By most measures the Vancouver Whitecaps had one of the the worst defences in a very weird 2020 MLS season. They were last in the league expected goals against, 4th from bottom in actual goals against, and last in shots conceded. But in all of their post season interviews Axel Schuster and Marc Dos Santos have both stressed the need for attacking solutions. Naturally this has lead to some concern that they aren’t strengthening their defence. So let’s look at that defence and examine just how big of a problem it is.
Vancouver being last in xG against is slightly misleading. If you look at this graph of their game by game expected goals against you can see that their dreadful numbers are Mostly From getting brutally dominated in the early post Covid games.
There were exceptions, like their second games against San Jose and Seattle, but for the most part they were clearly starting to figure things out after their 6-0 humiliation at the hands of LAFC. This change coincided with a few events, some of which I think were more important than others.
Firstly the Whitecaps brought in experienced goalkeeper Evan Bush. While his veteran presence and excellent distribution may have helped the defence be more organized, he actually conceded slightly more goals than expected according to ASA’s model so I do not think he was the main reason for the defensive turnaround.
Secondly the Whitecaps began playing the 4-2-2-2 formation. I think it is clear that this formation and its variants allowed the 2020 Whitecaps team to perform to their best. It gave the team defensive solidity but also outlets to punish opposition in transition.
In my opinion the most important factor in Vancouver’s defensive improvement was the return from injury of two key defensive players; Erik Godoy and Janio Bikel. Overall Vancouver averaged 1.76 xGA per game. But in matches where Janio Bikel played in the midfield (i.e not including the two games he played right back) they averaged only 1.473 xGA. If they had averaged this over the season then their defence would have ranked 16th instead of 26th. In games where Erik Godoy played at centre back (i.e not including the games he played right back, man they should really get another one of those) they averaged 1.39 xGA per match, good enough for 15th. In games where Godoy played centre back and Bikel played in the midfield they averaged 1.26 xGA, good enough for 11th.
Now, I am not saying that Vancouver has the 11th best defence in the league. There was a fairly small sample size of Bikel and Godoy games and there were other factors at play. But I am confident in saying that both of these players are very important to the team’s defence and that it just isn’t the same without them. When you look at the data you can see why that is.
What Godoy adds is obvious. He’s not exactly a beast in the air but he’s a very solid all around centre back that gives Vancouver a proactive defender and somebody who can play out of the back, retaining possession consistently.
What Bikel mainly offers, is tackles.
Bikel does not offer quite the same volume of tackling as Matias Laba used to back in the day, but he does have a much higher rate of success than Laba ever did. When you look at what the other Whitecaps midfielders offer you can see why this is important.
When you go to American Soccer Analysis’ G+ page, filter out players who played less than 300 minutes, and look at the number of goals added by “interrupting” per 96 minutes amongst centre midfielders and defensive midfielders then you will get a list of 104 players. There are 4 Whitecaps in the top 40. Michael Baldisimo and Janio Bikel are number 1 and number 2 respectively. This was surprising to me because none of Baldisimo, Leonard Owusu, or Russel Teibert score particularly well on traditional defensive stats like tackles and interceptions. But when you look at these radars from Peter Galindo the picture starts to become clearer.
All three of Baldisimo, Teibert, and Owusu score very highly on pressure regains. Statsbomb defines pressure regains as “times a player’s team won the ball back within 5 seconds of the player pressuring an opponent, per 90 minutes.” To me this implies that Baldisimo, Teibert, and Owusu are quite good at shepherding the opposition into a position where they can be tackled, but aren’t so great at making the tackle themselves. Bikel is a player who can make that tackle.
When Bikel returned from injury and began playing consistently in a midfield role, from the third match against Montreal onwards, Vancouver went from conceding 18 shots per game, to only 14.47 shots per game, and if you only count from after the LAFC game, it goes down to 13.4 shots against per game. You see, before the reintroduction of Bikel and Godoy the Whitecaps’ other defenders actually did a pretty good job of limiting the opposition to low xG shots from the perimeter of the penalty area but they faced so much pressure every game that eventually some of those shots went in. When they got just a little bit of protection in front of them their results improved significantly.
