Toronto native Adrian Sertl writes about Torsten Frings’s time at Toronto FC.
The story of Torsten Frings’ and Toronto Football Club’s relationship actually begins roughly eight months before the former Germany International ever kicked a ball at BMO Field. On the 3rd of November, 2010 TFC announced that it had enlisted the services of Jürgen Klinsmann’s soccer consulting firm, Soccer Solutions, to assist the club in turning around its fortunes. TFC were on the heels of another disappointing MLS regular season; the team had missed the post-season playoffs for the 4th straight season finishing with a 9-8-13 record, good for third in the vastly inferior MLS Eastern Conference. Worse still with only a month left in the season the team parted ways with head coach Predrag Radosavljević, more affectionately known as ‘Preki’, who was replaced on an interim basis by TFC first assistant coach Nick Dasovic. That brought the club’s total to five head coaches in a span of only four seasons; a rather dubious accomplishment.
Under Preki’s watch TFC played a defensive minded and direct (read: boring) style of football where scoring goals was about as frequent as rainfall in the Atacama. But in spite of the relatively decent results it was made known that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, the parent company that owns TFC, wanted a twofold upgrade to their on-field product; TFC needed to achieve positive results and they also needed to play an attractive brand of football on the pitch while achieving these positive results. This is where Klinsmann was to swoop in and save the day.
Fast forward a few months to the 6th of January, 2011 and TFC call a press conference to announce that after an exhaustive search Soccer Solutions has found the man for the job, former Ajax, Inter Milan, and Dutch International Aron Winter, who was up until then the manager of the Ajax reserve team. Joining Winter’s coaching staff was Bob de Klerk, who also spent some time managing Jong Ajax. The managerial triad was completed with the appointment of Paul Mariner, from Plymouth Argyle of England, as the Director of Player Development. Mariner was selected due to his familiarity with the league and its rather unorthodox rules as he was part of Steve Nicol’s coaching staff for 5 seasons at MLS’ New England Revolution.
It seemed as though Toronto was finally going to be able to provide its supporters with something to look forward to in the upcoming season. At that first press conference, Winter stressed over and over that he was going to transform the team’s playing style to a much more attractive, possession based one as opposed to the kick and run that typified TFC’s tactical approach in the past. Making sure to temper any grandiose dreams of immediate glory he also made a point to note that this transformation would not, or could not, be made overnight; he was inheriting a team of players that were largely North American born, bred, and trained and they were going to need to learn a different way of playing football than they were accustomed to. And to top it all off the new season kicked off in three months.
Things didn’t go quite as the club or the supporters would have liked. Through the first 18 matches, just a little over halfway through the season, TFC’s record stood at a dismal 2-9-7, including an even more dreadful 0-4-4 record away from the friendly confines of BMO Field. The post-season playoffs seemed once again out of reach. Compounding that, the talismanic captain Dwayne De Rosario, the club’s all time leading goal scorer, was dealt to New York due to an alleged rift with the coach. Moreover, Winter did very little to address the back line, which had always been TFC’s Achilles’ heel. Something had to give. Supporters were growing impatient; they had heard this song before although this time the tune was being played by a band that supposedly knew their how to play their instruments.
It all was to come to a head when TFC called a press conference for 4:45 pm on the 29th of June, just hours before the club was to take to the pitch against Canadian rival Vancouver Whitecaps. The speculation was that Winter was going to step down as Head Coach in favour of Bob de Klerk but still continue on with the club as Technical Director, which would make the running total to 6 managers in only 5 seasons. Well as we all know now, that’s not what took place.
Just hours before the press conference several reports were leaked that the team had come to an agreement to sign free agent Dutch striker Danny Koevermans to bring him to TFC. This was a big deal not only because Koevermans represented a player of real quality, but it also showed that perhaps Winter’s overseas contacts might prove more valuable than previously expected. But that wasn’t the only surprise signing the club had in store for the supporters that afternoon. The other one had Jürgen Klinsmann’s fingerprints all over it. When the press conference started there he was sitting to his new coach’s immediate left: former Werder Bremen legend Torsten Frings.
What a coup this was! Torsten Frings. A guy who had played in a World Cup Final was going to be suiting up for my home town club. A guy who had played for three of the top clubs in Germany was going to be suiting up for my home town club. I was sitting at my desk at work watching the streamed press conference completely stunned that TFC had managed to pull something like this off. Not surprisingly the signings were met with much fanfare and optimism for the season going forward.
