The Vancouver Whitecaps are in an interesting situation. Marc Dos Santos and Axel Schuster have both indicated the 4-3-3 will be back but the team currently has 4 strikers and only a single winger who’s best position is actually in the middle (Yordy Reyna). So either they will have to make quite a lot of signings on the wing or they’ll have to rethink their strategy a little bit. Furthermore both Dos Santos and Schuster in their quotes also alluded to the possibility of playing with two strikers, almost offhandedly.
Enter the 4-1-2-1-2 formation. It still has many of the advantages of a 4-3-3 and Marc Dos Santos has used it before with the Montreal Impact. It was, ahem, rather effective.
All of this has got me thinking and I’m starting to suspect that the 4-1-2-1-2 might be the way to go to get the most out of Vancouver’s best players.
What it Would Look Like
Obviously it still needs some work but that’s going to be true at this stage regardless of what formation the Whitecaps choose. Let me tell you what’s so appealing about this to me.
Let us begin at the front with Vancouver’s shiny new DP. As I discussed earlier this week, Lucas Cavallini has the potential to be an elite player in MLS but only if the Whitecaps can get him, like, a lot of shots. Here’s a refresher:
Perhaps more shots per game than can be reasonably expected. But Theo Bair and Tosaint Rickets had similarly high quality shots to Cavallini last season (they just aren’t as good at all the other parts of the game). Maybe getting Cavallini 5 shots a game is too tall a task but getting both him and Bair 2.5 shots per game might be more achievable. It also gives you a very physically powerful striker pairing that will be a challenge for defences to deal with and might help to counteract the skill deficit Vancouver will have against teams like LAFC and Atlanta United. Fredy Montero’s shot quality was not good in 2019 and he looked like he’d lost a lot of speed but, he said it himself, he’s best when he has other players supporting him. This formation has plenty of that so if Montero can’t be offloaded it could be the best way to squeeze the last bit of football out of him. I still feel Bair is ahead of him at this point though.
Moving back to the number 10 position we have Yordy Reyna. Reyna, in terms of underlying numbers, fell off a cliff in 2019
Reyna’s defensive actions and dribbling remained about the same but his ball security, pass quality, and xG cratered. I attribute this to a combination of being played in a less familiar position and attempting overly ambitious shots and passes out of frustration with the team’s lack of chance creation. If you look at Reyna’s three seasons in Vancouver you can see that the percentage of shots he took from outside the box rocketed up in 2019.
Reyna is at his best in a central role playing off a target man. In the 4-1-2-1-2 he can play that role and serve as a secondary playmaker and goal threat.
The midfield is obviously very bad. But there is no way to make it not bad, until new signings are made. Hwang In-beom at the moment is the only good player in the midfield. He seems to have found his mojo again after his form waned during the 2019 season, being involved with several goals for Korea at the east Asian cup. Hopefully he gets some help soon.
The diamond midfield is an effective way of chocking the 4-3-3 and 4-2-3-1 formations employed by the majority of MLS teams. This article by Patrick Mills explains it well. Like having physical strikers, this could help the Whitecaps keep up with teams they aren’t able to match in skill.
The defence would need a little work. Hopefully Erik Godoy will be retained because he makes everything look a lot better. You would also need a different type of #6 than Jon Erice, one who provided more defensive cover with the fullbacks pressing high to provide width. It was recently reported that the Whitecaps were interested in trading for Montreal’s Samual Piette but were rebuffed at an advanced stage of negotiations. Someone like him could be effective in a 4-1-2-1-2.
The narrowness of the midfield gives Ali Adnan plenty of space to do what he does best, bomb forward with the ball and press high without it. Having two strikers also gives him at least two targets to aim for in the box at all times.
It might not work
Although I think this is a viable tactic for the Whitecaps going forward, I must admit I can for-see some pitfalls. Again let’s start up front. The attack in this system would rely heavily on quick interplay between the front three and Theo Bair’s passing is, as the kids say, wack. He’s very good at getting into high danger scoring areas but, so, so bad at passing.
He did improve at the areas of his game other than getting into danger areas as he got more time on the pitch but if he’s anything like this it’s going to be a serious problem. Fredy Montero was also not very good at passing...
and I don’t think Ricketts is anything other than a super sub at this point in his career.
The problems in the midfield are pretty obvious. But it is important to emphasize that serious improvement is required and that all three DP slots are now filled. Therefore that improvement is going to have to come from bringing in players who are down on their luck, from smaller leagues, or have some other thing about them that makes them undervalued. The Whitecaps, a team that hasn’t even had scouts or a sporting director for a full calendar year yet, will have to find these players before anyone else does. Good luck, everyone.
The most obvious defensive weakness of the 4-1-2-1-2 are on the flanks. There is the possibility that an opposition winger and fullback could overload the wide space. The forwards would have to work hard to press the opposition’s buildup into the centre of the field to counteract this but they aren’t going to be perfect. A lot of responsibility would be placed on Ali Adnan and Jake Nerwinski (or whomever) and they are both players who have shown they can both attack and defend but have struggled to be consistent at doing both at the same time.
I feel the benefits of the 4-1-2-1-2 outweigh the drawbacks for the group of players the Whitecaps currently have. It lets them put their best players in their best positions and utilizes their strengths the most. It also means they don’t have to go out and buy three wingers.