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Forecasting the development of Matias Laba

Whitecaps midfielder Matias Laba enjoyed an exceptional debut season at BC Place in 2014, but that only represents the tip of the iceberg with much more set to come in 2015.

Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

Matias Laba’s arrival at the conclusion of Carl Robinson’s first preseason in charge of the Vancouver Whitecaps was met with mild excitement. There was evident potential and he had joined Toronto FC ten months prior to his cross country move as a young designated player, however nobody could have foreseen the influence he would assume within his new surroundings. Although, given the tradition at BMO Field to make annually ill-conceived decisions of this ilk, his importance should not have come as a surprise but a foregone conclusion. Nonetheless, Laba soon made the mistake TFC had made abundantly clear and went on to capture the Jock MacDonald Unsung Hero award at BC Place after playing an integral part in a successful season for the blue and white.

Over the course of the regular season, as per WhoScored, the Argentine amassed a league-high average of 4.9 tackles per game with the most interceptions of any midfielder at 2.8 per game. It’s also worth noting that while the campaign ended on a disappointing note in Frisco, nobody matched Laba’s twelve interceptions against FC Dallas in any one match in 2014. Moreover, he completed 52.2 passes per game with a commendable success rate of 84.7%. This economic distribution combined with his defensive contribution to create one of the most effective threats in transition in MLS, only robbed of the acclaim it warranted due to lackluster efficiency within the final third; an issue that looks set to be resolved with the addition of prolific frontman Octavio Rivero and key growth over the offseason from the likes of Nicolás Mezquida and Kekuta Manneh.

With last term’s tactical model in place the outlook would seem incredibly bright for Vancouver, however it also appears that there could be scope to exceed that promise over coming months. Pedro Morales has formed quite the understanding with his fellow South American since joining from Málaga, his license to roam across all areas of the field only feasible because of the protection sitting behind him, and this relationship holds the key to what second-year head coach Robinson will hope to achieve in 2015. It’s been hinted, and demonstrated in Tucson and Portland, that Morales could on occasion fulfill his play-making responsibilities deep-lying as opposed to behind the striker(s) this year. This would be of tremendous use to the Whitecaps, providing the manager with optimal flexibility while simultaneously eliminating any risk of exhausting the Chilean maestro, but also because of the impact it may have on Laba’s development into the most complete player possible too.

Again, his role unmodified is indispensable to the Caps, but there remains an opportunity for the 23-year-old to exceed his trajectory beyond the confines of his position anchoring the midfield. Pedro lining up deeper than what he’s used to will vacate a lot of space for Laba, Gershon Koffie and Russell Teibert to explore when included in the line-up. It will be limited to particular circumstances and may only begin to reap rewards after weeks if not months of practice, yet balance is certainly attainable. In the recent friendly with the New England Revolution, it was Laba who proved creator, assisting Rivero’s first goal for the club. This, rather unsurprisingly, was achieved after breaking up play in the opposition’s half, but what followed was somewhat unprecedented from the Argentinos Juniors product. As opposed to shifting possession laterally, Laba opted to instead split the defense with an immaculately weighted ball to his new Uruguayan team-mate. An indication, perhaps, of what’s to come in the future.

This direct creation from Laba, if honed correctly, could bring forward a new dimension to the team’s options out of possession. It could lead to the sort of high energy pressing that has ascended to prominence in Europe over recent years, especially profitable in a league where the system is yet to enjoy the same popularity, and at the same time unlock facets of Matias’ game unexplored while he’s plied his trade in Canada. Few can read the game to the same standard and with vision so exceptional that perspective should theoretically apply to most circumstances, more so with regards to how he develops transitions. If the sudden reverse in momentum takes place further up the pitch much like it did in Tucson and against the Portland Timbers during the Simple Invitational, there is great likelihood that the play will transpire into a clear-cut chance for the attack to convert thanks to the way in which Laba reaches his diagnosis. If you’re looking for a tangible barometer to measure this, keep an eye on whether he improves his assist and key passing numbers – that should give a diluted reflection of its respective worth to the team and also of its success.

According to the Whitecaps Twitter account, Matias is hoping to get on the ball more during his second year in British Columbia and has been working on that aspect of his game over the offseason too. At the moment there isn’t an outright metronome in the middle of the park, a player to control and adjust the tempo of a match in correlation with the appropriate context, although the captain could incorporate part of that when he operates from deep. Irrespective of that, there’s a clear semblance of the role within Laba’s duties ahead of the centre-back pairing. Throughout the ninety, he can be found collecting the ball from those defending behind him and is often the chief instigator of bringing the play into the more dangerous spaces of the field, however there’s a clockwork-like routine to this without much room for nuance. It’s surgically precise and is therefore difficult to nullify, but can at times limit what Laba offers; all the more in 2015 given his hunger to improve in that respect.

An appropriate example to illustrate how such great defensive responsibility can be juggled with this calculated disposal of possession would be Columbus Crew SC midfielder Wil Trapp, who, with the help of Tony Tchani, ranks among the best in MLS both protecting the back-four and moving the ball. This is where a Matias Laba 2.0 is most likely to come to fruition in my opinion; the next stage in his progression to the stratospheric heights he looks destined to reach. As of right now, all that’s required for this system update to take place is for the coach to facilitate it within his starting eleven and, with his clear willingness to adapt tactically, that should come attached with some encouraging odds. This proposed broader skill set, and how supporters should look for it to materialize, could change the parameters for how the league looks to identify defensive midfield talent. It’s tough to identify a ceiling at this moment in time.

Robinson’s target for his side to add 25 goals to last campaign’s tally of 42 becomes far more realistic when you account for the newfound avenues to the net at his disposal, very much unique to the rest of the immensely competitive Western Conference and something many will look to replicate if it makes the projected difference going forward. Make no mistake that all of the aforementioned choices at the Welshman’s discretion are dependent on Laba, he’s quite simply the most valuable asset on the team. Much has been made of the apparent lack of leadership within the locker room with Jay DeMerit, Kenny Miller, Nigel Reo-Coker, and Andy O’Brien departing in 2014, however none have harnessed the best out of their colleagues to the same extent as Matias. Leading by example on the pitch is of equal importance to the benefits experience can yield off of it, though many will elect to understate that quality in respect to galvanizing the group the evidence will be there for all to see the longer he plays in Vancouver within the current nucleus of young professionals.