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MLS: Real Salt Lake at Vancouver Whitecaps FC

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Film Room: The Easiest Fixes for the Vancouver Whitecaps

It’s been a while, but the film room is back. In this, we dive into the RSL match and the most obvious things the Whitecaps can clean up right away.

Rob Gray-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a while, but now seems as good a time as any to bring back the Film Room.

Importantly, unlike the Whitecaps’ version of this series, which curiously appeared online soon after my first installment, this will include moments not found in the basic highlight packages, so strap in!

While the Vancouver Whitecaps are in the depths of an eight game winless run, there hasn’t been much room for optimism in this market - especially after the last match where the common refrain online was for Marc Dos Santos’ head. To a large extent, I agree with these sentiments, and I think the clips we are going to go through together will serve as evidence to this assertion.

That being said, I am also going to attempt to provide a grain of hope in my analysis. I believe that these moments from the last match could provide a pathway for Dos Santos (or whoever might be at the helm) to make the most pressing, and seemingly self-evident fixes to this Whitecaps team. Rome is not built in a day, so it’s probably best to start with some basics, right?

Off-Ball Movement

This is far and away the biggest issue with this Whitecaps team. You can tell that when this team arrives in certain areas of the pitch, or wins the ball after a turnover (like this clip in the 4th minute) they are marred by indecision and a lack of communication.

In particular, when Whitecaps players are in or around the opposition box, the often make it as easy as possible for opposing defenders to mark them.

This clip in the 17th minute is from a slower buildup, and you can see that other than a brief run by Dajome, Alexandre has very little to look at in terms of progressive options. Similar to the first clip, White and Caicedo are standing still, allowing the RSL defenders to take them completely out of the play, and the same can be said of Teibert as well.

This next clip is more emblematic of the 2020 and 2019 Whitecaps, but is still something that crops up from time to time. While Vancouver has been much better at playing through the midfield this year, there’s a lack of off-ball runs and precision here which leads to a needless turnover. Once again, this looks like the players do not have clear instructions, they are basically just completing a meaningless series of passes until something goes wrong.

We jump ahead to the 41st minute and it’s back to the same issues around the opponents’ box. They actually do a decent job progressing the ball and getting it to Gutierrez in space 1v1, but again, short of a casual trot into the box, the four Whitecaps attackers do little to pose a threat to the RSL defence, or to make themselves a crossing option for the fullback.

This is also a great example of why Russell Teibert is an offensive black hole. While it’s great that he provides a deep lying option for Gutierrez, the fact that he immediately turns away from goal and makes a ten yard back pass (when there is space to make a forward run - and four attackers in the box) is a tough look.

This last clip on off-ball movement in the 52nd is the initial reason I knew I needed to write this piece. I audibly let out several expletives when I watched this live, and what made it so frustrating to me is that the Whitecaps are entirely the authors of their own demise.

Pretty much every other team in MLS would try to get out on the break in transition here. Instead, all of the Whitecaps attacking players (seemingly in unison) slow to a walking pace and stop their movement. Inevitably, this creates a lack of passing options which basically invites RSL to press, and eventually, the ball is played all the way back to Thomas Hasal.

Now, having looked over these clips, my analysis of these struggles is two-fold.

For one, I know for a fact that the players the Whitecaps have are capable of better (at least as individuals). While we can certainly argue until the cows come home about how this roster has been built and managed, this group of players is capable of more, because frankly, the off-ball movement is something I would be disappointed with in a casual pickup game. So secondarily, we have to find the root of the problem.

If you’ve listened to the Third Sub podcast, then you’ve probably heard me speak about the lack of intensity in training. Obviously, this hasn’t been something I’ve been able to evaluate recently (hopefully soon), but my impression was always that most of the Vancouver Whitecaps training sessions happened at a “walkthrough” pace. Unless something drastic has changed, I think this explains a lot of the Whitecaps’ offensive struggles (they often look like they are at “walkthrough” pace during matches).

Granted, the Caps are doing a better job this year of keeping their shape and staying organized, but they still aren’t able to execute at a high pace, or act instinctually in crucial areas of the pitch - and there’s a really large sample size at this point.

If this kind of match simulation (executing attacking movements under pressure) isn't being trained on a regular basis, then I don’t know how you can expect to execute at a high level in matches. Equally, if it is in-fact being trained on a regular basis (as I’m sure Dos Santos would claim), then the Whitecaps need to re-think how they are approaching it, because it is clearly not translating to in-match performance.

At the end of the day, having watched the clips above, I don’t know how you can view these struggles as anything other than a coaching issue.

Use Janio!

With all that negativity out of the way (for now at least), let’s try to find some positives.

One of those positives so far this season, has been the improved progressive play of Janio Bikel. As some have pointed out (Wilkins, Galindo et al.), this was something Bikel showed in Europe but that we didn't really see last year in Vancouver.

Here we see Bikel stride forward with intent and make a nice pass into a wide area.

It’s not just Bikel’s passing that has been notable this season, it’s also been his movement. In both these clips, Bikel’s immediate instinct is to carry the ball forward into space, something seldom found in this Whitecaps squad.

This second clip also goes to show how much one decent run and pass can create space and open up the match. As outlined above, the Whitecaps are going to need more of this same energy around the box.

Bikel’s play recently has warmed me to the idea of him and Alexandre sitting beside each other in a three man midfield with Michael Baldisimo (when fit) as a deep-lying playmaker behind them. He’s clearly displayed his capabilities as a quality transitional midfielder this season, and I think that the Whitecaps, as currently constructed, can get the most out of him in this role.

An Unexpected Hero

Despite my earlier criticisms, I do have to give Russell Teibert a shoutout for this great run into the box right at the end of the first half. If Rusty is going to play, the Whitecaps need more of this from him.

Hello Darkness

I feel like I can’t conclude this article in good faith without at least touching on the defensive concerns. For all the leadership and experience on the backline, there are still far too many moments where important attacking players for the opposition get lost in space. The marking from the defenders here is either of the zonal variety (which I truly despise), or is simply way too passive - either way, not good!

While coaching can definitely help some of these struggles, I think more of the blame here falls on the players. Or at the very least, Marc Dos Santos & Co. should focus on the offensive struggles first.

As a somewhat random final point, I don't want to see any more of these long ball hoof-and-hope set plays off the opening whistle. Embarrassingly, the subsequent goal kick for RSL directly led to the opening goal of the match. Talk about a plan backfiring!

Ok, that’s all from me. I hope you enjoyed the return of the film room. If you have your own thoughts on these clips, be sure to let me know in the comments down below.

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