Sweet, the two MLS Cup finalists back to back on the road 2,500 miles apart. Toronto in particular was probably the strongest team in MLS last year posting the highest expected goal differential to go alongside the third highest goal differential. They also play the more rare 3-5-2 / 5-3-2, so Atlanta will have to adapt.
I should note: I got much of last week’s scouting report dead wrong. Seattle *did* in fact press high and Almiron & Carmona did *not* start. Alas, we go again.
Expected goals data below is from AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com
Toronto’s Results thus far
- @ Real Salt Lake – Draw 0-0 (ExpG 1.77 – 1.35)
- @ Philadelphia – Draw 2-2 (ExpG 1.71 – 1.31)
- Trailed after 11′. Equal from 47′ until 71′. Equal from 73′ on.
- @ Vancouver – Won 0-2 (ExpG 0.48 – 0.99)
- Went ahead in at 76′.
- VS Sporting Kansas CIty – Draw 0-0 (ExpG 0.82 – 0.74)
They started the season with 3 straight road games (never easy), and it looks like they’re creating the kind of shots that would generate between 0 and 1 goals per game on average, and conceding something that would equate to between 0 and 2.
So far their most dangerous players as you would guess are Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, both putting up shots worth about a half goal per game in expected goals value. And, both have contributed a fraction of an expected assist per game based on the quality of their key passes. Victor Vazquez is averaging right around 2 key passes per game.
Toronto play the rare 3-5-2 / 5-3-2. Three centre backs in Moore, Hagglund, and Zavaleta. Bradley sits in front of them in the #6 role with Vazquez and Osorio in #8 type roles slightly ahead of him. Beitashour and Morrow (more aggressively) bomb up and down the flanks as wingbacks. And Jozy and Giovinco create things as a forward duo.
The 3-5-2 that Toronto runs has some nice benefits, and it seems to have played a large part in their success last season.. Firstly, it allows them to play Jozy and Giovinco (their two most dangerous players) together in a partnership, which is harder to pull off in a 4-3-3 /4-2-3-1 setup. And the 3-5-2 allows them to accomplish this without sacrificing width (in a 4-4-2 diamond) or giving up the 3-man central midfield (in a flat 4-4-2).
The downside, at least on the surface, is that whenever you have a 3 man back line, unless you’re playing against 2 forwards, the 3 CBs have some decisions to make with how to mark a lone striker, or worse a false 9. If the conventional wisdom of having a
spare man at the back is true, then 3 CBs keeping an eye on 1 forward is overkill, but 3 CBs marking 1 forward and 2 wide forwards is inadequate. So if a team attacks the 3-5-2 with width, those 2 wingbacks might have to hang back a bit to help out in defense. That equilibrium (turning the 3-5-2 into a 5-3-2) is probably the most mainstream plan of attack Atlanta would strive for — force the opposition back into their half with pressure and attacking width, and take advantage of numbers advantages elsewhere, while watching out for the counter.
The other fascinating option is to give those CBs a more difficult decision and to play with no true striker. Let’s say Asad lines up centrally on the forward line but keeps drifting back to occupy the space around Bradley with Almiron. That could be troublesome for Toronto. Central defense is either hanging out with nothing to do, or stepping up further forward to avoid idleness and presenting some nice opportunities to play Tito in over the top or through. Surrounding Bradley with skilled dribblers and passers who can press him in possession also sounds like a good idea based on years and years of watching him play for the US national team. And something tells me Atlanta, one of the most throughball-happy teams around, will enjoy targeting any gaps that form on the Toronto back line.
Examples of Toronto struggling at home from last year?
I went looking for examples of Toronto losing the chance creation battle at home last year, and there’s really not much. Only in one game (which Toronto actually drew 3-3 over New York Red Bulls on September 18th), were they edged 1.03 – 1.37 in terms of expected goals. But here’s the thing, for the first 3/4 of that game Toronto played a 4-4-2 diamond, and only after going down 3-1 did they switch to the 3-5-2 that Atlanta will face on Saturday. So, honestly I don’t see a great example that Atlanta should be trying to emulate from last year to take down TFC at their place. Sometimes the team you’re playing is just good and good at home. Same can be said for the Seattle game last week.
I think Atlanta’s best scoring chances could come off of turnovers in midfield (surprise) when Toronto has it’s back 3 spread wide and wingbacks pushed high to start possession. It will be difficult, but it might make sense to let Toronto’s CBs play the ball around the back to each other, and wait to press at the next level of build up (e.g. Bradley).
For what’s it’s worth Hagglund is the worst passer of the 3 CBs, statistically, through 4 games this year and all of last year. Perhaps you shade the ball in that direction if you do press the back line.
This one is tough, like last week, I think Atlanta would be happy with a point. But I don’t anticipate Martino will slow down the press or play particularly differently. Assuming Almiron, Asad, and Carmona play, the talent is there to compete with Toronto to a man, but we still just don’t yet know where the elite chances will come from without Martinez, and especially against a puzzling defensive setup. Atlanta will press high. I think Toronto will press the ball as it enters the center circle area and beyond, but otherwise won’t trouble Pirez and Parkhurst in possession. Toronto has struggled lately to create chances but I don’t see any sustainable reason behind why. If all of their starters are available, they will be formidable. I would guess 2-2, or perhaps 2-1 to Toronto.