Welcome back to Thoughts and Musings, a column where I ponder the happenings in Whitecaps and Canadian Soccer lore. Our first edition (check that out here) was well-received, so we’ll continue to do it as long as there is stuff to talk about in Whitecaps Land or in the Canada Soccer World. In today’s edition, we take a look at some Whitecaps news, with the signing of Ali Adnan yesterday making big waves on the newswire in these parts, as well as some other topics such as what’s next in this Transfer Window for the Caps, see what their best formation and more. Without further ado, let’s get to business.
After much anticipation in Vancouver about the future of star full back Ali Adnan, the Vancouver Whitecaps put an end to questions about his future on Friday, signing the Iraqi International to a 2-and-a-half year guaranteed deal, locking up the (now former) Udinese man until 2021, with an option year included for 2022. With many questioning Vancouver’s ability to pony up and pay some of the Alphonso Davies money in order to retain Adnan, they stepped up in a huge way, paying out what is an MLS record-fee for a full back, with his salary reportedly being around 1.2 million dollars, which would make him the highest paid player at his position in all of MLS.
Breaking it Down:
Forking out huge money for players has never been much of a Whitecaps thing in the past, so to see them back up the Brinks truck for a player playing in one of the less glamorous positions in football is rather…curious. But Adnan is 100 percent worth it. His 3 months in MLS has proven that he has the skills to dominate at this level, which gives Vancouver a leg up on the rest of the league, as his position is one of the most undervalued in the league.
As we have seen in Europe, the full back is slowly becoming one of the more crucial positions in modern football, and to see teams like Liverpool do so well with full backs like Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson is why clubs like Man City invested more than 150 million $ two seasons ago to solidify that position.
Adnan will probably be the beginning of this new wave hitting MLS, as he brings a unique skill set to the table. While he is built like a centre back, he gallops up the sideline like a gazelle, making him one to fear on both ends of the pitch.
In terms of counting stats, a lot of the data appears to back up the eye-test. Defensively, he leads the Caps in aerials won per game (2.9), is second in tackles per game (2) and second in interceptions (1.4), while offensively he is 4th on the team in shots per game (1.6), 4th in key passes per game (0.9) and leads in dribbles per game (2.2) (whoscored). With the Whitecaps only recently moving to a 3-5-2 formation that can get even more out of Ali, there is a lot to be excited about for Caps fans.
It all started with a bold move from Marc Dos Santos, as he took a huge gamble by taking in Adnan. By bringing over Adnan, who came over after a tough first half of the season, where he had all sorts of issues with his club Atalanta, before eventually getting cut out of their squad after the Asian Cup, leaving him in limbo for the rest of the European season. With his only options being abroad, with the European window all closed up, it left Adnan to either train and wait until the summer, or make a short-term loan abroad to get his legs back.
So when the Caps came calling, it was a pretty easy decision to make for Adnan. With fellow Iraqi international Justin Meram, currently at Atlanta United, having played in MLS for nearly a decade, Adnan surely would have heard positive reviews from his compatriot before making a decision.
From there on, the clock has been ticking on a potential decision. Had he come in, coasted, and waited for the loan to expire, he would have become an afterthought for most people. Instead, he came in with a great attitude right from day 1, bringing a great attitude on and off the field, endearing himself to fans, teammates, media and staff alike. As seen by his stats, his performance spoke for himself, and he was a pleasure to watch, with his signature runs bringing excitement to BC Place.
But the question always remained: Would Vancouver keep Ali? Even if he had a great attitude, he could surely make his way back to Serie A, one of the best leagues in the world. Great for him, but Vancouver would have a huge hole to fill again, after doing so well to find Adnan in the first place. With the Caps needing help in other positions on the pitch (we’ll get to that later), looking for another left back would just complicate things more.
So while it was clear from the get-go that Vancouver would try and retain him, the hardest obstacles would be to convince both Adnan and parent-club Udinese to negotiate a contract, allowing for Adnan to permanently transfer to the Caps. While Adnan fell in love with Vancouver quickly, a sentiment he shared in his media availability yesterday, Udinese would be a harder sell, as they wanted to make as much money as they could off of his potential transfer, forcing the Caps to outbid some decently sized European clubs. Knowing the Caps of old, it was unlikely to happen, but to everyone’s surprise, they came out and supposedly outbid all comers, and now Adnan is going to wear the blue and white for the next while.
While ownership understandably looks good for splashing the cash on this deal, they can also be applauded for their biggest move, which was the appointment and subsequent support of everything Dos Santos has done to date, as he is slowly building something special here in Vancouver. He is changing the DNA of the Whitecaps, and to hear players talk about him glowingly like Adnan did is great to hear, as it can give the Caps a leg up on recruiting big talent from overseas or within the league. While former coach Carl Robinson was pretty good in the “my players love me” department, with players such as Kendall Waston having what is almost a cult-like appreciation for the Welshman, to see Dos Santos actually have a plan that includes consistent player acquisitions and an expected style of play has certainly been nice.
Change in Formation?
As alluded to earlier, part of that process Dos Santos is engaged in has involved a move to primarily using a 3-5-2, a formation truly popularized in Italy in recent years. Dos Santos has reiterated on many occasions that he wants to be flexible with the formations he is able to use, so with the arrival of Adnan, along with the emergence of Yordy Reyna in April and May, he moved to the 3-5-2 in order to allow them to get in more favourable positions for them, allowing for the team to benefit as a result.
