Mexico 0-0 USA – Americans pass a big test but El Tri disappoint.

Starting XI’s

Mexico boss Manuel Jose de la Torre made one change from Friday’s draw in Honduras, inserting the impressive young Diego Reyes in at centre back for the suspended skipper, Francisco Rodriguez. Reyes, on his way to Porto in the summer, is a player I have watched for some time and he certainly is no drop off from Rodriguez.

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Jurgen Klinsmann was forced into two changes from Friday’s 1-0 win over Costa Rica, with the injured duo Clarence Goodson and Jermaine Jones being replaced by Matt Besler and Maurice Edu.

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  • The national anthems bellowed around Estadio Azteca, both sides desperate for their first win of the Hex set up, the game kicked off and then things changed.
  • It immediately didn’t feel as hostile. I wasn’t inside the stadium but even watching on television I could sense it. The crowd didn’t seem behind their team as much as they usually are and although Mexico dominated the early period of the game they didn’t really threaten Brad Guzan’s goal. What they did do was get early yellow cards for Matt Besler and DeMarcus Beasley, thanks to excellent runs by Javier Aquino and Giovani Dos Santos.
  • Aquino had a fine game, sticking to the touchline to stretch the field, being a good outlet for Carlos Salcido’s long balls and causing Beasley numerous amounts of problems with his positioning. The young winger was actually a rare bright spot for a Mexican team having many issues in the final third.
  • The support given to Javier Hernandez was very poor. American defenders Besler and, in particular, Omar Gonzalez were excellent but, in truth, Mexico’s qualities weren’t on show to test them fully.
  • You could of course take the line that an American team, stacked with MLS players, were outstanding in defence and that, perhaps, is very fair and certainly Klinsmann found out things about some of his players today, but I still felt Mexico’s issues were more to do with their own problems rather than any caused by their opponents. They were a team very easy to defend against and that is very unlike Mexico at the Azteca, with one of the game’s best finishers in their side.
  • Giovani Dos Santos is a very frustrating player. When the team is flying he can be the real leader of the orchestra, pinning passes into key spaces and dribbling by opponents, but when things get tight he disappears. His overall showing in this game highlighted just why he has had a difficult time taking over club matches. Playing off the striker, for long periods, he drifted out of the game, picked up the ball in deep areas, was poor with set piece deliveries and didn’t make it hard defensively on either Edu or Michael Bradley.
  • With 18 minutes left, the pressure on Dos Santos to create was eased when left back Jorge Torres was withdrawn for forward Angel Reyna and he immediately made a difference, opening up an American defence before Edu chopped down Aquino in the box for what appeared to be a penalty. It wasn’t given.
  • The US were always going to need some luck as well if they were going to avoid losing in Mexico for a World Cup qualifier for just the second time and that was it.
  • As the clock ran down the Americans actually defended as a unit even better. They got deeper, naturally, but stuck to their task very well and only really came under threat from a couple of corners (of which Mexico had 15!). Their second ever away point against Mexico is a massive bonus for the team inside an extremely competitive Hex. They are far from guaranteed a spot in Brazil but this will be a big boost for them and, perhaps more importantly, their coaching staff.
  • Mexico are far too talented to make qualification too difficult. Three points and no wins from their first three games is a major surprise and it will be interesting to see what the reaction will be to two more dropped points. de la Torre is under big pressure to keep his job and it won’t have been helped that his team was booed off the field at the end. He may focus on the non-penalty call but, deep down, he is sure to have a lot more than just that on his mind right now.

Chile 2-0 Uruguay – Sampaoli goes with a back three to leave the Copa America Champions in real danger.

Starting XI’s

Jorge Sampaoli had to do without the suspended Alexis Sanchez for this match, just his second in charge of the national team, and the Argentine boss brought back memories of the team under Marcelo Bielsa by playing a back three with high wing backs.

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Oscar Tabarez was without Maxi Pereira – so Matias Aguirregaray was the natural replacement – and he made three other significant changes picking Edinson Cavani instead of Diego Forlan, Gaston Ramirez instead of Cristian Rodriguez and Egidio Arevalo Rios instead of Diego Perez. Arevalo and Cavani, in particular, were not surprising selections seeing they had come on in the second half of Friday’s 1-1 draw with Paraguay. Interestingly, he chose not to play Diego Perez alongside Arevalo, opting again for an attack minded lineup with Nicolas Lodeiro playing midfield.

