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The Vancouver Whitecaps and a 4-3-3 Formation

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There has been plenty of discussion over the last six months as to what is the best formation for the Vancouver Whitecaps. It seems that Marc Dos Santos has elected to go with 4-3-3. This has been questioned by many fans, but do we actually know enough to make those judgments? This piece examines, in-depth, the 4-3-3 and whether it can work for the Caps.

MLS: Canadian Championship Semifinal-Vancouver Whitecaps at Montreal Impact Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

As the Vancouver Whitecaps closed out the 2019 Major League Soccer season, it became clear that Marc Dos Santos planned to deploy a 4-3-3 formation next season. This puzzled a lot of fans as it was believed that the club did not have the personnel for this formation. Even players were a bit surprised. Reflecting on the 2019 season, Fredy Montero said that next season “I don’t see myself playing 4-3-3 and there is no space for a second striker. If we play 4-2-3-1, that’s different talk”. The recent, almost, confirmed transfer of striker Lucas Cavallini begins to create more questions about the 4-3-3 formation. Although, it is worth noting that Cavallini plays that with the Canadian National Team.

Most recently, our colleagues at Between the Sticks suggested that the club should move away from the suggestion of a 4-3-3 with news that Michaell Chirinos is all but gone. Like I have pinned for over the last three years, BtS proposed the elusive 3-5-2 formation. They make a good argument and it is definitely worth a read. However, a few months ago I began to think to myself “Do I even know what a 4-3-3 is supposed to look like? Maybe the Caps DO have the personnel and I just don’t know it”. Maybe it is just me that was unclear, or maybe I am the only one willing to admit it. Therefore, I started to investigate it more to see whether it actually makes sense. I began investigating various websites for definitions, including Between the Sticks piece in late September comparing 4-3-3 and 3-5-2 for the Whitecaps. While I used a variety of sources, I felt that SoccerCoachingPro’s article was very detailed and therefore used a lot, which is why I have linked to it here, so you can see any additional stuff that I left out. Here is a breakdown of what I found.

The Position Setup

Let’s just start with the basics. A 4-3-3 formation traditionally has a centre forward, two wingers, left, central, and right midfielders, left and right fullbacks, and two centre-backs. The three midfielders form a triangle and can be deployed in a variety of ways. One is usually a holding midfield type, with it sometimes being two. One or two can be offensively minded and are responsible for the team’s creativity. They need to all be comfortable on the ball (hence why Jon Erice was originally the plan) and be very fit (hence why Jon Erice is no longer in the plan). The three front players can play flat, two up-front and one behind, one striker with two guys behind, or many other options. Of course, if you have two strikers or two 10s then you need to be concerned about width…but more on that later.

Player Requirements

Energy: The players need to have energy (think Teibert) as they are covering a lot of ground and will be transitioning a lot between attacking and defending.

Cohesive Midfielders: The midfield is key! They need to be disciplined, work together as a unit, and control the possession. If they cannot do this, then the entire system falls apart. Probably a major concern for the Caps currently.

Athletic Fullbacks: Especially if the front three are more narrow, fullbacks need to be athletic, provide passing options out wide for central midfielders, and not neglect defensive duties.

Game Management: Players need to be able to transition effectively between defence and offense.

‘Buzzy’ Forwards: Front three need to move well without the ball and work to create turnovers. This is actually where I see Reyna thriving. Cavallini not so much.

Disciplined Wide Forwards: They have to help in midfield and defense when the other team has the ball. No standing at midfield waiting for a ball.

Specialised/holding Defensive Midfielder: Sniffs out danger, covers gaps left by fullbacks, helps team keep its shape. I think Ghazal fit this well minus the ATROCIOUS passing. Erice does too, except for the apparent fitness.

Stretch the Field: Wide players and forwards need to create width and depth to give the central midfielders space to influence the game.

Strengths of 4-3-3

We have described what it is and the types of players needed, now we need to know what are the strengths. In general, it is a potentially overwhelming formation for opponents. It creates a lot of pressure and makes it difficult for opponents to string passes together. Remember how inept Pulisic looked in Toronto because of the press Canada had on him and how he had no outlets. In its ideal form, the 4-3-3 looks like this.

