MLS Cup Final ticket debacle aside, we’re all on a Toronto FC high right now and rightly so. Come December 11th we may be even more ecstatic. This might be the wrong time for player or tactical analysis but I think this is worth talking about.
He may have scored in the first game, but over the two legs of the Eastern Conference Final against Montreal, Michael Bradley was truly awful. Some will disagree with me but he is to be judged based on the level of player he is supposed to be, and the level at which Toronto FC are paying him to play. This isn’t remotely it.
Bradley looked lost when not in possession, unsure of where to be, whether to close down (which he rarely did) whether to drop off (which he mostly did) or who to track. His recovery pace seems non-existant. Players run off and past him with ease. Of Montreal’s five goals over the two legs, he was genuinely at fault during the build up to most of them.
In possession, meanwhile, Bradley was also poor. He absolutely loves to pick the ball up from the centre-backs and spend 10 seconds deciding what to do with it before pinging long balls, some of which come off, many of which don’t. His short passing is functional but barely better than your standard, non-DP central midfielder.
A more system-based issue is the redundancy of Bradley’s role in possession in Greg Vanney’s now-favoured 3-5-2. There’s little denying that the formation does get the best out of most of the team, however in Hagglund, Moor and Zavaleta you have three centre-backs, none of whom are comfortable on the ball. This means Bradley constantly drops off to pick it up from them, leaving four players behind the ball at the start of a move and limiting options.
One of the main benefits of a three-at-the-back system is that whether the opposition plays with one or two strikers, you will always have at least one centre-back free to stroll forward, make a pass and start play from the back. None of TFC’s defenders seem capable of doing that, so the onus falls on Bradley – who isn’t great at it himself – and voids one of the primary benefits of the formation. Whatever happens in the MLS Cup on December 10th, a ball-playing central defender should be at the top of Greg Vanney’s shopping list in the off-season if he plans to stick with this formation. Combine that with a physical, pacey defensive midfielder in the Bradley role and you eliminate the weak points in the system.
Though I’m not a season-ticket holder, I’m aware that Bradley’s performances throughout the season haven’t generally been as bad as he was in the Conference Final. I’m equally aware that he has rarely looked brilliant either, with each rare excellent performance drawing both praise and confusion as to why it doesn’t happen more often.
Where I must give Bradley credit, however, is as a leader. As captain he encourages his teammates, cajoles and lambasts them when appropriate, calms them down when necessary and tries hard to set the right emotional tone, even if he isn’t playing well himself. Some may say that is simply a captain’s job, but few do it quite as well and it is to be admired.
The question is, is $6.5m per season too much to be paying for an average footballer with good leadership skills? It depends on your perspective. One could argue that if the team win the MLS Cup, Bradley’s role in delivering silverware has been worth the money , though if set-pieces had not saved them against Montreal he would have truly been culpable for Toronto’s downfall. The other side of the coin however, is to ask how much better a football team Toronto could be if that money was spent on true, top-level ability.