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    • Crossbars and faces were hit, shinbones and Uruguayan right backs were run all over and systems and formations were swapped and swapped time and time again. It was a breathtaking match.
    • The first half was played at an incredible pace, with both teams taking it in turns to attack each other’s goal. Chile started really well, benefiting from a back three, by finding an extra man constantly in passing triangles. Uruguay had a good spell shortly after and during this time Chile countered well and opened the scoring from a casual ball over the top that wasn’t dealt with by the visitors. Aguirregaray took a touch, panicked and lost the ball and seconds later Esteban Paredes poked the Chileans into a 1-0 lead. Santiago exploded.
    • With emotions high in the stands and on the pitch, the game cruised into another gear, one I was unsure it could even find. Thankfully the referee was in good shape and was able to keep up with the match because this was a typical example of the modern day game being played at a ferocious pace.
    • Alvaro Pereira chopped down ‘the Pitbull’ Gary Medel when he left his studs raised to connect into his shin. Pereira  didn’t even see yellow when he should have been sent off. Shortly after, Luis Suarez punched Gonzalo Jara in the face in the lead up to a corner, one the visitors who claim crossed the line. It was certainly a night for the officials to be on their game. Phil Dowd wouldn’t have lasted a half let me tell you!
    • Aguirregaray was the final man to get booked in the first half when he chopped down Eugenio Mena, the left sided player who combined really well with Eduardo Vargas throughout. Aguirregaray was mercifully removed at half-time and although his replacement, Alejandro Silva, did hit the bar he also got booked and struggled up against Vargas, the game’s best player.
    • It was a real joy to watch Chile express themselves with the ball and Sampaoli’s system deserves a tremendous amount of credit for that. They pressured intelligently without the ball and were comfortable with it throughout.
    • It doesn’t take much to get Chilean fans to talk about Bielsa and they will be sure speaking of how much this side reminded them of his tonight. Even the changes Sampaoli made were something his fellow countryman would have done. Mati Fernandez brought a needed calmness in the midfield, when it was still 1-0, and then Carlos Carmona’s inclusion came at the exact same time as Diego Forlan came on the pitch. Tabarez countered and Sampaoli reacted perfectly.
    • As the game wore on it was impossible for both teams to keep up the intensity but Chile got a deserved second goal when Vargas cut in to find Fernandez whose ball to Isla opened up the Uruguay side. Fernando Muslera stopped Isla’s attempt but the ball fairly rolled to Vargas and the 23-year-old aptly finished the game off.
    • For Chile it was a massive three points, following four straight losses in qualifying, that will give them a real boost ahead of a winnable game at Paraguay in June. After that they finish with three of their last four games at home and now look a good bet to finish in one of the coveted top four spots for automatic qualification for Brazil 2014 (5th spot gives a playoff against Asia).
    • Uruguay on the other hand are in massive trouble. It is now a real possibility that the 2011 Copa America Champions may not make the World Cup. Venezuela’s 1-0 win over Colombia this evening puts Tabarez’s men in sixth place with five games to play, three of which are away from home including their next match, at Venezuela. The only two home games they have left are also very difficult, against Colombia and Argentina.
    • It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what has gone wrong for them but they do look a shadow of their formerselves in the transition and counter attack side of the game. Lodeiro in midfield was invisible, Ramirez was very poor once again and it is difficult for Cavani and Suarez to keep coming deep to receive the ball when those behind them are playing poorly. Tabarez is known for making key adjustments and his greatest test in this tenure as national team boss is right now. Not making the World Cup in Brazil would be nothing short of disaster for that nation and, quite honestly, a travesty for any of those who want to see the very best at the World Cup. Over to you Tabarez……

France 0-1 Spain – Xavi inspires the World Champions to an impressive victory in Paris.

Starting XI’s

Didier Deschamps moved France back to a 4-3-3 with Yohan Cabaye coming in for Olivier Giroud and also made two changes to his back four, replacing Gael Clichy and Mamadou Sakho with Patrice Evra and Laurent Koscielny.

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Vicente Del Bosque, who had Xavi announced fit before the game, chose Nacho Monreal at left back in place of the injured Jordi Alba and not surprisingly welcomed back Xabi Alonso alongside Sergio Busquets in central midfield, a partnership that did not start together in either draws against France and Finland in this group.

