Service Charge: Solving the Vancouver Whitecaps offensive woes, will it be tactically or statistically?

As the Vancouver Whitecaps look to find a way to improve their offence next season, it’s led to plenty of debate on what the best way to do that is. In this one, we look at why the answer may be as much tactical as it is statistical. 

While the Whitecaps got their big fish in Lucas Cavallini, one big question remains, can they feed him enough next season?

It’s been a question on the lips of many since the Canadian International signed in Vancouver, but that sort of talk is nothing new on these shores, as discussions of how to find more service for the Whitecaps forwards is one that has raged on all year long. From talks of needing more service to come from the wings, to the legendary ‘midfield black hole’ heatmaps, creating offensive chances was not a forte for Vancouver last year, as it played a big part in them finishing second-last in the league in goals for.

When striker Fredy Montero was asked about it late in the season, he answered “I think, overall, yes,”, also adding: “Not only me, anyone that was playing up front.”. It’s an issue that the team is well aware of, and are aiming to fix this offseason, at least if Axel Schuster’s comments after the Cavallini signing are to indicate anything.. While a lack of signings to this point suggests that they haven’t quite found the solution they are looking for, even the Cavallini signing itself is a start, because despite his profile as a deadly finisher, he is also quite comfortable at dropping back and helping his teammate’s build-up play.

But will that be enough on his own? It does not appear so, with the Whitecaps still yet to add any upgrades or replacements to their 2019 squad. Considering that they were last in MLS in terms of shots per game with 10.6, 2nd last in open play goals with 23, and last in terms of percentage of possession spent in the final 3rd (23%), they’re going to need to change their way of doing things offensively, especially if they want to make the playoffs next season. 

The key pass question

The big question is, however, how exactly do they reverse those statistical trends? It’s an answer many have been trying to find, as solving those woes are the biggest of their priorities, especially considering that their defensive struggles mostly came from the number of shots conceded, something that seems easier to fix, at least in theory. 

There have been some positive ideas emerging on how to fix the offensive side of the equation, with Caleb Wilkins from 86Forever doing a good research article on the matter, suggesting that if Vancouver improves their key pass metrics, their offence stands to improve massively. With strong key pass generation usually being a good indicator of how strong of a creator a player is, it makes sense that the Caps struggled in regards to league average in that statistic, with their chance creation situation being as it is. 

Considering that they struggled so much with generating shots, improving their key passes will lead to many more shots, which will bring up the goal total. While it’s no perfect fix, as making sure those shots are quality will be paramount in determining how many more goals they do score next season, just creating more is a positive start. 

Quality makes a huge difference, as it’s important to consider where they take those shots from. Last season, they took 59% of their shots inside the 18-yard-box, which is actually pretty decent, with a lack of volume being a big issue here. If they improve their shots total, while maintaining or even improving this percentage, they should stand to see a boost in goals, especially with a poacher such as Lucas Cavallini on board. 

But with only 55% of their total shots coming from the middle of the pitch, which does also suggest that despite their success at getting shots inside the box, it’s not necessarily coming from the heart of the area, where they’d surely like them to be coming from. That’s why getting those key pass generators, as Caleb suggested, would go a long way, especially if they are wingers and midfielders. 

The wingers would be relied upon to feed the proficient Cavallini, who put up a strong 0.45 XG/90 minutes on an offensively struggling Puebla, with crosses, while the midfielders would be expected to free up space for all of the frontline to operate, opening up pockets for attacking players to play in. 

Yet at the same time, even though adding key passes would likely trigger improvement, when looking at these stats, it does seem like Vancouver could do more tactically to generate them, even without any new faces on top of Cavallini. When they shoot, it’s inside the box, but it’s not necessarily coming from central areas, where goals tend to come from.

With the Caps being ranked third-lowest in terms of percentage of attacks through the middle of the pitch, it makes sense why their offensive stats are as they stand, but it’s also curious that they attack that way. If they had a killer wide player, like Montreal and Seattle, the two teams below the Whitecaps in terms of percentage of central attacks, it would make sense, but that wasn’t the case last season. 

Tactical Questions?

Marc Dos Santos has had a busy offseason looking for ways to improve his team’s offensive woes (Keveren Guillou)

So while it’s clear the Whitecaps have a problem, fixing it isn’t as clear. Caleb’s solution of getting players who can generate key passes is a good start, as those players wouldn’t magically lose that ability overnight, but they’d also need to be placed in positions to succeed. 

That means that some tactical shifts will need to come, complimenting the statistical side of the equation, because while Vancouver’s struggles are indicated in stats such as their lack of key passes, they didn’t necessarily help themselves tactically, either. 

