Hammer and Tongs: Marc Dos Santos continuing to wield ‘hammer’, pounding tactical identity into Vancouver Whitecaps

The Vancouver Whitecaps get their next phases of preseaon underway this weekend, as they head down to Portland to participate in the ‘Rose City Invitational’. Here is what their head coach, Marc Dos Santos, had to say ahead of their departure. 

Call him Marc “The Smith” Dos Santos. 

He’s spent a good portion of this preseason hammering all of the details into place, as he and his Vancouver Whitecaps side look to forge together as a team, persevering through with a blacksmith’s mentality. 

Heading into what can be certainly classified as the ‘crunch time’ of preseason, with just over 2 weeks until the first kick of their 2020 MLS season, he and his squad have been taking advantage of every minute available to them, as they look to surprise both opponents and pundits alike with improved play. 

That’s meant for nearly a month of pounding every last little detail into his team, so come February 29th, when the curtains drop and it’s time to play for keeps, with no safety net to mask any lapses in attention or tiny mistakes, they can hopefully rise to the occasion.

Luckily for them, they still got 3 games to play until then, starting this weekend, as they head down to Portland to play in what has been dubbed the ‘Rose City Invitational’, allowing them a trio of matches against MLS opposition, granting them valuable preparation time. 

Heading into this portion of camp, which will be the last bit of travel before setting up shop and spending the last week of preseason in Vancouver, they still have time to test out and monitor some of their ideas in match-like situations, with the standard of play down in Portland hoped to be close to MLS-level. 

In your face football

But what can we expect from them in these games, exactly?

The biggest thing we’ve seen so far this training camp has been a renewed emphasis on the press, stemming from the top-on-down throughout the organization, and Dos Santos doubled down on it this week when asked on how it’s progressed, saying that he and his trusty metaphorical hammer have been busy at work.

“It’s good, it’s going well,” Dos Santos said Thursday. “The message is clear, the guys are pushing up when we have to, they’ve been aggressive doing it, but it’s different when you have real games, because in training you’re always doing it around the same guys, very close to the same guys, and you know what other people do, you start knowing your teammates. But, the idea we’re always hammering is the same thing, and we hope that it could show in big parts of the game.”

So in that sense, it’ll be interesting to see how their press fares down in Oregon against new opponents. In training, habits can be established, making exercises and tactics like this too predictable, so we can get a true benchmark of where they’re at with these games. 

As we’ve seen so far in the limited bits of action from their first 3 games down in San Diego, along with what they’ve worked on in training, they’ve been stressing the ‘in your face’ style of press, which is hoped can help the team offensively. Winning the ball in your opponents half often increases a team’s odds of scoring significantly, so if you have the horses to pull it off, why not run?

Yet at the same time, while the philosophies are firmly in place, they’ll need to make sure that they have not only the horses to race, but the horses to make it through the whole course, with 90 minutes of football never easy to endure at full-throttle. When speaking of the press, Dos Santos said that physically they’re slowly getting there, with the stamina levels approaching what he expects come first kick, which should lend itself quite well to them assimilating the ideas he’s so far pushed. 

“Good, there’s growth in the team, especially in our idea of play, and what we want to be about,” Dos Santos said of his teams mental and physical growth. “But also physically we’re getting into some levels of fitness that are very match-related. Of course, this week the legs are heavy, it’s that part of preseason where it accumulates a little bit, that fatigue, but it’s very necessary also for you to keep going with all the season, and all the year.”

“But the most important thing, more important than the physical loads that we can get and grow, is how we are growing tactically as a team and how are we incorporating all of the ideas that we want to play.”

Playing it forward

The squad warming up ahead of training this week (Keveren Guillou)

But aside from the press, not much else has really been talked about tactically this preseason, with their work defensively dominating the conversation. What do they do when they win the ball from a press? What kind of build-up can we expect? What are some attacking patterns to look for?

Luckily for everyone, Dos Santos broached that subject this week, as he was more than comfortable in sharing some of the other things he and his team have worked on. He knows that pressing and winning the ball back is hugely important, but if you can do nothing with it, what’s the point? 

That is why he’s made playing from the back-to-front in possession a priority. Obviously, when you win it up the pitch you’ll be a bit more direct than when you start with a goal kick, but the players need to be aware of how the game around them is shifting, which is why he’s placed an emphasis on working those attacks from different locations. 

“They’re doing well, sometimes we have to keep on hammering it,” Dos Santos said. “Sometimes, we’re a little bit too excited, and too vertical, and we want to get forward a little bit too quickly, and then we lose the ball, and then it becomes a transition game back and forth, and that’s what we tried to hammer a lot today, and it was much better today, much better patience, much better rotation when you saw both teams today, when they had the ball, being patient with it, waiting for the good moments for entry.”

