To 4-3-3 or not to 4-3-3: Analyzing how 15 minutes of play (and some stats) might spell the end of the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-4-2

The ‘Caps have continued to rock with a 4-4-2 to start the 2021 season, to mixed results. Based on 15 minutes of play, and some numbers, that might be set to change, though. Here’s a look at why. 

To 4-3-3 or not to 4-3-3, that is the question. 

It might not be as existential as Shakespeare’s original quote, but in a sense, answering this sort of question will play a big role in determining the identity of the Vancouver Whitecaps going forward, making it almost as important. 

In their ever-continuing quest to find out what sort of team they can be in MLS, picking the right formation is crucial, and it’s something they’ve struggled heavily with since the start of 2019, having seemingly tried every formation under the sun in a never-ending journey to establish their identity. 

Towards the end of 2020, that changed, though, as head coach Marc Dos Santos seemed to find a 4-4-2 that suited his team’s play, and he promised to stick with it to start the year. 

Based on what we saw last year, that seemed like a prudent decision, one that made sense heading into the start of the season, especially given the state of the ‘Caps roster at the start of the year. 

There were a few confusing aspects of the formation, including the decision to plug winger Cristian Dajome in as a striker, filling in for the departed Fredy Montero, along with the continued deployment of central midfielder Russell Teibert as a wide midfielder, but aside from that, everything made sense. 

And the results backed it up. 

Through the first 4 games, making minimal changes to the roster, the ‘Caps picked up 7 points out of 4, looking quite convincing while doing so. 

But then they hit a bit of a rut in their last two games, losing by a combined score of 4-0, leaving the team with 7 points from their first 6 games, which isn’t bad, but isn’t great, either.

It’s hard to say those two games changed all that much, as the ‘Caps played two solid teams away from home, something that they’ve struggled massively with lately, having only picked up points in 2 of their last 12 road games, but they still helped explain the limits of the 4-4-2 for Vancouver right now. 

Results or not, however, having played 6 games, with nearly everyone in the roster available, we’re starting to get a good idea of what this ‘Caps team is capable of, both good and bad. 

So far, there have been moments of brilliance, especially defensively, but offensively, this formation has seemed to hit a wall, especially considering that the ‘Caps are yet to score an open play goal in 2021, and are 2nd-last in MLS in open play Expected Goals (xG) per game with 0.40. 

Not only are they not scoring goals, but they’re also not generating a whole heck of a lot in the chances department, either, which is starting to become a worry. 

It’s not as if the ‘Caps have a lack of talent, either, as they certainly seem to have a roster that can score goals, but they’re just not doing the right things with the ball right now. 

That’s where the 4-3-3 enters the discussion. 

In their last game, a 3-0 loss against Sporting Kansas City, having gotten completely overrun in midfield by their opponents, the ‘Caps made the decision to switch to a 4-3-3 after 35 minutes, as they tried to stem the baby blue tide that was SKC’s offence. 

While it didn’t fully work, as SKC continued to pour in the chances, the ‘Caps found a bit of life offensively after that 35th minute, as indicated in the live xG map below. 

It might not seem like much, but it’s worth noting that the ‘Caps looked quite good by the eye test, as well, further adding credence to the idea that it might be a wise option to consider switching over. 

Dos Santos admitted as much after the game when asked about it, as well, only adding a bit more fuel to that fire. 

“Of course, it’s something that we could (try),” Dos Santos admitted. “When you try to originate goalscoring opportunities, and you’re trying to find the balance between attacking and defending well, and you think the players in the team that can keep you more on the ball can allow you to find more goalscoring opportunities, when you’re in a situation like that, you have to consider going towards that.”

But then, Dos Santos offered a measured reason as to why he isn’t yet ready to commit to that 4-3-3 quite yet.

“But of course, we need to analyze things very well,” he continued. “Right now, this was our most difficult game this year, and we have to analyze what happened in the first 5 games that we liked, and what happened in the 6th game that we didn’t like, how did the 6th game go to put us in this situation? But I think we found the ball in better pockets in the last 15 minutes of the first half, more movement, more mobility.”

And unfortunately, it makes sense from a coaching perspective, as he wouldn’t want to undermine the work that he and his staff did up to this point with the 4-4-2 based on 15 minutes of soccer in a game they were trailing by 2 goals. 

But at the same time, the idea of switching to a 4-3-3 shouldn’t be all that groundbreaking for this squad, either. 

