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Toronto FC got the tactics wrong in Independiente loss

They don’t have the players for the system they tried to play last night.

MLS: Toronto FC at Sporting KC Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

The waste bin next to Toronto FC’s drawing board must be filled to the brim with crumpled paper. Since the turn of the year, almost nothing has gone to design for the club.

First, one of its key architects, Tim Bezbatchenko, left for the Presidency role at the Columbus Crew. Then Victor Vazquez left, followed by Gregory van der Wiel being sent home from training, and of course Sebastian Giovinco to Al-Hilal.

The club has been desperately trying to rework the blueprint, but that has had plenty of complications as well. Management are currently in Belgium trying to complete a move for Genk midfielder Alejandro Pozuelo that has hit major snags.

Last night, Toronto FC fans got a first glimpse at yet another plan, the one that Vanney has for the team’s roster. True to the recent trend, it went horribly wrong. The 4-0 loss to Independiente ranks among the most embarrassing in club history.

During the course of the game, it became abundantly clear that at the moment Toronto FC do not have the players to fit the style that Vanney wants. It’s a tactical switch he has been hinting at since the end of last season, that the team would play a style very similar to Manchester City with an importance placed on wide attackers.

Toronto, a club who haven’t really played with wide attackers arguably since the Aron Winter era, only brought in one with MLS experience this off-season. Nick DeLeon did not play last night with a reported minor back injury from the turf in Panama.

So, instead, Toronto FC were left with Griffin Dorsey, playing in his first ever professional match and Justin Morrow, who has not looked like a real attacking threat since 2017. Off the bench came another debutant, 19-year-old Jacob Shaffelburg, who was arguably Toronto’s man of the match... if that means much in a 4-0 loss.

They managed very little as an attacking threat. Between the three players, only two successful passes were completed into the box, neither of them into dangerous positions. They also failed to effectively combine with any of the players in the middle of the attacking third.

As a result, poor Terrence Boyd was completely isolated up top for the vast majority of the match. Most Toronto fans will remember the comically skied penalty (the club is now a laughable 66.1% from the spot all time, per Martyn Bailey). However, the target man was given little help by his teammates, and he had to do a reasonably amount of covering for both wingers.

The other hallmark of Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City system that caused Toronto FC all sorts of problems to replicate was the inverted fullbacks. Auro, in particular, looked horribly lost in the middle and his failure to distribute the ball afforded Independiente plenty of counterattacking opportunities.

Once the Panamanian side got the ball, they were able to quickly attack those vacant wide positions and force Toronto FC’s backline to become very stretched. This led to a lot of last-ditch tackles, tackles that Laurent Ciman and Chris Mavinga were only too enthused to make. Both took far too many risks, an indication of why they are not an ideal pairing.

It was clear very early in the second half that this system was not working, but for whatever reason an unusually stubborn Vanney stuck things out. In the past, especially during the 2016 and 2017 campaigns, Vanney has shown an ability to adjust tactically mid-game to get a result.

Instead, he stuck with his plan and the exact same result just kept playing out over and over again. If Toronto were coming back to BMO Field down 2-0, even 3-0 perhaps, all might not have been lost. But at four goals allowed their Champions League campaign is effectively over before it started.

In some ways, it’s only partially Vanney’s fault. He has been saying for several months what type of soccer he would be playing this season and management has clearly not provided him with the pieces he needs. But trying to play that way regardless was a massive error.

Once the MLS season kicks off on March 3, Vanney will have a far better canvas to try and lay out his new designs of this team. There will be more games, and far more room for error. By that point he might even have more pieces to work with.

But patience is clearly running out, if it hasn’t already. Sticking to a system that Toronto FC are clearly ill-equipped to play at the moment could spell Vanney’s downfall.

Like so many other plans around the club right now, Vanney might have to put his on hold momentarily in favour of stabilization. If not, he may never get the chance to see it to fruition.