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article imagePreview: Vanney's Toronto FC must improve defensive structure

By Tyrrell Meertins     Mar 5, 2016 in Sports
Modern day football is often associated and defined by eras. Most recently, Barcelona and Spain’s success influenced managers to adopt a possession-based game.
The likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta left the world in awe as they patiently broke down teams in various ways with patient passing and remarkable technical ability, leaving many to believe that tiki-taka was the ‘right way’ to play football. Ultimately, what follows is an attempt to conquer the successful approach, thus leaving many to herald a new formula of success. Currently, that way appears to be on the counter-attack, where teams are defying all odds through defensive organization, discipline, and quick transitions.
This was one of the few issues with Greg Vanney’s Toronto FC side last season, and it was vivid when their attack failed to create chances. With the art of individual defending slowly fading — it will never be extinct but the current crop of players are light-years away from the defensive icons of the past — the collective aspect still remains significant.
A summer clear-out saw goalkeeper Joe Bendik and Chris Konopka, along with with defenders Ahmed Kantari and Jackson — who occasionally struggled in both full-back positions — depart, thus signifying the club’s intent to address this area. Meanwhile the signings of goalkeeper Clint Irwin, and defenders Drew Moor and Steven Beitashour were meant to provide MLS experience to a youthful back-line.
For a team that’s underachieved and been crippled by poor decisions made by Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment throughout it’s brief existence, TFC are now presented the opportunity to overcome the bad fortune that surfaced around the club for many years. However, while the ambition of the club can’t be questioned, the overall identity is still unknown. In a nutshell, that’s another roadblock hindering the club from future progress.
Apart from natural width, very few can scrutinize TFC’s offensive productivity last season. They currently possess the league’s MVP in Sebastian Giovinco, with American internationals Jozy Altidore and Michael Bradley also at their disposal. Giovinco, in particular, strived from open play and in transition, recording one of the greatest individual seasons in Major League Soccer history, scoring 22 goals and 16 assists.
What shouldn’t be forgotten is Giovinco good fortunes with injuries, whilst Bradley and Altidore were unavailable for portions of the season due to injury and international duty. The trio will need to be stellar this season, but with several international tournaments taking place this summer, TFC will have to cope without their designated players throughout the campaign.
Addressing the defensive personnel and persisting with a partially successful squad from last year showcases faith in a potential title-winning group, but equally underlines that this could be the biggest season of the club’s recent history. The decision to stray away from a 4-4-2 is interesting, but even the 4-3-3 that’s been employed throughout pre-season will present selection dilemmas.
Out of possession they’ll shift into a 4-5-1 with Altidore defending for Giovinco on one flank, whilst Jonathan Osorio or rookie Tsubasa Endoh on the opposite side. While the defence has been bolstered with experience, TFC are short of attacking options if Giovinco or Altidore succumb to injury. More importantly, maximizing Michael Bradley’s talent is pivotal to the overall balance of the side.
A midfield three suits a box-to-box midfielder like Bradley, who’s at his best when he carries the ball into the opposition’s third. But Vanney’s decision to utilize the TFC captain in a deep-lying role is peculiar because he lacks the discipline and ball-winning skills to protect the back four. Vanney’s reluctance to place a midfield destroyer in this position is evident with the departure of Collen Warner, and will be hoping Johnson can provide grit and discipline in central areas.
"He has a great range of passing, he's got a nice touch in terms of dropping balls behind players," said Vanney.
"He fits for us in that position, he can really drive our team forward from there, I think," Vanney said. "He'll find his moments to get involved in attacks as we continue to go. But the first eight games on the road, we want to defend solid and we'll get forward when we have the right opportunities ... and Michael is every good at picking those moments."
Essentially, new president Bill Manning, will hope that TFC’s off-season moves will improve last year’s first round playoff exit, which witnessed the club record a league worst 58 goals against. However, with the back four requiring time to build a foundation, a midfield lacking a ball-winner with Bradley out of position, and limited options upfront, TFC’s season rightly sits between optimism and pessimism.
In truth, the 4-4-2 shape Vanney employed in the past has been the template for two of the most surprising title challenges of the last decade. Atletico Madrid’s admirable defensive organization and set-piece efficiency witnessed Diego Simeone’s men outdo powerhouses Barcelona and Real Madrid in a 38 game season, whilst coming seconds short of claiming a European title.
Most recently, Leicester City’s fairy-tale season is identical to the aforementioned Atletico title winning side — if anything, the Foxes are relatable considering this time last year they were bottom of the Premier League.
Out of possession, they concede minimal space in their third because the strikers drop deeper to press and close down the opposition midfielders’ passing lanes, thus allowing the midfield duo to position themselves within close proximity of the defence. Leicester centre-backs Robert Huth and Wes Morgan are average Premier League centre-backs, but the Foxes’ defensive shape enables them to monitor danger around the box and deal with crosses from wide areas.
Frankly, it’s a defensive approach the Reds should attempt to replicate. Even in a 4-5-1, the wide players can maintain narrow central positions to remain compact, while the likes of Benoit Cheyrou or Johnson could aid Giovinco with the pressing from the front.
With BMO Field under construction, TFC embark on an eight-game road stretch that involves tricky trips to Portland, Montreal, Colorado, Kansas City, and their home opener against the New York Red Bulls. The Reds will encounter lengthy spells without possession in these matches, and while the threat of Giovinco drifting towards the left on the counter is efficient going forward, Vanney must improve his defence’s structure as well.
“Toronto’s done a really good job with their roster this off-season,” Red Bulls coach Jesse Marsch said this week. “I think probably more than anyone else.
“They made the decision they wanted to build from within the league and I think they went out and made some key acquisitions. And we expect them to present a big challenge on Sunday.”
The road trip offers TFC the ideal platform to punish teams in transition, but we’ll receive a sample of Vanney’s pre-season work ahead of May’s home opener. For all the money spent, and work done to bring in the players of Vanney’s preference, the Reds need to showcase signs of gradual improvement this season.
TFC displayed ambition, managerial stability, and roster continuity, but well-drilled defensive organization and discipline is the final step in terms of establishing a legitimate identity.
More about Tfc, Toronto FC, Mls, Major league soccer, giovinco
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