MANITOBA, Canada—With the first derby of the 2021 season behind us and the full range of possible reactions to the match on display, it’s time to take a deep breath, shake the stupor you may be feeling after this sudden Super League bombshell from your head, and reflect on this match.
The match on Saturday certainly wasn’t the performance we wanted to see from Toronto FC after the high of the CONCACAF Champions League result, and especially with it coming against CF Montreal, but there aren’t any reasons to feel downtrodden at this point.
First and foremost, it’s the first match of the season. Everything will be okay. There is a long road to go and we have to (shudders) trust the process. Encouragingly, we can look to the performances of players like Richie Lareya, who was able to lift our spirits amidst that lackluster display with a moment of individual brilliance to make the scoreline a little more palatable. After the match, Chris Armas also stated that we can expect a few injured players to return to the squad soon.
“It looks like we’ll have a few of our reinforcements, if you will, back for the next game,” said Armas. “And that will be good for those players, good for our team, and each day, it seems like every few days we are getting healthier, we’re getting stronger, yeah. We’ll get back to full strength real soon.”
So, there are reasons to feel optimistic, there are encouraging signs from players we expect to contribute in major ways, the cavalry is on it’s way and, this team DID just beat Club León after all.
With that all in mind, let’s take a look at three things that stood out in the season opener.
The kids ARE alright
If there is one thing I am sure of in all of my years around the game, it’s that development isn’t linear. We have seen a VERY young squad thus far this season and we have seen very little of them. These players aren’t going to go out and be world-beaters every match and there has to be a collective understanding from the support that these players need first-team minutes on the pitch and that they will make mistakes as they grow—that’s how they develop.
There are plenty of things to feel good about with these young men early in this season. Ralph Priso continues to show poise in midfield and in possession, with the 18-year-old calmly slipping away from the clutches of swarming Montreal players on a myriad of occasions last match. Noble Okello is showing clear signs of continuing his development as an intelligent, ball-playing, midfield dynamo. Couple that with the industry and work rate of Jacob Shaffelburg and the intercontinentally coveted Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty’s first MLS assist and there are significant signs that these young players are ready to contribute in a big way to this team.
After the match, Armas praised the 16-year-old Marshall-Rutty’s cameo appearance.
“We saw today and what we’ve seen in training, he’s clever and tidy and in interior spots, he’s very shifty and elegant with the ball,” said Armas. “He helped build some promising attacks, and yeah, I thought it was important to get him out there and not just for the experience.
“I know I wasn’t the only crazy one thinking we are going to score the first one and next ones are going to follow. I think he had a good relationship with Richie out there, and with Richie overlapping, he had some really good moments.
“But Jahkeele, he’s shown some good moments in training. He earned those minutes today.”
Now, the context of the performances from the TFC young guns is key when looking at their performances against Montreal. Armas is going forth in this campaign with a “no excuses” mantra, which is admirable and appreciated by many within the TFC support, and I won’t make any for the squad, but there are certainly identifiable reasons which caused many of these young players to struggle in this match.
Let’s just get this one out of the way early: Luke Singh did not have a good game. We know this and he knows this. But, I’m still ready to go to bat for this kid. Let’s focus on his performance for a moment as an example of how there needs to be nuance when looking at a young player’s poor performance.
The mistakes he made aren’t endemic and don’t point to anything beyond a young man learning his craft in the top-flight. He has shown enough in his appearance against Leon to provide us with a glimpse of the player he actually is, or projects to be, rather than the inverse. Singh’s sub-par performance was exacerbated by a lack of expected veteran support from his teammates at times, especially from his centreback partner Omar Gonzalez.
Watch Gonzalez support run on this goal:
There isn’t one.
After the quick long-ball out of the back catches Toronto high up the pitch, Gonzalez has to put every ounce of effort he has to get back to ensure that Singh isn’t left stranded on an island trying to deal with the threat Romell Quioto is posing, yet he barely breaks a jog.
That is the 23rd minute of the game and Omar looks like he’s just given you a wave and is doing that all-arms, no legs ‘jog’ in front of your car as he crosses the street. He has to be better there.
Granted, Singh could possibly do more to put Quioto off, but that is asking a lot of a young player in an already onerous situation.
Now, let’s skip ahead to Montreal’s fourth goal. Singh gets his positioning wrong as he comes in to close down Erik Hurtado. He gets between Hurtado and the goal, but overcommits and gets himself too square (watch for his eventual side-shuffle along the edge of the area). From here, he loses the ability to dictate Hurtato’s direction and can’t show him to the outside as required, especially with the lack of support behind him.
Once Hurtado lays that ball off, Singh completely shuts off while Đorđe Mihailović turns Gonzalez (who has been pulled out of position to compensate for a lack of cover at full-back) to stone and easily splits between them to score and put the game beyond any doubt.
These are both mistakes on Singh’s part that come with the territory of being an inexperienced defender. As he acclimates to the pace and landscape of MLS matches, he’ll figure out his positioning and he’ll know to remain sharp at all times—something that isn’t required at such a capacity at lower levels of the game. It is imperative that he gets steady performances and support from players like Gonzalez to help guide him through these rougher moments.
Despite the young defender struggling in the match, Chris Armas still spoke highly of the player’s development and potential in an post match interview.
“Imagine a player like Luke, we’ve thrown a lot at him,” said Armas. “We discussed not starting him today because it could be a lot for a young player early on, but we wanted to expose him to this type of game, and he held up in many ways, he did. It’s just a big challenge on the day as we had to put out a lot of fires in transition. So, with two strikers, with good moments, with quickness that he’s dealing with all year long, I think he’s growing quickly.
