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Toronto FC Season Ending Press Conferences Day Two – Greg Vanney

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An inside look at the Greg Vanney Press Conference, and how he intends to mould the core of 2014's TFC into a winner

Vanney, instructing Bright Dike on the task at hand - he will be busy this offseason, rebuilding TFC from the ashes of 2014
Vanney, instructing Bright Dike on the task at hand - he will be busy this offseason, rebuilding TFC from the ashes of 2014
Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

With Tim Bezbatchenko having withstood his slight grilling and the sandwiches consumed – and some of the angst over the lack of information on Doneil Henry subsided, talk resumed with Greg Vanney taking centre stage.

The difference in atmosphere from the start was marked. There was a moment of silence before the first volley of questions – there was a definite sense that as Greg (to continue our informalities) was so late to the role, he could not entirely be held responsible for the bloody bigness of the disaster.

In what I thought was a brilliant move, Neil Davidson opened the session with a salvo of questions polled from twitter – the club would be wise to make this a regular feature.

The first involved the much-alluded to increased use of analytics. Greg walked through a few of the systems, from the very basic – heart rate monitoring as a means of assessing workload – to the in-game statistically-based – specialized stats, such as passes amongst the midfielders or balls won in the attacking half – to video tools – including an entire field cam allowing an overhead look at team shape.

The heart rate monitors provided a method of quantifying and thus tracking how much each player was exerting. The general idea – and I do mean general as I haven’t investigated the full methodology – is that each player can put a set amount of strain on their physical resources. Each exercise, depending on the amount as work required, as measured via heart rate, would consume a certain quantity of workload points, and when a player used their full allotment, they would be pulled from the more demanding training, and moved into something else or rested entirely.

The concept involves pushing to the edge of peak fitness without crossing over into potential injury territory, a sort of priming of the engine. Greg also indicated that the club would be moving towards a more detailed GPS system, which garners more data that just heart rate – such a distances run and speeds, etc.

While breaking down the system, Greg echoed something Tim had said previously and a theme he would return to later: simply put, the team was not fit enough for purpose; that fitness needed to be higher than it was.

Tim had made mention of the astonishing number of training sessions lost to minor injuries and perhaps this new system could account for some of the lineup choices in the final two months of the season. If Bright Dike was not ready to return, then it would be foolish to let him play. Recall that Steven Caldwell returned from his injury prematurely and was then lost for further time.

In terms of specialized boutique (hipster) statistics, Greg made particular mention of the passes amongst the midfielders, which he said was an important way of assessing whether the formation and positioning was allowing the central midfielders to link up in the desired manner – it’s a little hard to put into words, but by investigating a subset of the massive amounts of data that each match can garner, one was given the impression that deficiencies would be hunted down and addressed.

During the 2010 World Cup, the CBC had a special channel dedicated to an overhead, aerial cam of the entire field of play, allowing the viewer to watch how the formation ebbed and flowed around the pitch. It was the sort of perspective that would allow defensive shape to be scrutinized rigourously, as well as noting the use of open sections of field in attack. It is much easier to see the open spaces from such a bird’s-eye view and gives players another way of imaging what they experience on the field.

Greg was then asked about his preferred formation – a reflection of how adamant Ryan Nelsen was about the 4-4-2. Rather than dive into the morass of numbers, the coach spoke instead of preferred roles.

He likes having one striker play off another, the higher one pushing the back-line and the lower one looking to operate in that space created. He wants his wide midfielders capable of moving inside to create numerical advantages in the build-up, but equally able to take the opponent on around the outside. He likes his full-backs to get high.

From the midfield, he stressed the need to be secure, supporting the attack while protecting the back-line. But most importantly he wanted them able to dictate in possession. Sounds like the 4-2-3-1 we saw in New England, which asks the question why we didn’t see it sooner – especially in that LA match, where TFC was ripped to shreds before Dominic Oduro moved to the right and Jonathan Osorio tucked in-field permanently.

And here came the first really interesting point Greg made. He wanted their play to be by design, not by accident.

One of the prime criticisms that this season’s edition of TFC is guilty of is that, for the most part, they looked like a bunch of talented players doing their own thing out there. There was no cohesion, there was no teamwork; basically there was no design.

Now there is a certain amount of freedom that players should have, allowing their creativity to flourish, but underlying that needs to be a structure, a system, defined roles – a foundation, if you will – upon which the rest can be built.

