The Vancouver Whitecaps have struggled offensively as of late, as they’ve been shut out in 5 of their last 6 games. In this piece, we look at some of the reasons why that’s been the case, and look at how a switch to the 4-3-3, along with some other shifts, could change that.
Without a doubt, the Vancouver Whitecaps are in a rut right now.
Winless in phase 1 of their return to MLS action, they’ve struggled to muster up much offence in their 3 losses against Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, who’ve outscored them to the tune of 6-0 in this 3 game span.
As a result, they’ve tanked to the bottom of the Western Conference standings in MLS, are on the brink of being eliminated from Canadian Championship contention, and are just overall not doing a lot to restore fan confidence after a similarly rough 2019 campaign.
Most frustrating of all, they haven’t been playing good soccer, making it even harder to watch them at the moment, with the combination of negative results and negative play creating roots of a lot of apathy surrounding viewers of this team.
While this rut won’t be the end of the Whitecaps, they’ll want to get out of it real soon, because if not, this 2020 campaign could be over before it really ever got started.
Luckily for Vancouver, they’re not in the woods completely quite yet, as they’ve still got a good chance at a playoff spot, and are still alive in the Canadian Championship race, but they’ve got to turn around their ship in a hurry, because if not, it won’t be a fun winter for those in around the club.
To do that, they’ll need to patch up their biggest problem, which has been on the offensive end of things, with their last goal coming nearly 400 minutes ago against the Chicago Fire at MLS is Back.
For whatever reason, despite a return of DP striker Lucas Cavallini to the lineup after MLS is Back, the ‘Caps are firing blanks right now, and it’s costing them in the standings.
In this, we look at where their struggles have been stemming from, and what they’ll need to do to fix them.
By the numbers:
To start off, no matter how you crunch things, the numbers don’t look good for the ‘Caps as of late.
They’ve only got 4 shots on target in the last 3 games, one of which was a penalty from Cavallini that was saved by Montreal’s Clement Diop, with the other 3 being pretty harmless attempts that didn’t trouble Diop nor Toronto’s Quintin Westberg in goal.
In terms of advanced stats, they’ve only generated 1.7 Expected Goals in that time span as well, as the 20 or so shots they’ve sent towards goal haven’t been from quality positions, hence the limited xG and shots on targets that they’ve created.
After scoring through all 6 games of preseason, and scoring in their first 3 games of the regular season, as well, they’ve hit a wall offensively as of late, as they’ve been shut out in 5 of the 6 games since.
Because of that, it’s been a tough time to be a ‘Caps defender as of late, as they’ve done well to only concede 9 goals in that 6 game span, yet they’ve only won once and drawn once in that time, with the lone victory coming against the Chicago Fire at MLS is Back, and the draw coming against Sporting KC in the Round of 16 of that same tournament.
While 9 goals isn’t anything to write home about, 6 of those did come in two games, against the Seattle Sounders and Toronto FC, both 3-0 losses, leaving the 3 other goals to come in the other 4 games.
Basically, if they keep puttering at this offensive pace, their defence is going to need to be perfect, and even then, as they showed, that might not be enough to get them 3 points, at least not until they find a way to bust this slump.
But while the numbers don’t look good for the ‘Caps right now, the eye test doesn’t do them much justice, either.
In possession, they’ve lacked inspiration, penetration and creativity, as they’ve struggled to break down opponents, and without the ball, the famed high-press they touted all preseason as been missing in action.
Put together, it hasn’t been pretty, as Vancouver has been too passive off of the ball, but when they get it back, they haven’t been able to do much with it, anyways.
A big reason for that? Tactics, as a recent shift to the 5-3-2 hasn’t gotten the best out of most players, especially on the offensive end. It’s helped them out defensively, but considering how they’ve looked offensively, a shift from the 5-3-2 to the 4-3-3 may be the wise play.
They played their best football in that formation, at least offensively, and showed to be pretty solid defensively in it, as well.
As we explored back in February after preseason ended, the ‘Caps found a way to both press high but stay controlled in possession, making them a hard team to play against on both ends.
Since then, however, they’ve shifted between a 4-4-2 and a 5-3-2 with limited results, especially offensively, begging the question, why not return to the 4-3-3?