After seeing them play with a 4-3-3 all of the preseason and all the way into May, it was a bit of a surprise to see them move to a 3-5-2, but it is one that looks to be beneficial for the long-term, even if the victories haven’t necessarily been there quite yet.
The first reason is Adnan, who is so good going both ways, getting to stay in his natural position, but at the same time getting a lot more freedom to go forward. He is effectively a winger offensively but still tracks back enough to make sure the Caps don’t suffer defensively, allowing for them to be dangerous on both ends of the pitch, as well as play two forwards without sacrificing width.
Secondly, it allows Reyna to be deployed centrally, after struggling out wide earlier in the season. As he has shown over his 2 seasons in MLS, he can be incredibly dangerous when he’s in the mood, and as of late he has definitely been in some sort of mood, dominating since getting moved to the middle against LAFC in April, where he came out and had a Man of the Match performance in an upset over the league leaders.
Lastly, it will allow for the Caps to be flexible tactically, as they can play more of a possession-based style, while still being staunch defensively. While the 4-3-3 can definitely do that for you, the Caps don’t appear to have the wingers nor the midfield to do that as of now, and they have some great centre backs that will thrive being in a trio on the pitch, allowing for them to have a bit more freedom as well.
With the debut of Jhesser Khemiri imminent, as he still recovers from his knee injury, the 3-5-2 will also allow the Caps to get good use out of his skill set, as he is a swashbuckling tackler who loves to run around, giving him the license to pop up and join the attack if needed. It will be interesting to see how he looks, given he is coming off a major knee injury, but he will definitely be one to watch in this formation.
With the opening of the MLS Summer Transfer Window on Monday, things get a whole lot more interesting for the Caps, as they are expected to do some wheeling and dealing in the coming month. With some holes still needing to be filled, they have the space to splash some cash and bring in a couple of useful signings, as they still have a lot of the aforementioned Davies money to play around with.
A peep at the depth chart suggests that the Caps should look to bring in a midfielder or two, as well as another striker, like pretty much any season in their MLS era. But, to be fair, if there is ever a summer to feel like it could happen, this would be it, as Marc Dos Santos has been aggressive in his transfer windows, including the home run signing of Hwang In Beom.
Profile: Midfielder: The player acquired would slot in alongside Jon Erice and Hwang in the midfield, adding some ball carrying abilities that are sorely lacked at the moment. It’s tough for Russell Teibert, who has had a great season as a starter, as he would likely be dropped from the starting 11, but he will provide great energy from whatever role he slots into, so he could become equally as valuable as a depth option. Hwang has been an excellent acquisition, thriving in a more advanced role, but he needs help, as he is often relied on as the lone player in the middle to carry the ball forward. This new player can either be a 10, allowing Hwang to drop back more, or he can be an 8, allowing Hwang to be deployed further forward. Some examples of these kinds of players would be either like a Diego Valeri (who is more of a pure offensive threat), or a Mark-Anthony Kaye, who is more of a balanced threat. (Not to say they will get those guys, just to compare a profile of player they should pursue).
The Caps likely need another midfielder as well, but the second would be more of a rotational piece, adding to the Caps depth, kind of in the profile of Scott Sutter, who has been a great fit in at right back. It would likely be an MLS veteran, as the Caps could use some of their MLS money, or send a player like Zac MacMath, Felipe, Lucas Venuto or Lass Bangoura, who are good players but look a bit like the odd men out in terms of squad fit, bringing in much-needed depth to the position.
Profile: Attacker: Despite bringing in 2 DP attackers in the offseason, the best striker so far has been Yordy Reyna, making people wonder why so much cash was splashed when the best option was here all along. The Caps have been linked with Korean striker Hwang Ui Jo, who could fit this mould of attacker they’re looking for, but he would have to be a TAM player, and they would likely have to get rid of Fredy Montero or Joaquin Ardaiz to do so, making it a complicated move. They don’t have to technically do all that, as they can bring him in as a DP, just buying down Montero’s contract, but they wouldn’t be able to get much for their midfield, and having 3 DP strikers is a bit much, especially when your best option (Reyna) is not among them. If not Ui Jo, they should target a TAM striker, preferably one who is proficient in the air, giving an outlet for Adnan to cross too, as well as open up space for Reyna and Hwang+the new midfielder space to get involved in the attack. Think of a Jozy Altidore style striker (a lot cheaper though), someone who is physical, but can play with his feet and allow players around him to thrive in space, much like Sebastian Giovinco and now Alejandro Pozuelo have done in Toronto. Montero has been good in his hold up play, but the Caps could desperately use some skilled size up top, as they have been woeful with crossed balls.
Whichever route the Caps go, they should have an exciting offseason, as they have lots of options to fill out their squad. With the Canadian Championship looming, they will want to win that badly, as CONCACAF Champions League qualification would prove vital to acquire more high-profile talent in the winter, as well as bring something for fans to look forward to early next year. If they want to do that, as well as continue a playoff push, they’ll need some more depth and top-end talent, so expect MDS to try and work some more transfer magic to get his squad where he wants to be. The Adnan signing was a great sign of things to come, so let’s see if they can build off the momentum generated by that one.
Photos taken by: Keveren Guillou