Press to Impress: An in-depth breakdown of the 2020 Vancouver Whitecaps tactical profile

The Vancouver Whitecaps wrapped up their final portion of the preseason this weekend, as they took on Minnesota United, winning by a score of 2 to 1. Here is what we took away tactically from that one, as we dive into the Xs and Os used by Marc Dos Santos so far this training camp.

Philosophical changes were promised, and they appear to have so far been delivered. 

After failing to implement many of his preferred tactical ideologies in 2019, Vancouver Whitecaps’ head coach, Marc Dos Santos, has been busy so far in 2020, spending most of the preseason drilling his ideas into the heads of his players. 

From playing more aggressively without the ball, to being more fluid in possession, Vancouver’s been working hard to make sure that they not only improve in the standings, but also in how they play, as they look to implement a more modern brand of play. 

So bid adieu to the days of Vancouver dropping deep and bunkering in the middle of the park. They may still play with a low defensive line, but they’re a lot more active now when they don’t have possession, while being more calculated and efficient when they do have the ball.

“I take away the full preparation, last day of preseason, everything that was done for us to grow and to get ready as a team,” Dos Santos said after beating Minnesota last Saturday. “What we need to see is growth in preseason, growth in the volume, growth in our physical aspect, growth in our model of play, and you saw that. We saw growth from the day 1, the game against Columbus, until now, and we need to keep working.”

But how exactly will they play? We know it’ll be in a new 4-2-3-1 alignment, currently preferred to Dos Santos’s usual 4-3-3, with a big emphasis on pressing and playing out of the back, but asides from that, a lot remains up in the air. 

How will they generate offence? Which areas will they prioritize winning the ball back? What are some key transition moments that they’ll focus on?

In this, we’ll dive in deep, and try to answer some questions, as we analyze back the game tape from the first half of the Minnesota victory, where they gave us a good idea of how they aim to play. 

Keeping it locked down at the back:

The key to success for most teams is to start things from the back, and the Caps’ are no exception to that rule, with their backline being among their position of strength from a year-over-year perspective. As we explored when the Caps’ brought back 2019 centre back standout, Erik Godoy, they did a good job of keeping balls out of their net last year, at least relative to the number of shots they faced. 

So if they stand to reduce the number of shots against this year, at the bare minimum cutting a few attempts off of their porous number last year, things stand to improve. They have one of the top 5 statistical goalies in MLS, Max Crepeau, and one of the deeper centre back corps, so there’s no reason not to imagine them turning things around this season, at least from a goals-against perspective.

Tactically, their issue stemmed from a lack of midfield coverage, which often left things stretched out, giving opposing teams open season on the Caps’ back 4 and Crepeau. While they have yet to really rectify that problem from a personnel sense, aside from the arrival of Leonard Owusu (a move we really like), a big brunt of their problem was how they set things up, along with the players they deployed to fill those roles. 

So with the ‘Caps shifting to a 2 man midfield pivot, instead of a triangle with a #6 and two #8s, they’ve already addressed some of those issues. With their usual 2019  #6s Jon Erice and Andy Rose unable to fulfill all of the qualities that would have been required of the position in that system (a combination of their best attributes, might have, funnily enough…), shifting to the 2 man-pivot, which is basically two #6s, or two #8s, has spread out the midfield coverage. 

And as we’ve so far seen throughout the preseason, that two-man pivot has already made a difference, with Russell Teibert and Hwang In Beom doing a good job to help the team out defensively. They always make sure that one player always stays back when in possession, but without the ball, they act as a shield, dropping to limit space between the midfield and the centre backs, a spot which the ‘Caps conceded far too often last season. 

Take this screenshot below as an example of how the team wants to set up defensively. 

By employing In Beom and Teibert in a pivot, along with the insertion of defensively-responsible wingers Cristian Dajome and David Milinkovic, the ‘Caps are constantly able to shift defensively into a 4-4-2, which can operate in a low-to-mid block depending on how the opponents play. The two forwards, Lucas Cavallini and Yordy Reyna, push forward, forcing the opposition to play from the back to their full backs, which from there, puts them right where the ‘Caps want them. 

