It was all sadly predictable.

You hardly needed to watch Toronto FC’s game Saturday to know how it was going to turn out. Reds’ fans had seen the movie before—shambolic defending and confused tactics leading to a sixth straight loss to open the season. It was predictable the moment the line-up was released on various social media platforms about an hour before kickoff.

In the lead-up to the game there was some hope that head coach Aron Winter would take a more pragmatic approach in an effort to stop what was fast becoming an historically bad start to the MLS season.

As it turns out, such thoughts were misguided. Even the most tactically-unaware fan could see that Winter had yet to give up on his idealistic dream of a fluid TFC winning games with style. It was right there in the eleven names staring at you from your smart phone screen.

Three at the back.


Torsten Frings as a centreback.

Yep, it was a 3-4-3, the 4-3-3′s ugly stepsister. Unfortunately, Johan Cruyff was unavailable for selection.

Actually, forget Cruyff. Aron Winter, the player, would have done spendidly.

Richard Eckersley, not so much. Yet Winter and TFC continue to trot the system out week after week, evidence that the Reds can’t play it be damned.

It’s part of the (seemingly deluded) vision TFC ownership has to turn the club into the Ajax of North America.

So, the 3-4-3/4-3-3 experiment continues. There is some merit to it.

It’s a great system to play at a development level, for instance.

It’s technically demanding, possession-based and offensively progressive. It produces well-rounded and skilled players. That’s a good thing. TFC should absolutely strive towards that ideal with its youth teams. There, results don’t matter. Only development does.

The senior team is a different matter. Results do matter and increasingly in world football the so-called Dutch system is seen as more of a retro throwback—Totaalvoetbal! 1974!! Groovy!!!—than it is an effective modern tactic. Even in Holland.

Actually, there are only a select few top Dutch clubs that retain the 4-3-3 religion, most notably Ajax and AZ Alkmaar. However, there are many examples of successful clubs in the Netherlands that have abandoned the formation; Feyenoord and PSV jump to mind, with PSV likely the most successful Dutch team in Europe.

And although the Dutch national side leans to the 4-3-3, it’s worth pointing out that Holland captured its only major trophy while playing a 4-4-2 at the 1988 European Championship.

If there can be a healthy debate about the worth of the 4-3-3 in the birthplace of the formation than surely there can be one at Toronto FC too.

Apparently, Winter disagrees. Oh-for-six or not, the Reds must keep jamming that giant square peg into the tiny round hole. If he doesn’t work, well, then it’s not the system’s fault or his own, it’s the players’ fault.

“We need better players,” is Winter’s favourite lament. In that he is hardly unique among world football managers. Roberto Mancini famously bemoaned Manchester City’s lack of depth earlier this year. The difference being that Bobby Manc has a Sheikh’s billions to play with.

Winter has a $2.81 million salary cap and a million of that tied up in three players.

Bluntly, Winter needs to get on with it and he needs to adjust his tactics. When every single voice in Toronto and MLS is telling you that it’s not working, and six losses on the trot are backing that position up, it might be time for some self-evaluation.

Winter’s stubbornness to change is causing many to openly talk about the absurd possibility of making yet another change in manager. No one in Toronto wants to bring in a new guy, a guy that would be TFC’s seventh man in charge in just five and a third seasons. No one wants to keep losing either.

The scuttlebutt around TFC circles is that Winter has to the end of next month’s Voyageurs Cup first round tie with Montreal to turn things around. Paul Mariner, or, possibly, former New England manager Steve Nicol could be brought in. Again, it’s not anyone’s preference, but it’s increasing becoming a possibility.

So Winter has four games—two league matches and two in the cup. If things are still going sideways at that point it would be awfully hard to argue with a decision to replace him.

And if that happens, he’ll have no one to blame but himself.

Comments (5)

  1. I feel like your peg metaphor was weakened by the redundancy of stressing the size difference between the peg and hole, rather than relying on the simplicity of the shape mismatch to construe your point.