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  • This was a very good football match. Unlike the past two encounters between these sides (the QF in Euro 2012 and the 1-1 draw in October) this game was not one-sided but the best team still won.
  • Spain weren’t back to their best but played a game very similar to many they have won during the success in the last five years. At the heart of many of those wins has been Xavi and arguably the greatest footballer the country has ever produced was at his best in this game.
  • France’s system worked. They played a very narrow midfield three and Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba took in turns to press with Yohan Cabaye but they were still undone by the brains and precision of passing from Xavi and his Spanish team-mates. It is difficult to criticize the position deployed by the French trio yet the visitors were still able to get in behind them and create chances via the space they found.
  • Both Xavi, who blazed over the bar inside five minutes, and Xabi Alonso, who then fed Xavi for another chance soon after, did very well to get in behind the trio early and as the game wore on France naturally got deeper but still had no answer for Spain’s movement.
  • The biggest talking point in the first half came around a collision in the box between Pedro and Hugo Lloris. Andres Iniesta played a wonderful ball over the top and Pedro got in between the defence and ran in one-on-one with the ourushing ‘keeper. The Spanish winger then put the ball around Lloris before clattering into him. At first it looked like a stonewall penalty, and a red card, but upon reflection it appeared Pedro went down a little early before contact. Was it a foul? Maybe. Do you see them given more than not? Yes. However, that doesn’t mean referee Viktor Kassai got it wrong. We must be aware in situations like this of the rules. It is far too easy for a referee to say the player went down was fouled, there’s a red card and a penalty but for such a monumental game-changing decision the referee at the time HAS to be sure he was fouled. He judged he wasn’t and I think he got it right.
  • It would not be Pedro’s only decisive moment as the winger got the game’s only goal just before the hour when Monreal got the better of Christophe Jallet before sending an inviting cross in that Pedro just wanted to get on the end of. It was a scrappy finish but the desire he showed to get there before Patrice Evra was impressive.
  • Five minutes later, Pedro, now playing centre forward with Jesus Navas on for the quiet David Villa, should have made it 2-0 when he shot over from a cross by Navas.
  • France did have their own chances to score but you get the feeling that when Spain give them a chance they still remain in control, unless it is from a set-piece. This remains Spain’s biggest weakness and both Raphael Varane and Evra came very close to scoring from corners in the second half. Both plays said a lot about Victor Valdes. The first one saw him rush off his line like a lunatic, exposing his goal, while the second saw him produce a brilliant palm stop against the Manchester United left back.
  • Other chances came for the home side, usually created by the impressive Mathieu Valbuena who reveled cutting inside a lot to create openings, something you can afford to do against Spain playing on that side as Iniesta does the same and you don’t have to stay wide to stick to your defensive responsibilities.
  • Pogba had a good game in midfield but spoiled it with two high tackles in a minute inside the last 15 minutes, getting his marching orders by the ref. France does not need anymore undisciplined midfielders but it should be said he more than looked the part until that moment.
  • For Spain the three points take them back to where they will feel they belong. At the top of Group I. They can book their tickets to Brazil 2014 now as group winners. Three wins in their next three games – Finland(a), Belarus(h), Georgia(h) – will just make it a formality. Del Bosque will be delighted they passed such a stiff test and won yet another close game against top opposition.
  • France are used to qualifying for tournaments through the playoffs and will now have to get used that possibility again. Lots of positives came out of this for Deschamps but one major worry continues to be the form and play of Karim Benzema, who was jeered off when substituted late in this game.  He should no longer be an automatic name in the starting XI.


Azerbaijan 0-2 Portugal – Majestic Moutinho leads the press & delivers the key balls once again.

Starting XI’s

The home side managed by Berti Vogts made three changes to their dull 0-0 draw with Luxembourg on Friday, which was likely one of the worst matches the World Cup winning German has ever seen.

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Paulo Bento made two changes from the 3-3 draw with Israel, with Danny and Vieirinha replacing Silvestre Varela and the suspended Cristiano Ronaldo.

