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Playing Fast and Slow – Toronto FC Possession and Penetration

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Since taking the reins at the end of last season Greg Vanney has preached evolution, how has the club developed on that path heading into the new season?

Midfield possession will be crucial this season, as Cheyrou knows well
Midfield possession will be crucial this season, as Cheyrou knows well
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Since taking over the club last August, Greg Vanney has talked a good game regarding how he wanted his team to play. Fast-forward several months, and more than a few personnel changes at the club, and preseason thus far has yet to bear the fruits of that rhetoric with a lost to lower division competition and a one-goal win over Scandinavian opponents, scoring just once through 180 minutes, largely played by the projected starting eleven.

Looking back over last season's results, or lack thereof come the later stages, one of the root causes of Toronto FC's struggles was an inability to control matches. The most obvious symptom, borne of a lack of cohesion, was a markedly disjointed attack.

TFC had the break-away speed out wide, think Jackson and Dominic Oduro, to get into dangerous positions, catching the opponent on the back foot by playing on the counter, but having stolen that ground, they could neither get the numbers forward to support the attack in a timely fashion, nor were they able to find the killer pass that would split open a defense once that initial momentum waned.

As with all things, it is crucial that those two aspects, fast and slow, find an equilibrium. In soccer terms, the first forces open gaps in the opponent's defenses, the second exploits those exposed passages. Both have merit individually, but when combined, goals and wins will follow.

Ideally, one wants to have the pace to break quickly on the opponent, but a commensurate measure of patience and control is required to turn that momentary advantage into a truer form.

The failure to combine the two is most obvious in the lack of options that the leading edge are presented with, having arrived in their advantageous position. Innumerable times last season Toronto would get the ball into space on the flank, or have a runner surging towards goal, only for the chance to falter as the attacker was faced with a paucity of options, resulting in a weak solo effort or a harmless ball into a heavily protected area.

One of the primary concerns, an obvious branch of that poison tree, throughout 2014 was a debilitating lack of targets in the area. With only one forward lurking, the other having been forced to drop off to assist in the build-up, a pair of centre-backs and a keeper can easily cover the man and focus on the ball, nullifying that advantage of breaking quickly.

In part, that failure was the result of Jermain Defoe's fitness. When present, accountable, and engaged, Defoe was a force to be reckoned with; lost in the ugliness of the break-up was just how good of a striker he was, when interested. Perhaps, had the relationship not soured, the intelligence of his runs would have made more use of that frantic TFC rush to get forward without due consideration for the required support.

In many ways that may have indeed been the plan: have a solid defensive unit that provides the base for the quick, counterattacking thrust of a forward battery – its not a bad idea, in and of itself.

But as events played out, the result was that in seeking to advance, Toronto not only stretched their opponent, but overstretched themselves as well, leading to isolation, few options, and less than the desired quota of goals.

So the question that must be asked is, has there been any progress in Vanney's plan?

While it is definitely far too premature for any serious analysis, with only two watchable games thus far, what can definitely be said is that they have controlled the tempo through large stretches. Toronto had their moments of superiority last season – after abandoning the extreme counterattacking style they trotted out early that drew criticism for a dangerous lack of possession – but there was something far more intentional about how TFC have approached the matches in Florida; a player like Sebastian Giovinco can have that sort of immediate effect.

Giovinco has looked decent, considering the limited time he has had to get to know his teammates – something very important to a game such as his. He has displayed a tendency to run into blind alleys on occasion, which may prove annoying, but his skill is clearly evident; he will break an ankle or two this season.

Three things have been most noticeable: how advanced the full-backs are encouraged to roam, how many bodies work into advanced positions, and how deep Michael Bradley has sat.

And all are, of course, inter-related.

With the outside backs getting forward quickly, the wide midfielders are pushed up-field, and that added width encourages them to move inside, closer to the box and eventually to the action – that Jonathan Osorio, playing ostensibly on the right, was so central, getting on the end of a loose ball to score the only TFC goal of the two matches is evidence of that fact.

Having three recognized ball movers  - Giovino, Bradley, and Benoit Cheyrou - in the centre of the pitch, allows Toronto to take more positional chances out wide, but full-backs risk getting caught up-field with turnovers; fortunately, those three will not make such mistakes cheaply.

Being more confident and deliberate through the middle, rather than thrusting forward with abandon under the old system, provides more time for the rest of the attack to get into position, pinning back the opponent. There have undoubtedly been many more options in the final third, whether out wide, or in the middle, though the true cohesion, sharpness, and fitness to convert possibility into chances has yet to materialize; it will come.

The consequence on the other side of that forward leaning posture, especially in the wide positions, is the potential for leaving vast open spaces at the back, potentially stressing the abandoned centre-backs, should the opponent look to spring a quick counter of their own.

Therefore, Bradley and Cheyrou have adopted very deep roles, almost shockingly so, to provide a measure of cover. The lack of attacking impetus in the final third from Bradley so far has been stunning; not necessarily a bad thing, but neither a best use of his full skill set. Cheyrou has appeared to be the more advanced of the two – and has been rather impressive, but that's another story; he'll prove to be an excellent pick up, no doubt.

The vulnerability of committing half the back-line to attack was regularly exposed in both matches – HB Koge's speedy forwards regularly proved troublesome and that same weakness, more-or-less, led to Oklahoma City's goal. Having four less-than-fleet-footed defenders – the two centre-backs, Bradley, and Cheyrou - in place is a risky strategy when turnovers occur and with the speed of Carl Robinson's Vancouver and Columbus' high-pressure game under Gregg Berhalter through the first two weeks of the season, the development of this system will be something to watch closely as the campaign gets underway.

Now all this must, of course, be taken with a grain of salt. Preseason is what it is, and the competition has not been the most apropos. The next test, against Red Bull New York tonight, should provide more relevant evidence as to how Toronto FC stands heading into the season.

Should the development of Greg Vanney's system continue on pace and Toronto find that perfect mix of fast and slow in attack, while keeping a vigilant eye on the frailties at the back, this season could indeed be a most interesting and fruitful one.