The whole of the MLS season led up to this match. The final game of the MLS season had two unlikely teams – Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC – vying for the coveted Cup. Heavyweights such as LAFC and Atlanta United had faced historic upsets while we’ve had some exciting matchups like El Trafico’s 3-3.
Despite the odds, Brian Schmetzer has formed a close working unit that has allowed his Sounders to beat the high-flying LAFC. On the other side of the border, Greg Vanney has made a confident and focused Toronto FC that stuck till the very end to beat Atlanta United 2-1.
Schmeltzer made one change to his excellent team that beat LAFC 3-1 by replacing defender Xavier Arreaga with Román Torres.
On the other side of the pitch, and the border, Vanney made one change as well – replacing defender Laurent Ciman with Omar Gonzalez
Schmeltzer’s defensive lockdown of Toronto FC
Schmeltzer is no stranger to tactical tweaks and changes. His tactics are what made the Sounders reach second place in the Eastern Conference. When looked at through the lens of statistics, however, the Sounders aren’t the most brilliant team.
Scoring an average 52 goals and conceding 49 goals, the Sounders are quite averagely placed in what they score and concede. However, having come this far and produced some big upsets, the American coach has employed valuable game plans that have seen his team go through the thick and thin and emerge as the champions of MLS.
Coming up against Toronto, a traditional possession-based team, Schmeltzer was going to have to produce magic. And produce he did.
Apart from some chances in the first half, the Sounders nullified Toronto FC’s attack. While both teams had 14 shots, the efficacy of those shots were undervalued.
The attackers of Toronto FC were confined to certain spaces – which we’ll discuss later – and some, like Tsubasa Endoh, were completely taken out of the game. The winger only took 33 touches, being confined to the wings. Evidently, Schmeltzer cooked a combination of tactics that stopped Toronto’s attack.
So what did he do?
Seattle, without the ball, set themselves in a mid-block. This meant that Seattle were neither pressing aggressively nor were they sitting deep in their half. This setup produced some interesting tactical pathways that allowed Schmeltzer’s team to deal with Toronto FC’s attack.
Lining up in a 4-4-2, Seattle had a few objectives. Through their formation and midblock, they restricted the space between the lines. This means that attackers occupying those spaces have little room to manoeuvre in and little time to react to incoming defenders. These pathways allowed Seattle to control how the attackers would behave centrally.
In this disciplined 4-4-2 structure from Seattle, we are able to see just how effectively they were able to constrict the space. The space between the back four and the midfield four is very limited. Any member of the two lines can step out or drop in and block a passing lane to the attackers.
Also, notice that the wing situation is controlled as well. The fullback is allowed to stray wider and higher up as to potentially aggressively press the Toronto FC player. This set up neutralizes Toronto FC’s attack as there are few viable passing options that would contribute to a decent attack.
This formation and set up was complemented by the use of a very compact 5-3-2. By having his team set up in a compact formation, they encouraged Toronto to play down the wings.
This meant that Toronto, time and time again, were forced to go from their central attacking manoeuvres to more wing based attacked manoeuvres. Of course, the problem was that this change of game plan was exactly what Schmeltzer wanted.
Controlling an attack or individuals near the wing is easy as the boundary of the pitch provides a natural deterrent to attacking movement. With the attacker(s) being pinned near the wing, Seattle would have their midfielders and fullbacks on the side to corner the attack in attempts to make the play even more congested.
With an additional centre back in the defensive line, Seattle could afford one of their fullbacks pushing up to press the attacker. At the same time, midfielders and, sometimes, the attacker would start to converge on the attackers.
In this picture, we see an effective defensive movement to neutralize attacking developments on the wing. There is a main pressor who applies pressure to the ball-carrier. One of the forwards drops deep to block a passing lane into the centre through the back.
The fullback departs from his five-man defensive line and gets close as to block a passing lane to the Toronto winger. The Toronto ball-carrier has no option to attack anywhere and as such, the attack has been neutralized.