And as we see below, they made a big case for that in their latest game against the Impact.
But before we go into why they should return to the 4-3-3, here is a look at why they’ve struggled offensively in other formations, using that Montreal game as an example.
High press and low block woes:
And while it’s hard to see how pressing high up the pitch helps the offence, there’s a reason why pressing has become the big buzz in European soccer, and that’s because it helps teams on both ends of the pitch.
There’s no coincidence that the last game that the ‘Caps pressed with any sort of consistent conviction in was against San Jose, the last game in which they scored more than 3 goals (and even more interestingly, it was the last time they used a 4-3-3 to start a match).
In that one, they scored 2 of their goals via the high press, as they stormed out to a 3-1 lead, before collapsing to lose 4-3 in their attempts to protect the lead.
Since then, they’ve rarely pressed high up the pitch, and while that’s been due to a multitude of factors, including injuries, fatigue and calibre of opponent, you would’ve hoped for a return to the high press by now, especially given how important it was to their preseason success.
Against Montreal, in their last game out, they employed a passive press once again, as they elected to sit back in their 5-3-2.
Right from the get-go, as in the screenshot below, they didn’t apply much pressure on the Montreal centre backs, giving them free rein to do what they wanted in possession.
While that isn’t a negative thing, it certainly feels like a waste of Lucas Cavallini’s talent, as the DP striker’s pressing ability can be quite impactful in a match.
Along with the likes of David Milinkovic, Cristian Dajome, Ryan Raposo, Theo Bair and Tosaint Ricketts, they’ve got players who are better when they press high up the pitch, as opposed to sitting back and absorbing pressure.
By pressing higher, they’d be able to get better chances for those players to get involved offensively, as they’d likely cause a few disruptions of the opponent’s possession, getting them a chance to counter in good positions.
Instead, those players get the ball a lot deeper than they’d like when they do win it back, making it hard for them to do much with it.
Another problem with sitting back was that it invited Montreal into their half without too much resistance, and when the ball did get there, the ‘Caps low block was not stout enough to offer much resistance.
Take these next 2 screenshots, as an example. Even though the ‘Caps are sitting deep, there is a lot of space for Montreal to push into the ‘Caps half, before playing it back to their centre back.
From there, the centre back was able to look up, pick out a pass, and create a scoring opportunity, all without having to break too many lines.
Here is that full sequence, via GIF.
When playing a low block and not pressing high, the idea is to limit space in the flanks in between lines, only allowing the opponents to try hopeful long balls from the back, ones that play into the defence’s hands.
To give credit to the ‘Caps, the first part of that sequence was well-executed, as they did a good job at forcing the Impact to pass the ball back, but they reacted poorly after that, as they stayed tucked into that side, allowing the switch.
In a 5 in the back, that sort of switch should not be getting behind the full back, especially not when one sits that deep.
While playing Cristian Dajome out of position certainly contributed to that, as he’s a natural winger, not a full back, his fellow midfielder and centre back didn’t react very well to that ball, either, leaving him in a 2 v 1 with two Impact players.
And a mere few minutes later, that sort of play helped open the scoring for the Impact.
Once again, they failed to press the Impact high, allowing them to switch play from one end to the other, and once again they isolated Dajome on a 2 v 1, this time leading to a goal.
While those two GIF’s maybe don’t reflect so well on the combination of Dajome, Ranko Veselinovic and Patrick Metcalfe, no doubt that those chances don’t happen if the ‘Caps press higher.
Yes, pressing higher leaves one open to getting countered on, but a team has to be ruthless to do that, and while Montreal’s second goal was an example of them doing that, based on how slow they built things up for most of the game, the ‘Caps could’ve certainly disrupted their rhythm more.
As long as they can press in compact lines of 4 and 3 in a 4-3-3, or even in two banks of 4 and a bank of 2 as they did in the preseason, limiting space on the flanks and in behind, their press can work, not only helping them offensively, but as we saw in some of these GIFs, defensively, as well.
Lines are meant to be broken:
But while the press, or lack thereof, was a worry without the ball, the ‘Caps lacked inspiration when they did win it back.
Yes, most of their possessions started at the back due to the passiveness of the aforementioned press, but most possessions do no matter how hard you press, so their lack of inspiration from the back was a worry.
