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Spluttering Strikers | Ideas on How to Fix the Vancouver Whitecaps’ Dismal Attack

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MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Houston Dynamo Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Way back in March I did a very deep dive into the Vancouver Whitecaps first two games of the season. I promised an update at around the 10 game mark once there was more data available. Well we’re 9 games in and it seems that going deep on the whole team would be a bit of a waste. This is because the defence is pretty great. The Whitecaps are on pace to concede 45 goals this season. This would be a 22 goal improvement from 2018. They might even beat that if they manage to keep Ali Adnan and stop giving up absurd penalties. 45 goals against would have ranked 4th in the West in 2018, better than three of the teams that made the playoffs and only one worse than eventual MLS champions Atlanta United. To turn things around on defence in such a short period of time, with so many new players, is a major feather in Marc Dos Santos’ cap. The defence is great, my only real recommendations are to exercise the purchase options on Godoy and Adnan. The part of the Whitecaps’ game that everyone is desperately trying to figure out is the attack. The Whitecaps are on pace to score only 26 goals. This would be 28 goals worse than they did in 2018 and would have made them the lowest scoring team in the league by a huge margin. This leaves one with the baffling conclusion that if the Whitecaps could find a way to marry the attacking flair of the Carl Robinson Whitecaps with the defensive solidity of the Marc Dos Santos Whitecaps then the team would be in pretty good shape. What a time to be alive!

Do the Whitecaps Need a New Striker?

The first question you must ask when the team isn’t scoring goals is ‘are the strikers good enough?’ The Whitecaps have played three players at the centre forward so far this season, Yordy Reyna, Joaquin Ardaiz and Fredy Montero. They have combined for 2 goals, which were a Montero penalty and a Reyna goal from a comical David Ousted spill and was scored while Reyna was playing on the wing in any case. So basically there have been 0 goals scored by strikers from open play in 2019. On the face of it, it seems that the answer to the question posed at the outset of this section is “yes.” But you have to also consider how much service the strikers are receiving.

Fredy Montero has averaged 44 touches per game. This is not very many. With those touches he’s managed 12 shots, 8 of which have been inside the penalty area. In his best MLS year (2017 with the Whitecaps in which he scored 14 goals) he had 94 shots, 46 inside the penalty area and 14 inside the six yard box. He is currently on pace for (assuming he plays the same number of minutes as in 2017) 62 shots, 41 inside the penalty area and 0 inside the six yard box. There is no way that he’ll replicate his 2017 totals with those kinds of shots. AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com currently has Montero at 1.7 xG. He’ll be lucky to score 6 if he keeps that up (though to be fair their data is a little behind).

In comparison let’s look at Sporting Kansas City’s Krisztián Nemeth. Nemeth is also a high end TAM player, 30+, is more of a technical player who sometimes plays as an attacking midfielder, and plays in a system that Marc Dos Santos has said he wants to emulate. This makes him a good comparable to Montero. Nemeth has 6 goals in 8 MLS appearances so clearly things are working out much better for him than they are for Montero. Interestingly, Nemeth is actually getting fewer touches than Montero with an average of 37. But when you look at his shots it’s not hard to see why Nemeth is scoring more. Nemeth has 26 shots total (more than double Montero’s), 16 of them inside the penalty area (double Montero’s), and 5 inside the six yard box (∞ more than Montero).

So is Nemeth that much better than Montero or is it to do with the service he’s receiving? When you look at their respective heat maps from their last three starts you can see that Montero and Nemeth are, mostly, moving about the field in much the same way.

Montero:

Montero vs Orlando
Montero vs Chicago
Montero vs Seattle

Nemeth:

Nemeth vs New England
Nemeth vs San Jose
Nemeth vs New York Red Bulls

Montero definitely spends more time in his own end and Nemeth has a bit more presence in the box but they both roam around a fair amount and don’t actually see that much of the ball. It is starting to look like Montero has hit the often precipitous decline that some players see after 30. But you still have to look at who’s getting him the ball. Here are the Whitecaps players ranked by key passes (passes that lead to a shot).

As you can see the only guys who are creating chances with consistency are Hwang and Adnan. Felipe is doing alright but has had a pretty big drop off since last year. Yordy Reyna has been very disappointing, as have Venuto and Bangoura (somehow Bangoura has been worse in MLS than he was in La Liga. No idea how that’s possible but there you have it). Now compare this with the service Nemeth is getting:

The Whitecaps aren’t even coming close to creating the number of chances SKC are. It does seem like Montero has lost a step but we also aren’t really seeing close to his full potential.

Yordy Reyna has a very small sample size as a centre forward but has managed 8 shots in 3 appearances (2.6 per game) and had 4 key passes (1.3 per game). This is a lot better than what Montero is doing but still isn’t mind blowing. Reyna should probably be the first choice centre forward, when he’s fit again, but service remains a problem.

