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Trying to make sense of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ First Two Games

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Oh god this article is so long.

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Real Salt Lake Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to know what to make of the Vancouver Whitecaps’ first two games under Marc Dos Santos. Both games were losses and the team looked a bit disjointed but there were also some exciting flashes. Should we panic? Remain patient? Are things moving in the right direction? The people demand answers. Who better to provide those answers in a ridiculously long article than a blogger who was recently asked on Twitter “are you a Russian troll or just a total loser?” I certainly can’t think of anyone. So let’s do a deep dive on the first two games and see how things are going.

Giant disclaimer:

This article will make use of a lot of stats. There have only been two games so the sample size on these stats is tiny. But the people demand answers now! There will probably be an updated version of this article around the 10 game mark. Okay, now let’s start for real.

Goalkeeping:

Maxime Crepeau has been pretty solid so far. Most impressively to me is that so far he has been credited with 0 drops. Stefan Marinovic was fond of palming the ball back into danger so this is a welcome change. He’s around 0.6 xGA in the red but that’s pretty average and the sample size is small so it’s too early to be making judgments on that (keep in mind Marinovic and Rowe collectively conceded about 7 goals more than they were expected to last year). One area of concern is that his passing accuracy is a bit low (even by goalkeeper standards) but again there is a small sample size so hopefully that will improve. The Whitecaps really do not want to be hitting long balls to the likes of Montero, Reyna and Bangoura so hopefully as the team gels more Crepeau will feel more confident playing out of the back.

Defending:

Defensively the Whitecaps have been doing reasonably well. They have kept the majority of their shots against from the sides of the pitch, where attempts are much less likely to go in. In fact only Columbus have conceded fewer attempts from the middle of the pitch. This is pretty encouraging, especially considering last year they were 14th in shots from the middle. 52% of the shots they’ve conceded have come inside the penalty area. Ideally this would come down to below 50% but this percentage is still good enough to be in the middle of the pack; would put them 4th in the league in 2018, and is a 3 point improvement over last year. An area of concern is that while the Whitecaps do a good job of limiting the quality of their shots against, they are conceding too many shots overall. The have conceded the 4th most shots per game of anyone in the league. It’s possible this is a function of losing the ball in their own half too often. Playing out of the back also remains a bit of a problem. Here are visual representations of all the times they’ve given the ball away in their own end:

Whitecaps loss of possession in their own half vs Minnesota

By my count they lost the ball 28 times in their own half against Minnesota. Things improved slightly against RSL but they still lost the ball 25 times in their own half.

Whitecaps loss of possession in their own half vs RSL

When looking at defenders and midfielders (players who are likely to be losing the ball in their own end by virtue of being there) the biggest perpetrators are Doneil Henry (77.6% passing accuracy, 1.5 unsuccessful touches per match and frankly he just looks uncomfortable on the ball), Andy Rose (74.2% passing accuracy, though to be fair he’s not credited as being disposed or with any unsuccessful touches) and Felipe (an impressive 86% passing accuracy but dispossessed a team leading 3 times per match). We’ll discuss midfield options later but I’d be interested to see what Derek Cornelius can do at centre back next to Godoy. He’s completed almost as many passes as Henry despite playing half the time and has an 80% passing accuracy. Though then of course you might lose the chemistry Henry and Godoy are building and you’d lose Henry’s team leading 3.5 interceptions per match. It’s a fine balancing act between a bit more defensive stability and being able to keep the ball a bit better when in possession. Remember though, Cornelius is still young and could grow into the role. I think his ceiling is definitely higher than Henry’s.

Of course the backline is not the only element of MDS’ defensive system. There is also the high press. To see how effective this is we have to look at the other end of the field. When looking at the numbers we can see that Fredy Montero is doing a lot of thankless work. He currently leads the team in tackles per match with 3. That’s right folks, the Whitecaps’ most prolific tackler is Fredy Montero (well he’s tied with Cornelius, PC, and Rose but you get my point). Of course Montero also has the 3rd worst passing average on the team, so he also loses possession quite a bit. Yordy Reyna and Lucas Venuto are also doing a decent job of defending from the front as both average 1.5 tackles per game; though Venuto was caught out of position in the lead up to RSL’s sham penalty. Lass Bangoura is yet to register a tackle. The press hasn’t been very effective in terms of winning the ball in the opposition half. The ‘Caps won the ball back 20 times against Minnesota and only 12 times against RSL.

Whitecaps defensive actions vs Minnesota
Whitecaps defensive actions vs RSL

The Whitecaps clearly set up a bit deeper on the road against RSL. But, against Minnesota the press was effective in preventing the Loons from playing out of the back as none of their backline managed a passing accuracy over 80%. The Whitecaps are also 5th in the league in long balls against. So even when they aren’t winning the ball back high up the field as much as we’d like, they aren’t nearly as passive in defence as they were last season. This is a very good thing because being passive in defence, for the most part, doesn’t really work. To illustrate this point I will quote from Cheuk Hei Ho’s season preview of the Whitecaps for American Soccer Analysis.

