Stupid Paul Mariner, not being born in York to make things fit better for lazy bloggers. The Winter of discontent is over, and this week saw Toronto FC get back to training under Paul Mariner, and well, at least everybody's having fun, with talk of fresh starts, new energy and focus, and a bit of a pre season feel. It's to be expected of course, whether players genuinely believe it, and I think in any sport there's probably a Darwinian benefit to psychological groupthink and buying into the current message being better than the old message, just as that one was naturally better than the one it replaced etc etc ad infinitum, or it's just a case of wanting to keep on the new guys good side, it's no surprise to see everyone accentuating the positives. But what exactly will we see that's different for TFC? What changes will Mariner make?
At his introductory press conference, as well as reaching new highs of obsequiousness when talking about MLSE, he talked of making minor tweaks, and given that he's still got the same basic squad for now, that's really about as much as we could expect. Changes do of course need to be made, while the overall long term vision Aron Winter brought is a very good thing and will hopefully continue in the developmental side of the club and all the various age groups the academy will eventually accomodate, at the first team level results matter. Switching things around to something that suits the players they have and the ongoing limitations all MLS teams face when it comes to changing those players is probably a good thing.
Reporters weren't allowed to the important bits of training, and Mariner was in no mood to give away his secrets ahead of the visit to Kansas City, but there was vague talk of changes in formation, and the words on everyone's lips were four, four and two. It really does make sense given Mariner`s past with New England and what Plymouth Argyle did in his only head coach job so far (as an aside, those looking at his record with Plymouth as a harbinger of things to come, he took over a bad team in an absolutely terrible financial position, a poisoned chalice that was as close to a no win proposition as you can get in football, so it would be very harsh to judge).
It still leaves plenty of questions of course, though only one with an obvious answer. That's who`ll make up the 2 up front. One problem with building a squad based on a 1 centre forward formation is that you don`t really end up with that much depth to give you options to fill 2 spots. I've seen Luis Silva's name thrown into the conversation as to who should partner Danny Koevermans, but really, barring an out of nowhere callup for Keith Makubuya, or Peri Marosevic's return to the club (I guess we now know who liked him and who didn't) moving from trial to signing, it'll be Ryan Johnson alongside Koevermans.
If Koevermans can stay fit for an extended run in the side, that'll greatly benefit Johnson who after a good start to the season has struggled more and more. The lone striker role hasn't really worked out for him, as he's taken a lot of punishment from opposition defenders, been left alone and unsupported to the point of publicly moaning about it in post game interviews, and compiled a woeful set of shooting stats. In 10 league games, adding up shots and headers, he's had 43 attempts, only 10 of which have been on target, leading to only 1 goal (as a contrast Danny Koevermans? 23 attempts, 14 on target and 3 goals). This article shows that this isn't really a matter of luck for Johnson, in retrospect, having him as the solitary striker wasn't really a recipe for success.
Anyway, two up front should be fairly straight forward, but 4 in midfield still leaves a lot of options as far as formation and offensive/defensive focus go. If forced to guess, and if I'm not going to do that, whey the hell write the article, I'd say we'll see 2 fairly defensive central midfielders, step forward Torsten Frings and Julian de Guzman, with two more attacking midfielders out wide with licence to come inside and support the strikers. Who those two players would be is a big question with Eric Avila, Luis Silva, Nick Soolsma, Joao Plata, and Reggie Lambe all roughly fitting the bill there. Going beyond those that have been with the 1st team so far, I'll throw Efrain Burgos Jr in as another option ahead of the likes of Oscar Cordon or Matt Stinson.
As I said there's plenty of ways to organise 4 midfielders and hopefully we'll see plenty of variations depending on the opponent and game situation, but if that is the basic formation, well it's just a case of the wingers moving back a bit and the attacking midfielder moving up a bit. Minor tweaks indeed. Even if it's a different formation, there won't be too drastic of a change as far as formation and style go (not systems, oh no, Mariner doesn't like talk of systems, annoys the piss out of him apparently), and the personnel won't be dramatically different, though it wouldn't surprise me one bit to see Richard Eckersley get his starting spot back.
Hopefully the traditional new coach bounce will lead to some good results, the fresh start, small differences and all that fun in training leading to a more positive frame of mind for a club that can't have been feeling too good about itself towards the end of Winter's reign. You could say that turn around has already happened, what with Winter winning his last 2 games before being canned, but regardless there probably doesn't need to be that much of an improvement for the results to come, TFC were never that bad to deserve that 1-9 start. A few good results might mean Mariner getting more credit than he deserves.
He'll get a little bit of extra time as well as no-one will be seriously expecting results against Sporting Kansas City or Houston Dynamo in his foirst 2 games, so that will give him breathing room to finetune a bit before the games against New England and Montreal.
The coaching change was probably necessary, but will this end up being a good change? Mariner does have the North American experience with New England, but that was as an assistant, as a head coach, he just has the aforementioned disastrous spell at Plymouth on his C.V. Despairingly, that 28 games means he's in 2nd place behind Preki for most experience before becoming TFC head coach. Is it wrong to dream of TFC going out and getting themselves a successful, experienced, proven coach, as Seattle did when they liberated Sigi Schmid from Columbus? Maybe Bruce Arena might soon be available, yes, he won the cup last year, but expectations there have got to be high, I can't imagine Beckham re-signed for the sake of a basement dwelling season. Will they see firing him as a move needed to spark a playoff push? If so, Mariner be damned, TFC should be beating down his doors with obscenely large suitcases full of cash to lure him up here.
Anyway, I digress, Mariner's the man for now. Can he find success here? Will he be given the time is probably the more pertinent question. I think barring catastrophic results he'll get the end of this year no problem, but what sort of record will he have to put up next year to keep his job?
At this stage, all we can do is cross our fingers that we have finally stumbled on the right man for the job, that the players will react well to his managerial philosophy and he can figure out a system, oops, sorry Paul, force of habit, that stops them from being less than the sum of their parts. That's got to happen with one of our coaches eventually right?