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  • Three points are three points and they certainly couldn’t have come at a better time for Portugal, who entered the game third in group F just behind Israel on goal difference.
  • Without Ronaldo and with Postiga playing up front it was absolutely no surprise that the winning goal came via a set piece, the third goal scored by Bruno Alves in qualifying, all coming via a header from a set piece.
  • In fact the goal today was remarkably similar to the one he scored in the reverse fixture earlier in qualifying. Watch today’s headed goal here. And now take a look at the 2:49 mark here when Joao Moutinho’s excellent corner finds the defender’s head once again.
  • Many will see the assist provided by Moutinho but once again the midfield maestro did so much more, including sending a great ball wide to Vieirinha that led to the corner that helped Portugal open the scoring.
  • Moutinho really is a special player and a pleasure to watch at the moment, who is in the form of his life. In this match his flexibility, movement and tactical intelligence meant Bento’s standard 4-3-3 was more like 4-2-3-1 in attack. This meant the Porto man was the leader of the press, regularly causing turnovers deep in his opponents half, and the holder of the key to unlock the Azerbaijan’s defence. Although this came via a set-piece and wasn’t a surprise, Bento knew he couldn’t rely on this and pushed Moutinho higher up than normal to get closer to Postiga.
  • Despite his goalscoring record for his country (25 goals) Postiga is not a great international forward and is not a man that can be relied on in such circumstances as this. Without Ronaldo, he certainly needed someone with Moutinho’s brain close to him and he had a couple of chances in the first half made by the Porto midfielder.
  • Most of Portugal’s chances came via the inventiveness of Moutinho and directness of Danny. Both players recognized the large gap between the lines of four and exposed the space centrally in behind Postiga, creating numerous chances in the first half.
  • Azerbaijan reluctance to bring their second bank of four deep came, once again, because of Moutinho who picked his moments to join the attack and sit deep inside a midfield three. In fact his performance was so complete you could make the argument that up against an inferior team, there really was no need for a Raul Meireles type in there and a second striker could have been more useful. More on this shortly.
  • The game changed in the 54th minute when English referee Andre Marriner sent off Rauf Aliyev for a second yellow card. The dismissal was certainly harsh on the forward who challenged high for a ball but didn’t make contact with his elbow. Although it was 0-0 at the time it would be too easy to say this helped Portugal score their goals, although it certainly helped them make key changes.
  • By this point Portugal were already dominating but with the home side down to 10-men Bento recognised immediately that Vogts played two deep lines of four and five with no striker. Meireles was rightly removed for striker Hugo Almeida as Moutinho could continue to be a deep lying playmaker and a difference maker further up the field in possession. He took his time wearing both masks but it was as the former, just four minutes after the substitution, when he sent a great ball in to Vieirinha that led to the key corner.
  • At 1-0 the contest was effectively and over but Portugal fans will be happy how they got a second, again through a wide area, when the excellent Fabio Coentrao found Almeida to head home. Coentrao was one of the brightest players on the night, a night when Bento’s full backs didn’t get forward as much, perhaps knowing that Moutinho would be the one to play closer to Danny and Vieirinha on the flanks.
  • Such games are never easy for teams like Portugal. In the wake of San Marino’s demolition to England on Friday many see games like this and expect an easy ride when the truth most international games are not like that. Portugal are also not built to see their dominance occur in the form of a scoreline. They are a patient team in possession that takes their time to break you down. They are far from perfect but with Moutinho and Ronaldo they have two world class stars who should ensure they are in Brazil, even if they need another playoff series to get there.

Toronto FC 2-1 Sporting KC – Organised TFC cut the strings from puppet master Zusi.

Starting XI’s

Ryan Nelsen made one change from last week’s loss in Vancouver with John Bostock coming in for Kyle Bekker, who spent the week in between suffering from the flu. Hogan Ephraim took Bekker’s spot behind Robbie Earnshaw with Bostock coming in on the right, shifting Reggie Lambe to the left.

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Kansas City boss Peter Vermes kept the same XI that came from behind to win 3-1 in Philadelphia on the opening weekend.

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Toronto FC stay organised and compact

It is one thing for a coach to talk about the need for his team to be organised and defensively solid, it is something else for the players to go out and do it. On Saturday Toronto FC, against one of the league’s best teams, did exactly that.

How? The move to a four band system has been essential to their improvement at the start of the season. Toronto are effectively playing a 4-4-1-1 at the moment with their wide players playing very deep. The fact it rarely turns into a 4-2-3-1 with the ball may be an indictment on the overall quality of the players but is also a sign that the players are coach-able and willing to stick to what they are asked of.


Playing with two deep banks of four has many disadvantages and can lead to an onslaught by the opposition if they pass the ball well and find gaps in the channels between them. However, despite their second half dominance, the visitors struggled to find space for their playmakers thanks to a combination of a poor final ball and good solid defending.

Toronto FC press intelligently

Playing on a difficult surface this early in the season means it was always tough to press as a unit throughout, but crucially Toronto FC put the plan in place to ensure the four band system was flexible. KC’s back four took the first four spots in overall pass attempts but Ephraim and Earnshaw still intelligently pressed the back four, which led to the first goal, while Jeremy Hall and Terry Dunfield worked well as a unit pressing and covering space at the same time in central midfield.

tfc press

TFC cut the strings from puppet master Zusi

Graham Zusi is a fine player and finds space better than most in this league. Zusi,  usually deployed on the right, loves to work overlaps with his full-back, Chance Myers, but more than anything he loves to come centrally to pull centre-backs out of position. On Saturday he had a difficult time doing any of that.