Normally these defensive movements would leave space in the centre. However, the tactical tweak was that Seattle would remain in a disciplined 4-4-2. As discussed, the 4-4-2 decreased the space in the center which meant that Toronto would switch the ball onto the wing
As soon as the ball moved to the other side, Seattle would assume their 5-3-2 situation and now employ their defensive movements to contain the attack on that side. In this manner, Seattle were able to naturally force attacking movements into spaces where they could contain them.
Having narrowed the space in the attack, Seattle could now press aggressively and either regain possession or force Toronto back. If the ball was played in the centre, one of the surrounding players would be made responsible for man-marking the player until the team got back in formation.
This approach was successful as Toronto lost the ball 35 times. The majority of these losses of possessions occur in the wing areas – further reinforcing the efficacy of Schmeltzer’s defensive tactics.
Here we see the full culmination of Seattle’s defensive tactics. Here the attack has been isolated to the wing, one of Seattle’s objectives, and the defensive movements have started.
There is an immediate pressor who is standing in front of another Toronto FC player. This allows Seattle to put pressure on the ball and block a passing lane, shown in yellow. One of the forward has dropped deep and is only passively pressing – simply blocking another passing lane that is shown in orange.
A player in the middle positions himself there as to clear up any potential new Toronto players or any diversion movements. In the centre, a midfielder man marks another Toronto FC player blocking yet another passing lane.
Finally, any option for an overlapping run is made impossible by Seattle’s fullback coming up and occupying the position.
As such, Alejandro Pozuelo, shown in 10, has no option to attack or progress the ball.
The final result of these defensive tactics is that Toronto have had to go back in a matter of seconds and restart another cycle of attack which allows Seattle to fix up any holes in their structure and go back to their solid structure.
Through a culmination of these aspects, Toronto were unable to attack through the middle and were often forced to pass back or horizontally, never making the final penetrative pass.
Seattle’s pressing systems suffocate Toronto
Seattle’s achievements with a counter-attacking system, 14 shots and 10 key passes, are impressive considering they only had 35% possession in the entire game. However, if you look at the heatmap of Seattle, you can see a clear absence of players in the centre of the pitch.
So then how Seattle were able to score three and what tactics did Schmeltzer use to complement his defensive tactics?
To answer this question, we have to first regard the nature of Seattle’s attack.
Schmeltzer’s teams are always aggressive and urgent in their execution. However, Seattle couldn’t be simply aggressive as it would open up holes in their defensive structure, undoing Schmeltzer’s game plan.
As such, Seattle employed ‘gegenpressing’ i.e. pressing and counter-pressing in specific instances and areas that helped them counterattack greatly.
The first area/instance where Seattle pressed aggressively was the wings. With their defensive structure focused on suffocating play on the wings, it made sense for them to be very aggressive on that exact space.
Here we see a positional press happening. The four players have situated themselves in a diamond, all of them pressing the ball. However, there is a certain technique for this. The pivot of the diamond doesn’t press but simply stands, making a natural boundary for the Toronto players.
The other three players in the diamond make smart, curved runs to isolate the two attackers and eventually the ball. Press like this on the wings allowed Seattle to then quickly start counterattacking down the wing.
The second instance was in the middle of the pitch. Obviously defending constantly on the wings can be overbearing on the fullbacks and can tire out the defensive members. To give space and time for the team to recover, Seattle employed another tactic which was to press in the middle.
As such, whenever Toronto were building up, Seattle applied no pressure allowing Toronto to come forward. However, when the ball was played in the middle or to a midfielder, Seattle would apply an aggressive press to try to regain the ball in the centre of the pitch.
The usual pattern involved one person stepping up from the midfield as to pressure the ball-carrier while the others intelligently blocked passing lanes to the other midfielders. This, just liked Seattle’s defence structure, stifled Toronto’s attack and allowed the Sounders to possess the ball.
Here we see an example of how Seattle pressed in the middle of the pitch.
One midfielder from the block of four steps up to apply pressure on the Toronto ball-carrier. At the same time, one of the forwards starts making a curved run, shown in red, in the blindside(the area where the player can’t see)to potentially intercept a pass.
Another midfielder overshadows another Toronto player, shown in yellow, thereby blocking another pressing option.
