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Is Vanni Sartini The Man For The Job?

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MLS: San Jose Earthquakes at Vancouver Whitecaps FC Anne-Marie Sorvin-USA TODAY Sports

We have now crossed the 10 game mark with Vanni Sartini as the interim head coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps. In that time he has won 6 games, drawn 2, and lost 2. This is a pretty incredible run, especially by the standards of the Vancouver Whitecaps. 10 games are usually the point at which you can draw meaningful conclusions from a team’s underlying data. So let’s take a look at the 10 games under Sartini, how his performance stacks up against his predecessors, and how he has his team playing relative to the rest of the league.

Headline Numbers:

By now you will have no doubt seen about a million tweets about how many goals the Whitecaps have scored, how many wins they have gotten, how many points they have won, and so forth. But as we all know, soccer is a fickle game where a lot of weird stuff can happen. So what does the underlying data say about the sustainability of this run of form?

The short answer is this-the improvement is real but the dominance isn’t. Since Sartini took over the Whitecaps have had the underlying data of almost an exactly average MLS team. 1.32 expected goals per game (15/27), 1.29 expected goals against per game (15/27), and +0.03 expected goal difference. In most seasons this would be good enough to be right on the fringes of the MLS playoffs.

Of course, the other way of looking at these numbers is that if you pro-rated them over the course of a full season then Sartini would have better underlying data than every single Marc Dos Santos season, 3/5 of the Carl Robinson seasons, and the one Martin Rennie Season in American soccer analysis’ database. So luck may be involved in his success, but Sartini still has the Whitecaps playing some of the best soccer of their MLS history. One might reasonably argue, the fact that being average makes this one of the best runs of the past decade shows Sartini isn’t exactly competing against a deep field of successful predecessors. That is true but the fact remains that Sartini is performing a lot better than his predecessors did most seasons.

But What About The Money?:

In Whitecaps land we’re always talking about how much the team is spending. The MLSPA has released updated salaries which show us that Sartini’s squad is 4th from bottom in spending.

Now there are some caveats we have to consider. The Whitecaps have chosen to mostly target players in their early 20s. These players command high transfer fees but generally have lower wage demands. So being 23rd in wages doesn’t fully represent the investment that has gone into the squad. At the same time though, playing with a squad of young players presents its own challenges. So I don’t think one can reasonably say that Sartini has been given a squad that any fool could win with.

One also has to consider that handsomely compensated players Caio Alexandre (539k) and Pedro Vite (609k) have not played at all under Sartini. DP Lucas Cavallini has only played a quarter of the available minutes in Sartini’s 10 games in charge. These three players represent almost 20% of the ‘Caps wage bill. So He has not had the opportunity to use some of the most big-ticket players available to him.

Key defensive players like Erik Godoy (450k) and Ranko Veselinovic (445k) have also been in and out of the lineup with injuries, often forcing some very unorthodox selections in Sartini’s 3-4-1-2 formation.

Defenders of previous managers may point to Vanni Sartini being able to field a fully fit Ryan Gauld every week is an unfair advantage. While it is true that Gauld is the highest-paid MLS era Whitecap-I’m not sure “Sartini has an unfair advantage, he has the league’s 26th highest paid player!” is a protest that really holds up.

Conclusions:

Vanni Sartini has gotten an average MLS team to play averagely. Maybe slightly above averagely when you consider the various absences he has had to deal with. This may sound like damning with faint praise but most of his predecessors have failed to clear this bar in most MLS seasons. It also follows that if Sartini can get average play out of an average team that he could get excellent play out of an excellent team.

A while back I made a chart showing the Whitecaps’ expected goal difference every season after getting mad about something someone said on the internet. Here is the current state of that chart.

Data Courtesy of American Soccer Analysis

handle.

One might say that the Whitecaps should be aiming higher than that. Maybe they should be swinging for a manager who can elevate a squad well above the sum of its parts. But there is no guarantee that person would gel be a good fit. There is simply no way of knowing these things for sure until they are tested. So as I see it, the options the Whitecaps have are to stick with reliably average (or slightly above average) or swing for greatness and risk abject failure.

I lean towards sticking with Sartini. I have a high degree of confidence in the recruitment team and in general, I think the quality of players is more important than the quality of the manager. But I think this is an issue on which people can reasonably disagree.