Unfortunately for all involved, Frings’ debut was going to have to wait a few weeks until the first match after mid-season transfer window opened on the 15th of July. Calendars were quickly scanned and then marked; July 20th vs. FC Dallas at BMO Field.
I remember being present in my seat before the match kicked off. Our overall record had sunk to 3-9-9 (including a -19 in the goal differential department) but there was an overriding air of excitement and positivity. Frings received the loudest ovation when his name was announced in the starting 11, and the crowd was even louder when he emerged from the tunnel. All eyes were on the man in jersey number 22.
The match itself didn’t go TFC’s way. A 48th minute stunner from Dallas striker Brek Shea tainted the debut but Frings himself had a very good first match, in spite of missing the mid field tackle on Shea leading up to the goal. He had a cannon of a free kick just miss the bottom corner early in the first half and he made several pin point diagonal passes the likes of which the TFC faithful hadn’t seen at their stadium, perhaps ever. He bossed the midfield and tackled hard, making his presence felt for the full 90 minutes.
Did Frings make a difference? In the interest of saving time I won’t be doing game by game breakdown of his performances. Instead let’s have a look at the pre-Frings numbers versus the rest of the season. I should note that I know that it would be fallacy to pin all of the improvement (or regression) on the presence of one single player so I’ll be using Frings’ debut as a point of reference.
Pre Frings (MLS):
Record: 3W 9D 9L
With Frings (MLS):
Record: 3W 4D 4L
Record: 6W 15D 13L
Let’s take a closer look at the numbers then. Without Frings in the line-up TFC averaged .86 points per game, .81 goals for per game, and 1.71 goals against per game. If those numbers are extrapolated over a full 34 game season we get 29 points, 28 goals for, and 58 goals against. Contrasting that to when Frings was in the line-up TFC averaged 1.15 points per game, 1.39 goals per game, and 1.77 goals against per game, which translates to 39 points, 47 goals for, and 60 goals against. On the surface it appears that having Frings in the line-up does make TFC a better team; we see a slight increase in the point total (39 to 33) and a fair increase in goals for (47 to 35). It is only in goals against do we see the only regression but it is by only one goal. With all that being said when we take into account that Danny Koevermans scored 8 goals in his 10 league appearances it is the exact difference between the extrapolated total and the actual final amount of goals for. Statistically speaking one can make the argument that it was in fact Koevermans that had the greater on field impact (a 6 point increase).
If we move away from the sheer numbers we can see the true value he brought to the team. Torsten Frings was not bought to TFC to score goals; he was brought in to add a leadership presence both on the pitch and in the dressing room. It is no coincidence that 7 days after he made his debut against Dallas, Frings was named captain in a CONCACAF Champions League match vs. Real Estelí; the only time he relinquished the armband was in two Champions League matches he was suspended for. The fact that he was named captain says a lot for someone who was concerned that his lack of English might cause people to misunderstand him.
Moving on to tactics we can also see the value he provided. Aron Winter repeatedly preached that he wanted to use a 4-3-3 formation with an emphasis on passing and keeping possession. At the beginning of the season, as I alluded to earlier, TFC did not have the player personnel to implement this style effectively but once Torsten Frings was slotted into the centre of the midfield he acted as a stabilizing force. He was able to gather short passes from the goalkeeper or the central defenders where he could then play passes to his teammates or dribble the ball up the middle of the field. I myself often noticed that Frings would almost always play a ball to a space where the receiving player should be, whether or not the other player read the pass properly was an entirely different story.
Frings’ presence also allowed for an easy in-game tactical switch, which was seen on more than one occasion. When needed Frings would drop back into the centre of defence which would allow the full backs to act as wing backs turning the 4-3-3 into more of a 3-4-3. This allowed for more options on the wings going forward, without (theoretically) sacrificing too much at the back, as long as the wing backs tracked back. Of course the effectiveness of the attack would be dependent on how well the wingers were at getting crosses into the box for Koevermans to get his head onto.
One final note to mention is that Frings’ ability to deliver quality set pieces only accented his overall effectiveness on the pitch.
How does one rate Torsten Frings’ first half season into the North American game? The sample size is a little small to make a final judgement; admittedly I didn’t include much evidence from the CONCACAF Champions League in my review but I think that the signing was a very good one. Not only does Frings have both the technical ability to play Winter’s style of football, he also has the ability to assist his teammates in adapting to the system as well. He acts as a quasi-coach on the pitch during the matches and holds a big influence over some of the younger players in the squad. While Frings is not the be all and end all of TFC’s success going forward, it goes without saying that he will play an integral part in any success the club will have in the near future.
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