In the first installment of a new series, there are GIFS galore as we do our best to break down Vancouver’s tactics so far this season - and what that could mean for the team going forwards.
It’s time to talk tactics. More specifically, the foundation that Marc Dos Santos & Co appear to be building as his team heads into its second month of the MLS season.
Given the team sheet we’ve seen through the first two matches, in addition to hints the coach has continually dropped along the way, it seems clear that this coaching staff is committed to some version of a 4-4-2 shape.
The infancy of this formation, at least for these Vancouver Whitecaps, can be found in a productive series of matches near the end of last year, where Fredy Montero sat underneath Lucas Cavallini as a playmaker, and combined with Cristian Dajome in wide areas. It was a decent formula for success, and obviously one that Dos Santos thinks is the right platform to build on for the foreseeable future.
Let’s start with the basics, even though the Whitecaps attack in a variety of shapes, when the team has the opportunity to organize itself defensively, this is almost always in the (in)famous 4-4-2 shape. With Lucas Cavallini and Cristian Dajome as your two best pressers of the ball, this makes a lot of sense. In this clip, you not only see that defensive shape, but also how Deiber Caicedo joins the front two in transition after intercepting an errant Omar Gonzalez pass.
The first layer of complexity to Dos Santos’ attacking tactics is the deep-lying playmaker role. This wasn’t as pronounced against Portland, because they sat back pretty deep defensively, but against teams that are a bit more engaged, such as TFC, we saw Baldisimo dropping much deeper.
Not only did Baldisimo sit between the centrebacks, as we see in the clip above, but as the match went on, we also see him inhabiting the left-hand side of a defensive back three.
While Baldisimo was able to create some decent progressive play from this deep-lying role, I can’t help but wonder if this stunts his ability to unlock Vancouver's forwards. Baldi is currently the Whitecaps’ best player when it comes to line-breaking passes, but it’s far more difficult to break multiple lines from your own half than it is from a more advanced traditional midfield role.
During Dos Santos’ most recent media availability, the coach mentioned that he’s still looking for more from the young Canadian in terms of his defensive play in transition and in 1v1’s. So maybe Dos Santos feels like he has to shelter Baldi from some of that responsibility by playing him in such a deep-lying role.
Currently when the Whitecaps attack, they do so in a 3-4-3 shape. What’s particularly interesting to me about this is that Dos Santos’ has chosen Janio Bikel and Russell Teibert (or one of the two fullbacks) to inhabit that central midfield space, rather than Baldisimo. Will this change when Caio Alexandre is included, or will it just be a straight swap for Teibert?
The attacking front three of Cavallini, Dajome and Caicedo is what gives this formation the opportunity to be truly special. In particular, Dajome’s passing vison and Cavallini’s holdup play have been unlocking some of VWFC’s best sequences from open play so far this year.
In years gone by, you’d be hard pressed to find a Whitecaps goal kick which quickly led to a decent scoring chance at the other end. A big shoutout to Teibert for a great ball to unlock Dajome here too.
This clip below exemplifies everything there is to love about Cristian Dajome. From how deep he’s willing to drop defensively, to the passing vision, to the hustle to join the play, and then the passing once again. The final product is lacking, but this transitional play is bulletin board material.
Obviously, these clips also demonstrate how Vancouver hasn’t been making the most of these transitional chances so far. The willingness to progress things a bit closer to the box, or to simply get more bodies in the area for a cross, could really help them create higher quality chances.
One of the most obvious areas for tinkering is Russell Teibert’s role, or even more specifically than that, whether or not he has a place in the lineup when Caio Alexandre is ready to play a full 90.
Now don’t get me wrong, in a lot of respects, Teibert has been pretty good so far this season, especially when Gutierrez has played centrally and he’s been able to roam in wide areas. That being said, when Teibert has been tasked with sitting alongside Janio Bikel in a double pivot role, it’s been a struggle.
Pretty much all of Teibert’s positive progressive play comes in transition. When you ask him to be progressive from a more stagnant phase of the game, at best it’s a struggle, and at worst, he’s a liability.
In a phase of the match where Vancouver was very much on the front foot, Teibert was responsible for some of his team’s sketchier moments out of the back.
It seems logical that Alexandre should be swapped for Teibert when the young Brazilian is fully ready to go. The newcomer definitely has the defensive attributes from his time spent playing as a defensive mid, but he’s also got the dribbling and progressive passing skills which suit a midfield pivot. This would also mean that the Whitecaps could be less reliant on their fullbacks tucking narrow to provide creative support - which has worked well for one fullback, but not so much the other.
Speaking of those fullbacks, it’s necessary to address the challenges at right back so far. This is another spot, obviously, where a newcomer could come in and change the complexion of the role, but for now, Jake Nerwisnki has been struggling to fit in this system.
Now I don’t want to put all of the blame on Jake here, because I think that Ranko Veselinovic, who’s also been struggling, bears some responsibility for the lack of organization. That being said though, Jake’s tendency to defend supper narrow, even when there’s no reason to do so, created a good number of chances for TFC.
There were several examples of this throughout the TFC match, but the reason I picked these two clips is because Vancouver had every chance to be organized defensively, and yet Jake and Ranko struggled to communicate their assignments.
In my view, Jake seems to struggle to play as a complete fullback. For long stretches of last year, he was very solid defensively. On the flip side though, this meant that he created very little at the offensive end, and overall, he’s had no assists in his past two seasons.
Now that Nerwinski is being asked to be more involved on the ball again, it looks like some of those past positional challenges have returned to the fold. As involved as he tried to be, Jake really looked on the back foot throughout this match.
The reality is that if the Whitecaps are moving forward with this formation and asking their fullbacks to spend a lot of time on the ball, this probably doesn’t suit Nerwinski very well. Again, it would be interesting to see if a change to the midfield group alters this dynamic, although I’d have to imagine Gaspar takes over the position whenever he is ready to start.
Welcome Back, Derek!
This isn’t an explicitly tactical note, but I thought the Derek Cornelius’ late game headed clearance was worthy of immortalization in GIF form. The bravery and decisiveness he displays here is awe inspiring. This could be another direction Dos Santos looks to mix things up in the coming weeks if Cornelius is deemed good to go as a starter.
What do you think of the Whitecaps’ tactical approach so far? Will this be a recipe for success long term, or are they just making the most of the players they have at the moment? Let me know your thoughts!