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Air Canada Lands at YVR | What Lucas Cavallini Means for the Vancouver Whitecaps

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Canada v United States - CONCACAF Nations League Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Seemingly by sheer force of will of the fanbase Lucas Cavallini is a Vancouver Whitecap. At least if you’re reading this he is. I usually start these articles when it seems pretty clear a player is about to sign but it doesn’t always work out that way. Perhaps this will be resigned to the Eighty Six Forever void like my articles on Ui-Jo Hwang an Kolbienn Sigþórsson. There have already been a fair bit of analysis of Cavallini’s move so I will try and cover some ground that hasn’t been tread yet and look at how he may change things for the Whitecaps. But first a rapid fire question round!

Is he Good?

Yes

Is he definitely better than what they already have?

Yes (Credit to BTS’ Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic who’s excellent article can be read here)

Is he tanking his National Team Career by going to MLS?

No, that’s ridiculous. The gap between MLS and Liga MX gets smaller every year, the national team heavily features players from MLS, and Cavallini will be 27 at the start of 2020. That is to say while he still has plenty of good years left it’s not like he’s going to be held back from hitting another level if he moves to MLS.

How will he change things tactically?

Looking at data from Smarterscout.com we can get some interesting insights into how Cavallini will change the look of the ‘Caps. Here is a map of Cavallini’s attacking actions from last season as compared to Fredy Montero

Key (the bigger the square the more commonly the action was performed in that area).
Fredy Montero in 2019 when playing as a striker
Lucas Cavallini 2019

The things that jump out to me when looking at these charts are that Cavallini is a little more consistently involved in buildup play and that his shots are more concentrated in danger areas (though he’s not totally immune to the charms of a speculative blast from distance). On a recent episode of their podcast “the Double Pivot” Mike Goodman and Michael Caley discussed how as strikers get older they tend to start trying more long distance shots. They speculate this is because they aren’t quick enough to get into danger areas as consistently as they did when they were younger but still feel they should be taking the same number of shots. Fredy Montero certainly seemed to succumb to this phenomenon with most of his shots coming from around the edge of the penalty area and very few around the penalty spot. Obviously the team’s inability to get him the ball plays a part in this. However the service Cavallini was getting at Puebla was only marginally better (their team average of 12 shots per game would have been good for 20th in MLS) so you can’t blame this disparity entirely on service (we will get to that later).

One of the many problems I felt that Whitecaps’ attack had in 2019 was that all of their attacking players had a shoot first mentality. As a result they tried a lot of ambitious but usually fruitless shots on the rare forays they made into the opposition’s defensive 3rd. They lacked someone to link up play and advance the ball further up the field. I’ve made this observation a few times now but if you look at where In-beom Hwang’s key pass locations are you can see a lot of them were passes into the final 3rd that a player shot way too soon. Cavallini can serve the role of hold up player, to an extent. His buildup play is not elite but it is solid. 75% passing accuracy is pretty reasonable for a striker (though not amazing) and his rate of 0.3 through-balls per game obliterates the best rate on the 2019 team (Whoscored.com credits the 2019 Whitecaps with a single through ball, played by In-Beom Hwang). So Cavallini improves the Whitecaps’ ability to play better football in the final 3rd but probably doesn’t solve the problem on his own. For what it’s worth I think Yordy Reyna could help this problem as well with some tactical tweaks. If Reyna played as a nominal left winger but effectively played centrally to open a channel for Ali Adnan and made plays in the half spaces then that could be effective, I reckon.

The other way in which Cavallini changes things up for the Whitecaps is he is much stronger in the air than the current stable of Whitecaps strikers. This gives them the option to play more crosses and long balls. Ideally you don’t want to be relying on this as a way to attack as they aren’t actually all that effective but you have to do them sometimes or your attack gets too predictable.

How excited should you be?

It depends. Most people have caught on to the idea that service is going to be a big deal in 2020.

See?

To be fair to the public, they’re not wrong about this. For Puebla, Cavallini has averaged 2.56 shots and 0.45 xG per game (in turn this means on average his shots had about a 17% chance of going in. When you compare this to Montero’s 9% you see the difference those shot locations make). Let’s say the Whitecaps midfield doesn’t improve at all and his shots per game reduces by about 20% but his shot quality stays the same and he plays 30 games. This would work out to 10 goals. That’s fine but it’s not exactly transforming the ‘Caps into an offensive powerhouse. Now let’s imagine a scenario where the Whitecaps absolutely perfect their midfield, he gets as many shots per game as Zlatan Ibrahimovic did last year (5.1 shots per game) and his shot quality stays the same. This would work out to about 25 goals. That would be nothing short of incredible. It’s unlikely the Whitecaps will undergo such a dramatic transformation, and the reality will probably be somewhere between these two extremes, but these hypotheticals underscore that the difference between Cavallini being a solid player and being an elite player is all in the midfield. I’m sure the Whitecaps are aware their midfield needs an overhaul but they have had a lot of duds in the recent past so I understand why people are so concerned. In conclusion, be a little excited. Be about 7/10 excited with the potential to move higher up the scale if they sign some really good midfielders.