And while the tactics are a big question mark, the lack of midfield support and movement up front are two big worries, as well, causing a lack of line-breaking passes, making for a cocktail of struggles in the ‘Caps build-up play.
These next few screenshots should give you an idea of what that all means.
First, here is a shot of Derek Cornelius receiving a pass from Thomas Hasal, allowing him to walk forward into space.
Smartly, he plays it to his only option, Ali Adnan, who sits in space out on the left-hand side. Montreal is covering the middle, so Cornelius takes his only option and plays the ball forward.
When Adnan receives the ball, however, his options dry up, forcing him to play a long ball forward.
His supporting midfield option, Russell Teibert, runs away from the space into a defender, and the other option, Michael Baldisimo, is marked off, forcing Adnan to either A) play it long, or B) play it back.
In a sense, credit to Adnan for doing the latter, because too often the ‘Caps would do the former, creating an endless cycle of ball recycling.
To get an idea of what that looked like, take the next screenshot, as an example.
Cornelius just received the ball back from Andy Rose in the middle, and seeing that a pass to Adnan is closed off by a Montreal winger, he circles back and gives the ball to Rose.
From there, however, there is not much for Rose to do with it, as Montreal elects to take the wide options, daring him to play it through the middle, which he does, long and far, actually doing a good job to break some lines and find Cavallini in space.
And while the long ball isn’t maybe the best option for the ‘Caps to always resort to, to give credit to Rose, he did what many ‘Caps struggled to do against the Impact, and that was break lines.
Too often, the ‘Caps play the safe pass, which may keep possession for now, but often does nothing in terms of opening up space and getting in behind opposing defences.
It’s a risky proposition, as line-breaking passes can also lead to turnovers in dangerous areas, but seeing how most of the ‘Caps possessions end with risky long balls forward, they’ve got nothing to lose by playing more progressive passes.
Breaking lines can be so destabilizing, as that Rose long ball clip showed, but especially when you can get into a pocket of space, which are usually found between teams attacking, midfield and defensive lines.
Take this next sequence as an example of what can happen when you find those spaces.
In this instance, the ‘Caps built up through the left side, as they’ve done in the past few screenshots, and much like in those screenshots, they get cut off.
Or so you thought.
Enter Michael Baldisimo, the line-breaker.
First, Adnan breaks a line by passing up the wing to Teibert, who’s closed off nicely by Montreal’s right back.
But because Adnan broke the line, the Impact scrambled to cover Teibert, freeing up Baldisimo in a narrow pocket, which Teibert finds him in.
From there, he takes advantage of that chaos to break yet another line, this time finding David Milinkovic between the disjointed Montreal midfield line, which broke because of that earlier pass, and their defensive line, leading to a foul and a decent chance to get forward.
Considering it was Baldisimo’s MLS debut, that sort of pass is especially impressive, and seeing how often he was able to do it for the ‘Caps against the Impact, it gave him a shout to earn more starts in the ‘Caps midfield.
Here is another example of how destabilizing breaking lines can be for a defence.
In this instance, Dajome gets a ball on the right, and he looks to go forward with it, in possession.
While the sequence starts out rather stale, with the ‘Caps not offering much movement in the final third, making it hard for Dajome to break a line, a little movement by Cavallini opens things up, turning this into a pretty decent move, even despite a moment of hesitation from Dajome.
If you’re the ‘Caps, you absolutely want to see more of those line-breaking passes going forward, and that starts with more movement from the forwards and midfielders, along with some more risk-taking from the backline.
While adding someone like Baldisimo into the mix helps, as he likes to turn into space and play the ball forward, he also needs to get the ball in those half-spaces, which is why the ‘Caps are going to need their whole team to be on the same page in order to start breaking more lines.
Can the 4-3-3 save them?
And while not having those two fundamental ideas, movement and risk-taking, will dog a team that doesn’t do them no matter what formation they play in, the 4-3-3 has shown to help the ‘Caps surmount their struggles in those areas, along with their pressing woes.
Against the Impact, they switched to the 4-3-3 to start the half, with Cavallini reuniting with Dajome and Milinkovic up front, and it had an immediate effect on the team.
