If this Vancouver Whitecaps offseason has a theme it would be uneasiness. At least that’s what I’m feeling about it, maybe that says more about me than anything else. But I don’t think that feeling is all that unreasonable. At the root of the uneasiness is that, despite going on an unprecedented run of form with a lovable head coach, there are all kinds of red flags that the Whitecaps success isn’t sustainable.
After 10 games Vanni Sartini was on a pace, xG wise, to have the 3rd best Whitecaps season in their MLS history. This still wasn’t amazing, the Whitecaps have mostly been bad in the MLS era. But what followed from that initial stretch was four games where they kind of got their assess kicked in the xG battle and relied upon the heroics of Max Crepeau to pull out 6 points.
The long and the short of it is if you remove all of the positive emotions you felt while the ‘Caps went on that run- and purely look at what they did on a spreadsheet- they just weren’t that good. Certain players distinguished themselves as elite but the team itself was not elite. How well the current Whitecaps front office group understands that will be a big test for them.
But I have no control over that so all I am left to do is write a blog article saying what I would do to improve the team.
Soccer is a weak-link game. So it makes sense to try and improve the areas of the field where the squad is weakest. I think, looking at the evidence it is pretty clear where the weakest link in the current Whitecaps is.
Based on his selections, we can say Vanni Saritni’s ideal starting XI looks something like this:
Firstly, let’s look at scoring goals. After all, as John Madden once said, the team that scores more points usually wins the game.
Let’s set our sights high and compare the Whitecaps to the Western conference topping Colorado Rapids. The chart below shows how much xG players who played at least 5 games worth of minutes generated per match from Vanni Sartini’s first game in charge.
Whitecaps Vs Rapids xG (Since Sartini Became Manager)
|Player||Team||Season||Position||MinutesIncludes stoppage time.||xG||xA||xG+xA|
|Player||Team||Season||Position||MinutesIncludes stoppage time.||xG||xA||xG+xA|
Things start well enough for the ‘Caps. The highest xG generator is Brian White. In fact, for the first 6 players, the clubs trade players back and forth. The top 3 scorers of both teams produce almost the same amount of xG+xA. Then there are two Colorado midfielders, Mark Anthony Kaye and Cole Basset, who the Whitecaps don’t have an answer for. As a duo, they are producing almost 6x the xG of Sartini’s incumbent center mid duo of Owusu and Teibert (0.65 xG+xA/96 compared to just 0.1).
After those two it’s Cristian Dájome, who isn’t all that productive when you take away his penalties and should be moved to wing-back full time. Then there’s a run of five Rapids players before you get to the next Whitecap...it’s Bruno Gaspar!
The point is pretty clear, the Whitecaps have two elite scorers in Ryan Gauld and Brian White (provided he is not on Whitecaps striker island), one ok scorer in Deiber Caicedo, and then not much else. They have a front three that is good enough to bring home silverware. But the seven other outfield players might need some attention.
So the obvious area of need are players other than forwards who can provide additional scoring. These aren’t necessarily players who are going to score 10 goals a season, just players that will score 3 or 4 instead of 0. One really strong option, in my opinion, is pending free agent Raheem Edwards. Edwards produced enough xG to suggest he would be able to bag somewhere in the region of 5-6 goals from wing-back with a starter’s load of minutes. Other options would be a box-to-box midfielder who also scores goals or a centre-back who is a big threat from set-pieces. Word on the street is the Whitecaps have a strong interest in adding another defender. I don’t know if a young Kendall Waston is floating around out there but the hand full of goals a player like that adds over the season can add up.
There are two X-Factors in the squad. The first is Cristian Gutierrez. He is not a guy who’s going to score many (if any) goals himself. But in two seasons under MDS he provided an above-average amount of xA. It seems plausible that in a wing-back role, where he would have more license to get forward, he could help the front 3 score even more. How much more offence would Guti unleashed provide? There’s no real way to know until we see it. It might be a lot more or it might be about the same.
Another X-Factor is Caio Alexandre. He scored 4 goals in 2020 in Brazil with underlying data to suggest that wasn’t a fluke. But he didn’t score any in his first season in Vancouver. He averaged about 0.08 xG per game which isn’t nothing but isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. We saw how players like Russell Teibert and Brian White hugely increased their usefulness under Vanni Sartini. Could Alexandre take a similar step forward? I don’t know! I guess we’ll see.
When we turn our attention to trying to keep goals out of the net we see the same pattern. The Whitecaps had the 6th worst expected goals against on the season and the 8th worst in the period Vanni Sartini was head coach. That’s not great! But when we look at another statistic, American Soccer Analysis’ G+ model, it shows some interesting things.
If you’re not familiar with G+, the simple answer is that it is an attempt to quantify how things other than shooting (wining back possession, passing the ball, receiving the ball, etc.) contribute to a team’s scoring goals. If you want a less simple answer you can read their explanation. On their most recent podcast, they discussed a little bit about interpreting G+. Basically what they found was that it was highly correlated with winning on the team level (i.e getting more G+ as a team made you more likely to win more games) but that it wasn’t predictive of player growth in quite the same way (i.e players bounced between having ad and good numbers from season to season).
In the image below, areas of the pitch highlighted in blue are areas where the Whitecaps gave up more G+ than their opponents and the black areas are where they were gaining more G+ or it was even.
Now, keep in mind this also includes the MDS game because the website doesn’t let you choose a date range for G+. But it seems pretty clear where the weak spots are. In the defensive 3rd, the Whitecaps are getting more G+ than their opponents in 80% of the squares. In the final 3rd, it’s 60% and in the middle 3rd, it’s only 20%. This suggests strongly suggests that the high amount of xG that the Whitecaps give up isn’t really the fault of their defenders. It’s down to their midfield’s inability to control the game (and maybe also because due to injuries/visa issues there was always some random guy playing on the left-hand side).
When you dig a little deeper into the numbers you can see exactly in what ways the Whitecaps are getting hurt in these areas. The main area of G+ that the Whitecaps are giving up in that middle 3rd is passing. Dribbling and Receiving also come in with high numbers. Basically, it was way too easy to just kind of Saunter through the Whitecaps middle 3rd last season. This is also confirmed by a more conventional stat, the Whitecaps had the 7th most passes into the final 3rd by their opposition in the league (you could also confirm this by watching the game and paying a mild degree of attention).
Now, it has become clear that you can’t rely on Erik Godoy to be fit for a whole season and Florian Jungwirth isn’t getting any Junger. So it does make sense to add another starting level centre back. But, were I Axel Schuster, that wouldn’t be my #1 priority. Because their defenders are already doing a pretty good job, arguably, a better job than any other outfield part of the team. They are There’s only so much more improvement you can get out of upgrading there.
So to sum up: The Whitecaps need to add players that can play in their midfield four who can help score goals, control the game, and defend better. They need to do this with only one restricted DP slot (maybe one regular DP slot if they can find a taker for Cavallini) and if possible not sign any more international players. So, to the fine people of the recruitment department, I say “godspeed.”