Greg Vanney deserves a lot of credit for the current state of Toronto FC. That is stating the obvious. But it needs to be said, especially given some of the vehement detractors that have voiced their opinions loudly in the past.
The hashtag campaign that started in late 2014 really picked up speed during the first third of 2015. It trended again in August of that same year. History repeated itself in 2016. After only one win in six tries during the month of May, Vanney’s head was, once again, a highly sought after commodity. By the end of the 2016 regular season, with Toronto recording only two wins in its final eight matches, many questioned if Vanney was the right choice to steer the good ship TFC.
If anything, Vanney steers the ship aggressively. That’s not a bad thing, but it is surprising for a soccer mind that spent his entire playing career on defence. Or is it? In a 1996 interview with the L.A. Daily News, Vanney, then a left-back, said: “I think when the game is on the line you have to be willing to step up and take a chance in order to win the game.” That was hot on the heels of his game-winning goal against Kansas City in the Western Conference semi-finals. In the first five years of his professional playing career, Vanney scored 21 goals in 168 appearances for the LA Galaxy. Hardly the numbers of a stay-at-home defender.
That aggressive push for victory has served him, and TFC, well over the first 15 games this season. The decision to replace Drew Moor with Benoit Cheyrou at Red Bull Arena, the decision to bring on Victor Vazquez for an injured Nick Hagglund against Minnesota United, Tosaint Ricketts for Chris Mavinga versus the Columbus Crew – all of these gambles led to points for the Reds.
In all instances, the games were tight. Consequently, the conventional - and conservative - play would have been to swap a defender for a defender. But Vanney saw things differently. After the emotional win over Minnesota on May 13, Vanney opined: “Does one point do us a ton of good, or does three points do us good?” Having left only two natural defenders on the pitch, he explained that “if we added another midfielder, I thought that things would become clearer for us defensively… by creating a lot of problems for them”. Vanney then summed up the afternoon by stating that the aggressive substitution was the right move because it “gave us an opportunity to go for the game”. Sounds a lot like Vanney the player 20 years earlier.
Given Toronto’s strong defensive stats over the past season and a half, it may seem counter intuitive to state that Vanney’s tactics are aggressive. But this paradox is sufficiently addressed by the above quote. Defence becomes easier “by creating a lot of problems for [the opposition]”. Vanney’s preference for three at the back, coupled with pushing the virtues of wing-backs over full-backs, is aggressive. As advertised, it works when the problems that it creates for the opposition are greater than the problems that it creates for TFC.
By no means is it a defence-first philosophy. By no means is it a perfect strategy. It is a calculated risk that works really well at times but, as a risk, it has the potential to fail quite spectacularly. The key is being able to assess the situation and make the right changes, both in terms of personnel and tactics, before things go completely sideways. Vanney has gotten better at this as he has matured as a coach.
There is no doubt that during his evolution as coach, Vanney has made some poor decisions. Over the course of his tenure, though, he seems to have learned from his mistakes. More importantly, over the past month and a half, he has put those lessons to good use at the right time, resulting in the club’s recent run.
Case in point are the mid-game formation changes that we have seen repeatedly over the past several weeks. From a 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3 to a 3-4-2-1, Vanney has not shied away from mixing things up. This is different from the coach of a year ago.
In 2016, TFC employed the now famous diamond midfield from May onward. Win or lose, the formation remained intact. As mentioned at the start of this article, May, September and October were rocky months for the club. Yet Vanney refused to abandon the diamond. He waited until the last possible moment, in the penultimate game of the regular season against Montreal, to switch to a 4-3-3. That mid-game decision was a good one. It resulted in a goal for TFC and a draw at Stade Saputo. It was also evidence that the diamond had served its purpose. Vanney surprised many by switching permanently to the 3-5-2 during the MLS Cup playoffs. The formation was a success up until the final. Consequently, Vanney did not need to tinker. But credit to him for making the switch and having his players buy in at the most critical and risk-averse time of the year.
To obtain that buy-in required a strong relationship with the players. Similarly, mid-game changes this year require trust between all parties. Moreso than any other year, this is Vanney’s team. Almost all of the core players were jointly selected by him and general manager Tim Bezbatchenko. The team, and the coach, have had time to grow together and build a strong connection. Newcomers are fully aware that Greg is in charge, and they seem to respect him, and genuinely want to impress him.
So far this year, there was no better sign of that than when Mavinga jumped into Vanney’s arms after TFC’s second goal against Minnesota. Prior to that moment, the history between the two was not ideal. In a move that was uncharacteristic of Vanney, he publically singled out Mavinga for his poor performance against Atlanta United. He made the Frenchman ride the pine for several games, and then pulled him in favour of Ricketts before the first half was over in the match in Columbus. Yet against the Loons, Mavinga seemed overwhelmed by the genuine pat on the back from his coach. After he got it, he blew kisses to the crowd at BMO Field. Clearly, Vanney had found a way to get his message across to Mavinga.
Growth in players like Hagglund, Raheem Edwards, Marky Delgado and Jay Chapman should also be viewed in support of Vanney’s ability to get the best out of his charges. Given that Vanney’s background is in player development, this should not be a surprise. It is, however, a great skill to have.
This article is not an attempt to anoint Vanney as the second coming of Sir Alex Ferguson. Far from it. Vanney, just like his club, is still a work in progress. While I never engaged in the hashtag foolery that was cited at the beginning of this piece, I was one of the biggest critics of some of his tactics. The diamond was (is) not a favourite of mine. I have also written extensively about the follies of the 3-5-2 in today’s rough and tumble MLS. But give credit where credit is due. Toronto’s success over the past season and a half is due, in large part, to their coach.
Vanney has held the job for less than three years. It is his first head-coaching role at the MLS level. In that time, his team has earned its first playoff berth in club history (2015), made it to the MLS Cup final (2016), won a Canadian Championship (2016) and currently sits first in the hunt for this year’s Supporters’ Shield. Surely, Vanney’s aggressive mindset, improved ability to adjust his tactics at the right time and player-development strategies must have something to do with this.