Tactical Analysis

Tactical analysis: Toronto FC 3-0 Philadelphia Union

Photo: Earl Gardner

There is only one way to play when traveling to Toronto FC this season: Defend and counter. The Canadian side took a roster filled with intelligent runners and added a consistent final ball, and the result is a system that no longer relies on Michael Bradley’s long passing to begin attacks. Whereas there used to be an emphasis on going outside-in, TFC can now play through the center, using Victor Vazquez’s vision to spring wingbacks when a defense collapses or pry open one that retains its shape.

The Union defended well despite being easily stretched. In the final third, they retreated to the box and invited TFC to be more intricate than necessary. As a result, the Canadians found it hard to generate good shooting chances despite dominating the ball for long periods of play.

But, as it has all season, Philly’s deficiencies in attack meant that when their extended defensive shape generated chances to counter they were unable to capitalize on them.

Unbalancing the mids

Key to Toronto’s success going forward was unbalancing the Union’s central midfield duo. Notably, for all the questions about how Philly should shape up this season, the team has consistently played a 4-4-2 defensively with Roland Alberg or Ilsinho looking to stay within 10 yards of CJ Sapong. TFC’s aim was two-fold in buildups: First, draw Philly’s front two high to create a gap between them and the midfield. Second, draw one of the Union’s center midfielders higher than the other to create a pocket behind him.

Most of the time — both because TFC’s attack naturally tilts toward Vazquez’s favorite space and because Osorio’s movement dragged Ray Gaddis to the moon and back — the home side targeted Bedoya. Philly’s captain was pulled forward then caught in space, too far from the ball to press but too high to provide good covering shadow on the space behind him.

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Above, on the buildup to the foul that Giovinco subsequently turned into the opener, TFC’s aim is to play central then flow forward. The Union are initially undone because they play a 4-4-2 that gives them a numerical disadvantage in the center, but they compound that problem with uncoordinated defensive actions.

First, Epps approaches Chris Mavinga without closing off any particular passing lane. If Bedoya knows that Epps is going to push Mavinga wide, he can get tight to Vazquez to his right. If he knows Epps is going to shadow the central pass, he can even jump Osorio’s run through the circle. Additionally, if Epps pushes Mavinga central, Gaddis does not have to press up on Morrow on the wing, and Ilsinho or Sapong should read Epps’ approach and recognize that it limits Mavinga to a single passing option: Osorio.

But none of that occurs. Instead, Mavinga finds Morrow, which pulls Gaddis into the Toronto half but encourages no further Union pressure because Bedoya, Ilsinho, and Sapong are too far from the play to pressure Osorio. Bedoya gets caught in between stepping and holding, and when Osorio collects the ball there is a huge pocket behind Bedoya that Medunjanin cannot fill without leaving Delgado uncovered.

This sequence lays the issues with a 4-4-2 bare: Unless one striker is dropping deep (into, say, a midfield role, making the system a 4-5-1/4-3-3), a club with three midfielders can always create a numerical advantage that leaves the opposition caught between duties. If Ilsinho was dropping in, he could sit in the lane to Delgado and free up Medunjanin to rotate. That is not what happens. And yes, Toronto is nominally playing a version of 4-4-2 themselves… on defense. But in attack, TFC swiftly transformed to a 3-5-2. Osorio and Delgado mined for space with constant movements into and out of the center, while Vazquez, Giovinco, and Altidore simply monitored the proceedings until identifying a suitable attacking pocket to occupy.

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In the clip above, Toronto again probes to pull Philly’s midfield forward. Note how Bradley initially positions himself behind Ilsinho so the Brazilian can’t track him. Then, once Bradley sees Vazquez opening up in the middle, he gets in Ilsinho’s eye line and draws him away from the passing lane. Meanwhile, Giovinco has dropped into midfield with Bradley in the first line, meaning Toronto still has an extra man if they can find him.

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Remember: Toronto’s aim is to separate Philly’s horizontal lines of defense from each other. Their deep ball rotation draws in Sapong, and Bradley has dropped deep to find space away from Ilsinho. Once Philly’s attackers are bypassed, TFC begins the actual work of probing the midfield.