“We can model the ceiling that Robinson’s style, few touches and concession of the ball, can achieve by making the league’s best team play it, computationally...Atlanta operated with a brutal efficiency of counter-attack last season, creating one goal from the counter-attack per 630 opponent’s passes. Pairing it with Vancouver’s third highest opponent’s number of touches, Atlanta would create nine goals from the counter-attack, one more than they did last season. But here is the catch, conceding so many touches means that you can’t use the ball most of the time. And even using their attacking prowess, Atlanta United would only create 30 goals from Vancouver’s 398 touches per game, eight fewer than they did. Combing both predictions, Atlanta United would have scored six fewer goals if they had adopted Robinson’s approach...Applying the same approach on the defensive end, we are talking about a difference of 10 fewer goal differential for Atlanta United. It would likely deduct 10-20 points from them, putting them into the same category as New York City FC’s or FC Dallas. It is not a bad situation, but it is also the best one Vancouver can dream for IF they can spend as much money and scout as well as Atlanta United. They can’t, so they need to find another model.”

Overall the defence is performing okay. There is room for improvement but there are still good things happening. I’m a little concerned with the press thus far but that will take a bit of time to perfect and when they drop into the block they seem to be doing things pretty effectively. Things may not be perfect in the first year of MDS but I am pretty confident in predicting the Whitecaps will concede fewer goals in 2019 than they did in 2018.

Midfield and possession

The Whitecaps average possession of 49% sits 14th in the league (out of 24). That’s pretty average but it’s a big step up from last in 2018. The Whitecaps are actually playing more long balls per game than they were last year but this is partly (almost entirely) because the amount of total passes they play per game has dramatically increased. Through the first two weeks they’ve gone from having the fewest passes completed in the league in 2018 (oh my god can you believe we watched 5 years of that!?) to the 9th most. Again, 9th is not exactly great but it’s significantly better than last. A lot of the long balls played have been inaccurate. The Whitecaps are 3rd in inaccurate long balls. But MDS has specifically said he’s trying to stamp out so many long balls so hopefully that number will come down. This is a good thing because the long ball game, to be blunt, doesn’t work. A team’s number of long balls is inversely correlated to the number of goals they score. The Whitecaps are just inside the top 10 in short passes completed which, say it with me, isn’t amazing but is a lot better than last year.

The biggest area of concern is that the front three are not seeing very much of the ball. If you add up the average number of passes per game for Ardaiz, Bangoura, Venuto, and Montero then it’s still less than what Erice and Hwang average as individuals. It’s a bit like the front three is a separate entity from the rest of the squad. This brings us to the next part of the article

Attacking:

Look, there’s no nice way of saying this, the Whitecaps have been absolutely terrible in the attacking 3rd. One need only look at the heat maps of the two games to begin to see the problem.

Whitecaps heat map vs Minnesota
Whitecaps heat map vs RSL

As you can see the map basically dies as soon as you hit the opposition’s penalty area. This can be a problem with lone striker formations. Normally this would be offset by the more advanced midfielders pushing forward to support the strikers. If we look at the heat maps again we can see...

Hwang and Felipe vs Minnesota
Hwang and Rose vs RSL

...they’re really not doing that. Part of the problem may be personnel. A midfield three of Felipe, Hwang, and Erice is a bit one dimensional. All three are players who prefer to drop into space and distribute. There is no one in that three who’s natural inclination is to get into the box. Hwang does offer something a little different with his dribbling ability but his profile is still quite similar to those of Erice and Felipe. Andy Rose offers a bit more truculence but his lack of technical ability means he’s basically just a cinderblock. Russell Teibert is fit now so he’s an option. His tenaciousness might help with the press but he’s not exactly a goal threat so I’m not sure he’d alleviate the problem of supporting the striker. This brings us to the younger guys. David Norman is more of a #6 or possibly a ball playing centre back so I don’t think he would fix the problem. Baldisimo is very good but is still a very similar type of player to Erice and Hwang. The player I’d be interested to see is Simon Colyn. He’s more of a natural #10 but looked good as a centre midfielder in preseason. He has a nose for the net and can get into dangerous areas.

The Whitecaps also give the ball away an awful lot in the attacking 3rd. This is partly to be expected as attacking players play riskier passes but the way the passing accuracy just craters is startling. Against RSL, for example, the Whitecaps had 81% passing accuracy but it fell to just 67% in the attacking half. They are averaging 65% passing in the attacking 3rd in total. This is bad. The problem as I see it is largely down to chemistry and the team not attacking as a unit. Often only three or four players will be breaking forward at a time against a greater number of defensive players. They also move the ball too slowly and often seem a little unsure about what to do to break down an opposition defence. Let us do some extremely low tech video analysis.

