The eternal question remains: who will fill the role as a number 10 for the Caps? Over their tenure in MLS, it has constantly remained a question mark. While investment could certainly remedy that, we will have to wait until the winter to see if that happens. So while they wait, they can only experiment from within. We look at some names that could step up and fill that role for them this season.
The Transfer Window has come and gone, and alas, the Vancouver Whitecaps were unable to pick up some much-needed midfielders. With the offence being a problem all season long, it was hoped that some reinforcements to the middle would have been made this past window, with a lack of service to the front line being a big issue since day 1. Marc Dos Santos is expected to remedy that this winter, as he hopes to target a couple of names that will be able to fill that profile of midfielder that is sorely lacking, but until then, improvement will have to come from within.
As the Caps remain 12 points out of playoff contention with only 8 games remaining, it means the focus now shifts purely towards 2020, with Dos Santos and his crew keeping an eye towards what is hoped to be a successful bounce-back campaign. These last matches will be crucial both for players and management, with the guys on the field playing for a job next season, while the coaching staff is looking to see which guys show most promise to keep around, with all sorts of options and contract situations up in the air heading into the offseason.
While there are positions all over the pitch that need to be evaluated, with lots of questions to be asked in the midfield, on the wing and up top, one of the most interesting discussions will be about the number 10 spot, which has been something this club has been sorely lacking.
The profile of a 10:
The 10 is one of the biggest question marks in all of football. An original 10 was someone who was exclusively expected to be a creative hub, playing between the opponent’s defensive and midfield lines, providing service for both the wingers and strikers, while being more than capable of having a go from distance and being able to score in tight himself. A true 10 would know how to suck in players and open up space for others to receive passes, or be able to operate freely if a team elected to stick to its traditional defensive shape.
But the role is changing. Whereas before the 10 could often get away with relaxed defensive responsibilities, floating around and waiting for his team to regain possession, the new 10 is expected to work more on the other side of the ball, either aiding through the press or through tracking back more regularly, if not both. That is not to say there is no more room for pure number 10s like there were back in the day, but if teams are to go that route, they need to have a strong midfield to back those players up.
When a team has a true 10 that can link the midfield and attack, surrounded by a solid midfield, the results can be dangerous. Diego Valeri, Nico Lodeiro, Miguel Almiron and Sebastian Giovinco (he was a 10/second striker hybrid) were the main creative fulcrums on the last 4 MLS champions, as they pulled the strings en route to each teams triumphs. While they were surrounded by good teams, with great wingers and strikers to take advantage of the chances they created, as well as a good midfield and defence to both keep the ball out of the net and push the play forward, these 10s did a good job to stir the pot offensively, tearing teams apart with both their goals and assists.
Vancouver has traditionally struggled with filling the 10 role, as it can be very hard to recruit. With teams demanding a lot of money for the good ones they do have, Vancouver has often been reluctant to shell out the cash required to acquire one, allowing them to change the complexion of their attack. They did have one good 10, with Pedro Morales coming in on a free transfer and scoring 10 goals and 10 assists in his first season before adding 15 goals and 8 assists in the next two, but he had a rocky end to his tenure, as he left amidst a row with former keeper David Ousted, after struggling with injuries and shifting between a 10 and a deep-lying playmaker role in his last season.
So until they try and bring in the next Morales on a free this winter, or target a Valeri/Almiron type and shell out the big bucks in a multi-million dollar transfer, they have 8 games to identify if the guys they have in their ranks look like possible options, either for the longer-term, or as potential stopgaps for next year. Here are a few names that appear to be suited to that role, so hopefully we get a chance to see them tried out in the position before the season ends, giving us an idea of what they could potentially do in that role.
Probably the truest of 10s that they do have, Reyna has shown value in the number 10 role before. When deployed there the last two seasons, he shone, racking up 12 goals and 12 assists over two seasons, despite only starting 34 games in that time, featuring in 47 total. Prorate that over a season, and that’s around 8-10 goals and assists per campaign, which usually only elite players in MLS are able to achieve. Factor in that he played for some pretty inconsistent Vancouver Whitecaps sides, and there is a lot to like about Reyna in that role.
