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Formation Fight! Vancouver's 4-4-2 vs. the 4-2-3-1

Teitur Thordarson's tactics have come in for occasional criticism, but when he's adjusted the team doesn't seem to have played much better. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)
Teitur Thordarson's tactics have come in for occasional criticism, but when he's adjusted the team doesn't seem to have played much better. (Benjamin Massey/Eighty Six Forever)

In the past, Teitur Thordarson's gotten some heat for his supposed tactical rigidity. He finds a strategy that works and sticks with it through thick and thin. This would be a lot more irritating, of course, if he wasn't finding a strategy that works: it's hard to criticize Thordarson for doing the same thing all the time when it's that thing which is helping us win soccer games.

That said, when the good times aren't so good, Thordarson comes in for his share of criticism. This season, for example, the Whitecaps racked up a remarkable fifteen draws in the league and four more in the Voyageurs Cup, giving the good guys a grand total of nineteen draws in thirty-four competitive games. Another draw (albeit an honourable one) two nights ago in Puerto Rico gives us twenty in all competitions, and naturally questions have been asked about why the Whitecaps simply haven't been able to finish anybody off.

Now, some might pick the easy answer (the Whitecaps are an extremely good defensive team with virtually no strikers, therefore while they won't concede many goals they won't score many either, and a draw is always the most likely outcome). But there's also a school of thought which goes that the Whitecaps have plenty of striking talent and it just hasn't been applied properly. So while confidence in Thordarson remains high, there have been some calls since the beginning of the year for Teitur to change up his tactics and go for more scoring.

It took until the last regular season match against Portland for Teitur to change his ways. Going from his now-traditional 4-4-2 to a 4-2-3-1, the Whitecaps punched two goals past the Timbers at Swangard Stadium... and naturally drew, 2-2.

The 4-2-3-1 saw time throughout the Portland series, and against Puerto Rico Thordarson went back to the 4-4-2 for the first match in Bayamon. We got a draw in Puerto Rico, again, but we probably wanted a draw in Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, the 4-2-3-1 won us our first-round series against Portland but gave us all a series of heart attacks in the process and our defense came perilously close to breaking down in the second leg.

So which way should Teitur Thordarson turn tomorrow?

So far in our three 4-2-3-1 matches, Vancouver has scored four goals and conceded three. Offensively, this is a slight but not overwhelming improvement over our regular season numbers with the 4-4-2: thirty goals in twenty-nine matches. It averages out to 1.33 goals scored per game with the 4-2-3-1 and 1.03 goals scored per game with the 4-4-2. Defensively, unfortunately, we take an almost identical hit: 1.00 goals against per game with the 4-2-3-1, 0.69 goals against per game with the 4-4-2. The goal differential either way is one third of a goal per game. Almost precisely identical. It's enough to make the analysis a waste of everyone's time.

But this is where crunching the numbers stops. Since we've only played three games with the 4-2-3-1 and they were all against the same opponent, trying to find meaning in per-game numbers is like trying to read a single tea leaf.

The numbers are backed up by a casual observation. Certainly, with a 4-2-3-1, the Whitecaps have looked more dangerous and generated more scoring chances. The best offensive assets on this team all season have been the midfielders (plus Greg Janicki) and the 4-2-3-1 gives them a chance to shine. The two central midfielders have plenty of space to operate, which is helpful when your central midfielders are marvelous passers like Terry Dunfield and Martin Nash or tremendous athletes like Gershon Koffie: a defensive midfielder or box-to-box guy like Julian de Guzman might struggle in a system that isolates him so thoroughly, but luckily the Whitecaps don't have any of those.

The three attacking midfielders haven't been as effective as I might have hoped. Playing that high up, a midfielder needs speed if he isn't going to be exposed defensively, and he needs to be ready to cross like a champ. Blake Wagner is quick enough and has been a considerable asset defensively even playing that high up: his improved play is almost an argument for the 4-2-3-1 all in itself. But Philippe Davies, despite being one of my favourite Whitecaps, is not the quickest devil in the world and has been caught out a couple of times. More glaringly, though he is one of the best passers on the team along the ground and possibly has the best offensive instincts among any current Whitecap, he is a poor aerial crosser. Very few of our best offensive chances have come down the right wing in the 4-2-3-1, and Davies has largely been wasted.

