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How Sebastian Giovinco became multiple players for Toronto FC

Greg Vanney praised how the Italian can fit almost anywhere into an attacking lineup.

MLS: Philadelphia Union at Toronto FC Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Over the years, I’m sure thousands of words have been written on this site and around the internet about how good Sebastian Giovinco is. Nobody needs me to tell them that again; he’s Toronto FC’s best player, and he showed it in last night’s 3-0 win over the Philadelphia Union.

What’s only becoming clear now, though, is how many different kinds of player Giovinco can be. I joked on Twitter during the game that we were seeing two kinds of Seba last night: the “ruins defenders’ lives” Seba and the “about to be sent off” Seba. While I wasn’t quite serious about that (although the guy really does need to calm down occasionally), it really is as if there are multiple Giovincos that Greg Vanney can employ on any given night.

In 2015, Giovinco was an absolute cut above every single player in MLS, and it was obvious every single time he had the ball. He would score seemingly at will, very often from chances he created himself. Four years later, though, he’s not quite as fast as he used to be. It’s harder for him to get away from the defenders he just burned while keeping the ball close to his feet.

Enter 2018 Giovinco, who may well be the best version of him we’ve seen since that MVP-winning year. He’s no longer exclusively a shoot-first kind of player, nor is he required to score all the goals for TFC. Although his average shots per game this year (5.54) is actually almost identical to that of 2015, he also has much better service now, which means he’s certainly had more opportunities to fire at will.

What sets him apart now from past versions of himself is his ability to help TFC in so many different ways. His average passes per game (25) is as high as ever — and it’d probably be much higher if he hadn’t been playing as a lone striker the past two games. He’s more than doubled his number of key passes per game from last year, making about 2.5 through 13 games this season (this is the first time it’s been higher than 2 in his career with Toronto).

Even Giovinco’s number of dribbles per game has taken a jump, from consistently below two to 2.5. All these stats seem indicative of his growing hunger to drop deeper and create chances for other, perhaps faster, players, like Jonathan Osorio.

Giovinco Year-to-Year

Year Shots per game Dribbles per game Key passes per game Passes per game
Year Shots per game Dribbles per game Key passes per game Passes per game
2018 5.5 2.5 2.5 25
2017 4.9 1.2 1.2 25
2016 6.3 1.7 1.9 23.6
2015 5.5 1.9 1.8 18.8

“You see him covering more ground, I think, this year, and showing up in different places,” said Greg Vanney on Friday. “Sometimes dropping deeper to help to build up the play and create things, sometimes drifting wide, right now with [Jozy Altidore] out we need him to be a little bit more of a forward so he was doing less of the dropping back and more of the staying high today.”

Vanney seems to have turned Seba into a Swiss (Italian?) Army Knife of an attacking player. Yes, he can produce when his role is just to play up top and find space for himself. However, he’s become just as good at making space for other players. He’s always been an incredible passer, of course (he had 13 and 16 assists in his first two seasons here), but that particular skill has been on display more this year.

Generally, it just looks like Giovinco has to work harder for what he wants to do this year. He’s been more willing to track back and help out defensively, and he’s been able to help in the transition game a little more by overlapping with some of the midfielders. He’s been a more responsible, tactically aware player (although he still falls down easily on occasion).

We saw several different kinds of Giovinco on Friday night; he took five shots of his own, but he also made three key passes. He had a very clear role in all three of Toronto’s goals, as well.

On the first goal, he made a brilliantly incisive pass across the box to Nicolas Hasler (although I’m not sure what the hell the Philly defenders were doing). There, we saw Giovinco’s vision and ability to move the ball along; that’s the kind of thing he can do on the regular when he drops a little deeper and plays almost as an attacking midfielder. He did it several times in the playoffs last year, and this goal is another great example.

On his own goal, Seba gave us all tremendous flashbacks to 2015. This was exactly the kind of goal he scored almost every other week. We know he’s always loved drifting out to the left side, which he did here to make himself open. Once he got the ball at his feet, he slowed down a bit and managed to get the defenders all tied up. The finish was pretty clinical as well, finding the narrowest of gaps beneath Andre Blake.

Then, there was his contribution that won’t make the scoresheet. On Jay Chapman’s goal, Giovinco found himself well ahead of the rest of his teammates and, since he’s Sebastian Giovinco, the Philadelphia centre-backs were doubling up on marking him. Realizing this, and also knowing that he’s in a poor position to receive a pass from Hamilton with the defenders closing in and his back to the ball, he continues his run forward, keeping the backline focused on him while Chapman runs into acres of space.

Vanney spoke at length on Friday about how he’s seen Giovinco turn into a more versatile player over the years, perhaps as a response to his declining foot speed. The TFC coach made one hell of a lofty reference in describing how Seba can play multiple roles in different lineups.

“I think with the way our team is continuing to grow and develop I think Sebastian’s role can continue to evolve as – I’m gonna make the comparison – like a Messi,” said Vanney. “He doesn’t necessarily always just stay up high and play forward, he’ll drop, he’ll drift, he’ll go into areas where he can create and find spaces for himself.

“I think Seba is doing the same things for us, our team – I’m not saying he’s Messi, but the same things for our team that a player like that does, get it on the turn, face forward, increase your speed, build speed into the attack, be an assist guy, be a goalscorer, kind of do all of those little pieces.”

According to Vanney, the CONCACAF Champions League was a major reason behind Giovinco’s many-faced 2018. Since those games required quite a different style of play, with any kind of advantage making a huge difference, Giovinco’s role was specifically tailored to each game. For example, in all three ties against Mexican teams, he took more shots and made more passes in the home leg where TFC were a little more comfortable.

His growing chemistry with Victor Vazquez has also helped out a lot, too. Vanney mentioned that he’s been trying to get the two to play a little closer together to improve their linkup play, and it’s certainly worked the last two games.

“With Seba and I always it’s easy, because in one second we know what we’re going to do,” said Vazquez after Friday’s game. “We have said many times before that we are ready for everything, we have players to do different kinds of jobs during the game and to play in different positions.”

Vazquez was sure to note how much harder it can be to find Seba when Jozy Altidore isn’t there to draw defenders to himself, but he and Giovinco still seemed to have the chemistry to find each other on more than one occasion.

The two definitely combine all the time for goals. On top of that, though, I think Giovinco has actually learned from the intelligent way Vazquez plays the game. As Seba has begun to face the realities of aging and slowing down, he’s had to find new, creative ways to make an impact. Vazquez has plied his trade over his career through visionary passes and creative tactical awareness. Giovinco is developing into a similar kind of player (albeit with some other absolutely spectacular tricks in his back pocket, which probably still define him).

Ultimately, it’s a testament to Seba that he’s been able to hit the ground running in every role Vanney’s thrown him into. Just like the rest of Toronto FC, he’s been put in some unusual situations recently with all the injuries. On Friday, though, he definitely reminded a lot of us why he’s so highly-regarded around North America.

Pay the man his money, Tim.