After any Toronto FC loss, it seemingly appears that TFC fans exist in one of two polar opposites when it comes to manager Greg Vanney. On one end, you have those that are increasingly questioning the gaffer’s lineups and formations while demanding #VanneyOut and would only be pleased with the manager losing his job to appease their appetite after the stumbles of 2018.
The contrast to this group are those that remind everyone of the dark old days of TFC, when coaches and managers were disposed of with the same regularity that the most inept sports franchises around the world hold as their calling card. Much to the chagrin of the previous group, this group cautions patience with a view towards the long-term picture.
It becomes difficult to traverse the gray area that exists between these two dichotomies without venturing towards either, but there has become a growing segment of the fan base who appreciates Greg Vanney for what he is — the most successful manager in club history, — but also has grown increasingly discontent with some of his decisions over the past year.
And one does not have to look any further than the CCL round of 16 game against CAI of Panama played this past Tuesday, to see some of Greg Vanney’s worst habits on display — habits that at often times in 2018 caused Toronto FC to start the opening whistle of the game with an uphill battle.
For all of Vanney’s wonderful attributes as a strategist and tactician, there appears to be a strange stubbornness of adhering to a system, even when the personnel for the system isn’t there.
Last year, despite losing most of his capable central defenders to injury, Vanney continued with the 3-5-2 and tried to shoehorn Michael Bradley into the role of Drew Moor. This had a two-fold negative effect. One, it obviously took Bradley out of a more forward position where he could eat up the attack earlier and hit with a counter strike, but it was also clear after the first half that this experiment was putting Bradley in a role that he just wasn’t comfortable doing, or quite frankly any good at.
It seemed likely that until injuries cleared up a 4-4-2 system would be a better fit for this club, but match after match, there was the Captain slotted into the role of central defense. It seemed that Vanney had strangely divorced himself from the results of the experiment, to continue with what wasn’t working.
Last night reinforced some of those concerns. Justin Morrow’s offensive success in 2017 came with making speed defying runs down the left flank and providing a wide-to-narrow option in the attacking third. His strength was to run in stride with the midfielder holding the ball and provide either a quick cross into the 18-yard box or as a trailing option from the weak side. What Morrow didn’t do was act as a possession winger, who could receive the ball deep into the attacking third, and then create from a stationary position. Yet on Tuesday that’s exactly the role he was thrust into. For long portions of the game, you could be excused if you forgot that he was even in the starting XI as he was absent from any action. The rare time that he did receive the ball, it just appeared to be such an uncomfortable reaction from Morrow. Turning your strengths into a weakness isn’t the most recommended strategy when trying to win a soccer game.
The second issue that was evident was Vanney’s odd tendency to thrust inexperienced players from TFC 2 straight into the starting XI, over more proven commodities.
Griffin Dorsey may have a bright future for a TFC squad in 2021, but getting his first team cherry in a high pressure Champions League game in Panama wasn’t ideal. The lad had all the effort and want, but you could see how exasperated Michael Bradley was in constantly trying to wave him into the correct positions. He was either too narrow or too far up the pitch to serve as an effective release valve for the defense when the attacking pressure from CAI came. It’s not the best sign that in a game of that much importance to have one of your players look like a deer caught in the headlights.
While it’s understood that Nick DeLeon’s injury may have wreaked havoc with the lineup, surely Jay Chapman or another player could have started in the role that Dorsey was thrown into. Either that, or use a formation and system that catered to the players available, rather than continually try to stick square pegs into round holes.
Mitchell Tierney wrote an excellent column earlier about how there seems to be a discrepancy between the style of play that Vanney has espoused all off-season, and what management has provided him with players. This is a less-than-ideal situation, and management needs to rectify this as soon as possible. But it’s clear that they are trying. There are a few TAM and DP options that this club has explored that would hopefully allow Vanney to adopt the wider attacking style that Mitchell spoke of.
But in the meantime it’s incumbent upon Greg Vanney to adapt as well. If the roster lacks players who can comfortably play an attacking style from the wings, then it’s imperative that Vanney change his formations and style to something that allows his players to be in positions of maximum effectiveness and where they can succeed.
Whether it’s a 4-4-2, a 4-5-1, a narrower style, a defensive minded approach to win games 1-nil, whatever it takes, Greg Vanney needs to look at the players he has and decide how to fit the best XI available in a system that hides this clubs weaknesses, not accentuates them. In a system that builds off of their strengths, not mitigates them.
This means no more Bradley at CB. No more Morrow as an attacking forward. No more Laurent Ciman without having someone of more speed around him. This means saving the debuts of TFC II players for a Wednesday night game against Minnesota or Chicago, when the club could use rotation for the purposes of rest. Sebastian Giovinco and Victor Vazquez are gone. Jozy Altidore in on the injured list. The coaching staff cannot just plug and play the newcomers in the roles they’ve abdicated, but instead have to work in the new reality.
Criticism of Greg Vanney isn’t synonymous with calling for his head. By no means. He has earned the right to have some leeway and grace period in this time of transition, but there have been questionable decisions for over two years now. Not even the great Sir Alex Ferguson was beyond criticism during losses, and this situation shouldn’t be any different. Greg Vanney deserves to be the manager of this club, but it’s time for him to show that he can take good players and make the club great, instead of simply taking great players and not underperforming like he was previously allowed to do.
This season is a chance for Greg Vanney to prove that he belongs on the list of coaching all-time greats in MLS history, and to shush those in the #VanneyOut camp. Because if things stay the same as last year, the grey area between the two extremes of opinions on Vanney will only shrink. It will become increasingly harder to make the case of stability, simply for the sake of it.
Look, personally I am a huge fan of Greg Vanney. He has been gracious and kind to me in our few meetings together. But as we are so often reminded, soccer is a business and sentimental reasons only exist until the next transfer window.
Clock’s ticking Greg, you’re up.