TORONTO – How do you solve a problem like Victor Vazquez?
If you’re Toronto FC, and you suddenly have to replace one of your most influential stars, you go out and find another Spanish playmaker in Alejandro Pozuelo, the team’s newest Designated Player who is slated to arrive in town this week and make his MLS debut in the Reds’ home game against New York City FC on March 29.
All eyes will be on Pozuelo to see if he can hit the ground running and fill the shoes of Vazquez, a sublime player who won universal plaudits for his elite passing ability and vision during his time in the league.
A product of FC Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy and a former Belgian league player of the year with Club Brugge, Vazquez netted 18 goals (including in TFC’s 2-0 win over the Seattle Sounders in the 2017 MLS Cup) and tallied 26 assists in 57 appearances during the regular season and playoffs in two years with Toronto. He was also named to the 2017 MLS Best XI, the league’s end-of-season all-star team.
For the longest time, TFC searched for a creator of Vazquez’s calibre — someone who would serve as the key midfield link, who could provide quick and quality service to the forwards. When TFC signed Vazquez prior to the 2017 campaign, the hope was that he would put the team over the top and help lead them to glory after the club fell short in the 2016 MLS Cup final.
He proved to be the last piece of the puzzle for TFC in 2017, playing a starring role in a historic treble campaign that saw the Reds win the MLS Cup, the Canadian Championship and the Supporters’ Shield, as well as set the record for most points (69) in a regular season.
So, when Vazquez put in a transfer request and was eventually sold to Qatari club Al-Arabi in January, TFC was left with a gaping hole in their starting 11 to fill.
Enter Pozuelo, who officially signed with TFC earlier this month. Like Vazquez, Pozuelo cut his teeth at youth level in his native Spain before going on to star in the Belgian first division for Genk, one of Club Brugge’s chief rivals. Also like Vazquez, Pozuelo is a Spanish creator of some repute, having previously turned out for such clubs as Real Betis, Rayo Vallecano and Swansea City.
But is Pozuelo a like-for-like replacement for Vazquez? Can the TFC faithful, who quickly fell in love with Vazquez, expect similar things from Pozuelo?
Yes and no. There are some similarities between the two countrymen, most notably that they are what TFC coach Greg Vanney calls “game-changers,” players who have tremendous impact on the pitch in their respective playmaking roles and who can directly influence the outcomes of matches.
“They are similar. I wouldn’t say they’re the same type of player, but they’re both playmakers, they both set people up… The only reason why I would say they’re similar is because they are both slightly more playmakers than they are goal scorers, [even though] they’re capable of doing both,” Vanney said in a one-on-one interview with Sportsnet.
In four seasons with Genk, Pozuelo made close to 180 appearances, scoring 25 goals with 60 assists across all competitions. During the 2016-17 campaign, he led the Belgian league with 11 assists, and he was tied for second overall with nine during the 2018-19 regular season.
Fair to say that both Vazquez and Pozuelo have an eye for making the killer pass to teammates who can anticipate where the ball will end up before it even leaves their feet.
“It’s important that we have guys who are willing to run off the ball for them because that’s how you make the best use of the vision [Pozuelo and Vazquez] have in their passing ability. Some of the passes that Victor made the last two seasons, most of us didn’t even see them coming, and somehow Victor slipped it through the space and found someone on the other side. But you need to have runners to get on the end of those types of passes,” Vanney offered.
“Pozuelo will run off the ball, but he will also find the runner, so it’s important we put guys who will look to break defensive lines with their runs, because he finds players like that, similar to how Victor did.”
So, they share the same playmaking gene that is common in many Spanish players educated in the country’s top youth academies. But Vanney believes there are subtle and not-so-subtle differences between Pozuelo and Vazquez, too.
“Pozuelo might have more knack for scoring goals. Victor was very clever and smart, and he could score. But I think Pozuelo looks for the goal more than Victor, who a lot of times was looking to make the pass. Pozuelo will mix it up – he’ll mix between being a finisher from distance and setting up teammates in the final third. … Pozuelo will look to shoot from range more than Victor,” Vanney explained.
TFC’s coach also thinks Pozuelo can potentially keep MLS defenders guessing more than Vazquez due to the fact he’s ambipedal.
“He’s very two-footed, where Victor did a lot more things with his right foot than his left. Pozuelo is a player who you don’t really know if he’s left footed or right footed, so he can get you either way,” Vanney offered.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the two Spaniards is positioning. Both are what would you call “set up” men, looking to play the ball forward as the team looks to attack. But they do it in different ways. Vazquez took a deeper position in midfield and often instigated TFC’s attacking moves, setting up the play ahead of him. Pozuelo plays further up the field and looks to set up the final action on goal.
“Victor is a guy who predominantly set up our attack from the start, while Pozuelo is a guy who tries to set up the final action, provide that pass that puts somebody through, the pass that finds a guy who is running in behind the defence and is released on goal,” Vanney said.
With this in mind, it hardly comes as a surprise that Vanney plans to deploy Pozuelo further forward than Vazquez, the hope being he will effectively link up with Jozy Altidore.
“For me, it’s important to keep him close to Jozy, or whoever the striker is. He needs to be in an attacking position. I don’t want him to be coming too deep in the midfield, though I do think he has an ability like Victor to start the attack and also be on the tail end of that attack,” Vanney said.
“But for us, it’s to keep him relatively close to Jozy, close to [Jonathan] Osorio and the guys up front where he can play in combinations with them, he can look for final passes, he can be a shooter from range. We’ll keep him close to our striker or strikers, and in positions where he can be the final big player in the final set-up action.”
Vanney has shown tactical flexibility through the first two games of the MLS season, using a 3-4-3 setup in a 3-1 road win over Philadelphia and a 4-4-2 in a 3-2 victory against New England at home. He believes Pozuelo can thrive in any number of formations, but the new 4-3-3 formation that Vanney hopes to roll out more often is a good fit for his new DP, as it allows the Spaniard to serve as either a creator or second forward type of player – someone who can crack open defensive lines, who isn’t afraid to shoot from outside the box and who is very comfortable on the attacking side and making quick decisions.
“One of the things that I like about the way we play and are going to play, it’s not dissimilar to how Genk plays. He’s a bright player, he understands the game, and Genk plays similar to how we look at the game, so I don’t think it’s a big adaptation to MLS for him,” Vanney offered.