MiB Statistical Snapshots: Can Derek Cornelius be the beacon of simplicity in a Vancouver Whitecaps defensive storm?

Welcome to our second Vancouver Whitecaps statistical snapshot from the MLS is Back tournament, our series in which we will dive into the stats of some standout performers for the ‘Caps down in Orlando. In this one, we take a look at Derek Cornelius, the Canadian defender who provided a huge bright spot when inserted in the lineup halfway through the tournament, sparking a Whitecaps defensive resurgence.

It’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s only been doing this for a few years now. 

Despite only playing center back since he was 18, the 22-year-old Canadian defender, Derek Cornelius, has quickly made a name for himself at the position, at least since bursting onto the scene a few years ago. 

He’s already arguably Canada’s best National Team centre back, and has shown to be a quality MLS defender during his year and a half in Vancouver, where he’s bounced back from a tough start to his North American professional career to become a reliable pawn at the back for the ‘Caps. 

But even though he’s quickly made a name for himself as a solid defender, he’s one of the most polarizing figures on this ‘Caps team, as many either rate him a lot, or not at all, always leading to interesting arguments surrounding his potential place in the Whitecaps squad. 

While it’s hard to see him as a surefire starter when all of the Whitecaps defenders are healthy, he’s still a pretty good piece to have, as he can more than hold his own as a starter, and having him have depth would give the ‘Caps a sort of defensive luxury that many MLS teams would die for. 

Depending on the future of Erik Godoy, who may shift out to play right back when healthy, or the plans of Marc Dos Santos, who could shift to a 3 at the back formation tactically, allowing Cornelius to slot in alongside likely starters Godoy and Ranko Veselinovic, it’s not that unheard of to imagine Cornelius playing a big role in helping the ‘Caps keep things solid defensively going forward. 

As we saw down in Orlando, he’s already shown to be capable of helping out this team, it’s just time that he starts to get some of the recognition that he’s due to start receiving. 

Cornelius: A beacon of simplicity in a time of turmoil

To begin the tournament, Cornelius found himself on the sidelines, forced to watch the first 2 matches from the comfort of the bench. 

After struggling on opening day this year against Sporting Kansas City on February 29th, he had found himself in a similar position a week later against the LA Galaxy, on March 7th, as the ‘Caps kept a surprise clean sheet against the star-studded Galaxy. 

And then that would be all she wrote until July, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving Cornelius and his teammates to quarantine for a couple of months, before slowly being allowed to train ahead of the eventual restart, which came at the beginning of the MLS is Back tournament earlier last month.

Ahead of that tournament, it was hoped that Cornelius could’ve re-established himself in the ‘Caps lineup, but alas, Dos Santos preferred to start Ranko Veselinovic and Jasser Khmiri as his 2 centre backs in the opener against the San Jose Earthquakes, leaving Cornelius to watch from the bench. 

But in that game, Khmiri had a howler of a second-half, as he figured prominently for all 3 of San Jose’s second-half goals, allowing the ‘Quakes to come back from down 3-1 to win 4-3, killing the ‘Caps hopes at a strong start at MLS is Back.  

Quite surprisingly, however, Khmiri would keep his place in the lineup heading into the second game against the Seattle Sounders, as Dos Santos kept faith in his young Tunisian centre back, leaving Cornelius to start the game in a tracksuit once again. 

Once again, though, it was not to be for Khmiri, who figured quite prominently in first 2 Sounders goals, allowing their rivals to cruise to what turned out to be a 3-0 victory. 

For Cornelius, however, that paved the way for his MLS is Back debut, as he supplanted Khmiri in the second half of that game, helping keep a clean sheet for the rest of the way. 

In a short cameo, he did a good job in supporting rookie goalkeeper Thomas Hasal, who came into the Sounders game in the 2nd half, making his 1st MLS appearance in place of the injured Maxime Crepeau, who made way for his young backup after sustaining a 60th or so minute thumb injury. 

So considering what Cornelius showed in that one, it was no surprise to see him earn his first start of MLS is Back a few days later against the Chicago Fire, in what was a must-win game for the ‘Caps, who needed to beat the Fire by 2 goals in order to advance to the knockout stages of MLS is Back. 

To do that, they needed to be defensively strong, which is why Dos Santos elected to go to a 3 at the back, with Cornelius, Veselinovic and Khmiri as the 3 centre backs. 

And they held strong, helping the ‘Caps keep a clean sheet, even despite an injury to Khmiri, who left the game just before the half, forcing Dos Santos to shift back to a 4 at the back formation.

Leading the way was Cornelius, who looked good alongside Veselinovic, helping Hasal keep things tidy in his first-ever MLS start, as they seemed to funnel every loose ball out of danger, both aerially and on the ground, paving the way for a huge 2-0 victory, one that saw the ‘Caps progress to the Round of 16. 

