With Toronto FC currently languishing at the bottom of MLS after an 0-5 start, and with three goalless home games behind them, fans are in desperate need of hope and are turning their lonely eyes to Torsten Frings.
If the German’s importance to the side was in any doubt before his injury, his case for team MVP is now iron clad.
He said last week that this Saturday’s match against the Chicago Fire would likely mark his return, and if it happens it will undoubtedly be a big boost, but where exactly on the pitch will he line up? Will he be back at the middle of the three centre back formation where he and the team have had most success since he arrived last summer? Or will the return of Adrian Cann be enough to allow Frings to move up and be the midfield general to finally make the 4-3-3 work?
Until recently, my initial reaction would have been a simple "whatever’s best for the defence," but after a few games now where, punished mistakes aside, the defence has looked relatively solid, all of a sudden it’s the stuttering attack that looks most in need of bolstering. Instinctively that would suggest having Frings in midfield rather than defence.
There’s no doubt that his presence there would help the possession game TFC is theoretically built upon. Terry Dunfield has many qualities, but the ability to move the ball quickly and accurately enough to put pressure on the opposition isn’t one of them. Not taking that extra second in controlling the ball, figuring out where it’s going next and passing it on is crucial to being able to unlock a well organized defence and midfield.
Frings may no longer be at his quickest physically, but the limited action he’s seen so far this season showed he still has the ability to read the game and seems a step ahead of the play, which would definitely help restore some sharpness to TFC’s often lethargic looking attacks.
But the evidence shows that having Frings in the defence is when TFC’s attack has looked its best. The three centre back system really frees the full backs to get forward and support the offence. Too often this season TFC’s attack has relied on getting the ball out wide and putting a cross in, with Danny Koevermans looking isolated in the middle and very few attacks going through the middle of the defence. Having Ashtone Morgan and Richard Eckersley bombing forward as they like to enables the wingers to cut inside more and provide more options for Koevermans and the midfield to lead to a more varied attack.
It’s clear that Aron Winter’s first choice would be to go with the 4-3-3, but an important part of that, something that the Dutchman has stressed many times, is the need to have a strong presence and leadership in each part of the pitch. Many different defenders have been tried and come up short, which has led to compromises of either playing Frings at the back, or having a very defensively focused midfield. Now Cann will get the chance to show he can be the man to finally sort out the defence. Results were mixed last year playing behind a usually poor midfield, but even in the one game against Chivas he showed more potential to be the leader needed in defence.
If he can continue that, as well as improving his fitness and timing which will naturally happen after such a long layoff, it should finally allow Frings to be released into his natural midfield role and allow the team to play Winter’s preferred formation without fatally compromising the defence.
Having both of them on the pitch at the same time should dramatically improve the organization and leadership throughout the team, allowing someone like Ty Harden to just concentrate on doing the basics and being the average MLS defender he is, and hopefully allowing Julian de Guzman to regain the form he showed towards the end of 2011.
Whatever formation Winter chooses, the improvement is going to have to be pretty much immediate. With so many points already lost, there’s very little room for experimentation, or a gentle introduction and steady improvement.
TFC need wins now. No pressure Torsten, no pressure.
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.