This type of press allows Seattle to have the pressor hound the ball much longer which eventually leads to Seattle dispossessing the ball in the middle.
In this pressing example, the midfielder steps up from the middle and makes a curved run, shown in purple, to block the passing lane to a nearby Toronto player.
One of the forwards, Lodeiro, overshadows another Toronto passing option while a Seattle midfielder man marks another Toronto midfielder. This leaves the player no option but to go back as he would risk losing the ball.
Here pressing helps Seattle to sustain an attacking pressure and allows the team to regroup and become even tighter.
In addition to this location-specific pressing, Seattle also employed counter-pressing that was more of a generalized attitude of the team. Seattle were highly aggressive whenever they lost the ball, working on regaining the ball rapidly.
In a more general scheme, the intention for the counter-pressing was to disrupt Toronto’s rhythm concerning the game which would allow Seattle to produce misplaced passes and loose balls on which they could pounce upon and counterattack.
This aggressiveness pressured the Toronto FC players who were set out to lower the intensity of the game which meant that the balls were intercepted. Since the counter-pressing was done throughout the whole pitch, Seattle were able to win the ball near their own half and near Toronto’s goal – an aspect of the counter-pressing which lead to the second goal and third goal.
In this picture, Toronto FC have the ball and should be able to attack. However, Seattle’s positioning means that they are about to execute a counter-press. The way the four Seattle men have positioned means that the front two can press them with support coming from the behind.
In this second picture, Seattle decides for one person to go back, shown in blue. This works as a failsafe allowing Seattle to still counter-press if the Toronto player is able to get out of the pathways of the two Sounders players.
7 seconds later, due to their counter-press, the Sounders have gained the ball very high and with two passes, set up Víctor Rodríguez who makes a brilliant curved effort to score.
Pressing like this allowed the Sounders to create something out of nothing, further adding to the power of their pressing tactics.
In a similar fashion to the second goal, Seattle produced their third goal.
Here with the ball bouncing awkwardly, Raúl Ruidíaz starts getting aggressive with centreback Chris Mavinga.
Through sheer grit, Ruidíaz is able to wrestle Mavinga off the ball and create a 1v1 situation with the goalkeeper.
A brilliant curved effort allows Seattle to go up by three but the main point here is that the tactic of counter-pressing aggressively at all times in the pitch successfully yielded in a goal.
Toronto’s defensive deficiencies allow Seattle to punch their way back in.
The pressing is only one component of a full counterattack. Fully, a counterattack exists of actually attacking the defence. Seattle took a unique approach to counterattack.
The unique approach relied more on the part of Toronto defensive midfielder Michael Bradley. Aged 32, the USMNT veteran is coming to the end of his years but in football, there is no mercy and as such, Seattle took ruthless advantage of Bradley’s lack of pace.
Toronto lined up in a traditional based 4-3-3 which meant that their fullbacks split up and pushed up high. With Seattle choosing a two-forward counterattack, the intention from Schmeltzer could be seen.
He wanted both of his attackers to attack the space left behind the fullbacks. However, they couldn’t attack through the centre as Bradley’s positioning meant that the forwards would be encountered with a 3v2 situation.
While Bradley is slow on the pace, he is by every means an intelligent defender. His intelligent positioning would block options for the attackers. However, attacking the wings would present Seattle to bring out the deficiencies of Bradley.
Attacking on either side of the defender would force Bradley to come out to the side. His slow pace meant that the forward was able to cover some ground against the centre-back. With a central presence, the second attacker could now attack that space through intelligent runs.
Here Schmeltzer’s are following a successful counterattack. Here Bradley’s inability to keep up allows the Seattle attacker to steam ahead. Moreover, since Bradley couldn’t keep up, a passing lane gets opened up on the side of the veteran.
If Bradley had been faster, the purple passing lane would have not existed. However, due to Bradley’s pace, that passing option is open which allows Schmeltzer’s team to develop the attack centrally.
As the game went on, Morris became more and more involved with the attack which allowed Seattle to release a runner that brought the whole movement full circle. This ability to create space while being numerically advantaged meant that Toronto were unable to rely on their centrebacks and midfielder to stop Seattle’s counterattacks.
