Marc Dos Santos continues to build on “foundation” as Vancouver Whitecaps juggle 2020 lineup and tactical questions

The Vancouver Whitecaps continue to both build on and find their identity as they try to improve on their various woes ahead of 2020. 

The Vancouver Whitecaps took on the Columbus Crew this past Saturday, with both teams sharing the spoils in a relatively uneventful 1-1 draw, with the most exciting moment coming right at the 93rd minute of 93. Fredy Montero, who probably had enough of Columbus coach Caleb Porter from his stints in Cascadia, decided to come up big and deny the Crew a huge 3 points in their late playoff push, pushing them pretty much out of contention for the last playoff spot in the East. 

After a strong performance against Houston the week prior, it was an underwhelming effort from Vancouver, who very much looked a team that was out of playoff contention. They started slow, only finding their legs in the second half, putting together enough to scrape out the late winner. 

Despite that, there were still some positive signs tactically, as the Caps continued to showcase improvement in certain areas of the pitch. While it’s clear that they need to sort out plenty of issues if they are to compete in 2020, they have built up a strong foundation in certain areas of the field, with their main struggles being how to piece it all together as part of one cohesive puzzle. 

Since the 3-1 drubbing they faced down in San Jose, where goalkeeper Max Crepeau made an MLS-record 16 saves as the Caps got flooded, they have improved in some areas where it was expected that they would have emphasized since the beginning of the season. 

The passing out of the back has been more consistent, as they kept 61% of possession in the first game after the San Jose affair in Montreal, and even though they got out possessed in the 3 subsequent affairs against New York City, Houston and Columbus, they have still managed to get at least 400 passes in each game. For a team that has put an emphasis out of being able to play out of the back and hold down possession, manager Marc Dos Santos has been happy with the improvement.

“I think that there are things tactically that we did since the game with Montreal that is the foundation of what we want to be moving forward.” Dos Santos said Saturday. “And once we got out of the playoffs, we said that we need to stick and keep working on the foundations of how we want to build the team

With most of the backline expected to stick around next season, as it has been far from the crux of their issues this year, the progress shown at playing out of the back is positive. The main issue, however, has been creating, and that has continued to remain a problem heading into the end of the season. The Whitecaps are last in MLS for shots per game with 10.3, are last in time spent in possession in the final third with only 23% of their ball control done in that zone, are 4th last in total possession with 46.8% and are 2nd last in goals scored with 33. 

Against Columbus on Saturday, those issues remained, as Vancouver was more than doubled in shots 18-8, despite completing 518 passes to Columbus’s 613. They had similar numbers in terms of time spent on the ball, as suggested by the 46/53% split, the main difference being that Vancouver lacked the cutting edge to get the ball into key areas in the pitch. 

“We lacked just that final pass, cross,” Dos Santos mused. “There are little things in the final third that didn’t go our way.”

Dos Santos continues his quest to return Vancouver to MLS relevancy (Keveren Guillou)

And once we got out of the playoffs, we said that we need to stick and keep working on the foundations of how we want to build the team

Marc Dos Santos

A big contributing factor to their offensive struggles on Saturday was that their press was non-existent, as they sat deep in a 4-5-1 when Colombus was on the ball, gifting their Eastern foes a free pass up until the middle third of the pitch. While they did defend well in that 4-5-1 block when they had a chance to get set up in it, the strategy of allowing other teams to sit in possession and stroke the ball around the pitch can certainly be a recipe for disaster, and given Columbus’s shot advantage, it seems that the Crew took advantage of that. 

Given that the Whitecaps were expected to be a high-pressing team that would force teams no margin of error when playing out the back, the passive style of play they have implemented has been a bit of a surprise, especially considering that they don’t have the horses to sit deep and counter quick. By combining a slow build-up with a deep-lying style, it seems like Vancouver is caught between philosophies, yet having decided how they want to win games consistently in this league. 

At the same time, Dos Santos has found himself in a bit of a tough situation in terms of the personnel to deploy, as some of his best players are suited for roles that are hard to fit them in. Take Yordy Reyna for example. The second-leading goal scorer on the Caps has thrived in either a second striker system in a 3-5-2 or as the number 9 in a 4-3-3. With the Caps yet to have mastered the 3-5-2, which is a difficult system to implement, they have stuck with the 4-3-3, which they have looked better in. 

The only problem with that? Reyna, Fredy Montero, Tosaint Ricketts and Joaquin Ardaiz all play striker, leaving Reyna as the odd man out as Dos Santos continues to play him on the wing instead. 

