TORONTO — Greg Vanney enjoyed the chip. He would have liked the Panenka, too, given Toronto FC’s abysmal 64% conversion rate from the penalty spot since the start of the 2015 season.
But what the Reds coach liked most about Alejandro Pozuelo’s stunning MLS debut Friday night was that the magic happened, as he put it, “within the group.”
This was not reminiscent of Vanney’s first full season in charge, when Sebastian Giovinco could carry a flawed team through games almost single handedly. That can get you into the playoffs, but won’t take you much further.
This was Pozuelo showing a remarkable level of understanding with his new teammates having trained with them for less than a week. There was instant chemistry with Jonathan Osorio, in particular, down the left-hand side and Jozy Altidore, who opened the scoring from one Pozuelo pass and won a penalty from another.
“It’s better to have those types of performances than one guy play out of his mind and the rest of the team not do so well,” said Vanney, praising a “phenomenal team performance.”
Toronto won both of its opening two games without Pozuelo, but did so by compromising on some of its preferred principles of play in order to get the result. With their new designated player added to the lineup, TFC blew out New York City FC during a display in which Vanney’s vision for the team came into clear view.
Pozuelo has played in deeper midfield positions previously, but Vanney seems intent on playing him high up the pitch, close to Altidore, and it is hard to argue with the early results. Toronto fell into a 4-4-2 when they did not have the ball, with Nick DeLeon, Marky Delgado, Michael Bradley and Osorio providing a solid line of four in front of the defense.
“I thought for the better part of 90 minutes — we started a little slow in the second half — we had nice control of the game defensively,” Vanney said. “Good shape, good organization, kept things under control.”
NYCFC mustered just three shots on target to Toronto’s nine.
When the Reds gained possession, though, things became a whole lot more fluid. Bradley stayed deep, supplying passes into the opposition half. Osorio drifted inside from the left to receive the ball on the half-turn and Delgado advanced to do the same to Osorio’s right.
And Pozuelo? He often took up the space Osorio had vacated on the wing, but had the freedom to do pretty much whatever he wanted.
The Spaniard scored twice, had another disallowed for offside, provided an assist, played the pass that led to the penalty he converted and, in total, attempted four shots and created five chances.
— Oliver Platt (@plattoli) March 30, 2019
Pozuelo’s bag of tricks
With the amount of soccer available on television and online these days, few players come to a new club as complete unknowns anymore.
Having played in the Premier League, La Liga and, more recently, the Europa League with Belgian club Genk, Pozuelo certainly did not. But beyond the spectacular goals he scored and the chances he created for others, there were some more unexpected features of his game.
The first was the degree to which he is comfortable with either foot.
“I think that’s a huge advantage for him — defenders don’t know where he’s going to go,” Osorio said. “That makes him an even more dangerous player.”
Pozuelo took his penalty with his right foot, but scored his second goal and set up Altidore with his left. When he received a pass with his body between the ball and a NYCFC defender, they simply could not predict the direction in which he would spin.
“I’m right footed,” the 27-year-old confirmed with a smile afterwards. “But also, sometimes with the left.”
The second surprise was his athleticism — both in terms of his mobility and his willingness to engage in physical battles.
Whereas ex-TFC midfielder Victor Vázquez, who Pozuelo has so often been compared to, let his brain and feet do all of the work, Pozuelo has some quickness to his game and will use his low centre of gravity to protect the ball. He led all players in dribbles attempted and duels won with nine apiece.
Altidore’s hot start
Altidore developed extremely productive relationships with both Giovinco and Vázquez and has hit it off quickly with Pozuelo, too.
“I’ve always said it’s easy to play with good players,” the American said. “He’s a player who’s very good, very talented. He has a good smell for the game, which is something you can’t really teach. It’s going to be a fun time, I can tell.”
It could be especially fun for him because of the ways in which Pozuelo and Giovinco differ — whereas the Atomic Ant was an out-and-out forward himself, Pozuelo will spend more time dictating play in midfield.
That makes Altidore the sole focal point up top and his six attempts (including blocked shots) against NYCFC equated to 2.36 expected goals, per Opta.
“I should have scored more,” admitted Altidore, who was making his first start of the season after returning from a foot surgery. “I wish a game like this came when I was in a better rhythm. But I can’t cheat time — I haven’t really been out there as much as I would have liked to.”
If this was just the beginning, Toronto fans have plenty to look forward to.