Well that was disappointing wasn’t it? The Vancouver Whitecaps have just failed to beat what can charitably be described as a weakened L.A. Galaxy side. People are understandably looking for someone to blame. Is it the coach? Thplayers? The infamously shadowy and mysterious front office? Well it’s a bit like Murder on the Orient Express, All of the suspects teamed up to commit the crime! Allow me to explain.
First let’s take a look at a game from 2015. The May 9th match against a similarly beleaguered Philadelphia Union. Have a look at the highlights:
Now this game has a lot of similarities to the one we saw today. Same coach, a few of the same players, same counter attacking mentality, and an oppostion team that was in the midst of an injury crisis. But what’s clearly different is that the ‘Caps are creating chances and scoring goals. Why is this? Has Carl Robinson gotten worse at coaching in the past three years? I think even the most cynical fan would find that hard to believe. So why is it that now he finds it so difficult to break down a bunkering opposition?
Let’s take a step back for a moment and look at what a low block is and how to beat it. The low block is a system which tries to deny space to the opposition by keeping players behind the ball. Often a team setting up in a low block will aim to keep the space between the midfield and the backline small, denying space in the central areas. The team will keep a low defensive line preventing quick players from getting in behind. It’s simple, but it works. There’s a reason that Tony Pulis has been able to carve out a career for so long. Breaking down a low block can be tricky but it is doable. It requires patience, moving the ball quickly, and creating overloads (you may be starting to see the problem here).
Getting back to the Philadelphia game let’s look at the players who were in the lineup on the day. You Have Octavio Rivero up front. I’d say Kei Kamara’s style is roughly analogous to Rivero’s with Kamara being a much better finisher. Off to a good start. Mauro Rosales started the game but was quickly replaced by Cristian Techera after an injury, so no change there. On the left is Kekuta Manneh. Alphonso Davies is generally seen as a better version of Manneh so we’re up there. In the #10 role we have Pedro Morales. Morales is a very different player to Yordy Reyna and here lies the problem. The issue is not that Yordy Reyna is a bad player, though he’s a bit low on confidence at the moment. The problem is that the front four are all...
a) Very similar players
b) The type of players who are liable to be stopped by a low block.
To beat a low block one must play quick one touch passes to draw the defenders out of position and create chances. All three of Davies, Reyna, and Techera are players who do their damage by beating players on the dribble and have adequate but not outstanding passing. Davies and Techera also both play on their off wing and cut inside. So the way to stop this team is pretty obvious really. Just sit deep and clog up the middle. If Davies and Reyna have to beat two or three players by themselves then they are a lot less likely to cause damage. If they can’t beat players then they must try to pass it through. The players aren’t good enough at passing which means that they move the ball too slowly and the defending team has all the time in the world to adjust. Thus, all they’re left to do is hump the ball into the box and hope something good happens. Against Montreal Impact they got lucky but today, they didn’t.
Compare this to the team that had Pedro Morales in the lineup. Morales gave the attack a different dynamic because he could play quick one touch passes. Players like Felipe, Juarez, and Mutch can do this to an extent but not with enough quality or regularity to consistently break down a well drilled defence. Thus it is my contention that the failure to adequately replace Pedro Morales is the reason that the team struggles so much breaking down teams that sit and bunker.
Yordy Reyna, when he’s on-form, can be very effective in the number 10 role. However he’s much more effective when running at defences on the counter than he is at making plays. This is fine against teams that press high and have a high backline but disastrous against teams that get numbers behind the ball. The result is that the Whitecaps are like a guy playing rock paper scissors who can only chose rock. It works great against scissors but if somebody picks paper, no matter how scraggly and weak that piece of paper might be, they’re screwed.
So who do we blame for this? Well it’s kind of hard to know. How much influence does Carl Robinson have over the transfers? We know that there’s a shadowy football committee behind the scenes but are they giving Robinson the spending power he needs to add a player of Morales’ calibre? Or, conversely, has Robinson put too much faith in players like Reyna and Felipe to carry out tasks which are beyond their capabilities? Remember that we know Robinson can play exciting football. You saw it in the highlights package. Additionally, I don’t know that he necessarily approached the L.A. game the wrong way. He put out probably the most attacking lineup he could considering the players he had. I also think he made the right substitutions. Bringing on Brek Shea and moving Davies to left back was mocked on Twitter but I don’t think it was necessarily the wrong move. Remember one of the ways to beat a low block is to create overloads. Having Shea and Davies both pressing forward to create numerical superiority down the left side was not unreasonable (aside from the fact that neither can hit a cross to save their life). For me it ultimately comes down to squad building. This Whitecaps team is not untalented but it is one dimensional and predictable. We must demand answers for who is responsible for this state of affairs. Is Robinson deliberately building his squad this way or is he limited through what the football committee will allow him to do? Is he the type of person who will kick up a fuss if the committee tells him a player is overly expensive? I think the idea that he refuses to play exciting football, or sign exciting players is too simplistic because I've seen him do both with my own two eyes. Then again maybe I’m giving him too much credit and he genuinely has misidentified the talent available to him.
As it stands we have a team that will win games and probably make the playoffs. Heck, they’ll probably win the next one and get me excited again. But the fact remains that this team is too one dimensional to be consistently dominant. Some nights they’ll pump the ball into the box, something good will happen, and they’ll come away with a win. Other nights that won’t happen. To make the change wouldn’t require a massive overhaul. They already have players like Felipe and Juarez who can play good outlet passes from a deep lying position. Players like Reyna and Davies could do well playing off a classic number 10. But if all of the forward players rely on beating players 1v1 to move the ball forward then the team is much too easy to shut down. If the ‘Caps added a genuine replacement for Pedro Morales they’d have a pretty killer team. Who’s fault is it that we don’t have one? We may never know the answer.