Finding Robin: Analyzing the race between Derek Cornelius and Ranko Veselinovic to be the Vancouver Whitecaps #2 centre back

While Erik Godoy is a no-doubt, everyday starter for the Vancouver Whitecaps at centre back, the ‘Caps have some hard decisions to make when deciding who to play beside him. The 2 favourites right now appear to be Ranko Veselinovic and Derek Cornelius, a pair of U23 defenders who’ve put in some good shifts this season. In this, we try to compare the two, seeing if there’s one that should hold the edge over the other in this race to play with Godoy. 

It’s an interesting problem to have. 

For the Vancouver Whitecaps, they’ve got an abundance of choice at centre back, making the decision to choose who is selected at the heart of their defence a tough one every game out. 

There is one slam dunk choice, Erik Godoy, the 25-year-old Argentine defender who the ‘Caps paid a hefty fee to permanently bring into the fold this offseason, but after that, there is a lot for head coach Marc Dos Santos to choose from. 

If he wants experience, he has the 30-year-old Andy Rose, who despite not being a full-time centre back until this season, has actually fared decently in his debut campaign at the back. 

Otherwise, if he prefers height, he’s got the gangly 23-year-old Jasser Khmiri, whose 6’4” frame is a handful for opponents to deal with at both ends of the pitch. 

But while those two are solid options, and they did combine for 1 of the only 2 clean sheets the ‘Caps kept this season, there’s no doubt that the big choice for Dos Santos is between a pair of 6’2” early 20 somethings: 21-year-old Ranko Veselinovic and 22-year-old Derek Cornelius. 

Tale of the Tape: 

When looking at Veselinovic and Cornelius, it’s clear that they both have unique skillsets, both of which make them valuable to the ‘Caps in different ways. 

Cornelius is a left-footed solid defender who has decent foot speed but prefers to keep himself between his goal and his man, racking up blocks, clearances and interceptions by doing so. He’s good enough with the ball at his feet, but it’s not his biggest strength, as his best attribute is probably his strong positioning, as he makes sure that he is rarely caught out of the play. 

Veselinovic is more of a gambler that likes to stick his long-looking legs into challenges, as he isn’t afraid to go to ground to stop a chance. He is excellent with the ball at his feet, as he is able to pick out players all over the pitch with his sharpshooting right foot, but he has a tendency to lose his marker at times, with his ability to remain engaged over the course of 90 minutes being a bit of a question mark at times.

So for Dos Santos, it’s a tough decision to have to make each game, without a doubt. 

On one side, you have someone like Veselinovic, who when he’s engaged, is the sort of spectacular defender you just notice and say ‘wow’, as he can have the sort of 8/10 game that you can’t miss. On the other side, you have Cornelius, who might not be as flashy as Veselinovic, but is a lot more consistent in his game, as he knows how to avoid the sort of 4/10 games that his counterpart often offsets his 8/10 games with. 

And now that the ‘Caps have just permanently signed Veselinovic, to a deal that the Canadian Press reported to be around $650 000, it makes the debate all that tougher. 

Clearly, Dos Santos liked Veselinovic enough to have given him the 12 starts required to trigger his purchase option, but on the other hand, Cornelius is just so solid whenever he slots in, making a strong claim for more minutes. 

Considering where the Canadian was at 19 months ago, as he struggled massively in the first few months of his MLS career, he’s taken a big step forward since August of 2019, where he first truly started to put up some solid performances. 

So when we remember that Veselinovic is around 16 months younger than Cornelius, and actually has more professional experience than the Canadian, you do wonder where he’ll be in a year or two, but at the same time, the ‘Caps are looking to win games now. 

There’s no doubt that in terms of pedigree, Veselinovic is the more heralded name of the two. That’s why many were very surprised to see the young Serbian defender make the move to MLS, with some suggesting that the centre back with nearly 60 games of top-flight Serbian experience could be a good pick-up for some decent European sides. 

It makes you wonder, as it does feel like Veselinovic will be someone that could very well move on from MLS within the next 3 years, as the combination of his physical tools, ability to play with the ball at his feet and nation will be an attractive package for some teams in Europe. 

While Cornelius could also be someone who could see a move to Europe in that same timeline, given that he’s older, doesn’t play a flashy game and is Canadian, you feel like for reasons out of his control, any sort of move that he’d make would unfortunately pale to what Veselinovic might bring to the table.

But while it’s interesting to compare potential financial packages the ‘Caps could hypothetically receive for their two young defenders, that won’t win them games right now, complicating this debate. 

Yes, playing Veselinovic might pay off down the road, but is it beneficial to do so at the detriment of Cornelius, who’s had a pretty good 2020 despite seeing irregular minutes? 

Let’s dive into some numbers to see. 

Comparing them to the rest of MLS:

Veselinovic makes a pass with Orji Okwonkwo on his back against Montreal in September (Keveren Guillou)

Before we do some direct comparisons between the two, it’s worth noting how they compare to some of their peers in MLS. 

So first, take the time to read this great article by Caleb Wilkins of 86Forever from a few weeks ago, as Caleb did an excellent job to take each of the 5 Whitecaps centre backs and compare them to the rest of the centre backs in MLS. 

The charts in that article showed in what percentile each player was for each respective stat, with anything above the 50th percentile essentially being ‘above-average’, while anything above the 75th percentile could be seen as anywhere from ‘really good’ to ‘elite’. 

While there are some questions to be asked of that potential exercise, especially when considering factors such as sample size and the validity of using stats to analyze defenders, it’s still a very interesting starting point for us to base this discussion off of. 

First, there’s the no-doubt affirmation that Erik Godoy is a pretty good centre back, and considering his still-young age for a defender (27), and recent injury problems that have held him back, he’s on track to be an elite centre back in the league long-term. 