This year has been more of a rollercoaster for Reyna, as he started the season slowly, before picking things up the last few months, with an injury slowing him down in between. With only 4 goals and 1 assist, he has fallen off of his usual statistical standard, but is still second in team scoring, and with a team that has struggled to score goals, his lack of assists does make sense.
He provides interesting aspects to the 10 position. He loves to dribble, as evidenced by his high dribble rates, as he typically averages at least 1 successful dribble a game, and he has 1.5 dribbles per game this season, which ranks him 37th in the whole league (all positions). Because of that, he sucks in defenders, which is why he has succeeded as both a 10 and as a false nine, as he can often draw players in, drawing fouls at a top 20 rate in MLS, as well as opening up space for teammates when he can find them.
In terms of passing, Reyna is a bit of a mixed bag. He has shown to be adept at passing, as evidenced by his assist rates the last 2 campaigns, as well as his key pass rates, which have typically been between 1 and 1.4 per game in his time in MLS. Considering those typically have a player ranked top 60 in MLS for each of those stats respectively, which this year would have him surrounded by some pretty good names, such as Alberth Elis, Diego Rossi, Vako and Lucho Accosta, Reyna is no slouch in that regard. While he is not much of a volume passer, only passing the ball around 20 times per match, when he does, he’s relatively effective. The main complaint about his passing would be that he only seems to do it when desperate, due to his love of dribbling, but the stats do show that when he does move the ball, it goes towards good places.
Another key aspect he brings would be through his goalscoring. He has shown to be an adept finisher, with his total output in MLS (16 in 65) pacing him for about 8 a season, which is decent output, and it’s not hard to imagine him scoring more if things around him were to improve. He has shown to be both adept at finishing both inside and outside the box, not afraid to have a go from distance when space presents itself, as well as being a quick thinker inside the 18, finishing his chances at a decent clip.
Reyna looks to be a key player for the future in Vancouver, provided he continues to want to stay. He’s on a TAM contract, he has shown to be versatile in a couple of attacking positions and he has had good production. While he is a bit limited defensively, with his work-rate in that department varying, the value he brings offensively more than makes up for it.
Another intriguing option for the 10, Montero, who is traditionally deployed as a striker, has played the last couple of games in a winger/10 hybrid, and he did especially well in his last outing there, picking up 5 key passes despite the Caps loss to Portland. It does make sense that he has some legs in this role, as he has traditionally been more of a second striker over his career, playing his best when he has the freedom to drop back a bit and operate deeper at times, instead of always being pressed up against the opposing centre backs like a true number 9.
With his goalscoring experiencing a noticeable drop-off this season, his deployment as more of a provider is an interesting experiment by Dos Santos. It would be interesting to see him flanked by an actual pair of wingers, such as a Michaell Chirinos and a Lass Bangoura, actually seeing how he fares as a true out and out 10, but he’s done well in the hybrid role assigned to him.
One reason that he could shine as a 10 would be because of his passing, as he has always done well to pick up key passes despite his role as a striker, with his 1 key pass a game rate placing him top 10 amongst all strikers with at least 10 appearances. While he is much like Reyna, only making around 20 passes a game, to go along with only 2 assists so far this season, it would be interesting to see what he could offer if deployed as a true 10. It can be hard to achieve his key pass rates as a striker, especially on the Caps, where the forwards often receive thundering long balls and the final actions of play, instead of starting deeper but with the ball at their feet and the field ahead of them, much like a number 10 traditionally does.
He doesn’t dribble as much as Reyna, averaging less than a successful dribble a game, but he still racks up fouls against, averaging 1.8 per game against. That could lend him well to the position, as he would be comfortable to dribble play up if needed, but his propensity to playing the ball quick would be valuable as well, as he could push the play up the field quickly, allowing his side to play liquid transition football.