“For us, last year we were more a medium and low block, but this year it’s more about a high/medium block,” Max Crepeau said a few weeks back. “So that’s going to be good for us, we focus on what’s in front of us, and not what’s behind us.” 

With Dajome and Milinkovic constantly dropping back, it gives the ‘Caps two extra bodies in the midfield, while also giving Vancouver an outlet to counter-attack through, depending on where they win the ball. 

This next shot gives an idea of where they find themselves at their best, defensively. 

The back 4 remains compact, with the left back, Ali Adnan, ready to pounce forward, if needed, while the midfield sits back a bit, suffocating the two Minnesota central forwards. With the left-sided midfielders, Dajome and Teibert, pushing towards the ball carrier, who’s in the top right of the shot, they’re hoping he either plays the ball back, nullifying the attack, or into the middle. 

If that happens, that’s where Teibert and the back pressuring Reyna would attempt to push the ball carrier into a decision, with Adnan, In Beom and Milinkovic all prepared to subsequently drop in order to cut off space through the middle. 

From within that compact 4-4-2, the ‘Caps did well to limit space for their opponents to attack in, especially in moments like those, where they were attempting to play out from the back. When Minnesota was in a wide area, like in that recent screenshot, the midfielder and winger on that side will push him into a decision, but when the ball cuts in centrally, the ‘Caps midfielders drop to shield the forwards, as they’d prefer that the oppositional midfielders, not attackers, get the ball in space. 

What was most interesting was how the ‘Caps reacted in other defensive phases, because offensively, they played with aggressive full backs, which can create problems, especially when they lose the ball high up the field. 

With Ali Adnan and Jake Nerwinski constantly forward, losing the ball in certain areas can be deadly, especially against a team with fast wingers, ones who can latch in between those gaps where the full back is forward and the centre backs are back, which keeps them onside while also giving them space to fly forward into.

But to counterattack that, In Beom and Teibert would constantly fill in at full back, depending on what side they found themselves on. Along with a balanced attacking mindset from Nerwinski and Adnan, as they made sure to never find themselves on an even attacking plane, one of the midfielders would drop into a covering position, allowing the full back the freedom to drive forward. 

Take this next screenshot, for example. Russell Teibert, circled below, had dropped back to cover for Adnan, who had pushed forward. With Nerwinski staying a little further back in that attacking sequence, along with In Beom pushing into the middle, it allowed the ‘Caps to quickly drop into a compact back 4, with Teibert filling in at left back until Adnan returned. 

And they would do it on both sides of the field, giving them attacking balance. Take the next shot, below, which was taken on the other side, with Jake Nerwinski pressed up high in support. 

With Nerwinski forward, In Beom (circled at the bottom), dropped into a right back role, while Teibert shifted into the middle, with Adnan sitting way back off the frame in case of a turnover. 

So look for that flexible 4-4-2 to keep playing a role defensively, as its flexibility allowed Adnan and Nerwinski to push forward without worry, while the deep midfield pivot and defensive wingers added a little more solidity, giving Vancouver numerical superiority when opponents tried to play out of the back.

Defending from the front:

A big part of being successful in defensive areas starts from the front, which was why the press was such a big buzzword this camp, as its success will lend itself to the other areas of their defensive game. 

It means that while the ‘Caps are relatively compact in deep-lying defensive positions, especially their two midfielders and back 4, their front 4 are moving all over, pushing opponents into areas they don’t want to play in. 

That’s where Reyna and Cavallini come in, as they play the role of orchestraters defensively, guiding their opponents into areas they want them to play in. 

Take a look at how they line up when they press, with the screenshot below being a sequence in which Minnesota started with the ball at the back, which gave the ‘Caps time to set up in a favourable defensive posture. 

Reyna and Cavallini are compact but aggressive up top, pushing the two defenders to split, while also narrowing any potential gaps to play into. With the midfield 4 pushing up, and the back 4 also pushing forward (they are just off-frame in this shot), it only really gives the defender one reliable option, which is to play it to the full back at the bottom of the frame. 

With the ball-carriers other options being a slip pass into the midfielder in between Dajome and Cavallini, and a long ball to the attackers between the midfield and defensive block, it favours Vancouver’s setup.

A long ball would play into their plan, as their midfield 4 is below Minnesota’s two, giving them a huge leg up towards winning a likely second ball, whereas a midfield slip pass also favours them, as they also have the numerical advantage in that area of the field, in this case.

