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Would a Change of Manager Even Make a Difference?

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MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps at D.C. United Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Yes. Thanks for reading.

In all seriousness though, Carl Robinson’s days as manager of the Vancouver Whitecaps are seemingly numbered. Results have been disappointing in all competitions, his 2018 offseason signings haven’t panned out for the most part, and tellingly none of his assistants have been offered a contract extension. On the proverbial doomsday clock we’re one minute to midnight. The glorious dawn of the day of Marc Dos Santos (or the disappointing overcast day of Caleb Porter) is nearly upon us. But fans have rightfully wondered if a new manager will make a difference. The Whitecaps, after all, are in the lower part of the middle 3rd of spending in MLS. Will a new manager have the funds to build a squad that can compete for the MLS cup? Will they be blocked from making high money transfers that could improve the team? Would the squad they build even be able to play an attacking possession style? Let us examine all of these questions.

Will the Funds be There?

The Whitecaps stated at their town hall that they aim to be in the top third of spending in MLS next year. As there will be 24 teams next year they will be aiming to be about 8th in spending. In terms of dollar amounts this will likely be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 12 million dollars in salary budget. This would put them amongst the likes of the Montreal Impact and the Seattle Sounders, who are currently on the fringes of playoff contention but it would also put them comfortably above Atlanta United and F.C. Dallas, who are leading the Eastern and Western conferences respectively. Clearly spending wisely is just as important as spending big (though both are important). The Whitecaps salary budget this year adds up to a little over eight million. So, to move into the top third, they would be increasing their budget by about four million. Even with the Whitecaps having a terrible season, they aren’t actually that far out of a playoff spot. They are actually, at the time of writing, only six points back from 3rd in the West. I think the team needs to get rid of some of the big salaries and reallocate the money, but even if they don’t do this is it totally unreasonable to say with the addition of two 2-million-dollar players they’d be a playoff team? I don’t think it’s totally out of the question that they would be. In any case they’d have a bigger budget than either of the conference leaders, so they ought to be able to do something with that if they spend it half way intelligently.

Will They be Able to Make Big Money Signings?

This is a bit of a trick question because the money is already there for big signings. The Whitecaps have eight players over the DP threshold, with all but Brek Shea and Kendall Waston being bought down with TAM. The Whitecaps essentially have eight low-level DPs. This is a very deliberate choice. They have attempted to build a squad that spreads their money out rather than investing in one or two high level players. This isn’t necessarily a terrible idea, but it hasn’t worked out because many of these players have not lived up to expectations (e.g., Blondell, Juarez, Shea) or play in the same position and thus make each other obsolete (Kamara/Blondell, Juarez/Ghazal, Shea/Techera). This puts the Whitecaps in a position where they have this big collection of low level DPs who are underperforming and can’t all be fit in to the first team at the same time in any case. Additionally they are without a player (except perhaps the soon to depart Alphonso Davies) who can provide a moment of individual magic to turn a closely contested game in their favour (think André-Pierre Gignac’s goal against the Whitecaps for Tigres in 2017). This situation has been brought about by Carl Robinson’s transfer strategy.

Now in preseason I wrote an article that was very complimentary of the Whitecaps’ strategy. I must admit that I was very wrong. My praise was partly down to viewing each move in isolation rather than looking at their moves as a whole. I also assumed, having never seen them play, that Juarez (as many good games as red cards) and Blondell (one million dollars per goal) were going to be good. But I’m just a blogger. The fact that the current manager of the Vancouver Whitecaps watched them live (and in the case of Juarez took him to dinner to convince him to sign) and thought to himself “yup those look like TAM players to me” is troubling. Yes, I know I’ve argued for Blondell being the first choice striker next year, but that’s in order to maybe get a fee for him Signing him in the first place wasn’t necessarily smart. To accentuate this point, here is a list of players around MLS who make similar salaries to Juarez:

Players on a similar salary to Juarez (620,000):

Darlington Nagbe, Yoshimar Yotun, Diego Chara, Will Trapp, Benny Feilhaber, Luciano Acosta, Alberth Elis, Daniel Royer

Players on a similar Salary to Blondell (259,000 + 1,000,000 transfer fee)

Kellyn Acosta, Justen Glad, Auro, Mauro Manotas

This list immediately forces one to consider how the Whitecaps would be different if instead of Juarez and Blondell they had Yotun and Manotas. Yotun is one of the best midfielders in MLS on both sides of the ball. Juarez isn’t the best midfielder on either side of the ball on his own team. Manotas has scored 11 goals, Blondell has 1 (granted, Blondell has played considerably less). Clearly there is a major problem with talent identification and valuation. The Whitecaps, specifically the coaching staff of the Whitecaps, thought these players would be both quality and a good fit for the squad and they were mistaken. Bizarrely though they also went out and got players that play in the same position as both of these players. They brought in Kei Kamara after they already had Blondell and brought in both of Felipe and Mutch after they already had Juarez. So, not only did the Whitecaps make bad signings, they made signings seemingly without a clear idea of how they were all going to play on the field at the same time. Clearly there is also a problem with vision. Teams like Toronto and Atlanta spend more than the Whitecaps, yes, but they also have a plan. Toronto built their team around Giovinco, Atlanta built there’s around Almiron. Who is this Whitecaps squad built around? It’s difficult to say.

