Monday, January 10, 2011

TFC, Ajax and "Total Football"

What to make of TFC's new management team? Some people are obviously over the proverbial moon. Threads are already appearing on certain fan messageboards singing the praises of MLSE just a few short weeks after the same people were talking about jumping off the bandwagon over a $2 per game increase in ticket prices so a home run has obviously been hit in PR terms at least in the short term. I'm left with the feeling that TFC is a club with a serious identity crisis, however. I can vividly remember watching the 1974 World Cup final while still knee high to a grasshopper in Scotland very much hoping Holland would win given attitudes in British society were still very much defined by the legacy of WWII at that point. Players like Cruyff, Rep and Neeskens seemed like larger than life supermen playing a style that was totally different from the then 18 team Scottish top flight that I was used to watching on television so it was very disappointing to see them lose to West Germany. Fast forward a generation or two and I have to say that when I think about players from the present day who are best suited to carry on the legacy of Dutch "total football" Chad Barrett and Nick LaBrocca would not feature prominently in my thoughts and therein lies the problem.

1974 World Cup final

There is a huge gap between rhetoric and reality and MLSE are obviously making a marketing pitch as much as anything else with this. It's all very well saying we want to play like Ajax but there needs to be a deeper consideration of exactly why Ajax are able to play that way. Until very recently the Dutch game has been very much dominated by three clubs, Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven (Feyenoord have deep financial problems and clubs like Twente Enschede are now more of a factor than they used to be). That meant that for 30 out of 34 games of the domestic season Ajax were playing against a significantly inferior opponent. 18 clubs is a large top division for a relatively small country like Holland. At the bottom end of the Eredivisie you can sometimes be looking at very small clubs like Excelsior Rotterdam who struggle to attract more than 1000 supporters. The natural order of things is for most teams to sit back and play for a point as Ajax dictate the tempo of the game and have the lion's share of the possession during a game played in a European winter season format. It should go without saying that MLS is a very different environment from that scenario and what works for Ajax in a domestic context won't necessarily work for TFC but most people are not looking at things rationally and dispassionately at this point.

Excelsior Rotterdam 1 Ajax 8:

Where the identity crisis enters the equation is that a large portion of the fan base has clearly been introduced to the sport by following the fortunes of one of the giants of the European game that can spend their way to success in domestic terms on cable every weekend. They are therefore used to the acquisition of big name players and coaches leading to a steady stream of trophies and see regular on field success as a reasonable precondition for continuing support rather than something special to be savoured. In reality however TFC are a team with a relatively small salary budget in global terms playing in a league that actively tries to enforce a level playing field in competitive terms. On field success is far from guaranteed and MLS Cup wins could easily wind up being a once in a generation event. The road to success in an MLS context is often very different from what happens in a top European leagues and often involves relative no name coaches like Jason Kreis and Gary Smith assembling a group of no name players who they can inspire to work hard as a unit and grind out results using a less than glamorous playing style. People turned their noses up at "Prekiball" in the belief that they deserved something closer to what they watch on television from Europe but Preki's sort of approach often works in an MLS context even if it didn't instantly get the job done in a TFC context.

Aron Winter's 10 best goals for Ajax:

So is an Ajax style 4-3-3 likely to work for a team playing in a league with a salary cap of about $2.7 million and other rules and regulations deliberately designed to enforce competitive parity? It might be possible to put together a first team lineup that can play something vaguely resembling that style and it might be possible to string a few results together on that basis (we've been there before briefly at the start of the 2008 season with Robert and Ricketts down the wings and Guevara playing through the middle) but what happens when injuries, suspensions and international callups start to take their toll and players like Dan Gargan start to get serious playing time? One of the limiting factors in MLS is that although there is usually a reasonable level of quality in the starting XI the roster has to be filled out with players who are nowhere near Dutch Eredivisie calibre. Can a coach who played 84 times for the Dutch national team handle having to use players with a skill level more suited to Holland's Saturday and Sunday amateur leagues? Time will tell.

Jong Ajax in Action:

To cut a long story short the "total football" thing probably won't work and by midsummer Aron Winter is likely to do a Ruud Gullit and walk away making all sorts of negative comments about the quality of the league and players as he exits the scene. The positive is that Paul Mariner is there to step into the breech and do things in a more normal down to earth MLS style. Although he is billed as being there to assist Aron Winter in his transition to MLS I suspect he is viewed as an insurance policy if the high risk Dutch strategy goes haywire this summer. Hopefully Winter and de Klerk will prove me wrong by being flexible enough to hang in there and live with the limitations imposed by operating in the MLS environment because where they could make a really big difference in the long run is on the Academy side of the operation. Stuart Neely and Jason Bent appear to have done a reasonable job so far but I seriously doubt that they are the best available option to make full use of the announced $17.5 million investment in a training facility in the years ahead. If TFC wants to play like Ajax one day that's where the home grown players with the skills set to get the job done are going to have to be developed so that MLS policies that enforce competitive parity can be circumvented. Although people in Toronto like to think the GTA is the main hotbed of quality in youth soccer terms in North America that's going to be a lot more difficult to achieve than it would have been 30 years ago in an NASL context when young Canadian players filled a disproportionate amount of the domestic player quota content on teams both north and south of the border.