Do the Whitecaps need a new striker? Quite possibly. But as much as we don’t like it the Whitecaps are on a budget. Service to the strikers strikes me as a much bigger problem. If they blow 5 million on a striker who still can’t score due to lack of service then they’re right back where we started and they will have wasted a fee we may not see spent again for sometime.

What should they do?

This week MLS writer Matt Doyle wrote an article in which he suggested one move for each team before the end of the transfer window. He said of Vancouver “I have no idea what they should do, but I do know that I don’t trust their scouting infrastructure right now to make the right moves when it comes to signing imported goods.” Well allow me to take a stab at it.

The way I see it the Whitecaps need to add 2 players (well probably 4 but they desperately need 2). They need a dominant #10 and they need a winger in the mold of Alphonso Davies. You probably only have the budget spend big money on one. It’s a herculean task but this is my best shot.

I would spend most of the budget on the #10. I would do it that way because it would almost be like signing two players. As I discussed in my last article, In-beom Hwang is quite good on the wing, basically equally as good as he is as a centre midfielder, but you loose to much in the midfield by putting him there. Dos Santos has talked about needing a winger who’s better at keeping possession. If you sign the Whitecaps version of Alejandro Pozuelo then you can move Hwang to the wing without tanking your midfield and then you’ve got yourself your pragmatic playmaking winger.

The back four, as we discussed way back at the beginning of this article, is already good. Jon Erice has done a fine job as the #6 and there isn’t really anyone else so he stays. Ahead of him would be this hypothetical stud #10 and Russel Teibert. Teibert’s shortcomings are well documented but if you need someone to hunt down the ball, keep it simple and pass the ball sideways to a more talented player he’s your man. Andy Rose would also be an option but Teibert keeps possession much better and i’m willing to sacrifice some Strength for more of the ball. Hwang plays wide left, drifting inside to give Ali Adnan space to run into. Yordy Reyna plays as the centre forward where his underlying numbers have been good (though he’s yet to produce anything). This leaves you with a hole on your right wing. As we discussed in the Which Wingers? article, Venuto and Bangoura have both been pretty bad. You could keep putting them in and hope one of them figures it out but I don’t think either of them really offer what’s needed. So you need to find a cheap winger who offers Davies like qualities. Those qualities being speed, physicality, and creativity on the dribble. Replace a generational talent with almost no money? No problem (sobs internally)!

My first idea would be to kick the tires on Joao Plata. Plata had 8 goals and 10 assists in 2018 but has fallen out of favour due to a system change at RSL. AmericanSoccerAnalysis.com ranked him the 9th best winger in MLS in 2018, based on a bunch of math stuff that I frankly don’t understand but If you have the chance to grab a top 10 winger, when you desperately need a winger, you need to at least explore that. My reservation is that, while Plata is very good, he’s not really the speedy outlet that the Whitecaps need. If no #10 is on the way (sigh) then i’d be all over it, but if you do get one and move Hwang to the wing then I don’t think Plata fills the need as well. You could keep Hwang in the midfield alongside your shiny new #10 and have Plata play the wing but then you’re still asking one of Venuto or Bangoura to do stuff they haven’t really shown an ability to do.

But beyond Plata the options for MLS wingers who are both available and good is pretty limited. Perhaps Atlanta would part with Hector Villalba? He’s been kind of in and out for Atlanta United but is a DP and would still command a high fee. Alberth Ellis and Latif Blessing are two players who would seem ideal for what the Whitecaps need but there’s about a 0% chance of them being available. Could David Accam be an option? He fits the need pretty well and hasn’t been a consistent starter for Philadelphia though he leads them in goals so I have no idea what he’d cost. The residency options on the wing are limited. The right wingers available on free transfers are highlighted by a Saudi guy who scored like 5 goals in the Saudi league and 36 year old illiterate Jermaine Pennant so not much worth chasing there. The Whitecaps will probably be in a better position to find someone when there is more of a scouting apparatus in place but in the meantime their international recruiting has been pretty lacklustre. Maybe it’s for the best to wait until the head of recruitment that keeps getting teased is brought in before doing anything rash. But I think before the season is up this type of player, a thrifty man’s Davies, will have to be found one way or another.

The Whitecaps only have one problem to solve. If they can score goals at an average clip, their defence is strong enough, they’ll probably be a playoff team. If they manage to figure out how to score at an above average clip then they’ll be legitimately scary. Unfortunately not scoring is kind of a big deal. I’ve laid out what I think they need to change to get the ball going in the goal. But they’re the ones who get paid the big bucks so let’s see what they do. The transfer window closes May 7th.