all came outside of the final third, an indicator that the forward was completely taken out of the game.
Here we can see how Rossi’s dribble and attempt at progressing the play forward is effectively stopped by this trio of players. Moreover, the trio of players are staggered meaning that Rossi can’t get past all of them in a single move or pass. He has to strategically work through all three players which increases his risk of failure.
This same inability to progress on the right-hand flank was seen with midfielder Blessing. The usually proactive midfielder was displaced to positions outside of the right wing, as seen by his heatmap which is confined to a deeper positioning.
In this heatmap, we can see how confined Blessing was in the attack and overall play of LAFC.
This inability to attack through the right wing resulted in an unusual attacking shape from LAFC as they were unnaturally forced inside due to their inability to expand the play from that wing. This forced shape meant that LAFC’s usually symmetric and wide formation was transformed into a congested and asymmetric one.
This asymmetric formation can be seen by the fact that most of LAFC’s dribbles were made either in the left side or the right wing touchline. However, almost no dribbles occurred in the right wing flank
This unnatural formation meant that there LAFC were going to commit more errors as their players tried in vain to penetrate the right-hand side. This gave chances for the Toronto centre-backs and midfielders to intercept well-intentioned passes. As such, there is no surprise that 60% of Toronto’s interceptions came in the right flank.
Toronto FC exploit the left-hand side
While LAFC’s attack struggled against the defence of Toronto, Vanney’s the team took delight into exploiting the very flank in which they defended: Toronto’s left-wing.
The full-back on that side, Iranian Steven Beitashour, is old to say the least. Being 32 years of age, Beitashour lacks in certain defensive areas, statistically and tactically, that can be exploited by the opposition team.
The first aspect of LAFC’s right-back is his pace. Being a veteran of the game has rendered him slow in some aspects of the play, and for a full-back that is normally on the attacking side of things, his defensive play isn’t going to be the best.
Toronto FC took full advantage of this, using their left attacking midfielder Tsubasa Endoh to get the better of Beitashour.
As soon as Toronto dispossessed LAFC, which they did due to Vanney’s defensive formation, they would look to send in a player in the space vacated by the Iranian full-back. The aim was to have the player positioned high and wide as to stretch the defensive line.
This would create more gaps in the lines of LAFC which would allow Toronto to attack more effectively.
Here we see Endoh positioned high and wide. This has created space between Beitashour, shown in black, and Endoh, which allows him the liberty to make curved runs into that space and try to force Beitashour to stretch abnormally wide.
The space also poses a threat as Endoh can get the ball and use the space to attack the full-back in a threatening 1 v 1 situation.
Another aspect of Beitashour is his tactical inattention. At various times Beitashour comes in too narrow for the defensive line. This small flaw means that if LAFC are being played on the right-hand side, a quick switch of the would allow Vanney’s team to have plenty of space to attack and score a goal.
In fact, this circumstance was exactly what transpired for Toronto’s goal with Beitashour being caught in being too narrow. This allowed Endoh to pounce on the ball and score a superb goal.
In this example, we can see Beitashour caught between a rock and a hard place since his attempts at keeping the defensive line made him be too narrow.
This meant that Endoh was free in the space. Beitashour, then, tries to make up ground but now is simply too far from Endoh to stop the curved pass.
These type of situations were common as Endoh constantly tested Beitashour’s defensive abilities.
All in all, the analysis has shown that this game was a matchup where Toronto FC should have won. Their work rate and defensive rigidity ensured that LAFC did not attack as their former selves. However, as it is with football, split seconds can change the game.
On the whole, Vanney and his team should be happy as they worked LAFC till the last minute and were it not for the penalty, the Toronto side would have taken all the points.
On the other hand, Bradley and his team will be slightly concerned on how their attack was almost completely neutralized. While this might just be a one-off game, LAFC should be wary as not fall to complacency.
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