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Martin Rennie's Negative Tactics Were the Best Available

It wasn't pretty, although it was certainly exciting. It didn't result in many chances, but it provided enough. Martin Rennie's bunkering tactics yesterday were the right call for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Victor Decolongon

In the cruel light of day, as we come to grips with the Vancouver Whitecaps' elimination to the Los Angeles Galaxy, there's one complaint being heard more than most. Criticism has been aimed at Martin Rennie for his negative tactics yesterday.

Over on Waking the Red this morning, John Leung criticized those who are apparently making the Whitecaps poster boys for Canadian soccer. In so doing he also attacked Rennie's tactics, saying[1]:

That showing on Thursday night was a cameo at best, and an embarrassing one at that. And when I see leading soccer writers do that, it just confuses me even more.

Scoring an early goal, and then parking the bus and inviting pressure -- it's a tactic that we TFC supporters know all too well, and we know what the result of that usually is: they lose. So why are writers that have lambasting the Reds repeatedly for consistently parking the bus and other negative tactics, go ahead and turn around to applaud Vancouver's similar tactics? Just because they're in this magical fantasy land that is the MLS Cup playoffs, where everything is perfect?

There have also been posts and tweets from across Canadian soccer fandom. To pick one representative viewpoint, that of "Hammer" from the Southsiders forum[2]:

If you invite presure all game, it was always going to back fire. By the way I'm not questioning the effort of the players. I thought that was a very good effort from the boys.

I haven't like Rennie's tactics and I didn't like them last night.

Rennie's game plan spoke volumes about how he see's this team right now. He obviously doesn't see much.

Needless to say, I disagree. Rennie's tactics came damned close to giving the Whitecaps a shock victory, but more than that, they were the best option available to him.

As we established yesterday[3], the Whitecaps were badly outgunned by the Galaxy. The Whitecaps averaged 3.41 shots on goal per game during the regular season, the Galaxy averaged 5.26. To put it another way, on average, for every shot on goal the Whitecaps get, the Galaxy get one and a half. The Galaxy were also superior defensively by a small margin.

The highest-percentage way for the Whitecaps to win that game was to keep the chances down. If the Galaxy were going to get 1.5 shots for every 1 from the Whitecaps* and both teams can expect to score on the same percentage of shots on target (as shooting percentage is mostly affected by luck rather than skill), then the most important thing for the Whitecaps is to reduce the number of shots on target, and therefore the offensive disparity between the teams. That means playing negative, defensive bunkerball.

If the Whitecaps got one shot on target and the Galaxy got two, the game would (probably) have gone to penalties and then it's a coin toss. If the Whitecaps got four shots and the Galaxy six, the Whitecaps would probably have gotten a goal but the Galaxy would probably have gotten two. If the Whitecaps managed ten shots on target and the Galaxy fifteen, we usually lose something like 5-3. Because it was always likely the Galaxy would outshoot the Whitecaps, there was no sensible alternative to soccer designed to generate the lowest number of shots on target for both teams.

In addition, a low number of shots favours randomness, and randomness is what the Whitecaps needed. The smaller the sample size (i.e. the number of shots), the greater the chances of something statistically weird happening (i.e. the Whitecaps getting lucky). You want a game plan that requires one or two massive saves out of Brad Knighton rather than five, because you might get one or two.

In all respects of this game, the more shots on target, the more likely the Whitecaps were to lose. An open, offensive game favoured the more skilled team, in this case the Galaxy, and the more offensive the game the beter the skilled team's chances.

Remember, the Whitecaps were not just a little below the Galaxy's level. This wasn't a case of two fairly evenly-matched teams but Los Angeles had a hair more punch and home field advantage. The Galaxy were much better than the Whitecaps. Their offense was half again as strong as ours. It really was David vs. Goliath.

Now, if the Galaxy completely crapped the bed, were unable to string three passes together, and the Whitecaps were having the game of their lives, then maybe the Whitecaps win by trading chances. But if that happens then the Whitecaps probably win by bunkering, too, and you have to set your game plan according to what probably will happen, not what you hope might.

People say that bunker-ball and negative soccer isn't pretty. Actually, I thought that game was excellent and exciting. The Whitecaps weren't fouling their way to victory but intercepting passes, charging down lazy balls, and throwing their heads in front of anything round. The Galaxy were trying to break it down not with dives and chicanry (Landon Donovan aside) but with skill and increasingly brilliant penetrating passes. What else do you want? The Whitecaps trying to get into a track meet and being down three at the half?

And it damn near worked. Mike Magee's goal was excellent, Silviu Petrescu's refereeing was the opposite, and that's your ballgame. The Whitecaps led for the majority of the 90 minutes. Even when they bunkered they were able to get the ball, drag it out, and find occasional scoring chances on the counter. The Galaxy were obliged to waste minutes at a time passing it around the centre circle because there wasn't a way through. Los Angeles was far the better team, and looked it, but the Whitecaps were doing as good as job as could be asked of keeping a better team in check.

We can make some complaints about this team, but don't pretend the Whitecaps could have beaten the Los Angeles Galaxy in a straight-up dogfight. Rennie's job, as coach, is to give the Whitecaps the best chance to win. His tactics did so.

* — This is intended as a simple way to express the relative offensive power of the Whitecaps and the Galaxy, not to provide a number to predict their exact output. But it actually came pretty close. The Whitecaps got four shots on target last night; the fake formula would predict the Galaxy recording (4 * 1.54252199) = 6.17008798 shots. They got seven.

[1] — Leung, John. "Stop The Celebrations! (Or: A Playoffs To Forget)." Waking the Red, November 2, 2012. Accessed November 2, 2012.

[2] — Hammer. "I'm not sure I agree. I get the idea that we need to thoughtful about our being defensive..." Vancouver Southsiders Forum, November 2, 2012. Accessed November 2, 2012.

[3] — Massey, Benjamin. "Whitecaps Almost Doomed in Los Angeles." Eighty Six Forever, November 1, 2012. Accessed November 2, 2012.