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What Zero Creativity Does to MF

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Vancouver Whitecaps v Los Angeles FC

It is the official first day of pre-season for the Vancouver Whitecaps. This means it is the first day you are allowed to be concerned about their roster construction. Not panicked, mind you, plenty of high impact players have been signed in MLS after their team started training camp. However this is the first point when not having all of the pieces together yet might actually have a negative impact on the season. So, let’s have a look at where things stand.

First a quick review of last season. The Whitecaps came out in pre-season and the two pre-covid regular season games with a 4-4-2 system. This 4-4-2 turned into a 3-3-1-3 when in possession with heavy emphasis on attacking down the left wing and the left sided winger cutting inside to create a channel for the attacking left full back. The second striker would drop deeper and act as a pivot point for the attack, distributing the ball to the front three.

Early 2020 Whitecaps Out of Possession
Early 2020 Whitecaps in Possession

This system was fairly conservative. It focused on limiting the opposition to a small number of shots from range or difficult angles while producing a small number of high danger scoring chances. It was not exactly total football but it was functional. In their first two games, pre-covid, the Whitecaps were a bit unlucky to lose to eventual western conference winners Sporting Kansas City (despite quadrupling SKC’s xG on the night) and got a gutsy road win over eventual basement dwellers L.A. Galaxy.

This system was then abandoned for no clearly discernable reason and the ‘Caps got absolutely caved in at MLS is back and during the Canadian series. They then returned to the 4-4-2 season to close out the season with Fredy Montero serving as the deep lying forward and managed to achieve alternating wins and losses but it was to little to late.

This 4-4-2 system is likely to continue. Although it is not exactly what was promised to us, right now what’s needed is some stability after two years of chaos and dysfunction. It’s a sort of tactical N.E.P. A vital piece of that system is going to be the second striker/attacking midfielder who sits behind the front three in possession. The Whitecaps have been linked to some big names but at this time there has been no concrete movement. Axel Schuster and new head of recruitment Nikos Overhuel have both made it clear that the DP #10 is a priority but Schuster has also indicated he things the squad is strong enough to weather the storm if that player isn’t in place at the start of the season. So let’s look at what the team looks like with and without a DP #10.

With a DP #10:

An important part of Vancouver’s late season surge was the partnership between Lucas Cavallini and Fredy Montero. In the last 7 games of the season Cavallini averaged 0.58 xG per game, considerably higher than his overall season average and comparable to the best strikers in the league. Now, I do not think this was necessarily because Montero was the Cava whisperer and they had some special link that can’t be recreated. Rather I think Cavallini just needs someone to play in behind him to make up for his substandard dribbling and passing. Just look at this data report from fbref.com:

Cavallini is not the MLS version of Harry Kane, he is the MLS version of Dominic Calvert-Lewin. He’s great at getting on the end of passes in the box but don’t ask him to dribble through defences or drop deep to be a link up guy. To get the most out of the most expensive signing in club history, you need somebody else to do those jobs.

The Whitecaps’ attack was pretty anemic last season. I won’t rattle off all the stats but pretty much any metric you can think of to indicate the health of an attack they were last in. There was one notable exception to this rule, xG per shot. The Whitecaps had the second best xG per shot of any team in the league. This basically means that the average chance they created was more likely to result in a goal than those created by every other team except Seattle. So the handful of chances they were creating were pretty good. This lead me to the hypothesis that the Whitecaps were ultra efficient in the final 3rd. But a closer examination revealed that was only partially true. The Whitecaps were one of the worst teams at converting their final 3rd entries into shots but each final 3rd entry generates an average xG of about 0.0352 which is 9th best in the league. So the Whitecaps need someone who can help get them into the attacking 3rd more often and people who can turn those entries into shots more efficiently. If they do those things, and that small number of good chances turns into a lot of good chances, then they could genuinely be quite a dangerous attacking team. New signing Deiber Caicedo will help with the latter, as i’m sure he can provide more offence than Russel Teibert or a left back shoehorned in at left wing, but more help is definitely needed.

So by taking these things into account you can see how the Whitecaps, with a DP #10, would actually look pretty good. With a DP #10 you see Cavallini playing to his full potential, that the team attacks more efficiently, and that youngsters like Deiber Caicedo and Theo Bair are put in a position to succeed.

Without a DP #10:

Well, that would be very bad. Schuster has floated the idea that if it came to it the Whitecaps could play a 4-4-2 and be fine. But i’m not really sure that’s the case. None of the other Whitecaps forwards really have the same qualities as Montero that would allow them to function as a quasi-playmaker. Bair and Tosaint Ricketts suffer from the same problem as Cavallini, where they are pretty good at getting on the end of chances but not so great at being involved in the buildup.

Data Courtesy of Whoscored and American Soccer Analysis
Data Courtesy of Whoscored and American Soccer Analysis

By all accounts David Egbo is a similar kind of player. I don’t really think any of these guys would work in a partnership because it would just make the team to one dimensional. Plus without the DP #10 the only player on the Whitecaps who has shown consistent ability to progress the ball is Michael Baldisimo and while I am high on him, I don’t think he can do it all on his own.

The lineup options without a DP #10 are far from ideal. Let’s have a look at them, shall we? I’m including Bruno Gaspar in these lineups because that seems basically a done deal at time of writing.

Option 1: Caicedo as a Shadow Striker, Adnan at left wing

In my opinion this is the best option if no DP #10 is in place on opening day. Caicedo can play as a second striker, though his best position is on the wing. This opens up a spot for Adnan to play on the left and for Gutierrez to slot in at left back. Gutierrez and Gaspar are both pretty good at progressing the ball so leaning in to the fullbacks being more responsible for that might help to counteract the lack of creativity somewhat.

Option 2: Owusu re-disovers his roots

This is basically what i’m hoping the final Whitecaps lineup will look like but with Owusu in the place of DP #10. Owusu struggled to acclimatize to MLS in his first season. But he used to play the #10 role in Ghana and maybe his good dribbling skill and work ethic, combined with less defensive responsibility, could see him make a difference. He did get an assist in the 15 or so minutes he played as a #10 last season.

If you wanted to get really crazy with it you could also stick Ryan Raposo or wonder kid Kam Habibullah in that #10 slot and hope for the best.

Overall I can’t see either of these options leading to enough chances being created for the Whitecaps to make it back to the playoffs. So it’s back to staring at Twitter and hoping for that DP #10 news.