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Catch 4-4-2

Vancouver Whitecaps FC v Sporting Kansas City Photo by Bill Barrett/ISI Photos/Getty Images

This article is a reply to an article by BTS’ Alexandre Gangué-Ruzic entitled “To 4-3-3 or not to 4-3-3: Analyzing how 15 minutes of play (and some stats) might spell the end of the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-4-2” This article, like all of Alex’s articles, was really good and it may be helpful to readers to read that one first. I will do my best to present his thesis, as I understand it, as fully as possible.

Alex puts forth that the 4-4-2 formation the Whitecaps have played so far has not lead to particularly impressive results so far. This is undeniably true. The Whitecaps have done a good job of keeping games close so far this season, their spanking at the hands of SKC aside, but their underlying data makes it clear that this level of play does not have them on track to make the playoffs. You don’t need me to tell you that the Whitecaps have not scored a goal from open play yet and their defence, while giving up less shots than in previous seasons, has been far from impenetrable.

Alex also posits that a 4-3-3 could allow Caio Alexandre to take on a more prominent role in the way the team plays and use his pall progression ability to generate a bit more attack. It is true that Alexandre has played very well so far. He is averaging more passes into the final 3rd than any Whitecap in the Marc Dos Santos era except for (surprisingly to me) Jon Erice. Eagle eyed fans may have noticed that the ‘Caps hilarious heat maps now completely die about 20 yards further forward than they did in the last two seasons and Alexandre’s play has been a big part of that.

I’ll even take things a step further than Alex did and say that a 4-3-3 would have the big advantage of being able to fit in Michael Baldisimo and Alexandre without having to sacrifice the defensive ability of Janio Bikel. Having your two best progressive passers on the field at the same time is a very good thing for a team that famously has trouble with that.

But despite these points, I don’t believe it can work. Progressive passes are all well and good but it does matter who is receiving those passes. In a 4-3-3 I think we all know who’s going to be dropping into the open space between the wingers and trying to make a play. In my opinion a 4-3-3 will only further incentivize the club’s record signing, Lucas Cavallini, to do more of the things he is not very good at. I have written previously on why Cavallini dropping deep is a bad thing but I think this chart i’ve put together really illustrates my point.

Data Courtesy of American Soccer Analysis

As we can see Cavallini is getting a ton of touches compared to his fellow strikers but those touches are not being converted to scoring chances for himself or others. He is not the worst forward in the league at making plays but you would not want to hinge the success of your attack the ability of this man to play a defence splitting pass.

Now, one might reasonably argue that this is already happening anyway under the 4-4-2 so you might as well give the 4-3-3 a whirl with some tweaks to de-emphasize Cavallini in the buildup. I’m amenable to this argument but I still don’t find myself fully convinced by it. I just don’t have confidence in the Whitecaps to make the necessary adjustments to prevent the nightmare scenario described above.

But it is true that things can’t stay as they are if the Whitecaps want to make the playoffs. As much as you don’t want Cavallini playing in the hole, there aren’t a lot of other attractive options to play that role on the roster right now. So what is to be done? Obviously the ultimate solution to this problem is the addition of a designated player who can sit behind Cavallini and free him up to spend more time in the box. But that player’s arrival is unlikely to be imminent. J.J Adams had this to say:

As soon as I read this I knew deep within my soul that waiting until the next transfer window to bring in the DP #10 in order to make cap savings is exactly what they are going to do. Fortunately due to Covid weirdness there isn’t that big of a gap between transfer windows.

In the meantime there are two things I would try before a switch to a 4-3-3. Firstly, word on the street is that the Whitecaps are interested in using their dragon’s hoard of GAM to make a trade within MLS. Bringing in a player who’s more comfortable playing in the hole to pair with Cavallini might be a good use of those funds. This player probably would not be a game changer on the level of a DP #10 (I doubt you’re getting anyone that good with GAM) but they would at least alleviate the problem somewhat.

The other thing i’d be interested to try is giving Kam Habibullah a go in the #10 role. In his two cameos this season his passing has been direct and accurate, though he is yet to create any chances. Obviously you can’t declare a player ready for prime time based on 40 minutes of play but I am interested to see what would happen.