We begin with a sequence against Minnesota.

The sequence starts well enough. Some defensive pressure forces a bad pass and Yordy Reyna has the ball.

Reyna runs forward, joined by Hwang, Felipe, and with Montero ahead of him. The Minnesota players are running back and already have a 5v4 numerical advantage (with Boxall offscreen). Nevertheless Felipe is in space on the left and if the ball is played quickly this situation can still be turned to their advantage.

Reyna holds onto the ball a little too long and by the time it gets to Felipe it’s six Minnesota players against four Whitecaps.

Felipe delays further by cutting the ball back on to his right foot. By this time there are six Minnesota players in the box against three Whitecaps, all of whom are double marked. Felipe is also about to attempt to cross the ball to two guys who are under 5’10 and surrounded by guys who are 6’0+.

As we can see that does not work. Ideally the ball would be played quickly enough and the runs would be incisive enough that the ‘Caps wouldn’t be getting into this situation. But, if they did, it would be better to stop, wait for more numbers to get forward and keep possession, than to hit an incredibly low percentage ball and hope for the best.

Next up we look at another sequence against Minnesota:

Once again things are starting well. Jon Erice has the ball and is looking to distribute the ball and start an attack. This is exactly what is supposed to be happening.

He plays the ball forward to Montero who is surrounded by defenders. Nevertheless the Colombian(tm) striker does well to lay the ball off to Hwang.

Hwang is surrounded by six Minnesota players, although he is in some space. He can’t get the ball to Reyna or Venuto because both are currently being marked. Felipe, Nerwinski and Cornelius, who all could be pushing up and drawing some of these players away are instead all either standing still or lazily meandering their way forward. This leads to Hwang having to try a low percentage long ball to Ardaiz who is between two towering centre backs and the ball is easily cleared away

The Whitecaps really need their players to get forward and attack as a unit. Often it will just be the striker and two wingers against four or five opposing defenders and that makes a team full of fast and dynamic players much too easy to deal with.

Now an example against RSL:

The play starts with Andy Rose winning a knock on to Lucas Venuto.

Venuto, Rose and Montero are more or less in a 3v3 situation against the RSL defenders. Ideally they’d have numerical superiority but with a bit of trickery they can still get out of this with something good.

After some interplay between the three Rose gets into some space.

Rose continues to advance and has the option of Lucas Venuto. Venuto is incredibly quick and there is a lot of space behind the RSL backline. Venuto is gesturing for Rose to play a ball in behind for him. All of time and space yearns for that through ball.

Then Rose plays a square ball to Venuto leaving him surrounded by RSL defenders who easily strip him of the ball. Hopefully this sort of thing will happen less as the players learn more about each other. If you’re not going to play some balls in behind then the super quick wingers don’t exactly help much. You don’t want to just be doing that but when the opportunity arises you have to take it.

To not be all doom and gloom here’s a positive example.

The Whitecaps win the ball back and Hwang lays it off for Erice

Hwang turns and runs up field while Erice finds Bangoura in space on the wing with a one touch pass.

Bangoura goes past his man into more open space

As Bangoura advances it looks as though this will be another attack where the Whitecaps are simply outnumbered and smothered by the opposition defence. But keep an eye on Ardaiz.

Ardaiz makes a diagonal run into the space between the defenders. This run is difficult to track and it makes space for him.

Bangoura sees this run and plays the ball in behind. In the end Ardaiz pulled his shot just wide of the far post. But this is a good example of what the Whitecaps attack can be. They got through the whole field with quick one touch passing that was vertical but not just lumping the ball forward. Now they just need to be able to do this when the other team is set up in a block, and work as a unit.

One other thing that didn’t really fit in anywhere else

The shape improved tremendously between the first game and the second game. In the first game the players were spread in odd positions. They were much more compact against RSL. Here are the average positions of the players in the two matches

Whitecaps average positions vs RSL

You’d maybe like them to be a bit higher in the RSL game but you can see a clear progression in cohesion between the two games.

Conclusions:

Although the first two games resulted in losses the Whitecaps are basically playing like an average MLS team. Hopefully this will improve, and result in some points, as the team builds chemistry. The attack has been pretty bad so far but hopefully MDS can make some tweaks to help alleviate that and the team improves as it builds chemistry. Encouragingly you can see some pretty clear improvements between game #1 and game #2 in terms of cohesion. I’m not too concerned overall. Hopefully by year three of the MDS contract playing like an average MLS team will still be seen as insufficient but after such a big rebuild this isn’t too bad. I remain generally optimistic.