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How will wingers fit into Toronto FC’s attack?

Greg Vanney wants to see attacking wide players brought in this winter, but there’s a reason TFC haven’t used them often to this point.

MLS: Chicago Fire at Toronto FC Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

Tim Bezbatchenko is on the clock.

Perhaps it was intentional, or perhaps it was just Greg Vanney being Greg Vanney — a coach who enjoys discussing the finer details of the game and has never sought to close himself off to the media.

Whether he wanted to get a few things on the record or was simply answering the question put to him, though, Vanney laid out quite a specific shopping list for his general manager during the team’s end-of-season interviews last week.

For starters, Vanney would like a communicative, tactically intelligent centre-back and a physical forward, to ensure that the absence of Drew Moor and Jozy Altidore does not hurt his team as much as it seemed to this year.

That will not come as much of a surprise.

What was more interesting was the length at which Vanney spoke about wingers, and his desire to add attacking wide play to Toronto’s arsenal. The transcript on that topic alone runs to over 750 words.

Here’s the crux of it.

“You have to have wide players who can hurt the opposition. You cannot play through the middle of the field — especially (because) teams now defend us through the middle of the field and play us in transition. If you cannot hurt them on the outside, you cannot make them respect the wide areas of the field, and if you can’t make them respect the wide areas then you can’t go through the middle. It’s just going to be too dense.”

“Just from a philosophical standpoint, I believe that the game is about wide players now, as much as anything. I think when you look at the best teams in the world, and the teams and the coaches who set some of the standards around the world, everybody is playing with wide players.”

You can listen to his comments in full here (9:55 for the winger stuff).

On the face of it, the integration of wingers sounds like a change to the attack — but Vanney believes there will be significant defensive benefits, too. He wants to “stop teams from progressing up the field on the outside”, eliminate his team’s turnovers in their own half by creating a safer, more direct route out down the wings and reduce the need for the likes of Michael Bradley to be drawn wide to pressure the ball, making it easier for his central midfielders and defenders to hold down the middle.

And he’s correct in asserting that Toronto’s lack of attacking wide players of some kind is increasingly unusual at the top level. You will rarely see a UEFA Champions League team without them; though back threes have come back into fashion over the past few years (and now appear on their way out again), they are usually of the 3-4-3 variety with two wide forwards flanking a central striker.

Diamonds are almost unheard of and 3-5-2s, with wing-backs but no additional wide players in front of them, are becoming less and less common.

If Vanney had been given the opportunity to design a team himself, it’s unlikely he ever would have landed on the 3-5-2 or the narrow 4-4-2 that he deployed on his way to an MLS Cup last year. It was a product of necessity; handed Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco, he had to figure out a way to accommodate two strikers without giving up the centre of midfield.

It’s hard to tick those two boxes and find room for out-and-out wingers. Flat 4-4-2s with players running in straight lines don’t work anymore.

Which brings us to the only problem with his vision: Altidore and Giovinco are still here. And we haven’t even mentioned Victor Vazquez and Jonathan Osorio, both TAM players and at their most comfortable operating in the central spaces behind the forwards.

How exactly is this going to work? We can only speculate on a few possible options.

1. Make (nearly) all the pieces fit

There’s only one system I can think of that makes room for Altidore, Giovinco, Vazquez and another winger, and we saw it a few times this season.

You may remember it best from the 3-1 win over Real Salt Lake in March, when it worked like a song. There is a caveat: RSL, despite making the playoffs, were a very poor away team. But Toronto were missing Vazquez, Chris Mavinga and Justin Morrow and were dominant all the same, with the expected goals line — approximately 4 to 0.6 — among the most lopsided we have seen at BMO Field.

This shape makes sense in a lot of ways. On the left, you have the aggressive Morrow providing width and Vazquez drifting inside to get on the ball. On the right, you have Gregory van der Wiel tucking in to help the centre-backs and Bradley and — theoretically — a field-stretching, pacey winger ahead of him. It’s balanced.

But you will have noticed that there is one name missing: Osorio. Some would have him in the team ahead of Marky Delgado, but that is naïve (can you tell I’m tired of arguing in favour of Marky?) and would leave Bradley exposed.

Realistically, there would be plenty of minutes for Osorio — we know Vazquez and Altidore aren’t going to log 34 games each, and he could slot in for either (if for Altidore, the formation becomes a 4-5-1). But he’s relegated back to ‘first man off the bench’ status in big games and his form this season was too good for that.

2. The ‘Altidore leaves’ scenario

Right now, on the back of his mysterious comments following the 2-1 loss against the Vancouver Whitecaps, Altidore seems the most likely of the club’s high-profile players to leave this winter.

Vanney kind of poured cold water on that last week, though. As mentioned earlier, he specifically brought up what Toronto were missing when Altidore wasn’t on the field as something that needed to be addressed in the transfer window. Perhaps they’re actually looking for a replacement, not a backup, but it didn’t sound like it.

Anyway — if Altidore goes, you have something like we saw against Atlanta.

There’s no Osorio again in that example, but it’s easier to work him into this system — Vanney could just use one winger, with either Osorio or Vazquez playing on the left, or swap him in for Delgado, which is more realistic with an extra central player to shore things up.

Whatever combination of players you use, this look gives you a nice three-man combo in midfield and tons of skill and movement up front (assuming the wingers are, y’know, actually good). But you lose Altidore’s goals, athleticism and ability to occupy defenders and create space for others.

3. The ‘Giovinco or Vazquez leaves’ scenario

I don’t think either of those two are going anywhere, to be honest.

And this doesn’t actually look much different to option 1 in reality — particularly if, in our imaginary scenario, it’s Vazquez out the door. It just means that Giovinco takes on a more pronounced role as a No. 10 rather than a striker, which kind of seemed to be happening at the start of the season and then slowed a bit due to Altidore’s injury.

If Giovinco was to go, you could potentially use two very aggressive wingers without tilting things too heavily towards attack, because Vazquez will do more for you as a midfielder when out of possession. So then it becomes more like option 2.

(Some have suggested Giovinco himself could move out wide. Vanney said that could happen on occasion, but “he’s not a guy, in my eyes, who I would consider an out-and-out winger”.)

Those are some possibilities. There’s probably more, and it’s going to be interesting to watch unfold as TFC are thrust straight into must-win matches in the Concacaf Champions League.