Firstly, the pressing was much improved, as the ‘Caps started to trouble Montreal higher up the pitch.
In this clip, they force Montreal into some scrambly moments in a dangerous area, as the Impact were only saved by a moment of recklessness by Milinkovic, who seemingly excited at the prospect at winning the ball high up the pitch, channelled his inner Alex Edler and hip-checked the Impact player.
That press would pay off mere seconds later, as upon the restart, the ‘Caps forced the Impact onto the wing once again, and this time they picked off an errant pass, allowing them to regain possession.
While pressing is gruelling to do all game, imagine how worn out the Impact defenders would have been had Vancouver pressured them for 90 minutes.
The ‘Caps would have forced some more mistakes while also relieving some pressure off of their defenders, making it a win-win scenario.
And if their players were to burn out from pressing all game, there’s a reason that MLS added the 5 substitute rule, and that’s to give players less of a chance to get injured, which works into the ‘Caps favour.
But while the press was noticeably improved in the 4-3-3, the offensive game looked a lot better, as well, with Vancouver doing well to look more aggressive in possession.
Take this GIF, as an example.
While Dajome wasn’t whistled for what seemed like a foul from the Impact player, that line-breaking pass from Rose caused trouble for the Impact defence, creating the aggressive lunge that could’ve easily been called a foul.
If that’s whistled as a foul, all of a sudden the ‘Caps get a chance to set-up in the Impact half, with all of Montreal’s players likely to have to drop behind the ball, giving them possession in a good area.
Here is another example of what breaking lines can do offensively.
In this instance, while the ‘Caps are far from looking crisp with their touches, just by breaking a few lines, they got in behind quite easily, causing Montreal’s defence to shift, leading to a nice cross from Adnan.
Just via one short pass from Adnan and one throw from Teibert, the Impact was pushed onto the back foot, giving Vancouver a good chance to push towards goal.
Most impressively, these last 4 GIFs showing how the 4-3-3 helped the ‘Caps all came within a 2-minute span, all in the second half, giving you an idea of how good Vancouver looked once they made the switch.
The press looked a lot better, which was a big bonus, but also the players looked a lot more comfortable in possession, allowing for more attacking sequences like the one we saw above.
While the ‘Caps are missing some key pieces for them to play the best version of the 4-3-3, it seems like the formation they’re most familiar with, and until those players return, they can certainly continue to improve on it with the players they do have.
And when those players do come back, it’ll create a good battle for roster spots within that 4-3-3, as well, making it a win-win for Dos Santos and his charges.
After seeing them struggle within the other formations they’ve tried, there’s no reason not to try it, especially after seeing flashes of success in a short span versus Montreal.
So it’ll be interesting to see what the ‘Caps do going forward.
It does sounds like they’ll return to the 4-3-3, as touched upon by Dos Santos after the Impact game, which is good news, especially heading into this upcoming clash against Toronto FC on the weekend.
“The difficult thing for us right now is to find the best formula because of players that we lost or players that are not in, and that’s difficult for us,” Dos Santos said. “I feel that, yeah, you have answers in the second half that allows you to have an opportunity to grow as a team. But man when you have so many guys out when we went to Orlando, and then back in and selling In Beom (Hwang) that is the most creative midfielder we had, you ask yourself so many questions and what’s the best formula, how can we go about things and always being on the road also.”
“But (Michael) Baldisimo and even Pat [Metcalfe] I would say with these two games, they’re giving us options also to be in a 4-3-3. Hopefully [Janio] Bikel is going to come in soon, hopefully Erik [Godoy] we could use him soon, but right now we have to do the best right now with the players we have and that are available.”
But aside from talk of formation, it’ll be intriguing to see what happens with the high press and their play in possession, which have both been two points of worry recently.
As we saw in these clips, they’ve got a lot of incentive to do so, even despite the risks, now it’s just time to see if that incentive, pushed by a lack of offence as of late, offsets the fear of those supposed risks.
There’s a lot of reason to be on both sides, but as we’ve seen in this one, along with the ‘Caps recent struggles, it seems like it might be time to throw a bit of caution to the wind and return to their high-flying ways from preseason.
Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs Toronto FC, Saturday, September 5th, 2020, 18:30 PST/20:30 EST (BC Place, Vancouver)