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article imageRyan Nelsen's tactical modifications guide TFC past Columbus

By Tyrrell Meertins     Apr 6, 2014 in Sports
One of the various characteristics an elite manager possesses is the ability to identify and correct errors that their side encounters.
While it’s evident that Ryan Nelsen is nowhere near that level –– due to his brief managerial career –– the Toronto FC manager astutely addressed the issues that arose in last week’s loss against Real Salt Lake.
TFC were clear underdogs heading into Crew Stadium, and without the likes of Jermain Defoe, Doneil Henry or Steven Caldwell, Nelsen’s men faced a daunting task. One of the many changes in Nelsen’s lineup included Kyle Bekker slotting into midfield with Michael Bradley, Dwayne De Rosario behind Gilberto, and a makeshift centre-back pairing of Bradley Orr and youngster Nick Hagglund.
With Nelsen forced to make several changes in the lineup it was astonishing to see the TFC manager adopt an adventurous approach. The away side dropped into two narrow banks of four without the ball, and pressed Columbus in midfield. Alvaro Rey and Jackson worked tirelessly in and out of possession, while Bradley and Bekker sat ahead of their back four and limited space between the lines.
Gregg Berhalter’s men were stifled in central areas –– Dominic Orduro received minimal service, and Federico Higuain’s creative threat in the final third was properly negated. Nelsen learned from Javier Morales’ stupendous display last week, and ensured the Crew playmaker received the ball in deep positions and wide areas.
Nelsen’s side’s narrow shape left wide areas vacant throughout the match, but Justin Morrow’s flawless first half display kept the home side quiet. Although Berhalter's men moved into key areas down the flanks, their deliveries were poor, and TFC’s makeshift centre-back pair made a few timely interventions to preserve Julio Cesar’s clean-sheet. Nelsen’s side was rarely troubled over 90 minutes as Columbus’s key attacking players were shackled.
"I attribute this loss to two things, a bad start to the game and to a very well organized Toronto FC," Berhalter said.
Bradley, however, produced another remarkable performance at the heart of the TFC midfield. The American’s partnership with Bekker provided the balance that TFC lacked in Salt Lake City. Bradley performance epitomized TFC’s display; he was defensively solid without the ball -- consistently breaking up play in midfield -- and offensively proactive as he charged forward to ignite attacks when he won possession.
It took the American 12 minutes to make an impact as he signaled to Mark Bloom that he wanted the ball in half-space, and his well-timed run allowed him to fire a low shot past Steve Clark. Subsequently, Bradley drove through the Columbus midfield on a few occasions and played passes to his teammates in the final third, but they lacked the required quality to double TFC’s lead.
While there may be doubts regarding Nelsen’s 4-4-2, his slight modifications to the system ensured that Columbus’ productivity within the final third decreased, and that Higuain wouldn’t exploit space between the lines. Bekker’s tactical discipline and positional awareness enabled Bradley to surge forward, Jackson and Rey worked tirelessly on the flanks to protect their full-backs, and as a unit TFC defended superbly; De Rosario led from the front, while Orr and Hagglund were sensational at the back.
“I thought we were magnificent today,” Nelsen said. “It’s very hard to single one individual out because I thought everybody was just brilliant. Nick Hagglund and Bradley Orr at the back looked like they’d been playing together for a long time together and Jackson had one of the best games I’ve seen him play on both sides of the ball."
Nelsen employed a reactive strategy in the second half, and apart from a few tense moments, Columbus didn’t pose a threat in the final third. This was a remarkable TFC performance that showcased the side’s depth, and an improved mental toughness within the squad.
Nine points from the opening four matches is a step in the right direction.
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