The Vancouver Whitecaps have been running with a 3-5-2 formation as of late, joining the list of many modern teams that are embracing the 3 defender formation that was popularized by Antonio Conte’s great Juventus team of the early 2010s. It’s a great formation, as it allows for great flexibility both in attack and in defence, but it requires the right players and a lot of discipline to master, with the midfielders and full-backs being key cogs for the formation to have any success. The Caps have been experimenting with the formation since the beginning of the season, but with the arrival of star full back Ali Adnan, they have started to use it full-time since mid-May, to decent results.
Or at least we thought. With the Caps dropping a 3-0 result this past weekend against Sporting Kansas City, they are now left last in the Western Conference, while only having 1 win in their last 10 games. It leads to an important question to be asked: Were the Caps truly better off by switching to the 3-5-2 from their original 4-3-3? With that in mind, here is what we found.
Firstly, let’s look at some basic stats. The Caps have played 21 MLS regular-season matches, along with 1 Canadian Championship one (which we’ll avoid looking at due to small sample size), which means there is a decent amount of stats to determine which formation would be more effective statistically.
The Caps have played with a 4-3-3 12 times, with a 13th being a weird 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 hybrid against Seattle 2 weeks ago, which in total means that they have played 62% (13/21) of their games with 4 defenders. Their record in those games is 3 wins, 5 losses and 5 draws, which amounts to 14 points, which is 70% of their total 20 points. They have 12 goals for in those games, as well as 15 against, which means they have scored 54% (12/22) and conceded 44% (15/34) of their goals on the season in this formation. Over a full 34 game schedule, that extrapolates to an 8W-13L-13D record (37 points), with 31 goals for to go along with 39 against.
Surprisingly, they have only used the 3-5-2 7 times, with an eight being a 5-4-1 used against the New York Red Bulls, which means that it’s use amounts to 38% of their total matches (8/21). In those 8 matches, they have 1 win, 4 losses and 3 draws, which amounts to 6 points, 30% of their total points (6/20). They have scored 10 goals for, as well as 19 against, which amounts to 46% (10/22) and 56% (19/34) of the season totals respectively. Over a full 34 game season, this extrapolates to a 4W-17L-13D (25 points), with 43 goals for along with 81 (!) against.
By looking at those basic stats, there are a few things you can take from it. Firstly,w hile the Caps struggled massively to score with the 4-3-3, they protected their net at an elite rate, as the 39 GA pace they played with would have been 3rd best in MLS last season. Compared to the 3-5-2, where their 81 GA pace would be record-breaking bad, it is quite the stark difference. Even if LAFC only scored 3 goals against them instead of the 6 they eventually laid out, the Caps would still have a 68 goals against pace, which would have been 4th-worst last year, which coincidentally was where last years team finished, with 1 goal conceded less.
Offensively, things have been bad on both fronts, with the 4-3-3 scoring at a rate that would have eclipsed even the historically bad Colorado Rapids offence, which would have put them last with their 31 goal pace, while the 3-5-2 does a little better with its 43 goals, which still puts them at second-to-last in 2018.
Standings-wise, things are not much better, with the 4-3-3’s 37 points putting them 18th in the league (out of 23 last-year), while the 3-5-2’s 25 points would have put them second-to-last, only ahead of the historically bad San Jose by 4 points. They do not sniff the playoffs in either case, with the Western Conference line being 49 points last season, but the 4-3-3’s 12 point increase over the 3-5-2 is certainly positive to note.
Moving onto some more advanced statistics, things continue to look interesting. Starting off with ball retention, the Caps keep around 49% possession with the 4-3-3, compared to 41% with the 3-5-2. With Dos Santos preaching a modern possession-based style since the beginning of the season, to see that regression is tough, especially considering the Caps have gone with the 3 defender formations for 6 of their last 8, which means that the Caps have been falling off as of late, which is concerning considering their status as a rebuilding team.
In terms of passing stats, the 4-3-3 also takes the lead, as the Caps attempt both more passes on average(472 to 396) and complete them at a better rate (81.5% to 78.8%). They also create more chances through key passes (8.38 to 6), and turn them into shots more often, as they take 3 more shots a game in the 4-3-3 (12.15 to 9).
Compared to league averages up to date as of July 15th, their possession stats with the 4-3-3 would rank 14th out of 24th this year, whereas with the 3-5-2 it would have them dead-last. While it can be expected at times, with the 3-5-2 being used on the road to soak up chances, good teams usually occupy a decent amount of possession wherever they play, making the discrepancy a bit concerning.
For passing stats, their pass percentage with the 4-3-3 would rank them 8th in that category, while the 3-5-2 would have them 20th, a stark 12 place difference. For key passes, the 8.38/game rate with the 4-3-3 would rank them 21st, while with the 6 with the 3-5-2 would be last by 2.5 key passes (which not coincidentally is the position they currently occupy).
In terms of shot creation, the 4-3-3 would have them 17th, while the 3-5-2 would have them in last as well. While shot creation can be suspect, as it can be skewed by a poor shot selection, teams that get the ball to the net usually get more goals, provided they can combine their ability to get the ball to the net with the ability to generate key passes and the ability to retain the ball fairly well, which the Caps were a bit all over the map for.