There are some teams that could pose problems through both of those routes (think LAFC for the slip pass, or a team with a playmaking target man for the long ball, like TFC), but for the most part, teams would go for the full back pass, which allows Vancouver to snap into their press. 

Take a look at the complete clip of the action above, as Vancouver immediately shuts down the space for that full back to play into the middle as soon as he receives it, forcing an optimistic long ball. 

Dajome immediately meets the left back, in this case, Chase Gaspar, while In Beom, Nerwinski and Cavallini react to take away his likeliest short passing options, only leaving a backpass and a long ball as his options. 

By doing that, they’ll either force teams to play hopeful long balls, which benefits them, or play themselves into trouble, which allows the ‘Caps the opportunity for more offensive chances higher up the pitch. 

“Well, we’ve seen that the group itself was tuned in right away, in terms of applying what the coaching staff wants, offensively and defensively,” Crepeau said a few weeks back, speaking of the press. “We’ve seen it in terms of results, as well, because we won the ball higher up the park, and it gave us more chances to have possession in their half, so that was good.”

But while the press is most noticeable up the pitch, in sequences such as the above one, the ‘Caps use it to pressure teams further down, especially in wide areas. While they defend in that mostly passive mid-to-low block when teams play it out of the back, as we saw earlier, but that also doesn’t mean they stop pressing, as they remain ready to jump on a trigger. 

Take the screenshot below, as an example. 

Minnesota has a ball in a wide position, which as seen earlier, pushes the ‘Caps into their deep 4-4-2, but with Vancouver cutting off the middle, it forces the Loons to stay wide, which eventually leads them into trouble. They try to play a slip pass into the middle, which Teibert immediately presses, forcing a pass back outside, which triggers Reyna, Milinkovic and Teibert into action, as they sense a chance to win the ball in a 3v3 situation. 

Here is what happens next

The Caps correctly gamble, turning that 3v3 into ball possession, as they closed down all of Minnesota’s options, giving them a chance to win the ball back and counter-attack. 

So look for Vancouver to try and control those wide areas defensively, restricting team entries into the middle. They might not have the most dominant midfield in terms of presence, especially not in a two-man pivot, but by having the wingers and forwards help them control the wide areas, they can keep teams away from that coveted central real estate. 

Which is why pressing will be so huge for the ‘Caps this coming season. 

“No, not this season, since day 1 that is something that I want this club to be about,” Dos Santos said of the press. “But slowly, with pieces that we’re bringing are slowly allowing us more and more to go to that direction. Then, as a coach, you have to adapt and adjust with what you have.”

Offensive growth shining through:

But for all of the work they do defensively, it would all be for naught if they didn’t do anything offensively, which is why their play with the ball is so crucial. After having the second-worst offence in all of MLS last year, they’ll be a lot of attention given towards this part of their game, and rightfully so.

That has meant working on their back-to-front approach, as they look to use their ball-playing centre backs, aggressive full backs and passing midfielders to get things going, starting with the goalkeeper on up.

“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 2 weeks ago. “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.”

That has meant putting a lot of onus on the centre backs, but also on the midfielders, who play a big role in how the ‘Caps aim to play out of the back. 

Take a look at the screenshot below to get an idea of how they want to set up. 

One of the midfielders usually drops right in between the centre backs, while the full backs jump forward, with the other midfielder remaining fairly central, shifting the ‘Caps into a sort of 3-3-4 or 3-4-3, depending on the areas where the #10, Reyna, roams into.

Based on how their opponents press, it allows them to be flexible, as the full backs will shift up and down, always giving the ‘Caps numerical superiority. 

Here is an example of that, with Nerwinski dropping to give an option, while the dangerous Adnan remains pushed forward, forcing the Minnesota defenders to drop a bit to cover him.

So look for that when they play out of the back, as that numerical superiority has given them more time to be comfortable in possession, which is why they make sure to throw that midfielder back, as this clip shows. 

