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Visions of Three at the Back

Manager Carl Robinson suggested that the Vancouver Whitecaps may play three-at-the-back this season. We look at how that might occur on the field.

MLS: Western Conference Semifinal-Seattle Sounders at Vancouver Whitecaps Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

For years people who have reported on the Vancouver Whitecaps have written pre season articles on the possibility of the ‘Caps going to a back three. It’s never happened but we’ve continued to write them. Now in his first interview of 2018, as if to tease us, Carl Robinson has hinted that he’s looking at a three at the back formation. I spent some time pondering what a three at the back Whitecaps formation would look like and I came up with three possible ways that the Whitecaps could implement it with their current roster. Then as I checked twitter before sitting down to write this I saw that Glass City (@glasscityfc on twitter) had literally tweeted out exactly the lineups I was going to propose. So, at the time of posting this, these ideas already existed but I arrived at them independently! Fortunately he gave me permission to use his team cards and “talk about his genius” so i’ll say that great minds think alike (don’t pay to much attention to the second part of that saying).

Option 1: 3-4-1-2

De Jong at centre back? Alphonso Davies in a wing back role? What is this madness? It’s most unorthodox!!! Well not really. The Whitecaps already ran a similar lineup to this in the first leg of the Voyageurs cup against Montreal Impact last season and it worked pretty well. Furthermore It’s not unheard of for defensively responsible wingers to be effective in wing back roles (Cuadrado, Moses, Young, Valencia etc.). I’m assuming Juarez has been signed because Robinson said he was signed in the interview. I’m also assuming he’ll play in the centre of the park because that was apparently one of the reasons he was so eager to sign. Juarez has often been deployed as a right back but he played in the middle for Celtic and apparently this is the position he personally prefers. I have no idea what type of midfielder he’ll be; whether he can link the attack and the backline or if he’s more of a pure defensive midfielder. However, I asked my friend, who supports Monterrey, about him and he said Juarez is pretty good so there you have it. Surely you need to have at least some skill on the ball to get 40 caps for Mexico...right?

Pros: In terms of getting the XI most talented Whitecaps on the field this is probably the best lineup. Kei Kamara and Anthony Blondell are big targets for the inevitable slew of long balls. Marcel de Jong gives them something of a ball playing presence in the back three and he’s looked reasonably good in that role before.

Cons: It’s easy to see the front three of Yordy Reyna, Blondell, and Kamara getting isolated from the rest of the team in this formation. Reyna plays in the #10 role but he’s more of a shadow striker than a playmaker, Aly Ghazal can be relied upon to make a short pass to a more creative player but that’s about it and we don’t really know what Juarez is going to bring to the centre midfield role. This set up would rely heavily on Jake Nerwinski, Davies, and Reyna to drive the ball forward with their pace and power. Now this might work but if it doesn’t this lineup doesn’t really have a plan B other than hoofing the ball up field and hoping for the best.

Who’s in?: Alphonso Davies is the player most suited to the two-way winger role this system requires. People want him to play and this formation would give him the best opportunity to do that. Don’t think he can do it? Here’s a reminder of what he did to the Impact in that role:

If Davies needs a rest there’s also Brek Shea, Brett Levis, or even Russell Teibert who could probably do a decent job as a two way winger.

Blondell also draws into the team. This formation gives the Whitecaps the opportunity to deploy both of their expensive strikers at the same time which could be very appealing to Carl Robinson.

Who’s out?:

It’s hard to see where Cristian Techera fits into this squad. He doesn’t have the defensive ability to play a winger role in this system nor does he have the playmaking ability to play the #10 role. Of course you could probably trade Techera for a player of similar quality who fits the system better but do the Whitecaps really want to do away with a known quantity who was one of their main attacking threats last year? I can see why they wouldn’t want to do that.

Similarly it’s hard to see where Bernie Ibini fits into this system except maybe as depth at striker.

Option 2: 3-4-2-1

This formation is modelled on the one that Chelsea won the 2016/17 Premier League season with in such a dominant fashion.


This formation counters the 4-2-3-1 that’s very popular in MLS. The inside forwards in cooperation with the wingers/wing backs create overloads against opposition fullbacks who are often left isolated by the wingers being higher up the pitch. This allows Davies and Nerwinski to make overlapping runs and hit Kei Kamara, the man who’s scored the most headed goals in MLS since 2015, with crosses. This formation also allows the ‘Caps to keep Techera in the lineup.

Cons: At least one expensive striker has to be left on the bench in this formation. Like the first option the team would rely a lot on players using their physicality to move the ball forward. However when Chelsea won the league they had Kante and Matic as their midfield pairing so this kind of setup can work. This formation also Puts Reyna in a less central role so his influence on the team may be diminished.

Who’s in: Cristian Techera fits much more neatly into this team.

Who’s out: Anthony Blondell drops to the bench...or Does Kamara? I’m quite intrigued to see which of the two establishes themselves as the Whitecaps go to goal man (hopefully at least one of them does it). In either case an expensive striker will be left on the bench.

Option 3: 3-5-2

This is probably the most defensive of the formations.

Pros: More defensively solid. That midfield three would be very hard to get through, allowing plenty of cover for the back three and allow Davies and Nerwinski more license to get forward. This formation also allows Reyna to have more of a central role in the team.

Cons: While the midfield three is solid defensively they are very uninspiring on the ball. Neither Tony Tchani nor Ghazal is awful on the ball but neither is exactly a maestro either. Juarez I haven’t seen play so I can’t make a definitive statement on his playmaking ability. You could put David Norman Jr. into the team in the hopes of moving the ball better, but that would be a lot to ask of someone who’s yet to make his first team debut. If the Whitecaps sign another player who can play a deep lying playmaker role, I might be more enthusiastic about this setup but right now I don’t think it’s all that feasible.

Who’s in: Tchani comes into the team. This is the only way I can really see him featuring in a three at the back formation. `

Who’s out: Blondell

So these are my suggestions for a three at the back formation. What are your thoughts? Do you think three at the back is the way to? If so do you think any of these suggestions are viable?