According to Manuel Veth The Vancouver Whitecaps’ search for a DP #10 is finally over with the signing of 25 year old Scottish midfielder Ryan Gauld.
That’s good enough for me, though the signing may or may not be announced officially by the time this article goes up.
Gauld joins from Portuguese side Farense where he was one of the league’s top chance creators despite Farense battling against relegation. Gauld is not quite as high profile as previous rumoured targets like Otavio or Jean Pyerre but he is no less effective. If all goes well then he can be a great player for Vancouver who’s positive effects are felt throughout the squad.
Gauld broke onto the scene as a teenager with Dundee United. His big breakout season was a 6 goal/7 assist season in the 2013/14 Scottish premiership. Gauld earned the nickname “the Scottish Messi” for his flashy style of play and offensive production. Gauld got a big move to Portuguese giant Sporting C.P. for the 2014/15 season. Things did not work out for him there at all. He spent most of his time playing for the B team or being shuffled around on various loans, rarely playing in the same place for longer than a year. It looked like “the Scottish Messi” would prove to be just another flash in the pan.
But in the 2019/20 season Gauld moved on loan to Farense, who were in the second division at the time. Had had 9 goals and 3 assists in 21 appearances (0.58 G+A/90) helping Farense to win promotion in a Covid shortened season. In 2020/21, now in the first division, Gauld continued to play well with 9 goals and 7 assists in 33 games (0.5 G+A/90). This was not enough to prevent Farense from being relegated at the first time of asking. 50% of their goals and 41% of their shots directly involved Gauld.
Data and Style of Play:
Gauld has been a big favourite of people on twitter who talk about soccer analytics for a while now. This is because his underlying data in one of Europe’s top leagues is pretty good, despite the Farense team around him obviously being very weak overall. You can see a couple of examples below.
Here is Gauld’s Radar, built using Statsbomb data by Peter Galindo (@GalindoPW on twitter)
I will now show you how some of those stats would match up with #10s in MLS, assuming his output in Portugal translated exactly. But first you have to understand the following: there are only 23 players designated as “attacking midfielders” in the ASA database who have played at least 250 minutes. By my count 11 of those players are DPs. So simply being above average on this chart is a lot more impressive than it is for a position like winger or fullback where there are about 80 players in the pool.
Gauld generally is above average in the defensive stats and slightly below average in the offensive stats. A big contributing factor in this is that Farense averaged less than 45% possession in the 20/21 Portuguese season. But despite that, Gauld had the most chances created (key passes) of any player in the Portuguese top flight. So he was doing pretty well with the limited amount of time he had on the ball.
Now, of course, the Whitecaps are not exactly dominating possession either but they are not as bad as Farense were and, as I have discussed in some recent articles, there is reason to believe that the squad has more to offer.
It is also worth noting that a quick comparison between the top players in MLS and the top players in Portugal shows that MLS is a much more high scoring league in general (more on that later).
Farense relied heavily on set pieces (they only scored 16 open play goals) and Gauld was a big part of that, leading the league in chances created from both corner kicks and from free kicks.
We can also see from this data that Gauld does not hold on to the ball. His passing is extremely direct but the tradeoff is that his passing accuracy is quite low. He attempts a fair amount of dribbles but his success rate is only a little over 50%. So Gauld creates a lot of chances but he also gives the ball away a lot. Obviously that’s a tradeoff most people would be happy to accept at this point but it is something that is going to have to be planned for from a tactical perspective.
Gauld’s data suggests he is going to be around the average for an MLS #10. This is a little discouraging but, for the reasons outlined above, you kind of have to grade on a curve with #10s. To show why that is, here is how Gauld compares to Lucas Zelarayan (MVP of last year’s MLS cup champs) and Rodolfo Pizzaro (bought for over 10 million dollars).
Except for dribbling, Gauld is better than Zelarayan at pretty much every aspect of the game.
Pizzaro is a better dribbler but Gauld is much more creative. Both player do quite a lot of defending (and do it well) for a #10.
But of course, Pizzaro and Zelarayan, despite their expensive transfers and hype, are not the cream of the crop in MLS. Here is how Gauld compares to Carles Gil and Emanuel Reynoso.
Gil is a lot better than Gauld. True, Gil has the benefit of passing to players like Gustavo Bou, Tajon Buchanen, and Adam Buksa. True, Gauld’s highlight real includes a guy putting a chance Gauld handed him on a plate out for a throw in. But Gil still creates way more chances, wins more dribbles, and gets fouled more often. Gauld is a lot more active defensively but Gil wins a higher percentage of his tackles.
Again, Gauld’s defending is better than Reynoso’s but he’s just not producing as much offence. Quality of teammates and quality of the league of course make a difference but the gap is probably too big for those things to account for all of it.
Although Gauld is good, these comparisons makes it pretty clear that he is unlikely to be the best #10 in MLS. He will improve the team, he might even improve them quite a bit, but he is not going to take them from a non playoff team to a cup contender all by himself.
How Much Better Does he Make the Team?
Currently the Whitecaps sit on 1.16 xG per game. It typically takes 50 points to make the playoffs and typically 1 goal corresponds to 1 point. So to make the playoffs you probably need 1.47 xG per match. Therefore, Gauld needs to help them generate 0.31 more xG per game for them to play at a playoff pace. That seems doable. But the Whitecaps are in a bit of a hole. With only 12 points from 13 games they need to play at a 1.8 ppg pace for the rest of the season to hit 50. That’s a pace that would usually get you into the top 4 in a conference. I think 0.64 more xG per game might be a bridge too far for Gauld alone to achieve. We might be in for the maddening scenario in which Gauld, and the large number of home games on the backend of Vancouver’s schedule, lead to them playing at a playoff pace but still missing out.
Liga NOS is currently 6th in the UEFA coefficient rankings. It’s fair to say this probably puts it on a higher level than MLS. Here is a table showing how some attacking players who have played in both leagues have faired.
MLS Production vs Liga Nos Produciton
|Player||MLS G+A/90||Liga Nos G+A/90|
|Player||MLS G+A/90||Liga Nos G+A/90|
On average players scored about 9% more goals and assists in MLS than they did in Portugal. Some players did better in Portugal than MLS like Djalo and Pedro Santos but those players mostly played in MLS when they were past their prime. Some players, like Gerso Fernandes and Alberth Elis scored way better in MLS than they did in Portugal. So a bigger increase is possible but you should not necessarily count on it.
If I try to cut up clips from the Portuguese league and upload them myself then a paramilitary death squad will be dispatched to my apartment by the company who owns the TV rights. Fortunately the YouTube Channel “Brazil Scout” has managed to avoid this fate and upload a highlights package that I think is representative. In it we can see Gauld’s direct passing, technical ability, and good set piece delivery.
Gauld is a good player who excels at winning the ball back and creating chances. He fills a role the Whitecaps desperately need. He probably is not quite as good as the top #10s in the league but should be a solid player. The Scottish people saying he’s wasting his talent going to MLS and/or will totally dominate the league are probably wrong. But the few weirdos who say he’s not good enough are almost certainly wrong as well. He will improve the Whitecaps and make them much easier to watch but it may be too little too late to make the 2021 playoffs.