“So, it’s a couple of really difficult games, you know, that he’s had to face, but I think it will pay dividends for him moving forward.”
Clearly, it wasn’t what we were hoping to see, but it does mark a step forward in Singh’s and the rest of the TFC young players’ development. Let’s not lose sight after one match of how much of an achievement it is that these players have worked their way from the academy to being first team contributors. The club certainly believes in them.
No one is happy with yesterday’s result, Duncan. But we are immensely proud of these young men and the work they’ve put in! To rise through the ranks of our academy system and make their mark as professionals with the first team is an incredible achievement worth recognizing.— Toronto FC (@TorontoFC) April 18, 2021
Everybody needs a wing-man
Bless Jacob Shaffelburg. Lining up as up as a sort of pseudo-false-nine/winger behind Patrick Mullins, Shaffelburg’s relentless running in his time on the pitch offered the club its only consistent width, pace, and press for most of the match.
He was able to run at the Montreal centrebacks on a handful of occasions, exposing a potential vulnerability that TFC failed to examine further with any real consistency, and came agonizingly close to levelling things at 1-1 in the 6th minute with a deft little chip past Clément Diop that somehow didn’t go in.
Armas didn’t line the team up with much width outside of what he tasked Shaffelburg and his fullbacks with, or with many players familiar with playing from wide areas. The midfield of Ralph Priso, Michael Bradley, and Noble Okello was often joined by another pseudo-positioned player in Mark Delgado who would drop in from his wider area to help them defend narrowly. Montreal, on the other hand, had their wide players in full flow and exploited the wide spaces left by this formation, exposing TFC’s fullbacks as they were tasked with far too extensive of an area of the pitch to cover without support.
Nancy getting this right so far. Wing-backs are drawing #TFCLive full-backs out (their wingers defend narrow and aren’t picking them up) which leaves Quioto and Toye 2-on-2 with the centre-backs. Mihailovic a problem too. Great #CFMTL start.— Oliver Platt (@plattoli) April 17, 2021
This dubious cocktail of positional and tactical strife mixed with the tired bodies in the starting XI had Armas’ side listless early (think a Jeppson’s Malört Manhattan with an old cigarette in it). To his credit, Armas attempted to compensate for this with the introductions of Justin Morrow, Nick DeLeon and Jahkeele Marshall-Rutty, but with wing players like Erickson Gallardo and Achara out with injuries, this match really highlighted the lack of depth the club has for players comfortable operating in the wide areas. If Armas is going to look to set his team out to press, TFC may have to look for reinforcements on the wing to give him the artillery he needs if he’s not seeing what he wants within the squad’s current make-up—they certainly have the resources to do so.
The press will take time and Armas has to adjust
We were all surprised to see the same starting-XI from the Club León match announced for the season opener. With all of the injuries that the team is experiencing, Armas’ choices were certainly limited, but the decision to run it back verbatim looked almost instantly regrettable. The Reds looked languid physically and their processing of the match developing in front of them looked laboured.
Michael Bradley looked like he was running on fumes, and the moment of ‘defending’ he put on display as Victor Wanyama rose above him to head home Montreal’s third illustrates best how the mental side of the game can quickly slip when the body is fatigued.
Like with the development of the youth players, Armas’ implementation of this new high-tempo, fitness reliant, training and match plan is going to experience growing pains. It’s an inevitability that the team won’t find instant, consistent success with it in these early days of the season, but the long term-benefits of a system like this can certainly be seen in it’s application elsewhere. As he develops this system with the squad, Armas is going to have to allow his players the time to physically adjust to these rigors and that means squad rotation and rest.
Let’s take a look at a club Armas has mentioned in recent interviews when talking about his pressing system: Liverpool FC.
When Jurgen Klopp took over Liverpool in October of 2015, he brought in his Gegenpress style of play, much in the same vein of the tactics that Armas is looking to employ. This was quite a departure from the possession-based game the manager he was replacing, Brendan Rodgers, had the team playing.
This new Gegenpress (or “heavy metal football” as Klopp once called it) had the Liverpool players running far more than they ever had under Rodgers, both in and out of possession, right from the get-go.
A LOT more.
This rapid change in physical demands led to Klopp facing scrutiny from several outlets outside of the club. Many of the German manager’s players developed muscle injuries as their bodies couldn’t cope with the swift upping of the ante, with the former Dortmund man being accused of playing “Russian roulette” by not giving the players time to adjust. It seems, however, that Klopp figured things out in time after Liverpool got through their struggles in their initial adjustment period.
Despite the small sample size of Armas at the helm of Toronto FC, with the change in tactics and amount of muscle injuries currently in the TFC squad, it is easy to draw parallels between the situations faced by the two managers and their squads at similar points. If Armas wants to employ this tactic with his new side, he is going to have to allow his players time to be tired and to recover. That means not running out the same squads with little turnaround like he did against Montreal, especially when he is relying heavily on veteran legs like those of Bradley and Gonzalez.
As Klopp and his Liverpool team have shown (except this season, don’t look at this season), once a squad is prepared physically and familiar tactically with this pressing style, it can be devastating to opponents in its application.
Now, with Armas and the squad not back in action again until Saturday, there is time to recoup, get some bodies back fit, go over game-tape, and to develop a tactical strategy to right the wrongs on display against CF Montreal.
Armas is detailed and diligent in his preparation and astute in his perception of the game, as recently illustrated in his chat on the club’s Come On You Reds Touchline Talk podcast, and has certainly analyzed his side’s performance to the nth degree to revise their approach and ensure there is a better application of his plans for the club in their next match against the Vancouver Whitecaps.
The best is yet to come.