It is a tactically flexible and balanced setup with seven attacking players when in possession and can be a 4-5-1 in defence. This means that throughout the game the coach can make tactical changes easily to counteract the opponent’s play.

With three central midfielders you can control the centre of the pitch and force the opposition to play wide. Controlling the pitch means controlling possession! This includes lots of passing options and an ability to play off of one another. This off-the-ball movement can be confusing and difficult to defend.

With three attacking forwards there are always options for exploiting the defence. There is also a lot of pressure to force mistakes from the opponents defence. With a holding midfielder dedicated to defense, it means that the fullbacks can push up in attack and the holding midfielder can slot in-between the two central defenders for coverage.

7500 to Holte summarizes it well as a “…tide against a sandcastle. It might take a while, but it’s gonna break through the defences eventually”. However, the key to all of this is disciplined players who support each other in defensive work.

Weaknesses of 4-3-3

If the team cannot hold the ball while attacking, they are very vulnerable. The formation risks being too narrow, so opposing wide players can counter with plenty of space to break into. If the team does not have a strong general, or two, on the field, they can easily be dragged out of shape. This is why someone like Laba would be TERRIBLE in this formation and why someone like Ghazal would be better. Connected to this is midfielders lacking cohesion and getting in each other’s way (i.e., occupying the same space).

The players need to be fit. Marc Dos Santos was fined earlier this month for saying that it was insane that Major League Soccer players had three months ‘off’. As a result, he continued to hold practice despite the team being eliminated. I suspect part of the reason for this was fitness. If MDS wants to play a 4-3-3, the team needs to have elite fitness. The fullbacks need to also be speedy, fit, and disciplined. Speaking of discipline, if the wide forwards do not contribute offensively and defensively (i.e., two-way play), then the fullbacks risk being overloaded by the opposition. We saw this in the past with some Whitecaps wingers not supporting the defense.

How Does 4-3-3 Work with Vancouver Whitecaps?

From everything I read, the formation is flexible and can be applied in a variety of ways. As a result, it can be effective with any players, provided some key elements are present. First, the Whitecaps need three strong midfielders with a superb defensive midfielder. Currently, the club does not have that. In fact, that is their biggest weakness. Can they get it? Yes, but the longer they wait the less time the midfielders have to get on the same page. That is vital for success in 4-3-3. Second, the players need to be disciplined and very fit. I think that Marc Dos Santos is trying to address that by having them continue to practice. However, the key will be whether everyone buys in to the philosophy. If some of the players do not then it won’t work.

Let’s get more into specifics though. First, let’s start with the forwards. Assume a front three of Reyna, Cavallini, and Montero. If Reyna and Montero play in behind Cavallini this could work. Reyna and Montero are buzzy/energetic, disciplined, and have shown that they can play two-way soccer. Second, let’s move to the midfield. They have In-Beom…they need a massive upgrade at defensive midfield and creative midfield. I am not sure they have enough TAM/GAM, etc to get the caliber they need. We will see though. Third, the defensive four. The formation needs physically imposing, strong in the air, and ferocious tacklers in central defence. Check! Full backs need to be confident in defense but able to provide width and crosses. They need to be fit and disciplined. In Adnan and Nerwinski I see a bit of both. Adnan covers the offensive side of the fullback requirements while Nerwinski provides, better, the defensive side. Despite what some might think of Adnan, both Nerwinski and Adnan have shown they are fit and can run up and down the sidelines. The question is whether Adnan will hustle back to help on defense if he doesn’t receive a ball, is frustrated, and trots back to cover defensively.

Conclusion

At the end of the day it all depends on the players that the Whitecaps have and how well they buy into the philosophy. There will always be limits and the team will get burned sometimes. This is Major League Soccer and not Champions League. With a salary cap and just being in Canada and MLS, the Whitecaps will never have the ideal, perfect, players for 4-3-3, but they can certainly get to being good. If/When Cavallini is confirmed, the only MAJOR gaps left are two midfielders. They could use one better forward/winger and likely an upgrade at right back, but there is potential here if everyone does what they are supposed to do.

Those are my thoughts, but what are yours? Let us know your thoughts below.