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Entering a Post Laba Era: The tactical future of Vancouver

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What might the Whitecaps look like next year? We start to take a look

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Orlando City SC Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

For perhaps the first time under manager Carl Robinson, Vancouver has had a fairly distinct tactical identity over the course of the 2017 season. While the formation has evolved given injuries and suspensions, for the most part we have seen some variation of a 4-2-3-1. It has been brutally ugly at times but, nonetheless, has catapulted Vancouver into the top spot in the Western Conference.

The problem is that the squad is about to enter what I’ve come to think of as a Post-Laba Era, both literally and metaphorically. In a more direct sense, the team will be without Matias Laba for many months as he recovers from a torn ACL. While he is expected to be back by next spring, there are also questions as to whether he will be on his way to greener (potentially European) pastures next year. The signings of Aly Ghazal and Nosa Igiebor appear to indicate that the front office is preparing for such an eventuality.

But the Post-Laba Era is also metaphorical as well. In the past, the team has been somewhat limited tactically because Laba is really only deployable as a defensive midfielder and is best when he has space to roam and exercise his trademark crunching challenges. Without the Argentinian in the lineup, there are many more routes that the Whitecaps can take tactically, given that both Ghazal and Igiebor are a bit more flexible in terms of the roles they can play.

Laba is also a symbol of a potential transformation of the Whitecap roster, as they are at a crossroads for mainstays of the Caps’ roster.Marcel de Jong, Andrew Jacobson, Jordan Harvey, David Ousted and a handful of others all have expiring contracts at the end of 2017. This means the Whitecaps team we will see taking the pitch in 2018 will likely look quite different than the one we see at the moment. It also is a moment where Vancouver can decide how much stock they are willing to put into their Residency products (see: Adekugbe, Sam).

So why not have some fun and consider what routes Carl Robinson could take going forward in terms of personnel? Will Robbo really be as adventurous as the tactics I’ll be suggesting over the course of this series? Probably not (although I did win an MLS Cup with Vancouver in Football Manager so I think I have what it takes). Instead it can be thought of more as a thought experiment to liven up one of the more tactically dull teams in MLS.

The Back Three

In the first installment of this series, let us take a look at something which is all the rage across the pond in the English Premier League: wingbacks. Tottenham, Chelsea and Arsenal have all migrated to playing three defenders in the back. While Columbus Crew, San Jose Earthquake and Toronto FC are not on the same level as those European giants, they have also experimented to varying extents with a back 3 in MLS. Yet the system has not gained as much traction domestically.

One exception? The team we just played host to at BC Place last weekend: Columbus. Gregg Berhalter switched things up in midseason and the changes have resulted in some degree of success. Berhalter has deployed Jukka Raitala and Harrison Afful as wingbacks in the formation and both have enjoyed the ability to push forward at will. As Vancouver saw, the Crew are a dangerous team in this formation and can get forward quickly and directly and create lots of chances. The problem, which the Caps exploited to some degree of effectiveness, was that the Crew are often left open to counter attacks, especially against a speedy team.

But not every team in MLS is particularly effective at running the counter attack and while a back 3 against Houston, Atlanta or Toronto is likely to leave you exposed, I think the style could serve Vancouver well against some Western Conference teams that deploy a more subdued tactical style. Plus, in a Post Laba Era, the Whitecaps will have the personnel for such a system.

For the purposes of this article, we will assume that Jake Nerwinski is around next year (for some reason TransferMarkt lists his contract as expiring in December). Likewise, let us plan the team keeping Christian Bolanos and Jordan Harvey around.

The linchpin in my mind for a successful back 3 is the wingbacks. If you try and force players who don’t have the speed and skill for such roles into them, the whole system effectively is useless. And perhaps the best player on the team suited to such a role is Marcel de Jong, who may or may not be around next year. Fortunately, there are others on the team well-suited to the role.

Nerwinski could easily fit a wing back role with his crossing ability and football IQ. If the Whitecaps decided to pass on Adekugbe then Brett Levis would be very well suited as a playmate for Nerwinski on the left side. Looking to the future, Kadin Chung would be a tailor made player for this formation and could play potentially on either wing. And if we want to think way WAY outside the box, Brek Shea and Bernie Ibini have the speed and physicality to fill in the wingback role.

This leaves us with something like the formation below (if the Whitecaps let David Edgar walk, it stands to reason that they will go grab another central defender; in the meantime we’ll use Aaron Maund for the sake of argument).

At first glance, this isn’t a bad lineup. I feel as though both De Jong/Levis would thrive in a wingback role and Nerwinski would be worth trying in such a position. Ghazal would give cover and help shield the back three in case the wingbacks get pinned forward and you could sub Tony Tchani or Igiebor into the position if need be.

Now just because you can deploy the personnel for a given tactical formation doesn’t mean that you should. It could be argued that giving Jordan Harvey and Nerwinski more license in a 4-2-3-1 (check back next week for that) gives many of the same benefits of the 3-5-2 without leaving the back 3 exposed against more attack minded teams with multiple forwards, which could pin the wingbacks up high and leave the central defense exposed.

But I still feel that a 3-5-2 offers benefits against certain kinds of teams and allows for a certain flexibility and dynamism. It may be too soon to say but in a potential Post Laba Era, the 3-5-2 is certainly worth toying around with.