(And for those wondering, I included the screenshot below to show In Beom in that ball-playing midfield role, to show it’s not only Teibert filling it)

Overall, by implementing that change, it’s allowed the ‘Caps to look less rushed in possession, which is huge. It’s reduced the amount of needless long balls, as they are always moving in order to make sure an option is presentable, and in cases where the opponent presses hard, In Beom does a nice job at finding space in the middle, making the slip pass an option. 

“They’re doing well, sometimes we have to keep on hammering it,” Dos Santos said after the San Diego portion of camp. “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.”

But what do they aim to achieve besides ball possession? 

That’s the big question, and it’s partly what hampered the team last year, as they often seemed without a purpose or plan in the final third, leading to some uninspiring attacks. 

Now? The goal has been to get in behind the opponent, either through flooding wide areas, or by playing through the middle comfortably. 

“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.”

Take these next two clips as an example. In the first one, the ‘Caps find an opening after having played a couple of nice passes in the midfield, which sucked the Minnesota defenders into the middle, giving space for Dajome and Nerwinski to do some damage out wide. 

While the cross ultimately led to nothing, by being patient in their buildup, it allowed Vancouver the space to fly forward into, winning a corner in the process. It might not have worked this time, but more often than not it will, which is what they’ll be hoping for.

In this second clip, the ‘Caps take advantage of Minnesota being more passive in the midfield, opening up space for a good central 1-2, one that drew them a foul in a good position. With a nice slip pass from In Beom, and good awareness from Milinkovic, who immediately played the ball forward, they got in behind the Minnesota midfield, which as Dos Santos mentioned, is the kind of areas they want to play into, as it also opens up space for more wide sequences like the one above. 

But while their offensive approach varies based on the areas they find themselves in, what’s interesting is how they flood those forward areas, especially with their wide players being so unique. Adnan loves to overlap, cutting in and out with vigour, whereas Milinkovic loves to play centrally, cutting in from the left, giving Adnan the space he desires. 

Compared to the right-hand side, where Dajome loves to go at full backs from wider positions, it leads to a staggered attack, with Nerwinski completing many underlaps, just like the GIF we saw a bit earlier. 

Yet at the same time, the approach varies depending on which side they attack, which is quite interesting. When the ball is on the left, Dajome cuts in, allowing Nerwinski to be an overlap option, in the case that the ball does end up being switched. Here is an example of that.

In this situation, it puts the ‘Caps in a sort of 2-5-3, as the full backs are both forward, with Reyna dropping onto the same plane as In Beom and Teibert, helping them play the ball forward. 

When the ball was on the other side, however, Dajome preferred to play wide, with Nerwinski playing as an underlap option, sucking defenders in. 

As we see in the shot below, Nerwinski’s job is to cut in and present himself as an option, sucking in defenders, allowing Dajome to go wide. 

And in the case that the defenders do leave the middle open, Dajome isn’t scared of cutting in there, either, but you can tell he does prefer the wide areas. It’ll be an interesting fit with Nerwinski, who also prefers to play wide, whereas as someone with a playstyle like Adnan would be a better fit, as he’s comfortable playing both inside and out. 

But at the same time, Nerwinski so far looks up for it, and he still had moments of joy in those preferred areas. It will be an adjustment period, no doubt, but with Milinkovic so far looking good in Dajome’s usual left wing spot, he and Nerwinski will have to keep working on that part of their game. 

Ultimately, fluidity will be the name of the ‘Caps offensive game, and as we saw in pockets, they are definitely capable of it. Cavallini will bully defenders, presenting himself as both a passing and crossing outlet, while Reyna will roam, aiming to operate in those central pockets he loves to play in. 

You add in the aggressive play of Nerwinski and Adnan, along with the roaming nature of Dajome and Milinkovic, who seemed to pop up both centrally and in wide areas, and it gives the Whitecaps plenty of final third fluidity. 

The big key will be how the 2 midfielders and centre backs do in opening up space for those dangerman to operate in, but so far, they seem up to task, and with Erik Godoy, Ranko Veselniovic and Leonard Owusu yet to arrive, there’s the potential for it to get better. 

As we see below, when all of the pieces are moving and working together, they can play from back to front quite nicely now, the key will just be to doing so consistently and efficiently. 

(For those keeping track, that was a 16 pass move, with 7 players getting involved)

Transition moments prove to be key:

Yet for all of the good, there are still some areas to worry about, especially in transition, which so far appear to be the team’s biggest weakness. 

