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Did Replacing Fredy Montero with Lucas Cavallini Make any Difference?

MLS: Vancouver Whitecaps FC at Los Angeles FC Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Vancouver Whitecaps are once again in turmoil. They made a big splash in the offseason, breaking their record transfer fee for Lucas “El Tanque” Cavallini. Now the ‘Caps are coming off their second humiliating loss to LAFC in as many years and Cavallini has the same number of goals as the man he was brought in to replace, Fredy Montero. So naturally fans are asking if spending all that money really made any difference. Fortunately for those fans there is a man in a basement somewhere on Vancouver Island willing to do a deep dive on that very question.

Part 1: Slow Your Roll

A lot has been made of Fredy Montero’s sudden resurgence with 2 goals and an assist in his last 3 games. He’s played fantastically and deserves to be in the starting 11 based on form. However, these good 300 minutes are not enough to make me forget the bad 2000 minutes he had in 2019, in which he scored just three times from open play and was outperformed in xG from open play by both Theo Bair and Joaquin Ardaiz. For the purposes of this article we will be primarily considering the much larger sample size of Montero’s 2019 season.

Part 2: The Exciting Bits

When people think of strikers they think of goals and assists. Here is a chart showing an overview of the underlying metrics of Montero and Cavallini (Penalties discounted, naturally):

In most ways, Cavallini is pretty clearly superior to 2019 Montero. El Tanque’s xG per shot is more than double the Colombian’s, meaning the shots he takes are from areas where he is much more likely to score. Similarly, despite Montero taking more shots on average in 2019, Cavallini has just a shade under double Montero’s xG per game. Both players are in the negative in G+, meaning their contributions other than shooting are hurting the team rather than helping it, but 2019 Montero is causing significantly more damage. Montero creates more chances and therefore contributes more xA but the chances Cavallini creates are of higher quality.

Part 2: The Boring Stuff

Being a striker is not all glamour, particularly on a bad team. There are lots of other aspects that make a striker successful. Here is a chart looking at those other aspects:

When it comes to other aspects of the game the two Vancouver strikers are more balanced. Cavallini is muscled off the ball less but Montero loses possession due to a bad touch significantly less frequently. Both players have truly bad passing, completing significantly fewer passes than expected, with Montero being the worse of the two. I will cut both some slack as everyone knows how isolated Vancouver’s strikers always are and that it’s hard to have good passing when you’re fending off three defenders and have no support. I will also point out, however, that second year pro on an entry level deal Theo Bair has managed to be a positive in passes completed above expected where these two players above the DP threshold have failed.

Montero is a much better dribbler than Cavallini both in the number of dribbles he attempts and in his success rate. Cavallini, however, wins significantly more aerial duels. Montero attempts a lot more tackles but Cavallini actually wins the ball a much higher percentage of the time. In these eight categories Montero comes out on top in 4 and Cavallini comes out on top in 4.

Part 3: 8 Figures Though?

So far we have established that Cavallini provides a tangible positive difference to 2019 Montero in terms of attacking stats, and is better at some things and worse than others compared to Montero in other aspects of the game. But was that difference worth what sporting director Axel Schuster described as an eight figure package? I suspect we all know the answer but just for fun let’s look at how Cavallini compares to the rest of the strikers in the league (penalties discounted, naturally):

This chart takes data from the American Soccer Analysis website and shows what percentile Cavallini is in each stat compared to other strikers in MLS. It seems the Whitecaps have paid an eight figure package for a striker who is basically average. Cavallini is above average in xG and G+, which is actually kind of impressive considering Vancouver are the team with the fewest passes into the opposition penalty area, lowest average possession, and least time spent in the opposition final 3rd. But he is well below average in xA and is below average in involvement (perhaps that’s unsurprising considering the team stats I just mentioned). One way or another the Whitecaps are not getting the game breaking player they need in Cavallini. But I don’t think that’s entirely his fault. Look, for example at this action chart via smarterscout:

Legend

This map is quite encouraging. Those shot locations are the things that dreams are made of. Cavallini is getting into good positions, he’s just not getting into them often enough. Compare that map to Montero’s in 2019:

Montero was held much more to the periphery.

Conclusions

When Cavallini was first signed I wrote that the difference between him being good and him being elite was all in the midfield. I think based on what I have outlined today that’s still undeniably true. Even on a terrible team he’s above the league average in xG and getting into good positions. But he is not the type of player who can turn things around singlehandedly (and thus was maybe not the wisest player to blow all their remaining Davies cash on). He is well suited, however, to leading the line on a team that controls possession. If he could be paired with a #10 who was an established international, maybe who was averaging a goal or assist every game in a top 10 European league then he could...hey wait a minute...

Perhaps some questions need to be asked in general about the Whitecaps and if they are able to put good players in a position to succeed, even when they do have them. The Whitecaps have made a big financial commitment to Cavallini so they will hopefully set themselves up in a way that plays to his strengths. Cavallini is good at getting into dangerous scoring positions and winning duels. He should be in a team where he does those things as much as possible. He is bad at dribbling and not that great at passing. He should be asked to do those things less (for god’s sake, stop making him dribble!). If the Whitecaps can set him up to do that then he might yet be worth the large sum they paid for him. If not he’s going to continue to be mediocre.

Epilogue: In Fairness to Fredy

I’ve spent a lot of time in this article talking about how bad Montero’s 2019 was. So to be fair here is his the chart for his 300 minutes played in 2020. It’s very good, though it’s a smallish sample size and personally I would not re-sign him. That’s just one man’s opinion though.