Pretty much everybody had the Whitecaps game against Austin figured out before a ball was kicked.
As long as the midfield don’t have to defend it will be fine. https://t.co/1J4xRxLFTe— Russell Berrisford (@squadplayer) April 23, 2022
all I know is pain— dion (@dii0on) April 24, 2022
And of course, they were right. The Whitecaps quickly fell two goals behind and looked totally outclassed by Austin. If only there had been someone who said this sort of thing might happen!
If we prorate the xG of the Sartini games (which, slightly worryingly isn't very different from the xG of the MDS games)— Caleb Wilkins (@wilkins_caleb24) December 12, 2021
The Whitecaps would be expected to have a season that's something like
So although that was very fun, there's some serious work to do.
In fairness to the Whitecaps, I am a little baffled that things have looked quite this bad but it did not take a great leap of logic to see that the Whitecaps needed strengthening.
The Whitecaps showed pretty much all of the problems you would expect. Their midfield failed to stop Austin from getting into the final 3rd or to move the ball into Austin’s defensive 3rd. The defence struggled gallantly but failed to contain wave after wave of attack (with Jake Nerwinski sometimes looking a bit lost). Thomas Hasal did not make any catastrophic errors but nor did he make any point saving, momentum-shifting saves. Brian White and Lucas Cavallini ran around a lot upfront, and actually did alright when the ball came to them, but that was so rare it made little difference.
Vanni Sartini made three changes in the second half but one big miss by Cristian Dájome aside they did not affect very much. Austin added another goal (giving them three goals from just 0.9 xG) and capped a well-deserved victory, even if the margin flattered the quality of chances they created a bit.
There will be time to dive into the minutiae of where things have gone wrong for the Whitecaps but if I had to take a broad view of things I would say the problem has been that the team believed too much in their hype. During preseason we had Axel Schuster talk a lot about how important he felt keeping the group together after their strong finish to last season was. But in games like this, we see how unstable the success of last year was. Without Maxime Crepeau saving their bacon and with Ryan Gauld having a difficult start due to injuries they do not measure up. The moment that shone a light on things was when Vanni Sartini was forced to bring on 34-year-old Tosaint Ricketts to try and chase the game. Ricketts has had a fantastic career but he only has 3 goals in the past 3 seasons. The squad has a lot of middling players and when a few key pieces are unavailable due to injury or some other circumstance everything comes totally unraveled. Compare this to Austin, whose underlying numbers and general squad strength were very similar to Vancouver’s last season. They made several signings in the second half of last season and the offseason and now they are in first place in the Western Conference. It’s not like they signed anyone that mind-blowing either, just brought the baseline of their squad to a higher level and it has paid tremendous dividends for them. But there will be more on that in the coming weeks.
It also has to be said that, once again, The Whitecaps have looked poorly prepared this season. Whether that’s starting the season slowly or starting games slowly, other teams always look like they’re locked in a lot faster than the Whitecaps. Some of the blame has to go to Vanni Sartini but I can recall this being a problem that has spanned several coaches. So I wonder if there’s something that goes a bit more than skin deep happening there. I recently finished Christoph Biermann’s book Football Hackers. In it, he cites the blog of Finnish International Tim Sparv who was part of the turnaround in the fortunes of Danish club FC Midtjylland. Midtjylland drew a lot of attention when they rose from a small market club to being Danish champions, being very public about their use of data and analytics to do so (current Whitecaps head of scouting Nikos Overhuel was also part of the revolution). But Sparv notes that the success also coincided with improvements in Midtjylland’s facilities that significantly improved the quality of life of the players (nicer breakfasts, massage therapists, and so forth). Maybe there is something to look at there. But that’s just one man’s idle speculation.