Toronto FC: Tactical Breakdown of TFC’s 3-4-1-2 Formation

Aug 14, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney observes action from the sidelines during the second half of the Dynamo-Toronto FC match at BBVA Compass Stadium. The match finished in a 1-1 draw. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports
Aug 14, 2016; Houston, TX, USA; Toronto FC head coach Greg Vanney observes action from the sidelines during the second half of the Dynamo-Toronto FC match at BBVA Compass Stadium. The match finished in a 1-1 draw. Mandatory Credit: Erik Williams-USA TODAY Sports /

Toronto FC has started the season unbeaten in its first five games. This a tactical breakdown of TFC head coach Greg Vanney’s 3-4-1-2 system, specifically how it worked during their 2-2 tie against Atlanta United.

Toronto FC have been playing 3-4-1-2 consistently for the better part of a year now, using it throughout last season all the way to the MLS Cup final. It was born largely out of necessity, to get Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco playing up top together.

There are only so many systems that play two forwards, as most teams opt for one forward and an extra attacking midfielder.

Justin Morrow and Steven Beitashour are relied upon for all the width in the team, with everyone else playing narrow roles. With less coverage from fullbacks, Vanney added a third centre-back to cover the defence.

Here is how it looks:

There is plenty of space for Morrow and Beitashour to run into, which pins the other team back. The crosses they provide are also a huge part of Altidore’s game as a physical presence up front.

Michael Bradley drops deeper to collect the ball in front of the defence. This is crucial to get the play moving, a role that Andrea Pirlo and Xabi Alonso made popular over the last decade.

The wide centre-backs move to the sidelines to create passing options to relive Bradley of any pressure when pressed.

Giovinco will drop deeper to collect the ball and use his feet to attack the defence. Armando Cooper works as Bradley’s legs. If a pass deep cannot be made, Cooper will get the ball from Bradley and dribble the ball up the field to gain ground instead.

In attack they look like this:

The faults of this formation have started showing as opposition teams get used to it and more film becomes available. Atlanta United head coach Gerardo Martino did a terrific job of this.

Once again it’s crucial to note just how little width there is in the lineup, and those providing it are defenders by trade.

Atlanta played 4-4-2 knowing they would have less of the ball at BMO field. What they did was force the ball on the defenders, who are the least dangerous going forward.

They did this by forcing pressure on Bradley and not letting him get a passing lane and limiting his time on the ball. Bradley used his wide centre-backs as relief options and for the most part Atlanta let them have the ball.

This meant Eric Zavaleta and Chris Mavinga had the most time on the ball. They stood around the half-way line with no passing options, while Atlanta’s 10 outfielders marked the seven attackers of TFC.

This was an exceptional game-plan from Martino, as Mavinga and Zavaleta were ineffective with the ball.

The few times TFC did break, it was through man-of-the-match Cooper. He was the outlet pass for Bradley. The Panama international had to use his pace and dribbling ability to beat his man and move the ball up.

This is a low-risk game plan for Atlanta, as it takes a lot of effort and doesn’t always come off for Cooper. Once again even when he got into their half, the deep Atlanta defence gave him little options.

TFC got their success through their quality while Altidore and Giovinco used the service Cooper provided to create a special goal. Morrow and Beitashour then combined six yards out to score the second.

That though is a low-success-rate-play. It’s a risky game-plan if TFC are going to continue to rely on their full-backs for goals this year.

Here is how Atlanta set up:

Note the space Mavinga and Zavaleta have. With four at the back, those positions would usually be occupied by more attack minded full-backs.

This system also basically renders Bono and Moor useless. Neither can make a pass of any real danger when given the ball, other than to recycle it to one of the two wide centre-backs.

When Atlanta did have the ball, they used the wide centre-backs once again as a weak point to attack. They used the space between centre-backs to get their two strikers in between them and exploit their lack of pace.

It worked like a charm.

Hector Villalba scored two goals on the counter-attack, easily getting beyond Bradley and running at Mavinga. There is a lot of space to run into and it’s extremely difficult for the centre-backs to defend while running back to their own goal.

Morrow and Beitashour have to make sure they don’t get caught too high up the field as well. The wingers of Atlanta can break behind them and create a four-on-four going towards Bono in net.

Important to remember that for Morrow’s goal they were in the opposition six yard box, far far from their own net.

Here is how the counter attack worked:

You can see how quickly Moor becomes isolated running towards his own goal, while Mavinga and Zavaleta have a foot-race with the Atlanta attackers. It’s chaos for defenders.

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By no means is Atlanta’s game plan fool-proof either. It does rely on resolute defending as well as decent service for the men up front. If the long ball is too deep they won’t get to it, if it’s too short Bradley and Cooper can recover in time.

Atlanta also had to take the few chances they were going to get, relying on a high shooting percentage. They’re not going to be able to sustain possession in 4-4-2 and won’t, thus won’t have as many opportunities to score.

Every formation has its counter formation. Hopefully Greg Vanney will have learnt a lesson from Martino’s 4-4-2.

Next: 4 Questions for TFC to Answer This Season

What are your thoughts on TFC’s 3-4-1-2 setup? Do you believe it is still an effective tactical formation, or have recent results convinced you Vanney will need to be more flexible with his game plans? Share your thoughts in the comments section.