Each club always seems to have one, with many more having multiples of them. It’s the whipping boy, the player who is a lightning rod for criticism, soaking up anger from outsiders, justified or not.
Over the last week, the Vancouver Whitecaps shipped out two players who filled that role for them this season, with Lucas Venuto and Felipe Martins being sent packing in the midst of another tough campaign for the Caps. While they both had their moments for the Caps, they had fallen out of favour with a fair amount of fans, with their inconsistent performances driving most people insane on social media.
So while much of it was often unwarranted, with Felipe and Venuto putting in good shifts for the club, they filled the role of whipping boy for the team, which by definition means “a person who is blamed or punished for the faults or incompetence of others”, but in football means someone, justified or not, that is seen to not be justifying his position based on a multitude of factors. It seems silly to step back and look at it, but they will continue to exist as long as fans continue to attend games.
Understanding the football phenomenon of the whipping boy:
With fans being hungry for success, it can often mean that they can be ruthless and venomous when it comes to rating their favourite players night in and night out. From the most successful of outfits to the worst of the worst, players who are (perceived) to not be pulling their weight tend to be raked over the coals.
The Whitecaps, who can be best described as a middling club over their tenure in MLS, have had their fair share of whipping boys over the years. From the disappointing Mustapha Jarju back in 2011, to today with Venuto, Felipe and company, and all the Darren Mattocks and Erik Hurtado’s in between, there has been no shortage of polarizing figures to don the Bell-dotted strip at BC Place.
But what makes a whipping boy? What makes someone so special that he must endure the wrath of his faithful every time he steps on the pitch? Here are a few reasons why:
The biggest target a player can have will always be his monetary compensation. When playing in a stadium full of fans paying hard-earned money to be present, if you’re not doing the job that your salary suggests, you tend to get a harder time.
Look at Ali Adnan on the Caps, for example. Brought in for an MLS record transfer fee for his position at left-back, he became the subject of plenty of irate from folk online a couple of weeks ago, with a couple of poor performances leading some people to suggest he’s not even MLS-quality.
While the above tweet was (hopefully) done in jest, with Kurt Larson being a known hot-take merchant in an attempt to boost the profile of the Canadian Premier League, the fact that many people took it seriously shows how making a lot of money can single you out for your performances. Adnan has bounced back since, but in the case of players like Felipe, who never seemed to find his groove in a Caps shirt, his $500 000 price tag hung around like a bad smell.
That is not to say players on minimal salaries won’t be subject to criticism, the big guns are expected to shoulder the expectations of a club, so if they fall into a rough patch of form, they’ll have to be ready to shield doubters as they try to get back to what they can be.
Another easy target to identify, this tends to happen more to players playing further forward, with statistical output often being the easiest way that fans tend to associate success with players. In cases where teams are underperforming offensively (Whitecaps 2019 anyone?), these often end up being the most interesting of the whipping boys, as these players can often prove to be very divisive.
With the era of modern statistical analysis, players are now judged in various ways, changing the way players are judged. Due to the rise of stats like Expected Goals and Assists, per 90 rates and many other underlying stats, attacking players tend to get more leash from analytic folk, provided that it suggests that they push the play the right way.
But with the eye-test yet to be rendered extinct, players who fail to produce results tend to get slaughtered, especially if they have a tendency to miss good chances. Lucas Venuto was a big proponent of this, dancing around defenders and picking up tons of chances, but his spotty execution made him a favoured subject of critical Caps onlookers.
This isn’t just limited to forwards, however. If a team ships a lot of goals, defenders will start to get a lot of stick. While defenders will get a longer leash, that does not mean they are completely devoid of criticism, but it tends to be less instantaneous than in the case of attacking players.
This may be the toughest one to quantify, but when it rears its ugly head, it’s hard to back down from. While it’s tough to quantify someone’s effort level from up in the stands, once you pick up on it once, it sticks with you for a long while. This kind of whipping boy tends to pop up on less successful teams because A) effort usually is a hallmark of good teams and B) you notice bad effort when your team isn’t good.