Another big question mark surrounding a big player has been around full-back Ali Adnan, who is one of the team’s best offensive players, but his defensive effort wavers at times, making it tough sometimes to play him in a back 4. He can shine there as seen in performances such as his one against Houston, but against Columbus, he was a liability, as he turned over the ball quite a few times and didn’t track back, putting a lot of pressure on the defenders. 

And when asked on Saturday on what he thought of his performance, Dos Santos was honest in the assessment of his prized left-back. It wavered at times, and given his position in the squad, he needs to find that balance and consistency. 

“I agree with you,” Dos Santos said of Adnan’s lack of defensive effort Saturday. “I think that he is still a player that has to grow a lot, he has very good moments where he’s a player that could unbalance a game, but he has to grow a lot.”

“Not only in his positioning, sometimes even when we lose the ball, in the way he reacts in transition, his decision making of when to dribble, where to dribble, so there’s no doubt that he gives a lot to the team, but he also has to grow a lot as a player.”

However, that is not to say that he is wavering on his confidence in the player that he decided to splash an MLS-record fee for a full-back on. He has quality, so he isn’t going anywhere, and considering he is coming off a long year without any preseason, Dos Santos understands that Adnan’s best is yet to come. 

“We see sometimes that throughout the 90 minutes,” Dos Santos said of Adnan’s fatigue. “Also physically it’s not always been easy for him, I want to evaluate that very well next season, because Ali is another player that went through a lot this year, a lot, last season with Udinese in pre-season, loan to Atalanta, being a time without playing, doing the Asian Cup with Iraq, coming to Vancouver.”

“A lot has been happening in the last 12 to 14 months that maybe he is not right now at his best moment. I would say that right now he’s not in his top moment, but it’s still a player that we know when he’s at his top moment what he can give.”

Adnan has shown to be a devastating threat down the left side for Vancouver (Keveren Guillou)

With Adnan expected to be a key player next year, it also brings up some questions. The main one being: Will Dos Santos shift to a 3-5-2 or a 3-4-3 to accommodate him? It’s not like they’re unfamiliar to him, as he played nearly a dozen games in that set-up this year, but it was clear that it was holding back the way the team played compared to in a 4-3-3. With some players expected to be gone, freeing up space for Dos Santos to make new moves, he could very well shift to a 3-5-2 that could put both Adnan and Reyna (if he stays) in more favourable positions. 

Until the Technical Director is hired, it’s unsure in exactly which direction they head this offseason, but the formation question will loom for now. Given that Adnan’s best moment of the Columbus game, a beautiful cross to Montero to tie up the game, came in a 3-5-2, it certainly has opened up some interesting thoughts. As he described the change, it opened up the game offensively, so maybe it could be something to consider if he can work to make it both offensively and defensively solid ahead of 2020. 

“Two were like for like, the last one, Jake (Nerwinski) was when we went in a back 3,” Dos Santos said of the subs that allowed him to shift to a back 3. “So we asked Yordy (Reyna) and (Michaell) Chirinos to play a lot inside, Jake came with fresh legs to do the full right side, Ali the full left side, and if you noticed Andy (Rose) just played as a 3rd centre back where In Beom and Rusty (Teibert) came in the middle.”

“So the last one, even if it was right back for right back, it was clearly tactical, and it ended up that on the left side to release more Ali, release more Jake, because of Andy staying, and then the goal came from a situation wide that we thought we could exploit taking more risks in the last 10 minutes.”

It’s unsure how much will change game-to-game and into 2020, however, but that insight was quite interesting to hear from Dos Santos, as it showed what worked for Vancouver at the end against the Crew. We could see plenty of changes tactically in these last two games, possibly seeing some new pressing schemes and offensive alignments to try and solve some of their woes there, yet at the same time we could see nothing, as Dos Santos could instead decide to chase some continuity. 

Whichever the outcome, hard work, defensive solidity and an improved offensive game should be the priority for the last two games, and given how they’ve done in the first two columns in these past two games, it wouldn’t be a stretch if there is at least some improvement in the third. If not, changes will be made for next year in terms of both personnel and tactical approach, but for now, Dos Santos will enjoy evaluating a looser bunch as they play free of the burden of expectations. 

“And little things tactically that have happened (since) allowed us to be more in the opponents half,” Dos Santos said. “It allowed us to defend higher on the pitch, allowed us to have more possession, and I think that’s what’s loosening up the team.”

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