Surprisingly, for a striker, his most questionable attribute would be his goal scoring. While he is a great finisher, scoring goals at a consistent rate for much of his career, he has traditionally done it through 1v1s, penalties and finishes via crosses. While he could still get the last 2 as a 10, he would be expected to be the one providing 1v1s, instead of finishing them, unless he and a theoretical strike partner were to be more fluid, swapping up and down to create chaos. Montero’s long-shot ability would also come into question, with Montero being a good striker of the ball from distance in training, but sailing a lot of balls high and wide when deployed deeper the past few games. While it is no stretch of the imagination to see him finding a way to start getting more of those on target, his struggles in that regard will stick in the minds of people if he were to continue and play a deeper role.
The last thing he could bring to the position is defensive ability, as he is surprisingly good defensively for a striker. He is second in tackles per game as a striker, with 1.6, which has him .5 ahead of the next best striker, and only .1 behind Max Urruti. While his rates are far away from what a traditional midfielder would have, for an attacking player it is certainly impressive, and he would be sure to have more if deployed deeper.
This move would have the most boom or bust potential, with Montero having the attributes to play the position, but shining mostly as a striker in his career. It could work, with Montero combining his experience as a second striker and his defensive work rate to be useful in the position, but it could as equally fall flat on its face. With his contract status appearing to guarantee him another year, he looks to be a Cap next year, unless something happens or he is traded/ Since he is not technically a DP, with the Caps able to TAM him down at any time, if they experiment and find him to be good as a 10, there could be some found value there for next year. While in a dream world he returns to his form as a striker and bags 15 again as a striker in 2020, would be good to use these 8 games as an experimental avenue, testing out possibilities such as this one.
Hwang In Beom:
In Beom provides probably the most intrigue as a 10 for the Caps. He is a very versatile midfielder, playing most often as a box-to-box 8 for Vancouver, but he has also played the 10 in the past, as well as a deep-lying 6. It is in that position as a 6 where has made some noise as of late, as he has performed well in the past 4 games in that exact role, spraying the ball around and racking up tackles and interceptions defensively. He looks good as a 6, and Dos Santos believes there is some promise there, looking forward to next season.
But while there is certainly promise for him at the 6, he has yet to have been used as a 10 with the Caps, despite featuring there quite regularly for South Korea. It would make sense to try him there on the Caps, as he brings things to the team that most other players on the squad lack.
His passing is sterling, as he leads the Caps in key passes per game by a wide margin with 1.5, .5 a game ahead of his next best teammate, Fredy Montero. It’s a pretty impressive rate, as it rates him similarly to some solid MLS creators in Eduard Atuesta, Mark Anthony Kaye, Darwin Quintero and Paxton Pomykal. He passes the ball around 50 times a game to the tune of around 85 percent, which is partly why he excels deep, but if deployed further up the field it can mean that he provides a great outlet for his teammates, collecting the ball and spraying it out, acting as a creative hub of sorts. Watching him play, he has an astute range of passing, with his short passing, long passing and through balls being noticeably impressive, as well as having sharp set-piece ability. While he only has 1 assist this season, it’s not hard to imagine him racking up more on a better attacking team, as his passing rates would suggest.
He also looks to be one of the Caps’ biggest threats from distance, with a diverse shooting arsenal. With 3 goals this season (all competitions), he is tied for third on the Caps in that regard, which is pretty impressive considering how he has played deeper for much of the campaign. He has shown that he can score with both feet, and he has come close on many occasions, with his dipping strikes giving goalkeepers fits.
The shooting and passing combo makes him so dangerous, as he makes defenders pay for giving him space, with the ability to shoot from any distance with both feet, but if they close him down in the space, he is smart enough to pass his way out of trouble. As a number 10, they are two attributes that can make someone so dangerous, as shooting from distance and strong passing ability is what makes someone operating between the lines so hard to defend.