Vermes started Zusi in his usual spot on the right as he and Myers went up against Reggie Lambe and Ashtone Morgan in an interesting battle on the flanks. Lambe, who was very good defensively in Vancouver, was impressive again in this area despite a move to the left. Myers and Zusi’s attacking tendencies will always put their opponents on the back foot but Lambe stuck to the plan well, playing narrow to show his opponents the line and often shielding Morgan from Zusi’s movement.

Earlier in the first half here is a good example as to why it was important for Morgan and Lambe to work well as Zusi and Myers break by them….

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You will notice at the bottom of that image that this move got Nelsen up off the bench. Thankfully, for him, it ended with a wayward pass, something too familiar for the visitors. In total Zusi and Myers lost possession 42 times in the game, with a combined pass completion ratio of only 70% (76 of 108).

Lambe wouldn’t make the same mistake twice….

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In total, Lambe finished with four successful tackles and six key recoveries but the best news for him came seven minutes before the interval when Zusi was moved over to the left, mainly to try and get away from excellent work by Lambe and Morgan like this:

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Full backs vs Zusi

Zusi played the first 38 minutes on the right, the next seven on the left until half-time, the first eight minutes of the second half back on the right and then the rest of the game on the left. He finished with 11 successful crosses from 14 attempts and although that number is too high it is a sign that he was unable to influence the game deeper. Zusi only attempted five crosses against Philadelphia the week earlier yet had much more of an impact in the game.

Toronto’s full backs Richard Eckersley and Ashtone Morgan both kept their concentration levels high up against Zusi closing him down and forcing Sporting KC to look elsewhere for intervention.

Morgan steps up again to prevent Zusi from receiving ball in space…

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In the second half, with the American international now on the left, he comes from a deep position and Eckersley follows him rather than the onrushing full back Seth Sinovic who he knows won’t receive the ball…..

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Eckersley is proven right as Zusi comes centrally still tracked by the right back….

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The move would break down again. Although Sporting KC were the best team by far in the second half, scoring a goal on the break to cut the deficit. However, by taking away Zusi’s vision and intelligent running, Toronto forced the visitors to play a more direct style that suited them. Nelsen’s team are no where close to what he wants them to be personnel wise but such a performance tactically so early into his rookie year as coach is very positive.

What next?

Toronto travel to Montreal this Saturday to play a team who are the talk of MLS right now after impressive wins in Seattle and Portland. I will be sure to have a post later this month on the Impact. Sporting KC host Chicago in their home opener. Expect Zusi to be back pulling strings.

Exclusive: Toronto FC close in on Argentine forward Maximiliano Urruti to be their next DP

Max Urruti

Multiple sources have told me the unnamed forward from Argentina that Toronto FC are targeting is Maximiliano Urruti of Newell’s Old Boys.

The 22-year-old, who has been linked with many European clubs in the past six months including Palermo, Levante, Valencia and Helsingborgs, was watched closely by the club’s chief scout, Pat Onstad, recently and the club are trying to finalize details with the player’s representatives to bring him to Major League Soccer in the next few weeks.

Urruti, in his second full year at Old Boys, made his club debut during the Clausera season of 2011 and has seen his stock rise ever since thanks to some outstanding goals for La Lepra.

This is an excellent video, showing many of his skills in front of goal, that is sure to get Toronto FC fans excited at the prospect of number 37 applying his trade in the MLS for the Reds.

However, as South American Football expert Tim Vickery, of the BBC, tells me things haven’t gone as smoothly this season for Urruti: “He is an interesting striker who has lost his place in the first team as a result of the successful repatriation of Ignacio Scocco, but remains an interesting prospect – stocky and strong, able to play up front on his own or combine.”

ESPN South American columnist Sam Kelly, who hosts the excellent Hand Of Pod, issued similar sentiments, saying: “Urruti’s decent enough, but at 22 he’s only played about 30-odd first team games for Newell’s so far – which doesn’t seem like many for Argentina – and hasn’t exactly been tearing up trees as far as his scoring record is concerned. Good movement and link play, though, and he could do well playing as a second forward. His main problem has been having Scocco ahead of him at Newell’s so far this season, who’s been one of the best forwards in the league since returning.”

Urutti and Scocco both got on the score sheet for Gerardo Martino’s team in their last match on Friday against Belgrano, a game that saw Newell’s win 2-0 and help the 22-year-old get some much needed positive headlines, as Vickery explains.

He said: “Unfortunately, he has a racism cloud over him at the moment, after recently he was accused of abusing a Paraguayan.”