Secondly, there’s the interesting conclusion that Andy Rose is actually been pretty good this year, and that Jasser Khmiri is all across the board in his categories, which is both surprising and not that surprising at all considering the Tunisian’s style of play. 

But since this article is seeking to compare Cornelius and Veselinovic, those are the two we want to hone in on. 

First, for Cornelius, his stats all pretty much ranked between the 25th and 75th percentile, suggesting that he’s been playing at about a league-average level this year. For someone who’d be expected to partner a borderline elite talent like Godoy, that’s actually not that much of a problem for Cornelius, especially in a league where teams don’t tend to allocate a lot of resources to defenders. 

The big surprise, however, was to see that Veselinovic’s stats mostly put him below the 25th percentile, suggesting that he’s been well below replacement level. While he’s gone and played 6 times (5 starts) since Caleb’s article was published, only allowing more than 1 goal in 1 of those games, it was quite interesting to see how poorly he fared at the time. 

But maybe it shouldn’t have been a surprise to see Veselinovic fare badly in those categories at that time, especially when we remember that he had started 9 out of 15 games on a team that was and still is second-last in MLS for goals against and last for Expected Goals (xG) against per game.

On the other hand, when we remember that Godoy, Cornelius and Rose didn’t have the same troubles in their 5, 10 and 8 starts that they had at the time, respectively, despite playing in the same team, it does leave a bit to ponder. 

Head-to-Head comparison:

When looking at the two centre backs head-to-head, however, is where things get real interesting. 

Just below is a chart comparing their statistical outputs this season, all based on per-game metrics except for goals added, which is a wonderful stat created by those at American Soccer Analysis to showcase the impact each player has on a team’s offence, calculated based on the whole season. 

It takes 6 categories, dribbling, receiving (passes), shooting, passing, interrupting and fouling, and breaks down how valuable each player is in those respective categories.

What’s great about that stat is that it also factors in defensive contributions, so if someone’s tackles help a team create more chances in transition, that is seen as valuable as someone who makes the killer pass or takes the final shot. 

So here’s how Cornelius and Veselinovic stack up when pitted against each other. 

And almost surprisingly, there’s not much to separate the two, at least upon first glance. 

Veselinovic is actually better at intercepting, clearing and blocking the ball than Cornelius, something that is not at all backed up by the eye test, as we suggested earlier. 

But where Cornelius really shines is in tackles per game, dribble past, offsides and goals added, which are all very interesting stats for him to lead in. 

While tackles and interceptions are both two stats that defenders have a hard time controlling, unlike midfielders and forwards, there are a few ways to give an idea of how good someone is at them. 

So where Veselinovic has actually shown to be good at putting himself between balls and getting interceptions and blocks, Cornelius has a really impressive tackling rate. 

And even more impressively, despite having way more successful tackles than Veselinovic, Cornelius gets dribbled past less often, which means that when he tackles, he often makes it count. 

That suggests that he’s actually pretty good at judging his space, as he knows when to lunge in and take the ball off of attackers, but is also pretty good at knowing to sit back and avoid getting burned, as his blocks and interceptions numbers aren’t all that different from Veselinovic’s. 

Considering that he wins more offsides than Veselinovic, which is a stat that comes down to positioning, that certainly does back up that theory, especially when you consider the gulf between tackle numbers for these two. 

Lastly, the goals added is most interesting, as while they’re both seen as below-average compared to other defenders in MLS in terms of the goals they add to the Vancouver attack, the system ranks Cornelius’s contributions as being slightly more valuable. 

When you break down where the system actually sees the value, things get even more interesting, as Cornelius bests Veselinovic in receiving, shooting, passing and fouling, while Veselinovic bests his counterpart in dribbling and interrupting. 

While shooting, receiving and dribbling are not exactly useful stats for defenders, to see Cornelius lead in fouling and passing is surprising, especially considering Veselinovic’s reputation as a passer and as a gritty defender. 

Where Veselinovic does lead Cornelius is in interrupting, however, as that does show that he knows how to disrupt attacks, which is always an important skill for defenders to have, and considering his interception and block numbers, maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise to see him do well there. 

Ultimately, it does seem like Cornelius does hold the edge from an overall standpoint, but Veselinovic’s ability to get in between the ball and his net cannot be understated, and the difference between these two isn’t all that big. 

Looking Forward

So when considering these numbers, there are some interesting takeaways from this exercise. 

All things considered, there isn’t all that much that separates these two defenders, but Cornelius does hold an edge in most numbers, giving him an edge in this battle. 

When you also factor in his left-footedness, which allows Erik Godoy to play at right centre  back, which is more of his preferred position, that also does have to put him ahead of Veselinovic in the pecking order. 

Playing Veselinovic over Cornelius isn’t necessarily costing the team points, or making them a significantly worse team, but considering the Serbian’s struggles at limiting his individual errors as of late, something that doesn’t show up it the stats, you do have to wonder why Cornelius hasn’t played more, especially when you look at his statistical profile. 

While playing Veselinovic is certainly something that could pay off in the long-term, when it comes to winning games right now, Cornelius currently helps the ‘Caps win more games, and should hold an inside claim to a starting spot until Veselinovic proves otherwise. 

So heading into the last 2 games of the season and beyond, it’ll be interesting to see what Dos Santos and the ‘Caps decide to do. 

There’s no easy decision, but when looking at the numbers, Cornelius seems to be the guy to go with, especially when you see how he pairs up with the ‘Caps defensive rock, Godoy. 

Ultimately, as the ‘Caps plan to compete in MLS, how they line up their defence will be important, so it’ll be a decision that may shape that plan long-term, especially depending on how these players progress long-term. 

All Stats Via: American Soccer Analysis/WhoScored

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