PORTSMOUTH, ENGLAND - MARCH 03: Barry Robson of Middlesbrough celebrates scoring during the npower Championship match between Portsmouth and Middlesbrough at Fratton Park on March 3, 2012 in Portsmouth, England. (Photo by Bryn Lennon/Getty Images)
Today, the Vancouver Whitecaps introduced new designated player midfielder Barry Robson. We all knew he was signed, of course; that was announced in February. But this was Robson's first visit to Vancouver and the first chance for the rapacious Whitecaps press to sink our fangs into him.
There's been a lot of excitement over Robson: an excellent offensive all-rounder who was Middlesborough's most valuable player this past season. Robson starts training with the Whitecaps immediately and will be available for selection starting July 4 in Colorado. The Whitecaps have splashed the cash on a well-established veteran and there's no question he'll be expected to contribute heavily to a team that struggles for consistent production through midfield and hasn't scored as many goals as everybody might have liked.
Yet, when he was introduced, Robson was self-effacing. Quite seriously, he said that he couldn't guarantee he'd be able to jump into the starting eleven. All the usual platitudes about giving it 110% were there but Robson wasn't just giving standard "this is a good team and I'll have to work hard" patter; he quite literally said that he wasn't sure he'd be able to crack the lineup immediately.
I don't believe for a second Robson is really worried about his ability to play for the Whitecaps, but at the same time he raises a good point. Robson is a versatile player but Vancouver is clicking right now. Martin Rennie will be sensibly reluctant to break up an effective machine, even to insert a superior part.
Looking short- to medium-term, where can Robson play that won't harm what the Whitecaps are doing well?
Robson, of course, has a great advantage that Mustapha Jarju didn't: he'll be training with the Whitecaps for more than two weeks before he actually steps onto a field with them. No doubt Robson will take it easy for the first several days, but he'll also have an opportunity to get to know his teammates and his coach before kicking a ball in anger.
The obvious spot for Robson is in the middle of Martin Rennie's Christmas tree. Robson is a playmaker and a shooter; those guys look best in the centre of the park. Robson at the top of the midfield triangle with Gershon Koffie alongside and Jun Marques Davidson tucked in behind is the simplest theoretical combination. Robson goes on daring attacking runs and shoots from everywhere: Koffie can shield the ball and play it up as he excels without having to exceed his own abilities by trying to run the ball through the middle, and Davidson can be Davidson.
However, that breaks up an effective trio with John Thorrington. The Thorrington - Koffie - Davidson combination is a little shy moving the ball, but they've been remarkable defensively and have given opposing midfielders absolute hell when they try to shove their attack down Vancouver's throat. I would go so far as to say that Thorrington's improvement over the course of the season is the main reason Vancouver's been such a strong defensive side. Robson would of course make our midfield endlessly more effective on attack, which is a big concern, but he's no great shakes defensively and his sometimes-reckless tackles risk creating problems. Davidson and Koffie are already undisciplined enough, and Robson is worse than either of them.
So why not try Robson up on right wing? He's done it before with Middlesborough. Putting Davide Chiumiento on one side, Robson on the other, and a target man in the middle would provide Vancouver with a dazzling array of attacking options. Eric Hassli, Camilo Sanvezzo, Sebastien Le Toux, and Darren Mattocks could also play in the middle of those two. In Camilo and Mattocks' cases in particular, they would have to do less playmaking and would therefore get to focus on the single-minded scoring they excel at.
Putting Robson in front of Lee Young-pyo seems like a good combination as well. Lee can cover Robson when he goes on dangerous attacking runs that risk pulling him out of position. Playing out wide would limit Robson's abilit to go for goal himself but, if Lee was feeling comfortable and Thorrington or Koffie were ready to fill space behind, that would allow Robson to cut in fairly indiscriminately. I wouldn't expect much crossing from Robson on the right but Lee has handled that responsibility with aplomb all season.
Finally, Rennie could change tactics entirely. If he put Robson in a "wishbone" attack, settled in behind two forwards (let's say Le Toux and Hassli/Mattocks), Robson could attack as a third forward when he was in the mood to shoot but also stay withdrawn and lay balls off to the forwards or wide midfielders on the attack while accepting limited defensive responsibilities. The trouble is that, while Vancouver's width currently comes from its attacking players and fullbacks, in this formation it would be up to the midfielders. And (no matter how much I shout about it) Rennie hasn't even attempted to play wide in midfield this season. It would be an interesting experiment but also an awful shock just to introduce a new player.
However Rennie works Robson in, he'd best show flexibility and patience. That was the great mistake in the Jarju experiment: Tom Soehn decided Jarju was a pure striker, used him as a pure striker, didn't get much, and threw in the towel. If Robson struggles to adjust to MLS we must be willing to move him around the park, give him some games off the bench, and generally let him find his rhythm. Plenty of talented players need time to figure out Major League Soccer's style of play. Even Thierry Henry's first MLS season, bluntly, stunk; the Red Bulls were patient and today he is the league's best striker by leaps and bounds. There's a lesson there, if the Whitecaps are careful to learn it.