This took place last month when Olimpia defender Salustiano Candia issued a racist and discrimination complaint against Urruti after a Copa Libertadores match on the 14th of February.

Although the investigation is still pending it is unlikely to prevent him from missing games for Toronto FC if he signs. It appears the club will know by the end of this month if that will happen after Onstad this week returned from South America hopeful he can get his man.

Toronto FC President and General Manager Kevin Payne, who last week confirmed the club were looking at a young Argentine forward, declined to comment on Tuesday when asked about the club’s pursuit of Urruti.

Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 Toronto FC – Change of shape & tempo at half time gets Rennie’s team three points.

Starting XI’s

Head Coach Martin Rennie, whose Vancouver team played 4-3-3 most of last season, started with the 4-2-3-1 formation they trialed in pre-season and there were no major surprises in their starting XI after it was announced captain Jay DeMerit was fit to play. Turned out he was far from fully fit and left after seven minutes, replaced by Brad Rusin.

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Debut boss Ryan Nelsen opted for a tight and compact version of a 4-4-1-1 with his wide players in deep positions ensuring it wasn’t quite a 4-2-3-1, although that was the plan when they had the ball. Third overall pick Kyle Bekker played just off Robert Earnshaw in attack but made up a midfield three when not in possession.

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Lambe vs Rochat

The first half was uninspiring with both teams creating little which meant Toronto FC gained far more positives than Vancouver. The overall speed of the game suited the visitors who did a good job recognizing Vancouver’s threat down the left. Left back Alain Rochat stepped up a couple of times inside the first 15 minutes and played two excellent balls into a wide area behind the advancing Richard Eckersley for the speedy Kekutah Manneh and Darren Mattocks to run into. However, TFC reacted well by having Reggie Lambe come tighter on Rochat and that, with the combination of Rochat committing two needless fouls, pinned the left back deeper and by the end of the half the Rochat-Manneh combination on the left had been nullified with Manneh switching sides with the lively Daigo Kobayashi.

Rennie changes it up

During his half-time interview Rennie said he was disappointed with the amount of balls his team gave away in Toronto’s half and when he got to the dressing room to meet his players he informed rookie Manneh he would be removed for Nigel Reo-Coker. Manneh, who lost the ball 13 times in the first half, hadn’t had a terrible half but was too often in the positions Mattocks needed to be. The decision to bring on Reo-Coker and the change in tempo that Vancouver brought out in the second half turned the game in their favor. Reo-Coker played in the middle next to Gershon Koffie while Jun Marques Davidson sat deeper to stop Toronto FC playing in between the lines (more on that later). With the fluidity of Kobayashi’s movement it was effectively a 4-3-3 although the front three rotated so often it was effectively a 4-1-2-anywhere.

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The goal

Having kept pace with the home side for the first 45 minutes, Toronto struggled to get in the game in the opening 15 minutes of the second half and it was no surprise to see Vancouver get rewarded for their dominance with a goal shortly before the hour mark. Reo-Coker’s inclusion ensured they kept the ball more in the opponent’s half but he also immediately struck up a good relationship with YP Lee on the right side. With Reo-Coker shielding him, and Marques deeper, Lee had more licence to get forward in the second half and it proved to be key in the goal. When defender Andy O’Brien hit a long, hopeful ball down the right it appeared Toronto had it covered as they initially won the header but Lee, advanced in a forward position, won the key second ball. As you can see below, when he picks up the ball Toronto FC are still in a very good position with four players marking the key space in front of him.

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The next two seconds develop and the off the ball runs by Kobayashi and Mattocks are key as they pull two defenders there way, allowing Miller and Lee to play a simple one-two between themselves that then opens up the space for Lee to run into (that was previously protected by the four defenders).

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Lee times his run perfectly and is now into the danger zone, vacated by Toronto, drawing four defenders all towards him just a split second before he makes a key pass to Kobayashi who is bright, alert and ready for the ball despite being closely marked by Eckersley. At this point Koffie has already made the run from deep, untracked.

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Kobayashi sees Koffie’s run and by the time the midfielder touches the ball for the first time in the buildup he is in a wonderful position vacated by Toronto all because of the excellent play of his teammates. Koffie takes one touch and a nice finish to score the game’s only goal as you can see here.

It was a goal that is sure to have delighted Rennie, as his full back got forward and won a key second ball, his star pupil Mattocks showed the importance of off-the-ball running and Koffie, fresh off a new contract extension, had the ability and desire to get forward and support the attack.