What I’ve been trying to get at in this very long segment is that a new manager with a clear idea of how he (or hey even she. I don’t care so long as they can put out a decent team. No reason to artificially limit the candidates) wanted to play and sensible transfer targets that could help them play that way could absolutely make a big difference and make big signings even if there was to be no increase in the budget. Remember that as it stands the Whitecaps are only six points out of 3rd in the West. They had some big screw ups in the transfer market, but MLS is still a very close league. A manager with a better transfer strategy and a better eye for talent would probably have them comfortably in the playoffs even with the low budget that so enrages Whitecaps fans. The combination of the influx of Davies money and the promise to be in the top third of spending means we can be reasonably sure that there will be a budget increase. However it is not in the interest of the Whitecaps that the people who acquired Brek Shea (700k), Efrain Juarez (620k), and Bernie Ibini (300k) be allowed to spend that money. Given, however, that even the mismanaged team is not terribly far off from a playoff spot it is not unreasonable to think that a more competent group could easily build a team good enough to make the playoffs and satisfy fans with a modest increase (and calling an extra 4 million dollars modest is perhaps a bit harsh as it’s about a 33% increase).

Tactics:

The current Whitecaps, in addition to being composed of poor signings on bad contracts, are not deployed optimally. The website fivethirtyeight.com has an excellent article on the basics of soccer analytics. The article discusses what types of attacks are most effective, statistically speaking. What the author, Neil Paine, describes as the optimal way to attack is almost the exact opposite of how the Whitecaps go about it. I would like to provide some relevant quotes:

On directness:

“subsequent analysis has discredited [the efficacy of the long ball game]... Yes, a large proportion of goals are generated on short possessions, but soccer is also fundamentally a game of short possessions and frequent turnovers. If you account for how often each sequence-length occurs during the flow of play, of course more goals are going to come off of smaller sequences — after all, they’re easily the most common type of sequence. But that doesn’t mean a small sequence has a higher probability of leading to a goal. To the contrary, a team’s probability of scoring goes up as it strings together more successful passes. The implication of this statistical about-face is that maintaining possession is important in soccer. There’s a good relationship between a team’s time spent in control of the ball and its ability to generate shots on target, which in turn is hugely predictive of a team’s scoring rate and, consequently, its placement in the league table.”

“As for the long ball, it’s proven futile in today’s game. During the 2013-14 English Premier League season, the percentage of a team’s passes classified as “long” by Whoscored.com’s data was very negatively correlated with how many goals it scored.”

On the area of the field attacks are most effective from:

“[in] the 2013-14 season in Europe’s “Big Four” leagues... The percentage of a team’s attacks made up the middle did have a moderately positive relationship to its scoring rate relative to the league average, while the relationship between wing attacks and scoring was of the same magnitude and in the negative direction.

On crossing and set pieces:

“...[the fact that] Corner kicks are surprisingly ineffective at generating goals, is probably related to the negative correlation between a team’s propensity for winning aerial duels and its overall goal-scoring rate. By the numbers, it’s a losing bet to count on goals in the air via set pieces — or even off crosses in open play — as a steady way to generate offence, just as it is to rely on the long ball to consistently produce chances.”

So we can see that the Vancouver Whitecaps, who put in the second most crosses in MLS, talked at length in preseason about how they were going to score goals from set pieces, and have the worst average possession in the league are doing essentially everything wrong. How many points would the Whitecaps have made up if they played the style that analytics suggests all teams should aspire to? You could argue, as Carl Robinson frequently does, that they don’t have the quality to play this way, but I don’t think that argument holds water. With players like Davies (or whoever replaces him), Reyna, Felipe, Kamara, and De Jong there are a lot of players in this Whitecaps team who we know are good on the ball and could be deployed in a possession style. Even if the Whitecaps aren’t good enough to dominate possession, they could certainly be doing much better than they are currently. Every single one of the teams that spend less money than the Whitecaps manages to keep more possession than them. Clearly a lack of quality isn’t the only issue.

Conclusions:

This article has been long but the points you should take away from it are:

1. The Whitecaps have a flawed transfer strategy in terms of talent identification, talent valuation, and a vision of how to deploy that talent

2. The Whitecaps play a tactical style that is diametrically opposed to what data and analytics suggest they should do

3. Even with this mismanagement the Whitecaps aren’t terribly far off being a playoff team

4. The areas that are being mismanaged are the areas a manager has the most direct control over

5. Therefore even without the expected 33% increase in the wage budget the Whitecaps would be significantly improved by a better manager.