Now, it's not all bad news for Davies. The right defense is protected by Wes Knight (when healthy) and Ethan Gage (when not). They've both been marvelous, doing something to cover for Davies's weakness. The team is helped offensively when Knight is active, since his speed somewhat makes up for Davies's lack of it and Vancouver winds up getting good coverage down the right flank anyway. When Gage is in, there are more gaps between defense and midfield and this hurts the team. Many of Portland and Puerto Rico's build ups have come simply by working the spaces between Davies and Gage: neither guy can get back to help in coverage without putting themselves out of position and in a bad position to recover, and while Gage will shut them down if they challenge him there's enough space for the opponents to try and set something up. Kyle Porter has been an improvement over Davies in terms of crossing and pace, but he doesn't seem to be in ninety-minute form yet and Thordarson has been happy using him (with some success) as a substitute spark plug. In this system Davies might be most comfortable playing back in central midfield, but with Terry Dunfield, Gershon Koffie, and sometimes Martin Nash taking the playing time there it's hard to see where Davies would fit.

The central attacking midfield role seems custom made for Davide Chiumiento, who as we all know is the Swiss Ronaldinho. Unfortunately, whether it's because of fitness or a coach's lack of confidence, Chiumiento has not yet been given the position to run with. Instead it's gone to Martin Nash for the most part, and this has clearly affected our play. Nash is a marvelous ball striker, both passing and shooting. He can set up the true striker very capably and if he gets a chance, either in close of from distance, he's not likely to waste it. But his lack of speed is brutally exposed in this position and on a counter attack or in any sort of transition it kills the Whitecaps. The 4-4-2 doesn't help Nash, though: the myriad knocks suffered by Cody Arnoux, Ridge Mobulu, and Randy Edwini-Bonsu, combined with the scum-sucking uselessness of Jonathan McDonald, means that Nash played up front against Puerto Rico anyway where pretty much the same things happened.

If Chiumiento was fit, and we could give Kyle Porter's legs to Philippe Davies, the 4-2-3-1 would be the best choice and it would be no contest. Vancouver has such a dazzling variety of good passers that, at times, the 4-2-3-1 worked even as good a defensive club as Portland into a tizzy. Combining that with a speed kills attack in the forward midfielders, and we could snatch goals by the bucketful. None of our strikers have looked like great finishers this year, but that level of passing and speed would lead to so much space and such good opportunities they could pick their chances.

As it is, the decision is more difficult. The team is more exciting in a 4-2-3-1, but they're much tighter in a 4-4-2. On Thursday against the Islanders, until the Whitecaps got tired they were able to put on a clinic of area-denial defense and counter attacking. They were clearly playing back and looking for a draw, but they were playing with some considered style and bags of skill. The Islanders could have all the possession they wanted: they weren't getting a clear scoring chance until the Whitecaps' legs started to fail them. Meanwhile, if we were a better team of finishers (oh, how often have we heard that lament this season?) Vancouver probably would have snatched one on the counter-attack.

As it stands, I'd probably opt for the 4-2-3-1. At least for tomorrow against Puerto Rico. Our defense really is excellent, and for the most part they can be safely left to their own devices. Meanwhile, we do need to score at least one goal to avoid a penalty shootout, and given that our team finishes poorly and our goalkeeper is fighting an injury I'd prefer to avoid allowing it to get to that point. Puerto Rico isn't as good defensively as the Timbers were, and our passing may be able to punch even more holes into the Islanders defense than it did to Portland's. Bag a couple of goals and we can start booking tickets to Montreal.

Fail to score, and we might just repeat the tragedy of the Rochester Rhinos.