From Toronto FC’s point of view it was a goal that was always going to be difficult to come back from. In the first half they excelled when Vancouver’s confidence was shaken, pressing them high and stopping goalkeeper Joe Cannon from throwing the ball out to defenders, but as the game wore on a now confident Whitecaps just had enough quality to see the game out. They were certainly helped by the inclusion of Reo-Coker, who completed 38 of 46 pass attempts, as well as Davidson sitting deeper to stop the impressive Bekker getting into space.

Toronto FC will be disappointed, not surprised, by the loss and will be able to take some positives away from the game and top of that list will be Bekker. Rarely does an MLS rookie require an opponent to monitor him from the get-go and the need for Davidson to sit deeper and closer to his centre-backs was designed to stop the 22-year-old from finding space. In the first half there were a few examples of the young Canadian making runs in between the lines.

Picks up the ball and comes deep….


Plays it off and makes the run past the referee towards the space….

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Finds the room in between the lines (see Vancouver’s two banks of four) ready to receive the pass….

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In the second half those banks of four were gone and Bekker didn’t see quite as much space although his superb deliveries from set pieces made him a constant threat throughout.

What next?

Vancouver stay home and welcome Columbus to BC Place next weekend hoping t gain some momentum off this victory. It is clear they have a very technical player in Kobayashi who can make a difference at this level no matter the formation, which is now up in the air after the much-improved second half showing.

Toronto FC head home and welcome one of the league’s best teams in Sporting Kansas City to Rogers Centre next Saturday. The nature of the opponent and the quality of players available to them will once again make them huge underdogs but with expectations low they have things to build from after this opener, particularly with all of their new players not disappointing in this game.

Chelsea 1-0 WBA – a look at Chelsea’s strengths & weaknesses with 4-2-3-1.


It didn’t take long. Less than fifteen minutes into the first half, Rafa Benitez strode towards the touchline and the crowd voiced their displeasure towards the Spaniard. Benitez remained focus on his immediate plan, a quick opportunity to tell his left back, Ashley Cole, that he should feed the ball in a quicker manner to Oscar’s feet when he comes forward.

Soon after Cole had his chance to listen to the supply teacher and duly delivered a ball with pace directly at the feet of Oscar, who held the ball up strongly before being fouled by Claudio Yacob. Free Kick to Chelsea. A third South American directly involved with this play, David Luiz, then sent a powerful free kick towards the top corner of Ben Foster’s goal and was only denied by the diving Englishman. Corner to Chelsea. A quick one, sent in long by Oscar towards Luiz whose header found a brave Demba Ba who poked the ball home close to the six yard area. 1-0 Chelsea. It would prove to be the only goal of the game and although Oscar and Luiz were crucial in its development, Cole’s decision making won’t be forgotten by his manager.

The need for his full backs to get forward more has been close to the top of his priority list since Benitez joined Chelsea in November.

Even after arguably his greatest day in his short term at Chelsea, an 8-0 demolition of Aston Villa, he talked about how to improve in this manner, when he said: “We are working hard as a team but we still need to improve in attack and possession and get the full backs high.”

Subsequently, right back Cesar Azpilicueta has seen many more chances under Benitez than he did under former manager Roberto Di Matteo who started him in just three of the first 12 matches he was in charge of.

The 23-year-old Spanish international was back in the starting XI for this game, his 13th start in 16 PL matches under Benitez as Branislav Ivanovic moved centrally to partner David Luiz, leaving England internationals John Terry and Gary Cahill on the bench.

Chelsea’s Starting XI

football formations

Despite the scoreline, it should be noted that West Brom were not very good. Their full backs stayed deep the entire game to watch the threat of Chelsea’s trio behind Ba, their wide players didn’t get the service to get in behind Chelsea’s full backs and the midfield three got deeper and deeper as the game wore on. Only, in the final few minutes, when Chelsea got nervous did they offer any real threat and they were specifically from set pieces.

West Brom Starting XI

football formations

Five Observations on Chelsea’s shape

    • As WBA sit deep Hazard & Oscar come deep to dictate the game – This was the 10th time this season out of 28 that the Holy Trinity of Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard starting together, yet just the fourth time Rafa Benitez has chosen them all from the start. All four of those matches, not surprisingly, have come at Stamford Bridge. Although the three have terrific understanding and intelligence there is a need for at least one, and sometimes two, to always track deep when not in possession. Against a poor team at home they can get away with it, specifically if they create enough chances to score, and on this particular day, thanks to Hazard and Oscar in particular, the trio had an excellent match together. Mata is, by far, the most consistent of the trio, and for them to work as a unit the other two need to play more like this on a regular basis. Both Hazard and Oscar, who were both born in 1991 (it has to be said), still need to find a way to be trusted in big games, and away games, to defend their flanks better but on this afternoon they were excellent at it. Of all the pass combinations it was no surprise to see the trio had the stranglehold of the top three positions at the end of the match – Hazard to Mata (16) third, Oscar to Mata (17) second and Mata to Oscar (18 times) on top:

mata to oscar

  • You could throw a blanket over all three of them – Aside from their outstanding qualities, another reason for the amount of passes between them was their close proximity on the pitch. Although they interchange very well, rarely do any of them look to stretch the field, with only Oscar seemingly comfortable staying close to the touchline. Once again this worked well against a team like West Brom and such a lackluster performance but, like many 4-2-3-1 shapes, there is a real problem of the team being too narrow. A look at the impact map shows just how close the trio played throughout the match.

chelsea influence

  • Ba better than Torres up top in a 4-2-3-1 – A sheep named Ba might actually do more than Fernando Torres up top at this rate so this may not surprise you at all but it is clear Demba Ba is more comfortable than his Spanish team-mate in this system. It is a system that requires great patience from a striker whose chances come few and far between (because many end with one of the three before Ba gets the ball) and therefore must be taken when they are carved out. Ba took his one chance against the Baggies and throughout the game showed he has better vertical movement than Torres. Oscar, more so than Mata in this game, often interchanged with the striker and, therefore, needed Ba to move vertically to keep the shape. Torres, in contrast, too often drops deeper and deeper centrally when phased out of a game in this system and cannot be used by the trio.
  • Shape creates key partnerships on the pitch – As previously mentioned the Cole-Oscar duo was pivotal not only in the build-up to the goal but also in keeping the opponents pinned deep. Behind the three previously mentioned pass combinations, Cole to the Brazilian was fourth with 15 . Cole and Azpilicueta have a mandate to get forward but rarely go past their team-mates on the flanks, usually stopping at the two-third mark (Azpilicueta to Hazard was 5th on the pass combination mark). As well as working well with the Belgian international, the right back also helps Ivanovic at the back. The Serbian defender is poor when asked to bring the ball out from the back and often panics when he doesn’t have an outlet and with two below par central midfielders (more about that shortly) he needs his fellow defender to get close to the touchline and be in a position to receive the ball.
  • The 2 remains the biggest weakness in the 4-2-3-1 – We leave the central midfield until last for a reason. It needs the most work. It is clear that the 3 is exciting and can function well in certain matches and struggle in others but the Ramires-Frank Lampard combination should, quite frankly, be abandoned immediately. It does not work. Of the two, Lampard plays to the left and slightly more forward than Ramires while both can often join the attack quickly, particularly when the team is in transition following a turnover. Yet, it is at this precise moment, with the ball, that Chelsea are the most vulnerable. Key goals against them lately, Moussa Sissoko for Newcastle and Yaya Toure for Manchester City, have both come when their teams have been able to run riot through midfield, pushing the two central midfielders deep into areas where they can do nothing well after they have committed forward. On the Sissoko goal both Ramires and Lampard were out of position in the buildup while at Manchester City, Lampard and John Obi Mikel found themselves pinned in and unable to stop Toure. Close to the end of this match against West Brom, both Ramires and Lampard struggled when West Brom finally had the bravery to run at them. Both have tremendous qualities with the ball but it is without the ball where they use their energy, not intelligence or physicality, to keep up. The two are ‘runners’ in positions that do not require them to be. If, as Benitez rightfully suggests, the full backs need to get further forward to provide width the central two simply need to shield the centre backs with only one of them occasionally being the key ‘fifth’ attacker advancing forward. Right now Chelsea’s centre backs are aching to spread wider and have a clever destroyer and an intelligent deep lying playmaker to sit in between. Their full backs want to go further than the two third mark and create overlaps but cannot because they are worried the midfield two won’t be there to cover their runs.

Much talk around Chelsea is the need for a Radamel Falcao type to score goals but first and foremost they need players in the mold of Shakhtar’s Fernandinho and Porto’s Joao Moutinho who are comfortable sitting deep and picking opportune, key moments to advance. With Oriel Romeu injured, John Obi Mikel (not in the same class as those two players but the closest the team has currently) needs to play more. He was used in the tight match at Man City last week but dropped for this match, perhaps seen as a pointless security guard against such opponents. By the time he was thrown on late in this game, West Brom, asleep for most of the match, had woken up by finding space in behind the midfield duo. Benitez got away with it and achieved three points but the prize comes with caution once again. It seems he has decided to not use his three playmakers together in key games and now is the time for him to not use this midfield combination again.