Watch TFC’s attackers rotate into spaces that others leave. First Delgado drops into the deepest midfield role to receive the ball. Giovinco moves across to the right to fill Delgado’s space, and this opens a gap to Altidore, who checks back and looks to immediately find a player facing forward. This is a key element to Toronto’s buildups, and it has become more common around the world as the striker role has taken on more creative duties. Altidore’s check draws Jack Elliott forward, but once the striker recognizes he’s pulled a defender, his only goal is to find a creator facing forward. In this case, it’s Giovinco, and the Italian immediately looks to attack the space Elliott left, barely missing Vazquez as he occupies it.

It’s also telling to look at the options this shape gives Toronto. As soon as Picault commits to pressuring Delgado in the center, the midfielder has the option to return the ball to Drew Moor, and then Toronto is attacking up the wing, with Fabinho forced to step high to the wingback and Giovinco isolated against Oguchi Onyewu. That’s a matchup the home side will take all day (provided Gooch doesn’t injure the little guy).

Transition D strong

It wasn’t all bad for Philly’s defense, though. While TFC did find it too easy to move the ball through the Union’s spacious shape, the visitors were often more coordinated playing transition defense.

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Above, Gaddis’ poor header becomes a break for Toronto. But the Union defensive line is not pushed too deep, halting their retreat above the edge of the box. Additionally, Philly keeps their back line narrow, and Epps’ recovery forces a wide, early pass to Morrow that prevents him from charging in behind Gaddis.
The Union have actually been quite good at these recoveries all season, with the bigger issue being that they have to do them so often each match.

Osorio first half passing. Wow.

Osorio plays big

Toronto’s big four are formidable, but the Canadian’s are downright unstoppable right now because their role players are doing their jobs so doggone well. And on Wednesday night, the role player shining brightest was Jonathan Osorio.

Look at the graphic of Osorio’s first half passing. It’s glorious.

Even more satisfying for Greg Vanney, Osorio was glorious in exactly the way his coach wanted him to be. After the match, Vanney said, “With Victor [Vazquez] out there, this means Oso doesn’t have to be the final ball all the time and we leave that to Mark [Delgado] at times. He takes a bit of that burden and [Osorio] can be what he is which is an outstanding possession oriented player who can move the ball around.”

Osorio’s movement was masterful. He proactively probed Philly’s defensive structure, finding out where he had to be to attract Ray Gaddis, and where he could set up to distract Bedoya from Vazquez. Watch below as Osorio pulls Gaddis around while trying to free up space for Altidore to attack down the wing.

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They key moment is early, when Osorio recognizes that Gaddis is tight to him. He pulls the fullback toward the middle, hoping that Altidore or Vazquez will check inside then find Morrow up the wing. They don’t, because Bedoya and Medunjanin rotate fairly quickly. Instead, TFC goes wide, and Osorio moves back to the wide area.
Even more impressive is Osorio’s work below.

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Philly, with Ilsinho deep enough to be part of a midfield three, defends well and forces TFC backward. Ilsinho’s good approach forces Bradley to turn back the way he came, and everybody has stepped forward well. But as TFC retreats, Osorio makes a run across the pitch, picking up the ball as he goes and allowing Toronto to immediately bring the ball right back down the throats of the Union defense. This is trouble for Philly, who have made an unfortunate habit of losing focus during games.

For Union fans, Osorio’s stellar performance was a bit of a gut punch. On a team that controlled possession, Alejandro Bedoya is capable of putting in intelligent, mobile, space-creating performances every bit as good as the Canadian international, but the Union have rarely created situations that play to their captain’s strengths.

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Above, Bedoya makes a run designed to open a gap at the top of the box for Ilsinho. It’s not a perfect movement, but given that no other proactive movements are being made, it does open space for a player with a big shot.

Unfortunately, Ilsinho is slow to take the space. And since Epps doesn’t recognize the consequences of Bedoya’s run, he does not look to the space either.

Instead, Epps plays the ball to Bedoya. This simple mistake has been a hallmark for Philly’s season and Bedoya’s tenure at the club. The midfielder’s best attribute — his reading of the game and space creation from that — has found a tension with his Designated Player role and Jim Curtin’s insistence that the team find Bedoya in good positions. Instead of looking to the space Bedoya creates, teammates look to get Bedoya on the ball. And so the offense continues to sputter.