So the Whitecaps defence was not quite as bad as it appeared in 2020, and Bikel and Godoy are good. That’s great. But it does mean that the Whitecaps are two injuries away from being back to one of the worst defences in the league. With this in mind, and considering the team is up against it in terms of international slots, I think there is a need for a cheap domestic player who can offer a rough approximation of what Bikel and Godoy do. There is always going to be some drop off between starters and backups but you can still find someone who offers something similar, if not quite as good.
This conclusion gave me the opportunity to do something I have been wanting to do for a while, play around with the CPL data that’s made freely available to everyone by Centre Circle Data (@canpldata on Twitter). I looked at data from the Island Games tournament. I created sample groups of notable centre midfielders and centre backs. I tossed out players who were over 30 or who played a very small amount of minutes and compared those who remained in a number of relevant statistics. Here are some potentially suitable candidates I identified.
As we identified above, What Bikel offers is mainly tackling, but he also is quite a direct passer. So what we’re looking for here is a player with a lot of defensive actions and progressive passing. It sounds simple enough but it turns out that is a pretty rare combination.
The former Whitecaps Academy standout chose to go pro with FC Edmonton in 2020. He only played 203 minutes but my goodness he was a beast in those minutes. His tackles and interceptions per 90 minutes were incredibly high and he had 0 turnovers. The only drawback was his passing was not very direct. If I were the Whitecaps I would want to see a bigger sample size on Carter before committing to bringing him back but I would be keeping a very close eye on the development of the 19 year old.
Former Whitecaps trialist Aboubacar Sissoko was a latecomer to professional football, making his pro debut at age 24. His passing was certainly progressive, and he had 0 turnovers in 707 minutes (though more dispossessions than anyone else in the sample). He had a pretty good number of tackles but, unfortunately his tackle success rate was only 61%. As such I’m not sure he can fill the role of ball winning midfielder in the same way Bikel does.
Another former Whitecaps Academy standout, the 20 year old Hojabrpour had the most tackles per 90 minutes in the sample, a very respectable 75.6% tackle success rate, 0 turnovers and 0 dispossessions. His passing was not the most direct but he contributed a surprising amount of xG for a more defensive player so I feel that evens it out somewhat. He is the player I would sign were I trying to find a cheap domestic backup for Bikel.
Finding a Mini Me for Godoy is more challenging. Firstly because Godoy is good at a lot more things than Bikel, and Secondly because the Whitecaps arguably have one already in Derek Cornelius. Overall I do find this player to be less urgent but we’re having fun here so let’s get into it.
People have seemingly been trying to will this one into existence for years. Didic trialed with the Whitecaps in 2020 and previously worked with Marc Dos Santos at Swope Park Rangers. He is certainly pretty good, he has the best duel rate of any player in the sample. But some of his stats are kind of middling which makes one wonder how well he would handle the step up to MLS.
Although he personally owned me and siced a bunch of angry Albertans on me, I remain skeptical of his potential to take the next step. Yes he is a good defender, and provides quite a lot of attacking threat, but his passing numbers and aerial success aren’t pretty.
Whitecaps’ defensive starlet Gianfranco Facchineri was loaned to Atletico Ottawa in 2020 and did pretty well in certain areas. In his 206 minutes he didn’t lose a single header and had the most tackles per 90 minutes of anyone in the sample. In other areas, however, he struggled. His tackle and duel success were both well below average. Facchineri is very good for an 18 year old, but he isn’t ready for MLS.
Pacific F.C’s Lukas McNaughton was undoubtedly the best all around Centre Back in the sample. This was a bit surprising to me, as someone who’s a pretty casual CPL viewer, as I almost never hear him get talked about as one of the league’s top defenders. Aside from the percentage of his passes that are played forward and his interceptions he’s pretty good at every statistic I looked at. The Whitecaps have quite a lot of centre backs on the books but even if they don’t have room for him, someone, somewhere, should be taking a closer look at McNaughton