Greg Vanney made 17 changes to his starting lineup for Toronto FC’s past three games, and that already remarkable number would rise even further if you were to account for the different positions the players that did start consecutively filled. The coach came up with a different game plan for each fixture and they delivered nine points, creating separation between the Reds and the chasing pack in the Eastern Conference.
It was impressive stuff - especially in Seattle, where there was really very little Toronto tried that didn’t work. The performances against Columbus and Minnesota were more of a mixed bag, but Vanney reacted astutely to what he was seeing with some excellent substitutions that turned both games back in his team’s favour.
In the end, Vanney was able to have his cake and eat it; he tried a bunch of things he wanted to experiment with and though some of them didn’t work out, they cost Toronto nothing. The knowledge he has gained by doing that will be invaluable going forward.
Here are a few of those things I liked and didn’t like over the past three games.
LIKED: The Bradley-Cheyrou duo
When the lineup for the Seattle game was announced, it appeared Toronto were playing their normal 3-5-2 but with Jay Chapman withdrawn into a position off Jozy Altidore. In actual fact, it was a different look; a kind of 3-4-2-1 with Chapman and Marky Delgado playing in the inside channels behind the striker and ahead of a four-man midfield.
It worked a treat for numerous reasons, and one was how effective and complementary Michael Bradley and Benoit Cheyrou were in central midfield. Neither was really more attacking or defensive than the other; Cheyrou had two shots while Bradley created two chances, both attempted 50 passes and both had a combined total of eight tackles and interceptions.
When one ventured forward to support the attack in possession or press an opponent out of it, the other screened the defence and vice versa. They ensured that Clint Dempsey, Jordan Morris and especially Nicolas Lodeiro never really had the opportunity to receive the ball in a central position and turn into space.
Whereas Bradley normally sits in front of the defence, breaking up attacks and bringing the ball out of the back, this shape allowed him to play a bit more of an orthodox central-midfield role and he had another very, very good game against the Sounders, which is starting to become a theme. I think the more defensive role will remain his primary job this year but this is an interesting alternative - particularly as it could allow Toronto to flip the midfield triangle and play Victor Vazquez as an out-and-out No. 10.
DIDN’T LIKE: Cheyrou ahead of Bradley
Having rekindled their partnership to good effect in the second half against Columbus, both Bradley and Cheyrou started against Minnesota United.
This time, though, Toronto were back in their normal formation and Bradley his more usual position, with Delgado and Cheyrou playing in front of the captain. Delgado does lot of things well but he is never likely to be a creative force, meaning the burden was on the Frenchman to link up with the forwards.
Cheyrou was tidy enough, but did not really provide the spark needed against a team initially set up in a very defensive shape. He did not register a key pass (that results in a shot) and generally just fed Raheem Edwards, which wasn’t a bad idea at all but meant that Toronto did not cause many problems through the middle of the pitch.
The first graphic shows Cheyrou’s completed passes, and the second Vazquez’s in the 25 minutes he was on the field. You can see that the Spaniard was a little less predictable in the positions he took up and had two key passes (marked in yellow) during his cameo.
Cheyrou proved his continued importance to the Reds in Seattle and Columbus, but it will not be as the team’s main midfield playmaker. With Vazquez, Chapman and Jonathan Osorio all competing for that role, there should not be much need to use him there anyway.
LIKED: Chapman’s advanced role
This is potentially very useful, because the fact is that Toronto simply can’t replace Sebastian Giovinco directly. Any striker remotely on the Italian’s level isn’t going to be happy with a backup role in MLS, so his absence inevitably changes the look of the team.
The natural alternative up to this point has been to insert Tosaint Ricketts into the lineup, which is fine. Ricketts’ three goals in the past two games have all come in the 75th minute or later, though, and that is where 90% of his value lies. It’s not for a lack of effort, but Toronto quite often don’t get much out of him until the game enters that state of the Reds chasing a late goal.
When you have a striker like Altidore who is a prolific goalscorer and capable of leading the line on his own, it makes sense to retain some of the stardust that Giovinco provides by bringing in a gifted, creative player like Chapman even if he is not likely to score many goals. The Seattle game was inevitably about defending a 1-0 lead in the end, but in the first half hour or so Toronto played some of the best one-touch football we have seen all season and the Canadian was an influential part of that.
What’s most impressive about Chapman is not his technical ability, though, but the way he seems to see things a step ahead, before they develop. The move that led to Altidore’s penalty against the Sounders is a perfect example.
When Justin Morrow gets the ball on the left, the obvious thing for Chapman to do would be to open up for a square pass. There wouldn’t have really been anything on except a pass back to Morrow under pressure from Osvaldo Alonso, though, so Chapman takes a chance.
He darts forward, making a run that prevents Alonso and Roman Torres from going to press Altidore without leaving anyone behind them, and then drops back off to shed Alonso’s attention and set up the one-two. It’s the kind of thing you don’t notice at first, but each movement is quite calculated and the foresight is remarkable.
DIDN’T LIKE: Osorio & Chapman dropping deeper
The starting midfield against Columbus just didn’t work. Osorio should not be written off just because he is going through a tough spell at the moment, but he looked lost against the Crew in the role Cheyrou had occupied a few days earlier, contributing virtually nothing on the defensive side of the ball. The swap was Vazquez and Osorio for Cheyrou and Delgado and Toronto lost too much of the hassling, hard running and simple possession play that the latter two had provided in Seattle.
It’s understandable that Cheyrou and Delgado might have been too tired to start again, but I’m puzzled Armando Cooper wasn’t the first man in as a result. He’s not as disciplined and can make silly mistakes, but he’s a far better bet to disrupt opposition midfielders than the players selected.
LIKED: Mavinga’s improvement
Mavinga is still the fourth-choice centre-back when everyone is fit for now, but after a rough debut the new signing looked a lot better through this stretch. There remains the occasional moment when he seems to switch off but his ability in one-on-one duels is impressive, and he is more comfortable on the ball than any Reds defender on the books.
That was most evident against Minnesota. On the right, Hagglund’s favourite passing target was his wing-back, Cooper, and that can often result in the opposition pressing the wide player towards the touchline and forcing him to send the ball straight back. Hagglund passed inside to the midfielder in front of him, Delgado, only once all game.
Mavinga’s favourite target, on the other hand, was his equivalent of Delgado (Cheyrou). That is a much more effective way of moving the ball out of defence and giving the next pass a chance of progressing forwards, getting the wing-back into the game in more dangerous positions as a consequence.
DIDN’T LIKE: Cooper at wing-back
Even if he wasn’t always getting as good a supply of the ball as Edwards, Cooper just didn’t look especially comfortable at wing-back and, to be honest, did not look like he had much interest in playing there.
The various options Toronto have tried in the only position in which they do not have much depth have served to give Steven Beitashour a rest, but not solved the problem of what would happen if he was to be unavailable for a longer period of time. If there is any position to watch for a midseason move, this is it.