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.