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Tactical Analysis: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Portland Timbers

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MLS: Preseason-Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Portland Timbers Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps played a preseason game against the Portland Timbers on Sunday night. Although they didn’t win it was honestly a much better performance than I was expecting. So Let’s dig in to a few things I noticed that were different from last season.

The Block

Ok, this was good last season as well but when defending deep the ‘Caps were effective at limiting Portland to poor shots. By my count Portland only had three shots inside the penalty area, only one of which was from open play (in 2019 the median average was 7.6 per game). True Portland scored two goals but 999 times out of 1000 that Andy Polo shanked cross does not result in a goal. Jasser Khmiri and Derek Cornelius got their wires crossed a bit on Portland’s penalty but preseason is the time to clean that stuff up and they may be the second choice centre back pairing in any case.

The Buildup

Vancouver’s switch to a 4-2-3-1 formation has lead to a change in how they build from the back. When playing out of the back Vancouver assumes a 3-3-1-3 posture. One of the midfielders, usually Russel Teibert, drops between the centre backs and the fullbacks push up higher with In-Beom Hwang between them.

Higher up the field, Yordy Reyna drops into space to act as a pivot point. He receives outlet passes from the midfield. He can either lay the ball off or turn with the ball to either run into space or distribute to the front three. Something I have discussed a couple of times is that In-Beom Hwang plays good outlet passes but the Whitecaps were shooting from those passes to early. What he needed in 2019 was a player to receive the ball and make plays in the final 3rd. In Sunday’s game Reyna was reasonably effective performing that role.

When the ball is higher up the pitch Ali Adnan would push higher and Jake Nerwinski would come more centrally to create a 3-2-4-1. Nerwinski did an adequate job but perhaps a right back who was more comfortable playing in central positions would be better suited to the role. With the team focusing play so heavily down the left there was rarely cause for the right back to be galloping forward down the right flank. Erik Godoy as the right back, as some have suggested, might make more sense.

Attack

In attack Vancouver focused heavily on overloading the left side of the pitch. Left winger David Milinkovic would come into the half space and create a channel for Ali Adnan to run into. This also created a dilemma for the opposition right back. He can either stay narrow to mark Milinkovic and give Adnan the space to go down the wing unopposed or he can go wide to cover Adnan and leave space for someone to slip through Milinkovic. But Crucially, he can’t do both at the same time.

This attack schema was effective. It created Vancouver’s goal and 3 or 4 other good chances as well. It does however, create some interesting questions. With play so focused down the left, what exactly is the role of the right sided midfielder? Cristian Dájome was quiet because he was usually staying wide on the right when the play was focused on the left. Would it make more sense to play another striker on the right to attack the back post when the ball goes out on the left? This would have the upside of giving Adnan an extra player in the box to aim for. But it could also be said that playing another striker on the right would make the team too narrow and having a more natural winger keeps the opposition honest, preventing them from just having to defend the left side. Perhaps it’s just a matter of getting Dájome to crash the back post when the ball goes out on the left.

I would also like to see the team be a little less reliant on the left side overload than they were against Portland. It’s great that it works but it won’t work forever if it’s the only weapon. In particular I could see a team that plays with 5 at the back being very tough to break down for this Whitecaps team.

The Press:

There was a bit of pressing happening! It wasn’t exactly heavy metal but it was certainly happening. Vancouver Pressed in a 4-2-2-2 formation. Typically Yordy Reyna would initiate the press. He would move to cut off half of the field for one of the centre backs. Lucas Cavallini would drop deeper to cover the opposition #6. The near side winger and centre midfielder would then shift across to cover channels. This created a trap that was difficult to get out of.

Weaknesses:

One thing I noticed was that Vancouver is susceptible to balls played into space between the front four and the back four. For example, on the play that lead to Portland winning a penalty we saw how Teibert and In-Beom could be overloaded to create problems.

Most of the time Portland tried to play out of the back. But in this instance Steve Clark played a long ball. In-beom lost the header and because Portland had four players in the zone, to Vancouver’s two, Portland came away with ball. A few passes later they had won a penalty. This isn’t the worst weakness to have in MLS since most teams try to play out of the back whether it’s a good idea for them to do that or not. But I could see a team like the New York Red Bulls (or at least the Red Bulls as they were under Jesse Marsch) could cause this team problems.