But then again, some of it was by choice. With the Whitecaps lacking some of the personnel that they probably would have desired, especially on the wings and in the midfield, they had to adjust how they wanted to play, and it certainly affected their performance within games. 

Look at how they pressed, for example. Marc Dos Santos absolutely wanted to press, stating even before the season that it was a goal of his to press teams off the park, yet he seemingly abandoned it after giving it a go for a while. After trying ideas such as putting pressing midfielders such as In Beom Hwang and Russell Teibert out wide, along with the energetic full back/winger, PC, Dos Santos shifted to a more defensive style, which is partly why they allowed so many shots over the course of the season. 

With Vancouver having the deficiency of midfielders and wingers that they had, pressing was something they didn’t seem ready to engage in, which is why they often elected to sit back, absorbing pressure before attempting to spring forward. If they won the ball higher up the pitch, they attempted to counter swiftly, but if not, they built things up slowly, electing to move up the pitch methodically. 

As suggested by their low percentage of attacks generated through the middle, which is unusual for a team that likes to build from the back, they didn’t seem to always trust the midfield, which meant more wide attacks, even despite not having those big difference-makers on the wing. 

But at the same time, finding a way to use the midfield more would have likely had a positive on different areas of their game, and probably would have also helped their wingers operate in better offensive positions. Usually, when a team uses their midfield effectively, they can suck in opposing defenders, which opens up other spaces to send the ball into. Depending on where they choose to operate, the beneficiaries can be the striker, the wingers, or even the full backs, which for a Vancouver team with DP left back Ali Adnan, is something they’d probably love to do more of. 

Improvements to see

With all that in mind, it gives an idea of where some changes will need to occur, at least if Vancouver wants to improve offensively. Improving the key pass numbers, and in turn, the shots per game, will go a long way, but assuring that they’re tactically set-up to take advantage of those improvements is key. 

The first big shift will need to be off the ball, as Vancouver will have to ensure that they find their pressing ways, with their forwards and midfielders leading the way in that regard. By doing that, they will start more attacks further up the pitch, leading to more key passes and shots, and will also take some wear-and-tear off of the defenders. 

It will also lead to a higher defensive line, likely a mid one, instead of leaving the defenders all the way sagged back most of the time. That’ll require some fit midfielders, with the #6 especially important in ensuring they don’t get caught in transition or by swift attacking moves, but if they do get the right pieces in place, it’ll be all part of Dos Santos’s ambitions to be more dynamic all around the pitch. 

On the ball, when in possession, they’ll have to use the middle more, using it as an avenue to open up space for others. With Cavallini being dangerous off the shoulder of defenders, as well as off of crosses, using the midfield to suck in defenders can cause more of the former, while also freeing up the wingers to create more of the latter. 

From there, it will be about finding the best profile of midfielders and wingers to complement that system. The midfielders will be the more difficult pursuit, as adding a passing yet mobile #6 and a creative #8/10 won’t be easy without an open DP spot (for now), but at least the wingers should be a little easier to find. 

After that, bar maybe finding a more attacking right back, the team will be mostly set. With the teardown of the last offseason behind them, they’ll want to have some continuity heading into 2020, but as seen this past season, there are still some areas to build upon, especially in terms of how they put the ball into opposing team’s goals.  

Looking Forward

What the 86Forever article has shown is how multi-layered solving the Whitecaps attacking woes will be, as the lack of creation stems from several factors, both on the statistical and tactical side of the equation. In some cases, those two factors can be independent of each other, but in this, they complement each other nicely, as fixes to one seem to lead to fixes of the other. 

Caleb did give an idea of how things can stand to change with the right additions, and it’s a good path to start down, but once those pieces are brought in, tactically is where the next questions will start to be asked. As Dos Santos has realized, you need certain pieces to play a certain way, so sometimes just adjusting to what you have is a survival move you may need to take.

That’s also why all this talk of finding profiles, instead of names, is important. To play a certain way, you need the right attributes in your players, be it an 18-year-old backup right back, or Dani Alves, just to use a specific example. To get an idea why, look at the LA Galaxy last season. Despite the presence of some great players, they didn’t necessarily have the profile to succeed, at least the way they were playing, and it led them to underperform, at least relative to the talent they had in tow.

So hopefully Vancouver can find those right profiles, identifying and bringing in the right players they want, but also players that can statistically fill the holes they need to patch up. If they can do that, and adjust the way they play as a result, you’d expect positive changes to be in order.

And if not, then maybe they have a lot more questions to answer in terms of rebuilding, as they look to reach the heights of Atlanta United and the Seattle Sounders, trying to avoid falling too far behind the elite of MLS.  

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