Yesterday’s performance against HJK Helsinki was the worst in Giampiero Ventura’s reign as Toro coach. Not in the margin of defeat, not perhaps in its consequences but in the manner of the performance. Victory would have all but ensured qualification to the knock-out phase of the Europa League meaning the final two group games could be played out under no pressure. Albeit this is not the Toro way.
Defeat against HJK, a team technically comparable with a mid-table Serie B outfit, was perhaps on the cards. Toro have not played a good 90 minutes all season; barely a good 45. The away win against a seriously flawed Cagliari was about the only evidence we’ve seen of last season’s occasionally swashbuckling team. I say occasionally because that Toro mixed compelling counter-attacking football with a tactical cynicism in certain matches. It wasn’t always the fanciful football the revisionist commentators would have you believe.
Losing Cerci and Immobile was always going to be tough. Hanging onto them was a near impossible task. Selling made sense. We understand that. Cerci wanted to leave and while he was the player who gave the team a sense of enthralling unpredictability, we probably wouldn’t have seen him motivated to perform at the same level this year. Immobile had the kind of season when nearly everything turned to gold. He’s not yet the finished article and despite his contractual situation with Juve lowering Toro’s financial return, the opportunity to cash in was too tempting. We’re not big enough right now to keep them.
Last night’s defeat is a product of a very poor, not quite disastrous summer transfer window, and a tactical rigidity which has held back the team this season. At jeopardy is the exciting and rare possibility of competing in the knock-out stages of Europe against some more glamorous sides than Helsinki and Copenhagen; and a league campaign which could slip into obscurity or even relegation trouble. A brief analysis of the protagonists is probably pertinent.
Cairo/Petrachi: President and director of football made their decision in the summer, not to reinvest all of the money paid of Cerci & Immobile. Immobile was sold early, replaced by Quagliarella, a talented but inconsistent player. Cerci was never replaced despite the club knowing all summer he would leave. In came a terrible joke/afterthought: Amauri. This was highly negligent. The two problem positions in the team weren’t filled: we still don’t have a quality left back and a midfield playmaker. The squad is not strong enough in quality to compete on three fronts.
Ventura: Ventura mark 1 (Serie B promotion) was characterised by a high possession count and wing play. The transition to the true Ventura style was held back by having to play the static and slow Rolando Bianchi. Same was true for mark 2 (Serie A survival) which saw a 4-2-4 formation deployed which was more often 4-4-2. It again relied on width. Mark 3 (European qualification) saw a more radical swift, 3-5-2, no more wingers, no more target man; a quick counter attacking style built on a solid defence and often tedious defensive possession. Width was provided mainly by Cerci, one of the two forwards. Mark 4 (European football) has seen a Cerci-less side play in the same way, devoid of a playmaker and only attacking ploy is to rely on one of the full backs finding space. Ventura has stuck to a three-man defence even when the opposition has barely posed a threat (Atalanta, Helsinki). To analyse the coach’s decisions in greater depth, we should look at the individual positions.
Goalkeeper: From the moment Jean Francois-Gillet’s season ban had expired you had the feeling that Ventura wanted him back in the team. The ‘problem’ was that Daniele Padelli had just enjoyed the best season of his career and had earned a Nazionale call-up. The rumours seemed to destabilise Padelli, after a costly mistake against Verona, he was dropped and relegated to playing the Europa League. Gillet has been excellent, Ventura likes him because he has good feet whereas Padelli can look clumsy in possession. He’s also an agile shotstopper and there’s ultimately little to choose between them. Ventura simply likes having the goalkeeper as his deep-lying playmaker. A coach should then pick the player who best fits his philosophy. Sadly for Padelli he has not looked the same player in the cup matches since he was demoted. I remain convinced the best Toro keeper is Alfred Gomis, currently enjoying a second excellent season on loan in Serie B. It all points to the goalkeeping position not being a problem.
Defence: In terms of personnel, Toro are blessed with a good backline, in both quality, balance and numbers. In terms of tactics, playing three centrebacks is starting to look predictable and unnecessary. The often tedious possession football played between the centre-backs needs to be replaced with greater urgency. Glik, Maksimovic, Moretti and Bovo rarely let the team down. Jansson looks a decent addition although he’s not been really tested yet. He is the eventual heir to Glik. Gaston Silva seems someway off being Serie A ready but needs to be nurtured.
Midfield: When your first choice playmaker is either Giuseppe Vives or Alessandro Gazzi then you should probably be building a Serie B side. Some context is needed. Vives was brilliant for 80% of last year but enjoyed a freak season and is approaching his mid-30s. He should be a valuable squad player, no more. Gazzi brings more energy than any other player but can only deliver a sidewards pass and is not the answer to unlocking defences. Elsewhere the midfielders have contributed nothing. The delight at seeing Farnerud return to action is a measure of how bad things have been. At least he offers a goal and a cultured left foot. Benassi is all hot air, running in straight lines, looking equally lost in defence and attack. Nocerino has been beset by injuries but does Ventura rate him? Sanchez Mino was arguably the most exciting summer season but looks lightweight, slow, careless in possession bringing only an attractive left foot. Lets give him time though. El Kaddouri is my issue right now. Last year, I thought he flattered to deceive. This year he is not even flattering. Looks lost tactically (maybe not his fault) and half-hearted in everything he does. He needs to be dropped. At the moment the best two performers remain Vives and Gazzi, honest, hard working players unlikely to upset an opposition defence. The team is crying out for someone to break into the final third (Nocerino?) and some pace and dynamism (not in current roster)
Attack: A collective palm masked our faces when Amauri was revealed as the Cerci replacement. 34 years old, ex-Gobbo, slow and uninspiring. So far he has been willing, perhaps too much, but his lack of mobility has been starker than we feared. It wouldn’t have been so bad had the supporting cast been better. Why Larrondo was re-signed remains a mystery. I can’t see what he brings. Barreto is someone Ventura has to explain, another half-hearted, ineffective player with no presence. Quagliarella’s few moments of magic have carried the team but should he get injured, and his form has dropped significantly in recent weeks, then it’s deep trouble. Martinez is a signing that really needs to come off. Give him time but he looks lost and clumsy. Two new forwards were needed in August. They are needed even more now.