With Khmiri out for that match as well, coming against Sporting KC, Cornelius and Veselinovic once again led the way, with Hasal doing a good job in behind them, allowing them to keep another clean sheet in that one, making it over 200 minutes since they’d last conceded a goal. 

That wouldn’t be enough, however, as the ‘Caps also failed to score, pushing the game to a shootout, in which they would eventually fall to SKC, but it was by no fault of the defence and Hasal, who put in heroic shifts to try and protect the goal from an aggressive Sporting offence. 

So all-in-all, it was a solid tournament for Cornelius, who like Hasal didn’t concede a single goal in over 200 minutes of play, as the 2 of them helped make a big defensive impact for the ‘Caps once thrown into the lineup. 

We’ll have more on Hasal in a future statistical snapshot, so stay tuned for that, but since we’re talking about Cornelius, it’s important to pick out what exactly he brought in order to help stabilize the ‘Caps backline, a backline that had conceded 7 goals in 160 or so minutes of play before his insertion. 

Firstly, his simplicity really stood out, as he wasn’t exactly reinventing the wheel defensively with his actions, but he always did what he had to do in order to keep the ‘Caps shop tidy. Whether that was booting a ball into touch, or avoiding going to ground in a dangerous situation, Cornelius made sure to keep things as risk-free as possible around his box. 

Compared to Khmiri, who can tend to make risky passes, and is a bit trigger-happy in going to ground, it was night-and-day, as it felt like having Cornelius on the pitch helped calm things down across the field. 

While it wasn’t stylistically the most appealing play at times, as lumping the ball out of touch and up the pitch is the sort of defending we tend to see in U9 soccer, for the ‘Caps, it was exactly what they needed, as they switched to more of a simple defensive plan to counteract the swath of key absences that they had throughout their squad. 

Secondly, his ability to get in front of shots and to loose balls is nearly unmatched, as his timing in the box was stupendous this tournament. There’s a reason he was top 5 in MLS for both blocks and clearances per game this tournament, and that’s because he got to balls first, and if he didn’t, he made sure that whoever got their first couldn’t do much with it. 

Lastly, his calmness was a big attribute, as it helped complement both the simplicity and his decision-making in the box, as he often both made the calm decision and the right one, helping the ‘Caps defensively whenever he was on the pitch. 

And what’s most impressive to see is how he’s shown to adapt himself to different situations so far. While his best play comes in a mid-to-low block, in which the game comes to him, he’s also shown to be capable to play in a high line, and play both with and without the ball, making him about as versatile as they come. 

So even though his excellence this tournament came from how he adapted his game to be as simple and as effective as possible, he can shift his role, if needed, thanks to his intelligence, speed and calmness, making him one to watch going forward. 

Derek Cornelius looks on vs the Chicago Fire at MLS is Back (Matthew Stith/MLS)

The stats reflect the performance:

When the ‘Caps have their full complement of players at their disposal, they’ll want to play more of an aggressive defensive game, one in which their defenders will play higher up the pitch, only sagging back if the ball breaks 1 or 2 lines of their high press. 

For Cornelius, who is athletic enough to play a mid-to-high line, but prefers defending deep, that will be a perfect match for him, as that sort of system will capitalize on many of his best defensive attributes. 

You get an idea of where he excels when you look at his statistical profile from MLS is Back. 

And before diving into those numbers too deeply, it’s important to note that analyzing defenders is an imperfect science, as having high numbers in some of these stats are more negative than you’d expect, such as having good tackling numbers. 

A good defender technically should never have to tackle, or at least not attempt many of them, as that would indicate that they find themselves out of position too often. 

At the same time, a low-event defender can be good, but they also could over-rely on their goalkeeper to bail them out, making them look better than you’d expect. 

But then again, defenders need to be judged based on the team in which they play, as different sorts of environments can impact the play of some defenders, both positively and negatively, making it hard to figure out which defenders are actually good or bad. 

When looking at Cornelius’s profile, the first thing that stands out is his heatmap, which gives you an idea of where the ‘Caps spent most of their time at MLS is Back, and that was in a deeper line closer to their box.

(Heatmap provided via: SofaScore)

While this plot is actually a bit more aggressive than one would expect from Cornelius, this sort of heatmap takes account of both when the ‘Caps are with and without the ball, giving us an idea of how mobile Cornelius can be on the pitch, even in a lower line. 

In terms of pure numbers, there are 2 things which Cornelius excels at, which as mentioned earlier, are blocks and clearances. 

