It’s time to talk tactics. Specifically, how the Vancouver Whitecaps might look to line up at the beginning of the MLS season, without the use of a much vaunted attacking midfielder playing the “number ten” role.
The common narrative throughout the offseason has been that the Whitecaps are doomed to repeat the follies of yesteryear if they are unable to acquire such a player, and I’ve definitely played into that narrative at times. Adding such a player would be the easiest way to solve many of the Whitecaps’ attacking issues, and without said player, fixing the squad’s challenges becomes a more complicated venture. It goes without saying that the Whitecaps should still be on the hunt for their midfielder saviour, but in the meantime, it’s worth taking a look at how they can make the absolute most out of what they have.
I’m including in this discussion not only the Whitecaps’ latest addition, right back Bruno Gaspar, but also prospective Brazilian signee Caio Alexandre. While neither of these players are the solution to the attacking midfield role, they do share a very important trait, which will be vital to VWFC’s success without a number ten : they are skilled progressive passers.
American Soccer Analysis has detailed in a very informative five part series why the progressive pass is of such vital importance, and how it leads to the most goals (42% of all goals) in the professional game. For reference, a progressive pass is defined as “a completed open-play pass that moves at least 25% closer to the goal from its origin.” I am going to refer to progressive passes from now on as PP.
In 2020, the Vancouver Whitecaps were actually surprisingly effective at creating goals off of PPs. Of their 24 total goals, 13 of them arrived via the PP. For reference, this was a higher output than Toronto FC (12), CF Montreal (11), and the same amount as NYCFC, who created the most shots off of PPs in MLS last year.
So why did the Whitecaps look so poor at times if they were actually decently efficient at scoring off of PPs?
One answer to this question is volume. While many teams were less efficient than Vancouver at scoring off of PPs, no team had less total shots than the Whitecaps, and only two teams took less shots as a result of PPs.
Another answer is that the Whitecaps were spending too much time defending against PPs. The club allowed a league worst of 24 goals against from PPs, and was the third worst team in the league in terms of PP goal differential, at -11.
These two factors seem to go hand in hand. The more time you spend defending, the less opportunity there is for positive attacking play. Equally, when that attacking play is inefficient, you end up spending more time defending.
When the Whitecaps actually got themselves in a position to take a shot off of a PP last season, they were actually a pretty good team. Last season, the Columbus Crew, winners of MLS Cup, scored 17 goals from PPs on 89 shot attempts, for a rate of 19%. This is the exact same efficiency rate as the Whitecaps in 2020, who scored 13 goals on 68 shots. What’s dramatically different is that the Crew allowed just 7 goals from PPs all year - 17 less than the Whitecaps.
I refuse to believe that this dramatic difference is based on the quality of the defenders alone. Yes, there were certainly individual errors by the likes of Jake Nerwinski and Ranko Veselinovic, but this can’t account for the disparity in its entirety. Instead, I believe that the team’s struggles get the ball into a position to make a progressive pass, or to hold the ball at all for that matter, are more to blame. Vancouver was dead last in terms of possession at 41.8 % in 2020, and in terms of the eye test, often stagnated when moving the ball through the middle of the park.
This clip against San Jose from last year displays exactly what I’m talking about. Vancouver was consistently short on ideas when it came to getting the ball in position to make an effective PP and often really struggled with their off-ball movement.
In this sense, the Whitecaps’ attack was of the feast or famine variety, either they got into good positions and were reasonably effective, or it fell apart well before they moved the ball to a dangerous area. Additionally, because of their struggles, players such as Ali Adnan, Jake Nerwinski and Ranko Veselinovic were forced to take more risks in terms of their passing and positioning, leaving the Whitecaps susceptible to allowing a high volume of PPs against.
So how can the Whitecaps fix these problems, and more importantly, how can they do it without a number ten (at least to start with)?
I see three possible options, all with their own sets of benefits and drawbacks. Without a number ten, the Whitecaps are going to need to focus their creative efforts on a diversity of attack in wide areas, as well as deep progressions from a two man pairing in the middle of the park. Alexandre and Gaspar are both vital to this tactic, because they will provide balance that the Whitecaps previously lacked. If VWFC is able to progress the ball from both central midfielders, and to attack down both wings, the opportunity for these systems to be consistently effective is much higher than last year.