There’s no problem with having a weakness, as pretty much every team has one, but the key is in how they limit it, especially against good teams. 

To get an idea of what about the transition moments that affect them, take a look at the screenshot below. 

In this shot, Minnesota got the ball behind Teibert and In Beom, with Adnan caught up the pitch, which got them into the coveted space in between the centre backs and midfielders. 

As we mentioned earlier, that’s the exact spot the ‘Caps are looking to shut down, which is why it’s so deadly when teams get there. In this case, it was due to a turnover, which with Adnan so high up the pitch, is costly, especially with Teibert not covering for him as he was supposed to. 

Luckily for Vancouver, in this case nothing happened, but that won’t always be the case, so they’ll need to be careful. 

To avoid those moments, it’s going to have to take huge efforts from Adnan, Nerwinski, Teibert and In Beom, who have to find a way to balance their work both going forward and tracking back. If any of them switch off for a moment, such as Teibert not getting a chance to cover for Adnan, it can break down in a hurry, especially on the counter. 

With the ‘Caps looking defensively solid in their 4-4-2, how they handle this going forward may determine how teams play against them, as switching to a more counter-attacking system could be seen as a way to invite more Vancouver players forward, catching them on the break if they lose the ball. 

But at the very least, with the ‘Caps having strong defenders, it doesn’t always mean that the world is over when they do lose the ball, especially with them doing a good job at tracking back. As long as they keep on working at finding that balance, they should be alright, as long as they minimize sequences like the one below, while maximizing the 16 pass moves we saw earlier. 

Reyna continues to shine: 

Lastly, one big thing to take from these matches was how Yordy Reyna performed as a #10, as he looked quite good in his appearances

As we recently explored, when the Peruvian is on his game, he can be among the best in MLS, but he can be maddingly inconsistent, making it hard to quantify how good he can exctly be. He has a penchant for overdribbling and not always having his head in it defensively, but he has a solid shot, and he can link up with his teammates well at times. 

So to see him so far look fully committed defensively, while also linking up with his teammates and passing the ball quicker and crispier has been a revelation, as he looks like a whole new player. It’s given the ‘Caps a good option in the middle, as he’s operated as a safety valve, playing off of teammates to open up space, but at the same time, the old Reyna is still there, but he uses it more to his advantage. 

“Yordy has the right mindset, and Yordy knows that he can’t, and I’m not going to allow him to, relax. When Yordy has the right mindset towards work ethic, commitment, he’s always going to be a player that can help us.”

So look for Reyna to keep roaming in between the lines, linking up with his teammates, while also finding a way to generate offence on his own. As seen in the article, he can be among the top 30 in MLS statistically, which considering his non-DP price, could prove to be a bargain for Vancouver. 

But with the season still yet to start, for the meantime, enjoy this highlight reel showing why his play has been impressive so far. 

Looking Forward:

While it’s hard to gauge exactly how good this team will be this year based on preseason, what is clear is that there have been improvements, which at the very least, should help them improve off of last year. They still have some shopping to do, and they don’t yet have their full assembly of players, but they’ve so far found a way to maximize what they have, which has led to some early positive results. 

With their front 4 looking good, the midfield keeping a compact shape and the full backs being aggressive, they have the recipe to score goals, they just need to avoid getting burnt in transition, while also remaining patient in their build-up play. 

But as we saw against Minnesota, who is one of the early-favourites in the Western Conference, they can already mostly do that over 90 minutes, besides a few kinks. 

Which for Vancouver, is actually pretty good. No team is perfect, so the key is maximizing your good moments, while limiting the pain of those mistakes. 

Along with a strong tactical framework, allowing your team to do just that, it should lead to improved results, as we’ve seen so far this camp. 

So look for them to keep on improving and showcasing these new philosophies, starting Saturday against Sporting Kansas City. 

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Sporting Kansas City, Saturday, February 29th, 2020, 19H30 PST (BC Place, Vancouver)

*If you’re looking to read more tactical analysis on the Whitecaps, Caleb Wilkins of 86Forever did a great job breaking down the ‘Caps loss to Portland last week, so check that out if you still have the thirst for Xs and Os.

Cover Photo by Keveren Guillou

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