“And that’s one of the toughest things to coach, is for players to realize as a group when there’s space in the opponent, and when we could go forward directly, in the moments where it’s locked, and we can’t go, and then we need patience on the ball, so that has to be worked on a lot.”

Much like the press, all of this is far from new material for this Whitecaps team, with Dos Santos pushing these ideas since the beginning of his tenure to varying levels of success. 

With the 2019 Whitecaps team not having all of the pieces required to meet the standards required to play this way, it meant having to adjust, both tactically and personnel-wise, but a lot of the right players appear to be into the fold now, which should improve the standard. 

After seeing growth to end the season last year, Dos Santos is hoping that his team’s persistence in improving and polishing the finer details of playing out the back reap eventual benefits. 

“I saw it in the last 4, 5 games even last year, where we played out but with the objective to get in behind the opponent,” Dos Santos said. “And we saw with some of the runs of the forwards, and that’s what we hammered since day 1 of preseason. We always bring it up during the week, so you’re always going to see during the week 1 or 2 exercises to do with that, because it’s going to be part of our game.”

“If we want to have the ball in the opponents half, you have to start somewhere, you (can) start from a throw-in, or you start from the goal kick, or you start from just going direct and fight for the second ball, we choose the build-up, and we choose that build up because it can allow us to get in behind.”

So now, expect him and his team to keep working on finding that balance. They’ll want to play short and calculated passes between defenders, before trying to break lines via incisive midfield balls, while also trying to free the attackers to launch into space. 

There’s no perfect way to do that, with certain teams blocking different phases of the pitch, which can complicate things. Some teams will deny the midfield play, whereas some will nullify the attackers only, with others just preferring to press high in a fast and loose system. 

Which for the ‘Caps, means being versatile in their style-of-play, while at the same time sticking close to the crux of their ideologies. By setting clear tactical objectives, and by having a clear goal of playing into the space behind opponents, it sets up the framework required to meet those demands of playing out the back, while also being flexible. 

And along with the aforementioned late-season growth, it should all come together to create a lot more cohesive attacking unit. 

“We feel that we grew last year, in the last couple of games in playing out, but also in being a little more direct when we start playing out,” Dos Santos said. “And then, it’s a belief that we have as a team, so we’re going to hammer it until we get it right. But, at the same time, we need to play out with the objective of getting in behind the opponent, so that’s what we were trying to work on a lot during this last week to make sure that there’s an objective for us to start with the ball, but also with the objective with a couple of passes we’re trying to get in behind the opponent.”

“Definitely last year we exaggerated a little bit too much in our half, and sometimes we invited pressure towards us, so it’s experience also that we gained, now we just want to grow from that.”

Not all as planned

Heading into Portland, not all is as ‘Rosy’ as the nickname of Vancouver’s Cascadian neighbours, however, as not all of the signed players have made it to camp due to Visa situations. 

That’s meant for no Ranko Veselinovic and Leonard Owusu, two of Vancouver’s marquee signings, who have been held up by work visa issues, much to the frustration of the club, who would obviously like them to be practicing and playing. 

But that can sometimes be the reality of the game, with there being many factors at play other than just transferring a player to a new club, which for Dos Santos, has meant adjusting the plan and continuing preparations without the pair. 

“Joining, participating, no, right now it’s been tough, with the visa situation, it’s taking longer than we thought, so right now we’re going to Portland without having Ranko or Owusu in our plans.” Dos Santos said of the current situation. 

It’s hoped they arrive in Portland, but if not they’ll shoot for that last week, when the club will be in Vancouver to prepare ahead of their opener against Sporting Kansas City.

Looking Forward

Aside from that, everyone else is all accounted for, with triallists Amer Didic and Aboubacar Sissoko still in the group, rounding out the roster, for now. They’re probably a midfielder and a full back away from being where they want to be as a team, but they have most of their names in the camp and playing, which has led to deeper tactical emphasis at sessions so far. 

With all of that in mind, it should make for an entertaining Portland tournament, as the Whitecaps look to avoid giving any moral boosts to their rivals, the Timbers, along with two other 2019 MLS playoff sides, Minnesota United and New England Revolution. 

Heading into the start of the regular season, it will be good measuring stick games for the club, who will want to test out what they’ve worked on against good opposition. After training for a week, they have a lot to try out and experiment, especially in terms of both lineups and tactics. 

Given that February 29th is pretty much just around the corner, these matches can give a good idea of what to expect from that game and beyond, as the Whitecaps look to bounce back this year, putting a rough 2019 behind them. 

So stay tuned, starting Sunday, as the Whitecaps take on the Timbers in their opening match, with things kicking off at 17:00 PST down in the Rose City. 

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