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article imageTFC stifle Red Bulls with high pressing & defensive organization

By Tyrrell Meertins     Mar 7, 2016 in Sports
Toronto FC have made a habit of producing quality performances in recent season openers and Gregg Vanney’s men continued this trend with a resilient performance at Red Bull Arena.
Often criticized for his insistence on utilizing a 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 last season, one of Vanney’s major shifts in the off-season has seen TFC shift towards 4-3-3, which at times resembled a defensive-minded 4-5-1. Jozy Altidore’s absence with a hamstring injury meant Sebastian Giovinco started upfront, with youngsters Daniel Lovitz and Tsubasa Endoh operating in wide positions.
The other notable aspect of TFC’s performance was their pressing from the front, which successfully negated the Red Bulls attempt to build attacks from the back. The wide players quickly closed down the full-backs, while Will Johnson and Jonathan Osorio stepped forward to press Felipe and Dax McCarty, leaving Michael Bradley with the job of marking Sacha Kljestan. TFC’s approach out of possession in recent years has revolved around retreating into their shape, but here, their varied dynamic pressing forced several issues in the early stages.
Essentially the biggest area of concern for the Reds is in midfield where Michael Bradley operates in a holding role. While Bradley wasn’t poor, here, it took two minutes for Lloyd Sam to receive the ball goal-side of the TFC captain, further highlighting the American’s limited discipline. The issue with Bradley is that he’s eager to step forward to press the opposition, which makes it simple to bypass the American with short passing combinations — the Red Bulls’ few chances followed this pattern.
The hosts created their best chance of the half when Kljestan received a McCarty pass behind Bradley, which resulted in Sam combining with Bradley Wright-Phillips only to fire his shot over the net. Red Bulls full-backs Lawrence and Sal Zizzo offered sources of creativity through their crossing from wide-areas, but wayward finishing prevented a Red Bulls opener.
Red Bull manager, Jesse Marsch, may have targeted Bradley, but Grella and Sam’s narrow positioning benefited TFC out of possession. Central areas were too congested for the hosts to consistently manufacture chances, while the full-backs occasionally broke forward due to mental lapses from Lovitz and Endoh.
With the Reds sitting deep in their half and the full-backs maintaining cautious positions, Vanney’s men rarely enjoyed lengthy spells of possession in the opposition’s half. However, TFC’s attacking ploy was clear throughout, as Bradley and Johnson quickly smashed passes into the channels for Sebastien Giovinco to chase once they regained possession of the ball throughout the first half.
Although this method of attack proved unsuccessful in the opening half — partially due to exceptional defending from Gideon Baah — Giovinco’s aim to isolate Marsch’s centre-backs in transition should have served as a warning to instruct one of the full-backs to sit deeper when the hosts pushed forward.
“I thought he [Baah] was very good. Clearly on the ball he was fantastic.  I think him and Ronald [Zubar] cut out a lot of plays and made it very hard on Giovinco,” said Marsch.
“Him [Baah] and Ronald both were big positives on the day. I actually thought then the way that Dax [McCarty] and Felipe controlled the mid field for a lot, won a lot of balls, tried to set plays up ahead of them. Toronto made things tight and we weren't sharp enough at creating concrete advantages and finishing the ones we had off.”
Marsch’s men gained ascendancy of the match when TFC’s pressing decreased in the second half, but even then, the hosts were held to one legitimate goal-scoring chance at the expense of positional breakdowns in central areas. McCarty nearly created the opener when he slid a pass behind the TFC defence for Wright-Phillips, but great goal-keeping from Clint Irwin stalled a shot, thus leading to Grella firing a loose ball into the side-netting.
Giovinco served as an isolated figure upfront for large portions of the second half, but the current Major League Soccer MVP once again proved decisive in the winner, through TFC’s sole route to goal. Likewise, the buildup to both goals highlighted TFC’s solidity without the ball as they dispossessed the hosts in midfield and swiftly launched counters.
It was Bradley’s pass into the left channel that ignited Giovinco’s break down the left, thus leading to a cross into that box that witnessed Lawrence penalized for pulling down Endoh. Shortly afterwards, the Reds took advantage of the hosts pushing men forward, with Delgado winning possession in midfield and combining with Giovinco on a 2v2 break to double the away side’s lead.
"I can't say I am surprised with the result," Toronto head coach Greg Vanney said
"We did what we said we would do: Give ourselves a chance by defending well and get the chance to win the game, whether through transition or whatever the case may be."
Despite a few scares within their box, this performance should serve as an ideal template on how to play on the road against top opposition. Vanney’s tactical acumen and TFC’s defensive shape are the few significant aspects that determine the Reds’ success this season, and though this is the first game of a long season, both the coach and players deserve credit for their pragmatic execution against arguably the best team in the Eastern conference.
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