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The MLS Version of Bruno Fernandes: Further Rumination on The Whitecaps’ Open DP Slot

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Sevilla v Manchester United - UEFA Europa League Semi Final Photo by James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images

I know what you’re thinking. “They sure are milking this open DP slot thing.” That’s true but what do you want from us? The Vancouver Whitecaps are terrible and there’s a pandemic going on. This open DP slot and its technically infinite possibilities is pretty much the only thing i’ve got going for me in my life right now. Besides, theres been a compelling lead in what they might choose to do with the DP slot. In an interview with AFTN’s Michael McColl Marc Dos Santos revealed the team is after a player in the mold of Manchester United’s Bruno Fernandes. Now, who knows what he really meant by that or even if he’ll still be the manager by the time I publish this but just for fun i’ve chosen to take him at his word.

Understanding Bruno Fernandes and What He Does:

Obviously the Whitecaps are not going to literally sign Bruno Fernandes, and they’re probably not going to get someone as good as him. But he’s a very specific player who plays a very specific role and it should be possible to find someone who does what he does in the Premier League in MLS. Using online data scouting tool Smarterscout (read here about how they were able to predict the fortunes of the biggest premier league signings with a pretty good degree of accuracy) you can see what sort of things Fernandes does (and how they predict he would do in MLS, as i’ve set the website to do for all the profiles shown in this article).

As we can see, Fernandes has high attacking output, middling defensive ability, and terrible ball retention. He does not dribble often, plays an extremely direct passing style, and shoots a lot. This checks out if you look at Fernandes’ counting stats:

Fernandes has lots of shots and key passes but, except for in the weaker Europa League and Liga Nos, not a huge amount of successful dribbles. He plays a high number of long balls every game which does lead to a lot of chances being created but also a lot of turnovers, as seen by his low passing percentage. Defensively he does get stuck into a lot of tackles but his success rate on those tackles is only slightly above 50%. He tries his best but his defending isn’t his main draw.

So the profile of player we’re after here is someone who creates a lot of chances (though we don’t mind if he also gives the ball away a lot), works hard when defending (though we don’t necessarily mind how effective he is), and shoots a lot. Using all the tools at my disposal (as a guy with an internet connection and no desire to pay for anything that’s behind a paywall) and eliminating players who had just moved to a new club, played a similar style to Fernandes but didn’t actually produce very much, and players who were older than 27 (as per the team’s stated strategy), I was able to identify three such players. Those players are:

Lucas Robertone, 23, Velez Sarsfield

Robertone almost made my list of picks to fill the empty DP slot but I ultimately left him off because I have doubts that he would provide the amount of scoring I was aiming for with my picks. That said there’s no doubt he’s a good player and perhaps his abilities would rise the attacking output of the other players on the team. The main way Robertone differs from Fernandes is that he dribbles more.

Tomás Pochettino, 24, Tallares

Pochettino has bounced around Argentina a little bit, never really taking on a starring role in any of the teams he’s in. He’s perhaps a bit of a stretch as a DP you build your whole team around but I have no doubt he’d at least be very good in MLS, his stats are pretty good, and he matches up well with Fernandes. Like Robertone, Pochettino dribbles a lot more than Fernandes and he also spends a lot less time in the opposition penalty area. That might change if he were more central to the way the team plays.

Joey Veerman, 21, Heerenveen

Plucked out of the lower divisions of Dutch football in 2019, Joey Veerman has had an impressive start to life in the Eredivisie. He shoots a bit less than the other players discussed here but he’s a better defender and he holds onto the ball better.

Comparisons:

Now that we’ve identified these players we can compare them to decide which one makes the most sense to target. As part of this I employed a simple xG model which is not as precise as what the Whitecaps will have access to but, unless Vox wants to reallocate some of that Matt Yglesias money to me, I don’t have access to that. I’ve labeled this “Crude xG.”

For the most part Pochettino is the ugly duckling of the group. He only leads the group in shots per 90 minutes, he’s the oldest of the group, and he’s the least established player of the three. However all three players are very close to each other in every metric so he would be a good fallback option if either of the other two didn’t work out. I would say Veerman might just edge it for me with his chance creation, being the youngest, and by being the only one with a somewhat respectable passing accuracy. However it is worth noting he only has one season of top flight football under his belt so there is the least proof he can do this consistently. I also rate the the Argentine league a bit higher but that’s just one man’s opinion, in the words of the late Herman Cain “I don’t have facts to back this up.”

What Could we Expect from These Players in MLS?

All three of these players take a lot of shots but they are mostly from outside the penalty area and therefore not all that likely to go in. Their xG ranges from 0.13 per 90 minutes to 0.16 per 90 minutes. Assuming they played as much as the departed In-Beom Hwang that would be four or five goals a season. Perhaps you could expect a small increase as they are moving from leagues generally considered to be stronger than MLS. Players who got similar xG totals last season range from Kaku to Kekuta Manneh so how good that is really depends on their role and what else they offer as a player. Judging their high number of key passes depends on where those key passes are going too. In-Beom had a lot of key passes but he was mostly passing to players who were trying terrible long range shots. This is why players with 2+ key passes per 90 minutes in MLS ranged from three assists to to fourteen. Most of them are in the double digits though. So, taking a generous view, you could maybe expect five goals and between six and ten assists from one of these players. Perhaps slightly more because it is MLS after all.

Is Targeting This Kind of Player a Good Idea?

Under the right circumstances, it can be. A shot creating midfielder who also loses the ball a lot works best if they are the focal point of the team and free to take the risks that make their game special. That’s obviously not going to be a problem for the Whitecaps, who’s lack of midfield talent is basically a meme at this point. Where it may be a problem is if it takes them five minutes to get the ball back every time they lose it. It will also be a problem if there is nobody making runs for them to pick out or if the backline can’t make passes into the midfield to them. Some changes would have to be made for a player of this profile to be effective on the Whitecaps and I don’t know that they are necessarily tactical, more organizational, in nature.