What is most surprising in the statistical analysis is how the 4-3-3 seems to lead in nearly every metric except goals for, as the Caps seemed to do pretty well for themselves as of late in the 3-5-2, at least when it came to the eye test. There is definitely cause for concern, as the drop-off from the early-season 4-3-3 to the 3-5-2 as of late should be worrying, as a team that is trying to grow as the Caps have should not be falling off midseason, especially when they have tasked this season as a year to build off of the fundamental values of a more entertaining brand of football.
The importance of personnel cannot be overstated when it comes to getting into formation. When the Caps started the season, they had 4 wingers, as Lass Bangoura, Lucas Venuto, PC and Yordy Reyna were expected to be the main cogs in the position, with Brett Levis capable of playing there when needed. When Reyna found his form as a false-nine in the 4-3-3, before getting injured, it dropped the total down to 3, and then Lass Bangoura got injured as well, dropping them to two wingers and forcing MDS to go to a 3-5-2, allowing him to take advantage of his 2 DP strikers Fredy Montero and Joaquin Ardaiz. It also gave them the chance to throw Ali Adnan further forward as well, something that many of the fans had been clamouring for since his arrival, as they felt he was limited when he played with the 4 at the back.
As the Caps suffered through an injury and absence crisis in May and June, they continued to use the 3-5-2, making up for some key players missing, such as Reyna, Ardaiz, Bangoura and Doneil Henry. But now, with everyone back since a week ago, bar Jhesser Khemiri, Dos Santos has the personnel to return to the 4-3-3 if he wishes.
If he was to return to the 4-3-3, his shopping list would consist of 3 things: Another winger, of high-TAM quality, to join the 3 currently stationed, a box-to-box/offensive midfielder, who can control play offensively and provide support to Hwang In Beom and Jon Erice, and a right-back, who can give the Caps a right-sided back threat to complement the dangerous Adnan.
With the 3-5-2, the needs change slightly, as Dos Santos would still need a right-back and a midfielder, but he also appears to fancy buying another striker, a bit questionable considering the 2 DP strikers already on the payroll, as well as Reyna. It would also leave Venuto and Bangoura in a questionable position, as they are two out-and-out wingers who would have no room to fit into a 3-5-2, rendering two key MDS purchases useless already.
One question would be how a return to the 4-3-3 would impact Ali Adnan, who loves to get forward, and rumoured new signing Mehdi Zeffane, who would do a lot of the same on the right side, who are both big-ticket acquisitions, with Adnan obviously being a DP with his huge fee and Zeffane likely being a high-TAM player since he is out of contract at the moment.
But the answer can be found in Merseyside, home of Liverpool FC, one of the teams MDS mentioned when asked before the season about a team he might try to emulate. They just had one of the best Premier League campaigns ever, only bested by an incredible Manchester City side, as well as winning the UEFA Champions League for the 6th time. Two key cogs in doing that were full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson, who have become two of the best at their position. With the way they love to get forward and cross the ball, as well as help create chances, one would almost think that Liverpool employs a 3-4-3, but instead it’s a 4-3-3, aided by hardworking midfielders that can cover if needed, as well as excellent work rate from both Alexander-Arnold and Robertson.
The Whitecaps can definitely emulate that model with Adnan and possible signing Zeffane, as Erice loves to play deep anyways, and Hwang has shown to track back as well. If the third midfield signing ends up being athletic and good at tracking back as well as going forward, they got the recipe for something nice brewing up in their lab, as Adnan and Zeffane running forward to support the attack would definitely be a sight to behold.
Putting it all together:
So, to tie everything back together, the 4-3-3 has the statistical advantage over the 3-5-2, it fits many players just as well as the 3-5-2 does and it may suit possible pursuits in this transfer window. Had the 3-5-2 been closer in some of the stats, it may have been harder to pick one or the other, but after taking a deeper look the 4-3-3, it looks to be what the Caps should be running with from here on out.
Earlier in the season, the Caps were on a better track to where they want to be in the future, especially defensively, inciting a need to return to where they were at before, especially in light of the recent beatings by LAFC and SKC. While they still had work to do offensively, they were slowly improving in that regard, with the transfer window now expected to provide a jolt to push it over the top.
Remember, while the season started poorly, the Caps had a swath of questionable refereeing decisions not go their way, so in an alternate world the 4-3-3 could have looked even better, had they not been leading the MLS VAR Cup, making the what-if world of possibility even more interesting.
With everyone back healthy, everything is aligned to return to a 4-3-3, now the question is, will they? Dos Santos has been good so far, doing well despite the various off-the-field challenge he faces in terms of financial muscle and a threadbare scouting department, but one of the criticisms that can be justifiably sent his way has been his propensity to overthink some lineup decisions and some curious lineup rotations, so he may end up sticking with this 3-5-2, even though it’s painfully obvious after the last 3 matches that it needs to change.
We will see if the 3-5-2 remains in action tomorrow, as the Caps take on New England. While it would not be surprising to see it remain, due to MDS’s tendency to use it away from home, it may be a good opportunity to get back to the 4-3-3, with Bangoura and Venuto fresh after not starting Saturday. It will be interesting to monitor what they do going forward, and it’ll definitely be worth keeping an eye on in both in MLS and in the Canadian Championship, as well as if any new names come through the door, possibly changing the complexion of what the Caps are building.