Movement in transition

For all TFC’s dominance, the Union had eight first half recoveries in the opponent’s half. And they turned those into… zero shots on goal. In fact, Philly’s first half shooting map is about as bad as it gets.

A big, big problem for the Union throughout the season has been turning transitions into chances. They just don’t do it with any regularity. First and foremost, this is because they lack any consistent, creative presence in the final third. That is not Bedoya’s game, and while it may be something Medunjanin can do, he’s not in the final third enough to do it. Alberg needs too much time on the ball to be a transition quarterback, and Ilsinho struggles to differentiate between the value of a low percentage but exciting pass and a risky but worthwhile one.
Additionally, though, the Union’s runs in transition are static and vertical. Below, watch Toronto’s movement in transition.

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Osorio starts in the center, but curves his run around to the back post as Delgado cuts inside. These angles create space.
In contrast, here is a Union counterattack.

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Sapong’s run is straight ahead. Ilsinho’s run is confoundingly straight ahead (he could have peeled back post or cut in short to support the ball, but does neither).
Toronto, despite being in full retreat, is never troubled.

As usual, the Union worked extremely hard defensively only to be let down by their ability to create chances. Such is the story of the season.


  1. Adam Schorr says:

    There was a moment, I want to say it was the 82nd or 83rd minute, that was emblematic of everything wrong with the Union. Bedoya gets the ball in acres of space coming down the midright. He looks up and sees 3 teammates standing around, back to goal, staring at him. Sapong halfheartedly checks back, then gives up after 2 steps. Bedoya is eventually forced to recycle the ball and they lose possession a few seconds later. Bedoya can create, but you can’t give a guy 3 paper clips and a string and ask him to build a bridge.

  2. I feel like due to his work rate and defensive effort no one wants to come out and say “CJ is a bad offensive striker”.

    All these problems with our offense, static movement, dumb runs, inability to create chances. I mean, the striker is basically option #1 to provide these things going forward. Yet no one will ever call out CJ or expect better because “he put in a hard working shift!”

    • I don’t think this is a full picture by any means. While it’s true that CJ doesn’t make Wondolowski-type incisive runs, he does a hell of a lot of other things — and I’m not talking about a “hard working shift”. He occupies center backs, plays hold up, cleans up around the box, and makes brilliant passes. (And that’s to say nothing of his defensive workrate, BTW, which is important for our current system.) He’s scored 12 goals on a team with no #10, on which he is essentially getting zero service. When he does get service — as in the Dallas game, when Ilsinho decided to do his Messi impersonation — he responded brilliantly.

      Do you criticize David Villa because he can’t play hold-up? Different strikers do different things. I think it’s largely unfair to criticize Sapong, after the season he’s had, under the circumstances in which he’s had it, until you see what he does with a real #10. If that ever happens.

      • I feel like I hear alot about what he’s done for this team, but this team sucks, we hate them, and we are in a race to be the worse team in the league.

      • Whatever you think of the overall roster build, CJ is definitely a core member that we need to hold onto. I don’t blame CJ for one second on the season the Union have had this year. He’s one goal off of Giovinco right now, 10th in Golden Boot, and above players like Adi, Larin, Dempsey, Altidore, Wando, etc.

      • Chris Gibbons says:

        CJ doesn’t crack the Top 10 of Union Problems. “He’s scored 12 goals on a team with no #10, on which he’s essentially getting zero service” is the most succinct summary of his contributions. He’s playing two positions at the same time AND scoring as many goals as David Villa.

  3. Tactical Analysis:
    Toronto FC – all the tactics
    Union – none of the tactics

  4. I’ve been perplexed at the seemingly 4-4-2 defensive setup all year. It does not make any sense, least of all for a team who claims they want to high press. Also the “we are a 4-2-3-1 team” talk really doesn’t make much sense when your plan is to give up the advantages of the formation when the other team has the ball.

  5. Not sure where I read it, but it is apt….
    The U played this game with all the tactical aplomb of a teen mashing buttons on FIFA 17

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