TORONTO — In his post-match press conference Saturday, Paul Mariner talked about the very young back four that were having to learn on the job as one of the problems that led to Toronto FC blowing a two- goal lead for the second straight time.
It’s an explanation that also seems to apply to Mariner, as it was the very same tactical and substitution decisions that saw another very bright first half wiped out by another late game collapse.
Make no mistake there were definitely positives to take out of Saturday’s 2-2 draw with New England, including a very good first-half performance. An unchanged lineup produced similar results compared to Houston, as the increased midfield presence of the 4-4-2 formation saw the defence remain relatively untested, and defenders could get forward at times in support of the forwards.
Terry Dunfield was once again right up there just behind the attackers causing problems and pressuring the midfield. But it was Ashtone Morgan who really stood out in the first half, as both goals came from his crosses from the left wing.
Danny Koevermans also put on a master class, dominating the defence to win headers and hold the ball up, as well as intelligently using his energy with well-timed runs to cause problems. He was rewarded with his fifth goal in five league games. He had a massive role in the second goal as well, winning the initial ball then distracting defence and goalkeeper with his run and diving header attempt, leaving Ryan Johnson an empty net.
Once again though, it all went wrong in the second half. It was gradual at first, as New England came out chasing the game. Slowly the pressure really began to tell and the changes Mariner made, especially the removal of Torsten Frings and Julian de Guzman, really didn’t help at all and instead just accentuated the sense of panic that was growing.
Mariner noted the young age of the defence, so was it really wise to remove the two most experienced and skilled players who could have helped them maintain composure, keep their shape and stick to the plan? It wasn’t just the loss of experience and calm heads that hurt Toronto, as the subs really changed the shape of the team, with more than one bad consequence.
In Houston on Wednesday, it was the removal of de Guzman in favour of Reggie Lambe that really turned the game and allowed Houston to attack almost nonstop for the final minutes, and that mistake was repeated again. Suddenly there were fewer options available for a simple outlet pass from defence, to connect front and back, maintain possession and move up the field as a unit.
Instead we saw repeated long clearances that just gave the ball back to New England and invited them to attack again and again.
Also with an extra man up front, Dunfield and Jeremy Hall were obviously able to cover less ground than before and suddenly there was a lot more space out wide, with very little help for the full backs. As we saw against Kansas City, and late against Houston, the crosses came flooding in, and it was only a matter of time before it went wrong. Maybe de Guzman did need to be subbed off late in the game again, but why not bring on Matt Stinson to maintain the same basic formation, rather than repeat the mistake of bringing in Lambe?
If the many chances created were an indication of the problems caused by the substitutions, both goals were a sign of the inexperience, and lack of depth in the squad that leads to Richard Eckersley, Doneil Henry and Logan Emory being used as centre backs.
The first saw Eckersley and Henry both ball-watching, and allowing their men to easily get in behind them to get the rebound, while the second goal saw right red shirts in the box, but nobody either attacking the ball, or marking Chris Tierney who scored. Eckersley, as he has done quite a few times before in similar situations, instead just backed towards the goal as if to try and block the inevitable shot, and Tierney’s header actually deflected off him and past Kocic.
It is a very inexperienced squad, as noted by Mariner, but that’s not exactly a revelation we’re just discovering now, so might it not be wise to have a more experienced coach in charge? Despite his years as assistant to Steve Nicol at New England, Mariner is still very inexperienced as a head coach, being the boss who makes the tactical decisions as well as mentally preparing the players.
The problem is compounded by the earlier appointment of an equally inexperienced Jim Brennan to the assistant coach position. Of course every coach has to start somewhere, but does it always have to be TFC? Sadly, it’s very much a pattern, as Mariner’s 28-game stint at Plymouth Argyle actually makes him the second most experienced man to be given the position.
Hopefully he can learn quickly. As he also said in his press conference “you don’t mind players making mistakes, but if they keep on making the same mistakes, that’s a problem”
Yes, Paul, yes it is, and I’d say exactly the same about the coach.
Duncan Fletcher is a Toronto-based writer and key contributor to Waking the Red, a blog about Toronto FC and Canadian soccer. Follow Duncan on Twitter.