Wheeler's Inside | Aug 2 Image

Wheeler's Insider | A new-look squad, Ali in, and what Benezet brings

Greg Vanney is a happy man. He finally has the pieces to play the way he wants his team to play.  It’s a chance to create his own version of Manchester City, right here in Toronto.

Before you go jump off the deep-end, no, Toronto FC won’t be as good or as dominant as City; one of the truly great teams in club football today. A salary cap, budget and profile, in a different league on a different continent will assure that. But it’s a chance for the head coach to model his group after the way Manchester City plays.

Vanney has gone overseas and watched the Blue side of Manchester play on multiple occasions since winning MLS Cup in 2017. In Pep Guardiola’s side, Vanney saw a progressive group, not only with exceptional talent but a team playing the way he believes modern successful teams are built; a more dynamic formation, versatile in foundation with players able to press high and attack with width. However fantastic the 2017 season was for TFC, it was a more pragmatic approach that saw the team through before settling predominantly on a 3-5-2 formation. The system was mostly determined by the players in the squad. Having two top strikers in Jozy Altidore and Sebastian Giovinco demanded two at the top, and without natural wingers, the solution was to play the fullbacks higher up the field with three centre-backs providing cover. 

The approach worked to a charm, but Vanney understood the team had to evolve to be successful over the long haul. Manchester City provided the template for Vanney, and that required change in the team. Vanney needed wingers who could play and press higher up the field. It would take some time, changes, and patience, but a 4-3-3 was the way forward for his group.

There have been growing pains over the last 1+ seasons. And players have been regularly played out of position or forced out of their comfort to adapt to the new style of play. But with significant changes over recent weeks, including the three TAM signings in this transfer window, the squad finally looks to be one that suits Vanney and his desired style of play. This is about as close to a team that can play the ‘Manchester City’ way as he’s had. 

The latest signing, Nicolas Benezet, brings another creative attacking threat that was seemingly missing in the team. Goalkeeper Quentin Westberg, who played against Benezet in France, calls the attacker a Shaffelburg-Osorio hybrid; a player that plays from the inside-out, good on the ball who can also play a little bit more direct. Benezet seems an ideal fit to invert the midfield triangle, from having two more defensive minded, ball possessing midfielders, to having two more attack minded midfielders playing higher, finding and creating space off the ball as much as they create on it. Altidore has told me multiple times over recent months of the need of the team to be more dynamic. They get that in Benezet, with experience to match quality. 

It’s worthwhile to look at the make-up of both TFC and Man City, understanding the scale is different. It’s the type of players added by Toronto that’s important, making for a team that can play a City style of play. The back four is straight-forward; with decent ball playing centre-backs and athletic fullbacks providing an extra wave of attack. In the midfield, where Fernandinho has been a force in recent years, that job falls to Michael Bradley; the glue that holds the team together going both ways. In front, the David Silva-Kevin De Bruyne combination will be asked to be mimicked by Benezet and Alejandro Pozuelo. Vanney did mention this week that City often times plays Bernardo Silva wide right, and Benezet could fit that profile as well, playing a little bit more from the inside-out, but still occupying the position wide right. Altidore clearly fills the role of the number 9, where Sergio Aguero has been a dominant force. With wide players like Jacob Shaffelburg, Tsubasa Endoh, and the hope is Erickson Gallardo can provide the directness, pace and production players like Raheem Sterling, Leroy Sane, and Riyad Mahrez have done so well. 

This Toronto FC team can press high, be more dynamic in approach, and be more difficult to play against than they were before. There are obvious variations in the team set-up, and ways to change the look of the team pending gameplan and opponent. Nick DeLeon, Jonathan Osorio and Marky Delgado remain key components that can change the complexion of the midfield and wide areas, depending on the situation at hand. It’s this tactical flexibility that Vanney has desperately wanted. And whereas the old guard of Bradley, Delgado, and Osorio love to be on the ball and keep it, the new additions are more apt to find the space, play quickly into it and be more dangerous in play. By design, it gives the group a better overall balance.

There have been bumpy roads trying to implement a style Vanney knew he had to pursue without the right players to play that style. Vanney at times tried to simplify, reshape and salvage when he had too. It’s been a difficult exercise, and a long wait for players to come in that fit the mold. Vanney doesn’t expect any more incomings this window and believes this group has the makings of a much better group.

Now it’s time to see how the plan plays out in actuality. And to figure out the team best comes together and whether the pieces make for a Championship puzzle.