His 6.7 clearances and 1.3 blocks per game both have him 4th among all players at the MLS is Back tournament, as he’d pounce on loose balls and send them forward, while also not being afraid to go to ground if needed to keep the ball out. 

You’d hope that in an ideal scenario that those numbers drop a bit, but considering that the ‘Caps conceded a tournament-high 111 shots and 12.61 Expected Goals against, it does give you an idea of how much their midfield struggled defensively this tournament. 

Too often, teams were allowed to play right into the box, putting pressure on the likes of Cornelius and Veselinovic to make spectacular plays in order to keep the ball out of the net. 

He fared okay in other defensive stats, putting up 0.7 interceptions a game, but only 0.3 tackles, as he mostly used his smarts to get in the way of passes, but didn’t need to go to ground or take out his man too much, as he often got to most balls first, as reflected by the clearance stats. 

Considering the ‘Caps didn’t concede once while he was on, those low tackle numbers are a huge positive, as he found a way to be defensively responsible without overcommitting too much, a good attribute to have for a defender. 

So while Thomas Hasal and his absurd -3.74 G-xG certainly helped (his saves helped the ‘Caps keep out 4 goals more than they should’ve conceded based on the chances they gave up), Cornelius was a big part in making the game easier for Hasal. 

To give you an idea of how much Cornelius helped, Hasal, who’s minutes coincided with Cornelius’s for the most part, faced fewer chances in 220 minutes than Crepeau faced in his 160, as Crepeau still leads the tournament in xG faced with 8.82 xG against despite only playing that game and a half. 

Compare that to Hasal’s 3.74, and it gives you an idea of what effect having Cornelius in the lineup did have, because as said earlier, his minutes pretty much overlapped with Hasal’s, hence the big drop in xG conceded.

Elsewhere, his passing numbers were a little less stellar, as he only passed at a 74% clip down in Orlando, a far contrast from his usual 83% that he passed at in 2019, but considering the high number of clearances and long balls (he attempted over 6 a game), that helps explains the dip. 

At the same time, his passing wasn’t as bad as it seemed, as he completed 89% of his passes in his own half, but he was let down by the fact that he only completed 53% of his passes that went into the other half, mostly due to his penchant for long balls at this tournament. 

He’ll certainly want to slow down that habit, as the ‘Caps aren’t exactly blessed with the sort of aerial presence that can make those long balls worth it, but his passing stats from within his own half are positive, and give you an idea of what he can do when he keeps things on the ground. 

What’s most surprising, however, is how Cornelius didn’t fare particularly well in the advanced stats, at least compared to what you would’ve expected him to do. While the ‘Caps drop in xG against can partly be attributed to his insertion back in the lineup, he didn’t fare as well in the goals added category, as he put up a goals added of -0.35 in his minutes. 

That means in the actions he committed (defensive and offensive), he actually added a negative total of goals to the team, but considering how much the ‘Caps were under siege, and the fact that all of their centre backs put up negative numbers in goals added, there’s definitely some sort of correlation there. 

And when you factor in the number of long balls that he played, which is why he had a -0.08 in goals added in terms of passing, and the number of duels he had to enter, giving him a -0.20 in terms of defensive actions, it all makes sense. 

As the ‘Caps improve their defensive performance in midfield, starting with the re-insertion of someone like Janio Bikel in as a #6, things should improve across the board, giving Cornelius better goals added numbers. 

If we consider what we’ve seen in the other statistical departments, clearly he can make a positive impact defensively, and did so this MLS is Back tournament, despite the circumstances, so you wouldn’t put it past him. 

Now, if he can reduce the number of long balls he plays, and get the consistent defensive support that he and his fellow defenders could use form the midfield, there’s no doubt that he can be a good MLS defender on a good defensive team, which would certainly benefit the ‘Caps in the long term. 

Looking Forward:

Either way, Cornelius definitely earned a shout for more minutes going forward after this tournament, especially after seeing how the ‘Caps changed defensively once he was inserted back into the lineup. 

For whatever reason, as the stats showed, he’s shown to have uncanny timing, good defensive awareness and better-than-expected distribution, so if put in the right defensive setup, there’s no doubt that he can shine. 

And for a Whitecaps side already flush with defensive options, it’ll be huge, as it’ll allow them to experiment, either through playing a back 3, or by shifting someone like Godoy to right back, where he’s shown to be a difference-maker, albeit in a small sample size. 

At the very least, the play of Cornelius has certainly sparked a good discussion, and it’s definitely one worth exploring going forward from Dos Santos, especially after Cornelius’s play down in Orlando. 

Stay tuned for some of our other Whitecaps statistical snapshots from MLS is Back, which will be rolled out over the coming weeks, ahead of a potential return, if that does indeed end up happening. 

Cover photo via: Matthew Stith/MLS

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