Like the money case, if fans are paying good cash to see you, they expect you to at least give a good effort for the shirt night in night out. As soon as they perceive someone to disrespect the shirt, they become vilified, because if there is anything worse than someone underperforming their salary, it’s someone who seems to care less about being there, because at that point they could strap up the boots and at least put in some effort.
Who are candidates to be the new Caps whipping boys?
With Venuto and Felipe out the door, the hierarchy of criticism will need some adjustment. While the Front Office and Owners will be number 1 on the list for the considerable future, games will continue to be played, so people will need someone to criticize in those, both fairly and unfairly. Based on the points outlined above, here are some candidates to be filling Whitecap fan twitter feeds for the rest of the campaign:
The Colombian striker has already taken a good amount of criticism this campaign, having only scored 6 goals, including 2 from open play. He unluckily fills all the bills of a whipping boy, as he commands a big salary ($968 000, highest on the team), has been underperforming in the goal department and he has been under fire as of late, with people noting a few verbal confrontations between him and other teammates on the field, usually on plays where he failed to track back or gave the ball away easily.
So while he has had a rough return to MLS, rarely looking like himself due to the lack of proper offseason and the recovery from a tough ankle injury, he will be a magnet for fan anger until he turns things around. Hopefully, he does, because he’s a great guy off the field and his experience is valuable, but as long as he commands the salary that he does, he’ll need to back things up with results.
He is a classic teeter-totter whipping boy, as the way he plays can subject him to a lot of criticism, but he is an analytic darling, putting up good underlying stats. Having been benched quite a bit as of late, with Marc Dos Santos trying to send him and his group a message, the fans that have been critical of Erice from the start have been vindicated.
While he is a prime candidate to be shipped out, as his position as a deep-lying 6 seems like one that could be replaced at a much cheaper cost than his $752 364 salary, his experience and charisma will prove valuable, as suggested by his presence as captain for most of the year. While he would be a dream player at a much cheaper price, he is far from the biggest problem on the team, but for now, he will remain in front of the fire.
When your team scores only 25 goals in 25 games, with players like LAFC’s Carlos Vela nearly outscoring the team on his own, your forwards tend to get some stick. Ardaiz, brought in as a young DP, has yet to score, compounding Vancouver’s struggles. While he has had some bad luck in front of goal, his inability to convert easy chances, his inconsistent work rate and his DP tag means that he gets to join this list.
While fans can take solace in the fact that he’s only here on loan, they likely would have been able to purchase him had he been productive, either keeping him or selling him on for a good lump of cash. Instead, he has looked a shadow of the player that had him dubbed the “next big thing out of Uruguay”, with his career continuing to fall further and further down after looking so promising a couple of years ago. While he still has all the tools to be great, he still needs to sort out the toolbox, with his effort level being one of the big things plaguing him. So unless something clicks before the end of the season and he figures things out, he will be a favoured whipping boy of the faithful before a likely departure at the end of 2019.
He comes in cheap, making only $100 000 a year, but he joins the list after frustrating fans all campaign long. He’s a decent player, as he works his socks off every time he gets on the pitch, and he has a decent right foot, but his lack of game-breaking ability seems to frustrate many. He doesn’t often bring fans out of seats, but he has a jack of all trades but master of none feel about him, making him a useful rotation option.
But due to his many starts earlier in the year, and his representation of what was, looking back, a very whelming offseason, his presence on the pitch often ends up frustrating many. While a lot of the hate is unfair, fans are understandably hungry for bigger names, making PC a true whipping boy, taking the fall for the lack of stars around him. In an ideal world, he’d be a good support piece on a good team, but since we don’t live in an ideal world, he gets to endure the flames.
Honourable Mentions: Lass Bangoura, Andy Rose
So while in a dream world whipping boys would not exist, with every player getting full support and backing from every member of the faithful, things don’t work like that, so no matter how dominant or poor you are, someone will be getting the brunt of something. If Pity Martinez and Frank De Boer are going to be getting hate from certain factions, despite Atlanta United winning a title last year and being second in the East this year, no one is safe. And in the case of the porous Caps, absolutely no one is safe, so until they start winning, things will continue to remain interesting online, with all sorts of players enduring the wrath of passionate folk.