  2. My J-School profs would agree. Stylistically I’m prone to hyperbole though.

    It’s my burden.

  3. Pointing out Dutch clubs who are unsuccessful and use the 4-3-3 formation, or Dutch clubs who are successful without it, is irrelevant; I could name successful clubs outside of the Netherlands who are successful with the 4-3-3 formation (like Arsenal) and obviously many who don’t use the 4-3-3 formation and aren’t successful. It’s really neither here nor there and the only club that really matters in this case is TFC.

    I also don’t agree with sacking Aron Winter. At some point you have to stick with a manager, even if he goes through a poor run of matches. Winter has had his successes at Toronto, even as recently as last month. Furthermore, a manager’s job is to implement a certain style, not completely change the way they manage based on the players at their disposal. Winter should not adjust his style any more than Guardiola should adjust his style after losing to Chelsea over two legs. We should give Winter three seasons to build this club from scratch (which is a reasonable time frame) and if things aren’t working by that point, then you bring in a new manager with a new philosophy. But we can’t keep cutting and chopping our managers, hoping to get lucky one season and have immediate short-term success. That is no way to run a club. Running a football club takes vision and sacking Winter at this point would be folly, in my opinion.

  4. If the media wants to be ontop of things, it shouldn’t just be reactionary to what is ‘hot’ in the moment. A lot of talking about Mariner as a solution, but he is part of this problem and at least deserves some scrutiny. His job was putting together the players needed by Winter, with an understanding of balancing the league and Winter’s approach. While I don’t think the South American route was misguided, its clear the scouting wasn’t done on the players. Aceval is barely serviceable, and Caicedo clearly wasn’t prepared to play MLS style soccer – Mariner should have had a scent of that and been able to find someone else. Central defence has been marked as a ‘problem’ since Winter arrived, now we can say Winter is to blame for everything, but he was told to work with Mariner who was to bring the players in.

    No doubt, Winter is turning out to be a stereotype of the Dutch: wooden shoes, wooden head, wouldn’t listen. Stubburnness can be very useful – it got the Dutch to the world cup final and continually doing well in sports in general – but it is can also be an issue if there is never flexibility. It can end up being tiring and frustrating to work alongside someone not willing to take suggestions of ‘change’. But the Paul Mariner may, on the otherside, not really presenting the best options either.

    MLSE position as an ignorant boss, incapable of sitting both sides down and spelling it out clearly: figure out how to work together and use each other’s strengths – is in the backdrop. They don’t know what each person’s strengths actually are (nor do we from a distance really, because we don’t work with either person) – they just have Klinsman’s report from 2010, which has turned out to be a marketing platform more than anything. That should not surprise anyone, a large number of supporters clamour to be treated like “consumers” of football; if you accept TFC is just like any other business and you will be presented with a business. Marketing strives to polish turds to be sold and MLSE are quite content to do what they do best and let marketing polish the turd. MLSE may never see TFC as anything else than a ‘business’, but supporters don’t need to accept that frame and should take a cue from Genoa supporters – not in style but in form – to articulate that ‘this is our house’ is not a marketing slogan. TFC belongs to the supporters and decisions should not be made through ignorant business/marketing plans, but footballing plans.

  5. Quite the attack on the 4-3-3 :o)

    However, there are quite a few teams to be quite successful using it. Oh, and I seem to remember the dutch making it to the final of the worldcup recently. Pretty impressive for a country with only 16 million people about the size of Lake Erie or Huron. They must be doing something right since a country that small hasn’t made it to the final in almost 50 years.

    Whether Winter is the right guy… I don’t know. But I can imagine it will take some time to develop the players to have the right soccer sense. At least they are entertaining losses. I will never forget Preki’s/Carters mind numbing performances.

    Hey Gus Hiddink is available ;) I am sure he would make it work. The system is not the problem, just a combination of players/coach. Personally I like the way Holland, Arsenal, and Barcelona play. There is nothing wrong with trying to target that.

    Forget the hole, maybe we just need new pegs, or a basher.

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