This resulted in Toronto becoming slightly conservative with one fullback dropping deep to provide defensive cover.
However, this meant that Toronto had now one less man in the midfield which presented Seattle with a chance to regain the ball more efficiently. As they have to press one less man and can better collectively concentrate their efforts, the Sounders would now be able to counter-press better and subsequently, counter-attack better.
Toronto’s attacking inefficiencies hurt them in the long run
This game was a big test for Greg Vanney to show his tactical solutions to complex problems however he failed to do so on this occasion.
Till the arrival of Jozy Altidore in the 68th minute, Toronto had no central presence to disrupt Seattle’s fluid defensive system. The set up of a three forward system of Endoh, a midfielder, Benezet, a midfielder, and Pozuelo, a forward/midfielder that was never going to trouble the defensive system of Seattle.
The idea from Vanney was good – have a fluid movement of three technical attackers to attract defenders. However, due to the pressing scheme and defensive setup of Seattle, the defenders were not attracted to the degree that would allow Vanney’s system to work.
As such without a permanent central presence to draw in players, Toronto kept having to pass around the centre – never actually penetrating through.
Here we see a structural flaw in Toronto’s attack. All the midfielders are aligned on one line, in this case along a diagonal, and none is making attempts to exploit the one time Seattle have an open space between their lines.
Most of the midfielders are controlled either through man-marking, shown in blue and red, and without a central presence, Toronto’s possession can’t be made of real use as Seattle’s defensive structure is not being manipulated in any way.
While The Reds were very good in the first half in breaking the attack on the half-spaces, an inefficiency in front of goal meant that the few times Seattle broke thin, Toronto were not able to capitalize.
However, even with this breaking in, the shots came in too far apart indicating that it was more down to luck and occasional breaks in Seattle’s concentration.
In absence of a true forward, Toronto looked for other ways to break the defensive monopoly, this time attempting to use the dribbling techniques of their talented midfielders to attract and create space.
Vanney’s team attempted 29 dribbles, all of them occurring near the centre of the pitch in an attempt to break the deadlock and create space for their forwards. However, with a completion rate of 41%, Toronto FC never came close to opening the dangerous passing lanes that they so desperately required.
Part of that was due to Seattle’s monumental defensive work. With 43 tackles attempted and 39 clearances, Seattle were adamant on Toronto having no productive work on the ball.
Altidore’s arrival did start to open up the game however the second goal in the 76th minute meant that the momentum that Toronto were building up had steamed out.
One tactic that might have helped them was the inclusion of runners in the midfield. Toronto FC’s game had a clear lack of intensity, often passing the ball laid back. While Seattle were constantly hunched over and driving themselves into plays, Toronto FC’s players often passed the ball just for the sake of it.
An absence of runners meant that the constant movements from the front three forwards had no effect as the spaces that should have been exploited were often not touched – often until the last minute.
This gave enough time for Seattle to restructure themselves and Toronto FC started from square one.
All of this compounded on Toronto as from the 51st minute to the 81st minute, thirty minutes, they recorded no shots. It was only at the end where Seattle’s drop in intensity allowed Toronto to find the space which explains how they scored their only goal so late.
However, it was too little too late as Seattle proceeded to see the game out and further frustrate Toronto.
A first-half that seemed to be poised to repeat the happenings of the 2016 MLS Cup Final eventually gave way to Seattle dominance and, finally, Seattle victory.
As Schmeltzer and his team will continue to parade, Vanney will undoubtedly question his set up and his tactics and how they were, at times, inches away from changing the momentum of the game.
In any other game, Vanney’s side would have won but it is these margins that separate the champions from the rest.
As an exciting LAFC inspired MLS season comes to a close, one has to give credit to Schmeltzer. Battling the odds and using ingenious tactics, he has single handly given Seattle their second title in the last four years.
For Toronto and all the other teams, next season awaits, the glory, the challenges, and the adrenaline of another eventful MLS season waiting to get released. Fans will see this year as an important year as anyone who watches the league can feel a sense for the league developing its own identity – one that is distinct and uniquely American.
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