Room for improvement, but Defoe and Bradley proving decisive

Toronto FC are two for two – they are 100 per cent this season.

Just take that in for a second.

A team with such a history, albeit a brief one, of MLS mediocrity is turning the corner, and in no short part due to splashing the cash this past post-season.

Make no mistake, TFC’s fantastic start to the season can be attributed to the recent huge investments into the club. But what an investment they’ve turned out to be.

Recently-signed Michael Bradley is a commanding figure, that simple. His combativeness and awareness are evident, making him stand out head-and-shoulders above every other midfielder he’s played with or been up against so far this season.

He is a calming presence, always wanting the ball and then distributing it with ease and authority; he is rapidly becoming (hell, he already is) the fulcrum of Toronto FC.

Jermain Defoe, similarly, is already proving worth the money.

The diminutive Englishman has struck three times – twice on his debut against Seattle – in only two MLS appearances for Toronto.

Despite being heavily man-marked by defenders, Defoe has managed to find and create the space to score three very different goals.

He has shown that his quality, far above the vast majority of the league, allows him to dribble past defenders with ease and slot coolly past the goalkeeper.

But maybe more importantly, he’s shown (with his finish in Toronto’s 1-0 win over D.C. United) that his predatory instincts are top notch. Defoe can score while feeding off of scraps.

And he may have to get used to that.

Despite the obvious qualities of Bradley and Defoe, Toronto FC are, stylistically, stuck in the past.

Manager Ryan Nelson has the team set up in a rigid 4-4-2 formation that leaves Bradley and Toronto-born Jonathan Osorio (who has shown flashes of his ability this season) with the impossible task of winning the midfield battle.

On top of the fact that two lone central midfielders will always struggle when up against three-man midfields, Toronto’s midfield pairing is receiving very little defensive help from their wide men.

In a 4-4-2, the wide players must be equally as good at coming back to cover ground as they are at going forward and creating chances – but this hasn’t been the case for Toronto so far.

Jackson and Alvaro Rey, who have started both games so far this season, have provided extremely little defensive stability from the flanks. Both players are tricky, attacking minded wingers and have often left TFC exposed out wide.

This has forced Bradley, Osorio and Toronto’s backline to attempt longer passes up to the strikers. I may not be Jermain Defoe (although I, too, am vertically challenged) but it seems unlikely that forcing him into aerial duels with centre halves suits his skill-set.

Toronto could very much do with a change of style.

Switching to a 4-2-3-1 formation, essentially dropping a striker (neither Gilberto nor De Rosario has looked like contributing much) for a third midfielder, could help to balance out the problems in TFC’s team.

With an extra midfield body on the pitch, Rey and Jackson would have the freedom to concentrate more on attacking, and their lack of defensive qualities wouldn’t have as great an impact on Toronto.

This could allow Osorio to play slightly higher up the pitch (he’s shown his eagerness to dribble with the ball and attempt incisive passes) while partnering Bradley and a more defensive midfield player behind.

Most importantly, Defoe would thrive in this set-up. With more control of the midfield and more focus on moving the ball in the middle of the pitch, Toronto would have the capability of playing controlled passes for Defoe to run onto, rather than hopeful long balls for him to compete for.

But Ryan Nelson, plying the majority of his trade for sides like Blackburn Rover and Queens Park Rangers in his playing days, is unlikely to waiver from the old-school English-style 4-4-2.

And maybe he has no reason to. The team is two for two, and both new signings have looked like great value for money.

Toronto will travel to Real Salt Lake this weekend, and with Defoe and Bradley looking good, they will be confident of putting in a good performance.

But are the performances of Defoe and Bradley coming as a result of the formation and style? Or are TFC’s new superstars simply papering over the cracks?

Time will tell, but it’s certainly worth thinking about.

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One Response to Room for improvement, but Defoe and Bradley proving decisive

  1. Pingback: Real Salt Lake rampage sends Toronto FC back down to earth |

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