This past weekend confidence in the 2021 Vancouver Whitecaps was severely shaken by an uninspiring performance against the Colorado Rapids. The Whitecaps posed some danger from set pieces but struggled to create chances from open play, or even get into the other team’s end. Lucas Cavallini, the club’s record signing, has one goal through three games and his underlying numbers are not good. You can just sense that in a game or two the pundits are going to be talking about how he’s not scoring enough. With this in mind, I think it would be a good idea to go in detail about the type of player Cavallini is and where his goals come from.
Here is a YouTube edit of every goal Cavallini scored in 2020 (including pre-season). I want you to watch it and think about what all these goals have in common.
There are eight goals in this video. Six of them are one touch finishes from closer than 10 yards. One is a penalty and on the remaining goal Cavallini took a touch before shooting. If you look back at older videos of Cavallini you won’t see anything particularly different. This is how Cavallini scores. He gets the ball close to the other team’s goal and he kicks it in. This is not a slight on him. Getting separation from defenders to get the ball in that area is a real and valuable skill. But this is pretty much the only way he scores goal. So, in an ideal world, he would spend as much time within 10 yards of the opposition goal as possible. Here is his heat map, via SofaScore, so far in 2021.
Sub-optimal! So far in 2021 Cavallini has spent a lot of time dropping in to deeper areas and trying to make things happen. He is not good at this! Cavallini has many positive qualities but passing and dribbling are not included amongst them. So far, Cavallini leads the Whitecaps in the number of dribbles he attempts per 90 minutes, even beating out players who’s totals are skewed by playing a small number of minutes. His success rate is 53%, which is usually below the median line for an MLS attacker. He also has the worst passing accuracy on the team of any player that has played significant minutes. Folks, this is not good.
We can see clearly that, so far, Cavallini is being forced to do more of the things that he is bad at and less of the things that he is good at. He is frequently trying to dribble past multiple defenders and drop deep to link play. He struggles at these things and the result is an anemic attack.
Fortunately there is an easy fix for this. Pair him with an attacking player who can drop into deeper spaces and make plays. How do we know this will work? Because in the period at the end of the 2020 season, When Cavallini played regularly with Fredy Montero, Cavallini was in the top 5 of MLS strikers in expected goals. It was a small sample size, of course, but it was very clear that Cavallini improved significantly with Montero.
I don’t think that Montero himself was necessarily the secret ingredient. I think that having someone drop deeper and occupy the space behind Cavallini allowed him (maybe forced him) to get further forward into the areas he is dangerous from. Cavallini himself has noted that when he had his best seasons in Mexico and Uruguay he had a player playing behind him in the #10 role. I don’t think this is a coincidence. I think Cavallini needs that type of player in order to be at his best. That player does not necessarily need to be a traditional #10 (shoutout Russel Berrisford), as we saw with Montero, a forward who drops into deeper areas to link play would also work fine. But there needs to be someone.
Unfortunately for the Whitecaps, until the renowned DP #10 comes in, there aren’t a lot of great options at the moment to fill that role. So far the team has tried Cristian Dájome and Caio Alexandre, both of whom present problems. Dájome is a workhorse with decent (though not outstanding) dribbling but he’s not exactly splitting defences wide open with his passing. Alexandre has a better passing range but playing him further forward means that you lose out on his ability to progress the ball from deep. As we saw against Colorado, this meant that the ball didn’t get forward. So either Alexandre was on an island or he had to drop deeper, which in turn meant Cavallini dropped deeper, which we really don’t want. I would be open to trying Alexandre as the #10 again but only if Michael Baldisimo is also available for selection so that the ball might actually get forward once in a while.
The other options do not instil confidence. Theo Bair is in the doghouse and has all of the same relative strengths and weaknesses as Cavallini in any case so he is no solution. Ryan Raposo has looked a bit more lively this year in limited minutes but his stats were really bad last season so turning the position over to him would probably be too much too soon. Kamron Habibullah showed promise in his professional debut but you probably shouldn’t hand the keys over to him on the basis of one promising cameo.
Lucas Cavallini is really good at a few skills. The Whitecaps should be aiming for a system in which he only has to use those skills. The best way to do this is to add a player who can play in behind him and handle the parts of the game he struggles with. When paired with this kind of player in the past Cavallini has been prolific. In the short term a slump is likely because none of the Whitecaps’ current options are very good in that role. However, there is reason to believe that when the DP #10 is signed (my god, Axel, please. I am so tired of writing about this) that he will score just fine in MLS.