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Dynamo Film Session: TFC figure the Dynamo out early

How TFC figured the Dynamo’s hybrid 5-3-2, and exploited the main weaknesses of the formation.

The Dynamo did not have a good week. First, they fell to 0-3 on the road in an unconvincing 2-0 loss in Toronto, then they saw two Western Conference rivals nab three away points, weakening the Dynamo’s stronghold as the leader of the conference’s chase pack.

Losing on the road to a top-tier Eastern Conference opponent is not really something to complain about too much, but losing three of three away games is. I wrote about why they struggle to get away points a few weeks ago.

Wilmer Cabrera stuck with the 4-4-2 diamond at the very beginning before changing to a what I’m going to call a hybrid 5-3-2. Juan David Cabezas, originally a No. 6 playing at the bottom of the midfield, effectively became a center back alongside Adolfo Machado and Leonardo. It was a true five-in-the-back — neither DaMarcus Beasley nor AJ DeLaGarza really became a wing-back — and it relied a lot on the Alex to connect the midfield with the forwards.

The switch had a unique element to it: when TFC had the ball in the center of the attacking third (as they often did), one center back had the liberty of pressing either one of the strikers or whomever had the ball, filling the gap left by the absence of a true No. 6. This is why I’m adding the ‘hybrid’ to the 5-3-2.

To Cabrera’s credit, it actually worked fairly well for its purposes. The problem for the Dynamo was that TFC, one of MLS’s most talented clubs, were at their peak. The two goals were as a result of Toronto’s skill more than anything else.

In the first edition of Dynamo Film Session since week one, we look at the first goal TFC scored and how it illustrated some of the problems that still exist with the diamond and the 5-3-2:

The play starts with wing-back Raheem Edwards about to bring down a switch from Sebastian Giovinco:

Edwards — who made the MLS Team of the Week this week — had been forward on this play circulating possession beforehand. A. J. DeLaGarza is over to cover him.

Victor Vasquez (circled) has drifted over and is the obvious passing option for Edwards. DeLaGarza seemingly has signaled to Boniek Garcia (not in the picture) to step to Vazquez. So no, he’s not as open as he appears in this image.

Edwards, on one touch, skillfully hands it off to Vazquez, who is immediately shadowed by Boniek. Vazquez touches onto his right foot, which appears poised to hit a ball back to the other side of the field, where Sebastian Giovinco remains.

Here you can get a good look at Houston’s five-man backline. It’s clearly laid out straight across the 18-yard box, taking away Toronto’s room in behind but also giving them space to hit spots underneath the midfield. For now though, that’s not a threat, as TFC have not moved into threatening space yet. That is to come.

Keep an eye on Jozy Altidore (third from left across the backline) being marked by what appears to be Leonardo. When one center back moves into the space shown by the yellow circle, the center of the backline can become slightly disjointed, allowing Altidore time to bully a defender and find an empty channel.

A lot going on here. First, Marky Delgado (circled in red) is about to receive the ball in an open space in midfield from Vasquez. He’ll have clearer options in a second.

Altidore has moved over towards the middle to be marked by Juan David Cabezas rather than Leonardo (circled in yellow). Leonardo, shown by the orange arrow, now has room to roam, and he takes it. The Brazilian steps into the space in front of him, and takes on the role of a defensive midfielder, as was common for the Dynamo center backs throughout the game.

Vasquez sees the backline rotate to the left and notices that TFC only have one player holding onto the Dynamo’s very deep defensive line, so, as shown by the white arrow, he sneaks in behind Adolfo Machado. Boniek heads back into the middle because the Dynamo’s M.O. in this game was to stack as many players in the deep middle of the field as possible, and because he’s a midfielder. The goal will come as a result of this.

As an aside, look to the far end of the field, where I’ve circled DaMarcus Beasley in light blue. This part of it turned out to have very little effect on the play, but it helps pinpoint the main weakness of the hybrid 5-3-2. Leonardo moves forward to press Giovinco despite Eric Alexander already standing directly next to the Italian, who isn’t actually a threat at the current moment. He could quickly become one, and Alexander should be in better position to defend a quick move, but whatever the case, there is no need for Leonardo to step into that space.

That brings us back to Beasley, who now faces a decision: step into the space vacated by Leonardo or stay in position to keep right wing back Steven Beitashour at bay. Keep an eye on what he does as we continue, as well as Leonardo’s movements.

Delgado passes the ball to Giovinco, who is closed on by Alexander, before Giovinco gives it right back to Delgado. The young American is clearly ready to do something more ambitious with the ball.

Altidore bursts in front of Cabezas (circled in red) and is now looking for a ball into him from Delgado. If this were to happen (it doesn’t) it would magnify the move by Leonardo to step out even more, because someone like Giovinco could very easily decide to sprint through through that hole (shown by the white arrow). Altidore’s shown to be pretty good at laying the ball off into empty channels with his back to goal. Beasley, by the way, stays put, which is a fine decision. It’s a lose-lose situation either way. We’ll see it with DeLaGarza shortly.

Vasquez (yellow) continues jogging into the space behind Machado, who is doing his job by staying in position and providing support for a potential ball into Altidore. DeLaGarza (orange) stays with him. He doesn’t have much of a choice, in all honesty.

Remember Raheem Edwards? Well, he was standing by himself on the far side of the field this whole time, and Delgado smartly realizes it. The (hopefully) future US international plays an expert line-splitting ball into Edwards, who now has a mile of space to do what he wants.

DaLaGarza immediately turns and sprints back to Edwards, hoping to deny an easy ball into the box. Meanwhile, Vazquez finishes his run in the center, turns to see Edwards receive the ball, and licks his chops at this golden attacking chance.

Edwards plays a nice ball into the box, where Altidore had lost poor Cabezas, who doesn’t have much a chance in this situation. Altidore finishes past Joe Willis (who should’ve done better) as DeLaGarza is sitting helplessly on the ground after a desperation slide at Edwards’s feet. And so Toronto FC take a 1-0 lead 15 minutes in. In the time before the above sequence, TFC had spent a full minute on the ball and made 18 passes, using 10 of 11 players:

This entire sequence is a perfect example of some of the difficulties of playing Cabrera’s hybrid 5-3-2 formation. Because of the impetus placed on the center backs to cover the space in front of them like a defensive midfielder as necessary, gaps open up elsewhere in the backline, creating disorganization and forcing a player like DeLaGarza or Beasley to make a decision that can only really turn out badly.

The 5-3-2 is really a 5-2-1-2 because of Alex’s role higher up the field, so now we’re back in the days of the Dynamo playing without a defensive midfielder, in a sense. When a center back has to become a d-mid for a time because there is no backline protector, it makes the other defenders get caught in two minds: defend like it’s a four-man backline with a No. 6 or act like it’s a three-man backline.

Making a split-second decision like this is tough when these things aren’t specified. Thus, a team like Toronto who were expertly moving the ball in the final third and hitting the wide areas can exploit those gaps.