Busy Ali 

It’s been an exceptionally busy seven months on the job for General Manager Ali Curtis. There was heavy lifting to do from the get-go, and Curtis hit the ground running. Curtis had to practice some patience of his own along the way, but significant changes to the first team has been wide-ranging and impressive.

Under Curtis, Toronto FC became the first team to bring in three TAM players in the same window in MLS history. It’s a significant outlay for the club to bring in pieces that fit for the now with the hope they work for the future as well. Curtis helped facilitate making these moves through shrewd management, finding ways to create roster flexibility through trades and some intricate roster management. And after a hectic two months of wheeling and dealing, the remain squad has Curtis’ fingerprints all over it. 

Here’s a list of players signed or acquired and remain in the squad since Curtis took over in January:

Quentin Westberg: signing (February 25)

Alejandro Pozuelo: DP signing (March 4)

Richie Laryea: signing (March 21)

Omar Gonzalez: TAM signing (June 3)

Jacob Shaffelburg: Homegrown signing (June 21)

Erickson Gallardo: TAM signing (July 9)

Patrick Mullins: trade (July 10)

Nicolas Benezet: TAM signing (July 30)

Those are significant acquisitions, including arguably five first-choice players at their position and two others yet to feature, but both on TAM and seemingly having important futures at the club. On top of those moves, Curtis also signed Noble Okello, a player for the future, to a first-team contract, drafted Griffin Dorsey and brought Endoh back into the Toronto FC fold.  Contract extensions were also given too Altidore and DeLeon.

Curtis tells me he now thinks Toronto FC has a squad that can compete with any in a wide open Eastern Conference. Time will tell if players now shifting down the pecking order will be shipped out to another club where they will find more opportunity. But for now, the heavy lifting appears done and Curtis can sit back and watch how it all comes together.

Around the Wheeler

It wasn’t the most straight-forward trip to Canada for Benezet, with his luggage gone missing en route. The Frenchman attended his first training session Thursday and admitted to being tired after travel and the excitement of the move. Good news is Benezet’s baggage was tracked down. And other than being left empty-handed at the airport, the 28-year-old has nothing but positive first impressions of his new city.

Benezet’s father used to coach Westberg’s brother in France, and the two have multiple common friends in the game. The two have never played on the same team together before, but they did come close. Westberg played for Evian in Ligue 2 in 2012, helping the side to top flight promotion. The goalkeeper left the club that summer, mere months before Benezet joined.

Vanney also has ties to Benezet, as the TFC Head Coach played with Jocelyn Gourvennec at Bastia during their playing days. Gourvennec was Benezet’s former Head Coach at Guingamp, before being let go at the end of the season as relegation fell upon the French club.  Gourvennec let Vanney know that Benezet had become available with a new coach coming in with a desire to play a system that didn’t play to the strengths of the player.

Benezet will wear the number 7, recently vacated by Jordan Hamilton.

Altidore has been on fire since returning from the Gold Cup, scoring four in four for the second time this season. When asked about his standout play, Altidore remarked that most must not be watching his play over the years, as he’s prided himself on being able to score in multiple ways. The game-winning goal against Cincinnati was the first from open play from outside the area since 2016.

Pozuelo started and played 45 minutes at MLS All Star in Orlando Wednesday, and by all accounts, absolutely loved the experience. Good news for Toronto, the player remains in good shape and spirits. A club athletic trainer stayed with Pozuelo the entire time in Orlando and will travel with the player to meet up with the rest of the travelling squad Friday.

Pozuelo wasn’t the only Toronto FC All Star participant, as Noble Okello featured in the Homegrown game. Okello, who was part of Canada’s Gold Cup squad, came on as a second half substitute and scored the equalizer against Chivas u20, winning MVP honours for his performance.

Gallardo (quad) is in contention for a place in the team for the first time this weekend. But as much as the focus has been on the exciting attacking players coming into the team, the group continues to focus on improving defensively. Toronto has just two clean sheets in the last 13 games.

Toronto’s next seven games are all against Eastern Conference opponents. Just four points separate 2nd place from eighth in the conference, with TFC sitting in eighth on 32 points entering the weekend. Eight of Toronto’s nine wins on the season have come against Eastern Conference opposition.

Toronto FC’s defence of the Voyageurs Cup begins Wednesday at TD Place in Ottawa, after the Fury knocked off Halifax Wanderers of the Canadian Premier League in the third round of the Canadian Championship. The return leg is at BMO Field on August 14. TFC has knocked off the Fury in the last two competitions but lost the first leg in Ottawa two years ago.