In polite company, they’re referred to as “intangibles.” Determination. Teamwork. Togetherness. Grit. The kind of thing Henry Winter likes to write about Sir Alex Ferguson.
Not that these aren’t important qualities. The controversy comes about when discussing whether these are necessary antecedents to success in club football, or whether they’re the result of a team blessed with individual talent and a sound tactical approach. It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing, but if I have to choose between good proven players working in a cohesive tactical system that matches their strengths, and the quackery that is ‘sports psychology,’ I know which one I’m taking to the island.
Yet as far as sportswritery narratives go, ‘optics’ are everything, and so the little drama in a can surrounding Toronto Football Club following Adrian Cann’s denial of Danny Koevermans claim that Toronto FC are “the worst team in the world” sparked the interest of various beat writers and team bloggers. As the team are 0-9 in the league, it’s far easier to look toward dressing room discord as some sort of symptom of a team at odds with itself.
The implication here however is that Toronto FC are losing a ton of games because of a lack of “togetherness.” I don’t buy it. First, let’s have a look at Ben Massey’s piece today on Koevermans’ remarks:
I firmly believe that Toronto has enough skill to not be last. We saw glimpses of it last week against the Vancouver Whitecaps as well as other times: when they really should have beaten Real Salt Lake at Rio Tinto, that terrific Chicago Fire game, and that’s without getting into the CONCACAF Champions League. This isn’t to say they’re good, because they’re not. This isn’t to say they should beat Vancouver tonight, because if they do that will be a calamity, but any Whitecap who walks onto BMO Field thinking “worst team in the world” needs a smack upside the head with a tire iron.
There’s a core truth in this. Toronto FC are not the worse team in the world, of course, but the problem is their foibles are complicated, to say the least. The word ‘intractable’ comes to mind. I spoke about them yesterday, but broadly speaking, they involve a team working a tactical approach that doesn’t seem to suit their abilities or their strengths. It’s a firm possibility too that some of the players in this team are either not very good or past their prime.
To an outside observer, this would be blindly obvious. What, for example, is Reggie Lambe doing playing on the right wing of a 4-3-3, a 21-year old player who enjoyed 9 appearances in his previous two seasons with Ipswich and Burnley? What purpose to Eric Avila and Terry Dunfield serve playing as defensive midfielders alongside Julian De Guzman, when they have little impact on match day? What does it say of the confidence Jeremy Hall and Ashtone Morgan have in these players when they don’t press forward in attack, or at least nearly enough as opposition full-backs in a similar formation? And what does it say of JDG’s confidence in the forward wide players that he consistently moves up to assist in attack?
This goes beyond “discipline in set-pieces” or the need for a “world class centreback pairing.” This goes directly to the coach and manager who has staked his reputation on a Dutch style that even its progenitors in Ajax, now under the successful leadership of Frank de Boer, have altered enough to suit their current talent.
Again, this doesn’t mean Toronto is the worst team ever. In some ways, that would make things easier. But it does mean Toronto will not improve much this season, beyond stringing together the odd result. They’ve actually been suprisingly consistent, win, or lose (adding in here the Voyageur’s Cup results). A high shot on goal to on target ratio. Seventy percent pass completion rate. Forty percent possession. Pass total below three hundred. Wingers who cross a hell of a lot more than they cut in, not always ideal in a 4-3-3.
How long MLSE will be happy to accept this discord between players and system is up to them really.