Another strong attribute of his game would be through his dribbling, as has shown himself to be a good dribbler. While he only averages 0.8 successful dribbles a game, that is expected when deployed as a deeper midfielder, as the risk of losing the ball close to goal means players are expected to be more cautious with their decisions. But In Beom has definitely shown good dribbling acumen and a look at any YouTube highlight clip will show off some of the skills he has in that department. He gets fouled at the 4th highest rate on the team, racking up 1.2 fouls per game (two of the guys ahead of him are Montero and Reyna), as he has shown an ability to put defenders on their toes, making them latch on when he takes flight.
Defensively, he brings a lot to the position as well, as his strength in that regard playing a part in why Dos Santos rates him so highly when deployed deeper on the pitch. He’s third on the team in tackles per game, as well as first in interceptions, as he gets stuck in around the pitch, but is smart enough to get himself between the ball and opposing players, with his smart defensive IQ. While some of that defensive ability would be wasted further up the pitch, it could also make them stronger overall, as he could help press from further up, giving the Caps some of what Liverpool has, as they have thrived with great pressing midfielders en route to some impressive displays in both the Premier League and the Champions League last year.
In Beom at number 10 is an interesting dilemma. He has shown to be good wherever he is deployed, so it’s more a question of where does Dos Santos find him to fit best, both for the team as well as the players they currently have, but also in terms of the players he is looking to acquire. If In Beom thrives as a 10, the Caps could focus their efforts on more of a box-to-box midfielder, as well as possibly a new holding mid. If Dos Santos sees him as more of a 6, which is certainly the case, at least for now, the Caps can look to surround him with a true 10, as well as a box-to-box option. The number 6 role does look good for him, but given the Caps struggles to transition the ball forward, it would be great to see Hwang tried out as a 10 and see what happens because based on his skill set, he could really thrive there.
The biggest wild card of them all, Colyn has yet to feature in MLS this season, after getting a cameo in the last match of 2018, coming on and immediately breathing life into the Caps in his short time on the pitch. Only 16 at the time, it was expected that he would make a big step forward this season, not necessarily becoming a regular, but playing at least a couple of matches, showing he can make a difference at this level. Instead, he has yet to feature, only making a couple of bench appearances, but never coming onto the pitch.
But it’s nothing to worry about, as he has been getting loads of minutes in various squads, from the U23s, U19s and U17s with the Caps, as well as the U17 Canadian National team for his country, helping them qualify for the U17 World Cup this fall. So while he has yet to make an appearance for the first team, things have been certainly moving at the other levels.
While it is unsure if he’ll get a chance to play before the end of the season, both because of opportunity as well as the timing of the U17 World Cup, he does provide a lot to be excited about as a 10. Everyone who speaks of him talks of great poise and natural talent, as he is able to do things on the pitch that stand out. He creates lots of chances for himself and others, as he is both a talented passer and a good finisher. His main issue? Size. He has a lot of filling out to do, as he has a very slender frame, which he must continue to fill out in order to last at the professional level.
But whether he plays or not this year, he figures to be an important part of next season. He has and will continue to train with the first team, as the coaching staff appear to see something in him, now it’s just about continuing down the path towards becoming a professional, following in the footsteps of Alphonso Davies and Theo Bair. If he is able to figure all that out, he will be providing excitement for years to come.
All of this could be for naught, as Dos Santos could end up playing in a formation without a 10. It’s possible, with some teams playing 4-3-3s that require two box-to-box midfielders and a deep lying 6, but with the Caps personnel right now, it doesn’t look likely. Based on what they have, a wide 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree look the likeliest of options, with the latter a case of sticking the course, and the former being more experimental. If he is to play with a true number 10, as well as utilize his wide players, but put emphasis on the midfield, the 4-2-3-1 is the way to go. If he prefers better midfield support, but more central wing play, the 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree seems to work the best.
We will look at some possible lineups that Dos Santos could use in an upcoming piece, so stay tuned for that later this week. Until the game at DC United, where he should have everyone available, we will be left guessing as to how he will deploy his new group of players, but there is no shortage of options to try around with. While it would be still hoped and expected that some midfield help is brought in this upcoming window, using these 8 games to experiment and find out what his players can do may prove to be valuable information in the long run, so now it’s up to the Caps to take their chances and make the best of a bleak situation.