Caio Alexandre's radar with Botafogo last season.— Peter Galindo (@GalindoPW) March 8, 2021
He's played on the left of a trio in a 4-3-3 & 3-5-2, and in a double pivot in a 4-4-2 so him and Baldisimo could theoretically play together. #VWFC pic.twitter.com/uyBW38XHOu
Option #1 : The 4-3-3
Each of the three systems I’ve devised have six players that I would categorize as creators, and this system capitalizes the most of the three on Janio Bikel’s defensive minded versatility.
When the Whitecaps move forward with verticality on the wings in this system, Bikel would drop back in between the two central defenders. This leaves the central pairing of Alexandre and Baldisimo with four wide threats to choose from in attack, as well as the option of finding Lucas Cavallini over the top.
With Adnan and Gaspar charging forwards, this could be asking a lot of Alexandre and Baldisimo defensively. It also depends massively on the ability of Janio Bikel to be a ball winner (something he is quite good at), and then follow that up by distributing the ball effectively as the Whitecaps transition to attack (less of a proven commodity).
If Marc Dos Santos thinks Bikel is up to that task, then this could be a good option.
Option #2: The 3-4-3
The 3-4-3 would play the same as the 4-3-3 in many ways, but would look to utilize Vancouver’s depth at CB. Specifically, the athletic abilities of Cornelius and Veselinovic would be key to this system, as they’d be asked to defend in wide areas. Without Bikel, Alexandre and Baldisimo would have to support defensively, and perhaps in certain matchups Bikel would occupy one of the two midfield spots to help shore things up defensively.
This system would also rely more upon the three centrebacks to make transitional passes themselves, moving the ball into wide areas quickly on the counter attack and in buildup play - something that Godoy and Veselinovic in particular have shown they are capable of. The freedom this could provide Adnan and Gaspar, if executed effectively, is what really drives this concept.
I think this system could work, and has the potential to help Vancouver’s issues of continually surrendering goals from crosses and cutback balls into the box, if it’s implemented correctly and all of the Whitecaps’ centrebacks are healthy.
Option #3: The 4-4-2
Ah, the good ol’ 4-4-2. Evidently, this setup would be much different than how the Whitecaps played this formation last year - with Theo Bair up top alongside Lucas Cavallini instead of Fredy Montero. The interplay between the two strikers, and the unique attributes they bring, is what makes this concept intriguing to me. Unlike the other two formations, this version of the 4-4-2 would take advantage of two aerial threats, and would offer two central targets for cutbacks and through balls into the box.
That being said, it would lack the fluidity of the other two formations, and would ask much more of Caicedo and Dajome defensively. Last season, the Whitecaps were consistently woeful when trying to defend wide areas from the 4-4-2, and other than the upgrade to Gaspar, this system doesn’t do much to fix that problem.
I can also see how this formation would inevitably lead to a low block with very little off-ball movement, similar to the stagnant play we saw a lot of last year. Although I’d like to see Theo Bair in a starting role, I don’t think this tactic would get the most out of what VWFC’s best players have to offer, especially without a #10 darting between opposition lines.
In the 2020 MLS season, progressive pass goal differential (aka differential of goals from PPs) had an 88% correlation to points per game, higher than any other similar metric.
If the goal of the 2021 season for the Vancouver Whitecaps to is create more of these opportunities and surrender less of them, than they must do a much better job transitioning between these two phases of the game. Given the expected roster for opening day, employing a 4-3-3 or 3-4-3 seem like the best options. The tradeoff between these two systems comes defensively, and it would ultimately be up to Marc Dos Santos to determine which players he thinks are best suited to limit opposition progression, and which system is the easiest to organize and follow for his crop of players.
Ultimately, if the Whitecaps can create more fluidity through tactics, field a more balanced roster (thanks to their new additions), and maintain their efficiency converting progressive passes into goals, then things could be looking up (at least relatively) for the 2021 season.