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Ager Aketxe’s tactical flexibility key for Toronto FC

Greg Vanney sees a few options for incorporating the Spaniard into the lineup.

Toronto FC continued to pull ahead in MLS’s rapidly accelerating arms race on Friday. They officially announced the signing of Ager Aketxe at the BMO Training Ground, and both head coach Greg Vanney and GM Tim Bezbatchenko had no shortage of praise for the Athletic Bilbao product.

Bezbatchenko said he’d had his eye on Aketxe since the summer of 2016, but it sounds like the move was finally possible to pull off this winter with the additional Targeted Allocation Money at his disposal.

By now, we’ve all probably done our homework in seeing how Aketxe’s been doing in Spain. He hasn’t been a regular feature in the Bilbao team, but he’s shown flashes of brilliance with his left foot and his loan spell at Cadiz was very positive.

For Bezbatchenko, the 24-year-old’s skillset is something TFC missed a little last season.

“We like that he has the ability to create as well as finish,” said the GM. “His left foot is special. He has good intentions on the ball, he looks to play forward.”

Something Vanney pointed out is that, as a left-footed player, Aketxe can help TFC transition forward from right to left, giving them the option of a two-pronged buildup. He may then be able to connect Justin Morrow on the left side to the likes of Sebastian Giovinco and Jozy Altidore more fluidly. Aketxe’s also a fantastic option for free kicks if Giovinco is out of the lineup.

The coach compared him on several occasions to Victor Vazquez, who will now have some help in creating within the attacking third. The comparisons seem apt, especially since the two have similar La Liga pedigrees, as well as strong technical ability and vision.

“We are Spanish, we understand football in the same way,” said Vazquez on Friday. “We were missing these kinds of players that are maybe a bit faster with the ball. He can dribble, most of our guys like to play more with the ball and he’s a different kind.”

Aketxe seems keen on having a player like Vazquez to learn from at TFC. He spoke to his compatriot after the process of coming to Toronto began, and it sounds like Vazquez’s experience will do a lot toward easing Aketxe’s transition to an extremely different environment. The two were hanging around together quite a bit at the start of training yesterday, and I’d definitely suspect they’ll enjoy working together.

Overall, Vazquez is impressed with the 5’7” midfielder. He even suggested that Aketxe could contend for MLS’s Newcomer of the Year award, which Vazquez himself was snubbed from in 2017.

“They are really physical, they work really hard. This is the main thing in players from the north of Spain,” he explained. “Maybe Aketxe’s a bit different because he’s the type like Seba, he’s smaller, shifty, faster. But they are really good workers, they have really great character.”

Aketxe also mentioned Vazquez specifically as someone he’ll lean on for help in his early days here.

“We’ve talked a few times,” said the midfielder through a translator, “and Victor’s really helped in transitioning me into making the decision of coming here, telling me about all the great things Toronto has to offer.”

Now, the question for Greg Vanney is where he’ll play Aketxe in his lineup. It sounds like he has plenty of options, depending on which part of the newcomer’s skillset the Reds need more. The most obvious place for him is beside Vazquez in a 3-5-2, but it seems like Vanney wants to move away from that formation. So, I suppose he might go just behind and to the left of Vazquez in a diamond.

Vanney seems happy with his options, though.

“Currently we’re playing with four central midfielders, so there’s spots on the field, but also he’s capable of playing coming off of the right wing” he said.

“There’s different ways we can use him in our setup depending on how we want to play on a given day, we can drop him and sit him a little bit deeper as an eight, or we can play in the diamond, or he can play coming off the right side as a winger. We can play him as a 10, lot of versatility there in his game.“

In short, TFC plan on playing a lot of games this year. So, having a lot of options and depth makes that easier. Aketxe should be ahead of Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado in the pecking order, but I highly doubt that neither of the latter two will see the field.

Bezbatchenko hinted there might be another couple of supplemental moves coming to round out TFC’s roster, but those will probably be depth players like Tsubasa Endoh and Jason Hernandez. He believes, though, that the team he’s assembled now is better than last year’s.

“We do believe we have a roster that can be better than last year,” said Bezbatchenko. “Not just with the new players we brought in, but with the current players that we love and believe they’ll continue to get better and improve and even become tighter if that’s even possible.”