By design, not accident – he had my attention.

The questioning continued, Greg asked why he thought he should stay in the role. He responded calmly that he had revealed his plan to the club – presumably Bezbatchenko – and the ownership, that he understood the league, going so far as to note that in his ten-odd seasons in the league he only once missed the playoffs, that being in his final season with David Beckham’s LA – a team, under Ruud Gullit and Alexi Lalas that he called a mess (or something to that effect) – before emphasizing that that one failure haunted him to this day, the implication being that if it bothered him as a player, as a coach, where the responsibility lies with him, it will not be allowed to occur, again at least.

Like Tim previously, he illustrated the need for both short and long term plans.

The next rather intriguing line of thought came when he discussed a study that he undertook while working at Chivas, where they examined the factors that led to success in MLS, searching out key indicators to establish a formula for winning.

He spoke of MLS being a unique league, with certain requirements that mark out how to succeed. Toronto has long been guilty of thinking itself above the actualities of the league, with its money and its fans, and Vanney would be sure that the club migrated in the direction of that formulaic success.

For Greg, it was as important as anything to hold the players and thus the club to a higher standard. Aiming for the playoffs was not enough (my words, not his) and more MLS experience was key to creating the culture and environment to succeed in this league.

The conversation turned to how much roster turnover could be expected this off-season, Greg making reference to having a solid core of players, his attention would be focused on positional needs, while instilling his coaching philosophy, building on that core with successful players from within the league.

Side note – there was some concern about players who did not feature in the previous day’s exit interviews – Kyle Bekker, Bright Dike, etc. – I did see Bekker lurking in the cafeteria for what it’s worth, so he was around. No mention was made of why they were absent the previous day.

Greg was then asked if he already had a sense of who would stay and who would go – he said he did. The end of season meetings would begin later that day, but he stressed that for all players the off-season did not necessarily mean time off. This was a chance to take the time to do the sort of things that will get them ahead of the curve – expect them all to have very specific regiments to improve certain aspects of their games.

Special note was made of his displeasure with the play of the wide attackers, specifically their crossing – as was the nature of the question. Here he made another very good point, commenting that too often they attempted to pick out the perfect ball, hitting their target rather than putting the service into the proper space, allowing runners to attack that space.

Here too he made another point that made my heart sing – the lack of the final run, stating that the team was not working hard enough to make that opportunity, taking the chance of being in position to take advantage of the good work done.

It has been a constant refrain in the Know Your Enemy previews that Toronto did not do enough to be in position to create their own luck. The Jonathan Osorio goal against Houston, nodding in a ball bobbled by Tally Hall, was the prime example of how putting oneself in the right spot can pay dividends.

That lack of runners in the box made the chances of connecting with the final ball, another bug bear of both the previews and Vanney, less likely. Greg would go on to note that the number of chances not put away, the volume of attacks not finished, was unacceptable.

Perhaps the most encouraging thing he said, harkening back to that purposeful possession mentioned by Tim and the ‘by design, not accident’ comment, was that TFC failed to recognize decisive moments in the game.

The sheer number of times that Toronto had the ball in a good position, only to pull out, to not commit to the chance and press their advantage, was discouraging to fans all season long. How many silly back-passes, retaining possession for possession’s sake spoiled potentially valuable attacks?

Greg then spoke of those moments as the destabilization point, when one more cutting pass can force the opponent onto the back-heel, opening up a route to goal. As a philosophy, learning to recognize and react to those potential game-splitting moments is a very good approach.

Some of that will come down to cohesion, and some to players having defined roles, but also to committing to the attacks, to being confident enough, both in oneself and the team, to take the risk of losing possession in order to create the chance. Under Vanney that will be a focus.

With an eye to next season, Greg spoke of how preseason has already been mapped out – they will play ten matches. But before that, the players will open the year in Toronto, working on fitness and tactical instruction, undergoing an education (indoctrination?) in the desired style of play making use of video examples and such.

Aside from what the coaching staff can provide, he spoke of the need for the players to buy in to that culture, to drive it themselves. Expect the coach to have lieutenants – think Michael Bradley, Steven Caldwell, Dwayne De Rosario, who will be the driving force in the locker room and on the pitch.

