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Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

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Big Picture Thinking vs. Short-Term Pragmatism: Where does Toronto FC stand?

The balance between being patient with the big picture coming together and short-term pragmatism for immediate results is a debate that has existed forever between clubs and their fans.

Toronto FC are trying to execute a long-term vision that extends beyond the immediate season. TFC fan patience with this process is understandably low after an extremely disappointing 2021 season and an equally disappointing 2022 season so far. After signing Lorenzo Insigne, Federico Bernardeschi, Domenico Criscito, and Jesus Jimenez, as well as trading for Mark-Anthony Kaye, expectations are that the team’s on field product should be further along in their own process.

Part of this impatience is also likely attributed to TFC fans being concerned that if the club fails to improve quickly and at least make the playoffs this season (which is looking more unlikely with each passing game), Insigne and others may see this project as a waste of time and leave. This is always a possibility and there’s nothing I can say that will change that potential outcome. However, the counter possibility also exists that TFC has learned from their past mistakes and has better prepared Insigne, Bernardeschi, Criscito and others for life in Toronto and in MLS.

After a disaster game against the Chicago Fire (and being winless in their last five), some fans were calling for Bob Bradley to use short-term pragmatism to churn out results. In this article, I will try my best to explain why Bob is unlikely to take a pragmatic approach to games for the rest of the season unless injuries force his hand. Instead, he will likely place greater value on the big picture and start building towards the 2023 MLS season.

Short-Term Pragmatism vs. Big Picture Thinking

When taking over as manager at a new club, it’s important to evaluate the current players and shift out as many of the non-ideal players as quickly as possible. Unifying a dressing room is also critical. Most managers will go through a period of short-term pragmatism where they try to find a system and tactics that will work for the team. A transformational manager may even get more out of the players they inherited. Eventually though, most managers will transition to their preferred tactics once enough of their ideal players are brought in.

Soccer is ultimately a results based business. Many managers are often not given enough time to implement their ideas and to integrate their preferred players for their ideal system of play. They can be fired for a myriad of reasons: losing games, not playing an aesthetically pleasing brand of soccer and friction with upper management are just three different examples that can lead to a manager being fired.

Still, there are other clubs aligned to the big picture thinking of their incoming new managers and are willing to be patient across multiple seasons to eventually get to where they aspire. Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool, Mikel Arteta at Arsenal, David Moyes at West Ham, Graham Potter at Brighton, Christian Streich at SC Freiburg, and Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid are all examples of the latter.

TFC coach of Toronto Bob Bradley (Robert Frank Bradley)... Photo by Angel Marchini/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

Clearly, Bob is not at the same level as those aforementioned managers. However, he has won four titles (1 CONCACAF Gold Cup, 1 MLS Cup, 1 MLS Supporters’ Shield and 1 Canadian Championship) as a manager and does have previous experience coaching the US men’s national team, the Egyptian men’s national team, Swansea City, Le Havre and various MLS clubs (LAFC, Chicago Fire and D.C. United). At the same time, MLS is not at the same level as the Premier League, Bundesliga or La Liga. Bob also doesn’t have to deal with the threat of relegation.

TFC already went through the process of bringing in a new manager, Chris Armas, and fired him after 15 games in 2021. The club would be doing themselves no favours by constantly changing managers, especially in a year where the manager has not had many players that fit his ideal system yet.

Pragmatism was used earlier in the 2022 MLS season

Bob may or may not be the manager that takes TFC to its next MLS cup victory. There were some questionable decisions made in the off-season (i.e. starting the season with no experienced fullbacks) and there are certainly some basic defensive principles (i.e. defensive spacing, positioning, coverages etc.) that players are just not executing right now. That could be connected to coaching or to a talent deficiency, but is not what I’m here to discuss at this time.

Bob has used four different formations this season to try and adapt to the players he was given (according to, 4-4-2 and 3-4-2-1 have each been used six times, 4-2-3-1 has been used four times and the 4-3-3 attacking has been used four times). This pragmatism led to mixed results. Generally, any short-term gains in performances and results were often not sustained and the team eventually regressed back to previous issues.

Inconsistency will be the norm when you have a new manager, new tactics, change over a significant number of players, are often missing your best players, rely on a lot of young academy players with little MLS experience, and also play many of those young players out of position.

Big picture thinking will likely be used to prepare the team for the 2023 MLS season

Bob inherited a team with a lot of players who either no longer wanted to stay at the club or weren’t a stylistic fit with the system he prefers to play. Now that more of his ideal players are slowly coming in, he has started to show more of a preference for his attacking 4-3-3 system.

Against Montreal FC on Saturday, he was forced to adapt to Osorio’s absence by shifting the team back to the previously used 3-4-2-1. If not for injury, he probably would have continued to use his preferred formation so that the current players can better learn their defined roles within the system before Insigne and Bernardeschi start playing.

In the matches against San Jose and the Chicago Fire, we saw exactly this despite still not having the ideal players to play this formation. Questionable late game substitutions aside in the San Jose game, he stuck with that exact formation in both games despite how each game was trending.

Sean Pollock l Waking The Red

So why didn’t Bob make in-game adjustments more often to the formation, and to a lesser extent his tactics, if things weren’t going well? The answer isn’t one of stupidity or ignorance (or at least I’d like to give him the benefit of doubt). I believe the answer is that Bob is using big picture thinking and preparing the team for the 2023 MLS season.

That’s probably an answer that most TFC fans won’t enjoy hearing. Despite the lack of results and a non-linear improvement path to date, it may be enough for the club if they can:

  1. Successfully integrate their new European signings;
  2. Have the rest of the players develop chemistry on the patterns of play to execute Bob’s preferred attacking 4-3-3 formation; and
  3. Close out the season strong with positive results and another Canadian Championship title.

In the current TFC squad, there are a lot of young academy players or players with no experience in a league like MLS (or better). A lot of these players are not only learning to adapt to a new league with better players than they’ve ever faced, they’re also learning new positions. On top of all that, they’re also learning a new system after previously developing under Vanney’s, Armas’ and Perez’s preferred styles of play. Asking for them to quickly adapt and shift tactics within a game is not an easy task and borders on information overload.

Pragmatism will eventually play a part again in future years. Once a team has learned the patterns of play in their manager’s preferred system, a good manager will eventually adjust his formation and/or tactics to win games. At that point though, being pragmatic means that players fully understand the preferred system and can start to learn more adaptations. It also likely means that the manager has quality players to be able to accomplish that.

The reality is that Bob will likely not be fully judged by his superiors until next season. Bill and Bob seem aligned in their long-term vision for TFC and that it takes time to implement and learn a new system of play (roles, pressing triggers, positioning, anticipating where the next pass should be and when to release the ball all takes time to learn etc.).

There will come a time when a decision needs to be made on whether or not Bob is the right manager for TFC. With only 13 games remaining, it’s becoming more unlikely that TFC will make the MLS playoffs barring some fortunate results outside of their own control.

For the time being, I’m willing to take a patient approach to see if the level of play improves once Bob’s ideal players are integrated into the team. Constructing a new team takes time. It’s also just more fun to build up the players and not constantly be trying to tear down everything that goes on at the club you support.

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