He then spoke of instilling in his side a purpose that leads to commitment. Providing the whats and the whys, so that the players could fully buy in to the system. He again stressed the need for fitness, noting once more that the club was simply not fit enough for purpose, leading to too many injuries and missed games.

Fitness was especially important in MLS, he stressed, a league that demands strength and durability with the travel, small squads, and dense schedules.

The emphasis would be not just on being a playoff team, but at being the best – part of that shift in culture. Good was not good enough.

I’ve always thought it rather odd that playoffs were the goal. Isn’t the point to win? As a measuring point, in terms of building to a championship, playoffs are a waypoint, but somewhere in the past eight years they have become a goal in themselves. Such a low bar allows complacency to set in; there was a need to aim higher.

Greg was then asked about the lack of home-field advantage this season, failing to pick up points at home regularly – especially later in the season. The answer quickly swapped to playing away, as Toronto will start the 2015 season with seven away games while the renovations are completed at BMO Field, before addressing the home field – a clear display of how he is already firmly focused on next season.

He said that he believed that there was a myth involved with playing away in MLS. Aside from a few locations, whether due to turf conditions or large, baying crowds, there were few venues that were truly inhospitable to travelling sides. Results away from home were tough, but not impossible.

On the road, his Toronto would stay in matches and be stingy with points, while at home they would be expected to be the aggressors. Greg recounted a story of his time playing in France with Bastia. The fans did not care if they couldn’t string five passes together – not that that was a good thing – as long as they gave it their all, put their hearts into it – and if I know anything about Corsicans (I don’t really) that would be the minimum requirement.

Fans in Toronto should expect their team to go out there and give them something to cheer about; a side proactive in attack, taking the game to their opponents, making those runs and never giving up – as they did in that fateful game against New England.

The next questions turned towards the role of Michael Bradley in the side, would this now be his team? Rather than diving directly into Bradley, Greg widened the discussion to how he approaches every player during their one-on-one interviews. He asks what the player sees in themselves - what is their vision of their game – the idea being that they, the coach and player, need to agree on the role or else it won’t work. No square pegs in round holes.

Bradley will not be the primary playmaker. He will not be the number ten. Vanney made the good point that we don’t want Michael (informal, ya know) operating with his back to goal, you want him facing forward, surveying the play, controlling the tempo and taking advantage of the space.

Apparently Jurgen Klinsmann has been in touch, sharing (well, instructing) Greg on how he thought Bradley should be played, but Vanney would be making his own decisions on that.

Regarding whether it would be Bradley’s team, Greg said it would be him plus a core, but that Bradley would be a big piece.

The obligatory Jermain Defoe question was raised and the response referred back to that notion of culture. Greg wants players that want to be here, that see their career as being here. That commitment was important, both on the field and off it.

Defoe has been a tricky prospect this season. I think he was set to ride into the sunset and finish his career here in MLS, but he wanted one last hurrah – the World Cup in Brazil with England. When that didn’t materialize, he began to question the move – though that was just one of many factors that led to the season playing out as it did.

There was slight cringe moment, not so much for what Greg meant with his statement, but for how it was reminiscent of a now-infamous Paul Mariner-ism. When discussing player acquisition, he said that he didn’t want any ‘eight and three players’ – those who play like an eight one day and then a three for the next several. It was a little too close to Mariner’s one-in-six players comment for comfort, though the point was that as manager, Vanney wanted to find players that would give him a seven every day, rather than an eight one day and a three next.

That one-in-six statement referred to the likes of Joao Plata, who sorted out that criticism by playing like a nine since he arrived in Salt Lake – sigh.

That sort of consistency is what Toronto needs; TFC needs reliable performers – it is no coincidence that Justin Morrow, Mark Bloom, and Steven Caldwell are regularly named as the best contributors of the season.

The session closed with Greg discussing whether there would be any additional moves on his coaching staff – a valid question, given how the whole cabal was promoted from the academy in short order. Surprisingly, he said that any large changes were unlikely, and that at most one would be added.

That was a little disconcerting. Toronto has always been over reliant on individuals, rather than a brain-trust. But if he thinks he can handle all that preparation with his small band of learned men, then so be it. Time will tell.

And so, the season-ending press conferences ended, turning the page on the disappointments of 2014 and looking, with optimism towards 2015. There is plenty of reason to be cautious, this club has failed to achieve its aims many times before, but Greg was clear and measured in his responses, which is as good a starting point as any.