As we saw earlier this year, the ‘Caps do sometimes attack in a 4-3-3, anyways, showing that is’ certainly a part of their game that they do have in their locker, so it shouldn’t be a foreign concept for them, as that period against SKC showed. 

Looking at their roster, it’d make plenty of sense for them to consider that set-up, especially considering that their biggest area of worry through 6 games has been creation through the middle of the park, something that having a 3-man midfield could help fix. 

Reading between the lines, though, Dos Santos’s comments do suggest that it’s something that his team is considering, and based on what he said, he certainly recognizes the boost that trying the formation gave to his offence. 

So what’s stopping him from switching ahead of this upcoming ‘Caps game, against Houston? 

Timing. 

Unfortunately, the ‘Caps find themselves with a month-long break after they play Houston, as the timing of a bye week and an international break will see them withdrawn from competitive action for a good chunk of time. 

It comes with good and bad benefits, so it isn’t fair to say that the break is necessarily positive or negative, but from a coaching perspective, this sort of break can alter plans. 

With all that extra time on his hands, Dos Santos and his staff can take the break to study what they’ve felt has gone right and wrong with their 4-4-2, and how they can tweak it going forward, be it switching to a 4-3-3 completely or offering smaller changes. 

Seeing that the players will be away from training for anywhere from a few days to weeks depending on if they’re participating with their international teams or not, Dos Santos and his staff will then be able to introduce any alterations to the set-up when everyone is back and training fully once again. 

Obviously, had there not been a break, Dos Santos would probably be less gun shy about making a change, and rightfully so. 

Given how impactful momentum swings can be over the course of a season, making a timely change in the middle of a busy schedule can have a big impact, but with the break looming, any positive change made for the Houston game would likely be forgotten in a month. 

Dos Santos admitted as much on Wednesday, offering an interesting reflection when asked about a potential formation switch. 

“It’s what we want to do,” he said of keeping consistency. “First, it’s so important that for the group and for the confidence of the group, that we don’t throw our first 5 games in the garbage, just because the game in Kansas City was a very low standard. We know that, we know it was a low standard, we’re not happy with it, but we did a lot of good things in our first 5 games, so we have to consider that going into Houston, we also have to consider that for the confidence and belief of the group, because they are confident as a group.” 

“And then after the Houston game, we have a break, like I said, after the Houston game, I guarantee you that we’re going to be very close or in a playoff line, everything’s going to be close in our division, and then we go into a break that with our data department, performance, numbers, looking at the guys that we have here right now, and not thinking about who’s not here, because it doesn’t help. It doesn’t help me as a coach to think ‘oh if I had this position, or if I had this guy, I’d do this and that’, that’s a huge waste of time, I have to think with the guys that we have, and with the players that we have, what is our best team? How do we create more? How do we generate more? And that’s something to do during the break”

He added: “I’ll give you another one, even when we’re on the road, in games like Seattle, LAFC, Sporting Kansas City, how do we approach those games, can we have some tactical flexibility to deal with things a little bit better, and have our guys being ready to play away in games like that to give us a better chance, it’s all things that we have to evaluate, for sure.”

The ‘Caps working on their 4-4-2 at training earlier this year (Keveren Guillou)

That reflection is quite interesting, as it shows that he’s certainly considering ways to fix his team’s offence, but he realizes that the best moment to make a change is during the break, instead of in this Dynamo game. 

That doesn’t mean that he won’t make a change then, as he’ll probably be considering it, but the likeliest outcome is that they use this Houston match as one last data point, giving them plenty to ponder over the next 5 weeks. 

And there’s no doubt about it – there’s already plenty of data to dive into. 

Just looking at the counting numbers, the ‘Caps have now scored 15 goals (1 per game) and conceded 21 goals (1.4) in the 15 games in which they’ve used the 4-4-2 over the last 16 games dating back to 2019, which shows that they’ve been decent defensively but not great offensively, over that time, which the eye test mostly backs up. 

Over the course of those 15 games, they’ve been shut out 7 times, and of those 15 goals, only 5 have been via open play. 

Defensively, they’ve kept 3 clean sheets, and have only conceded 3 or more goals just twice, which is pretty good considering the number of goals they shipped in the first 1.5 seasons under Dos Santos. 

But until they solve those offensive woes, those defensive numbers will be mostly wasted, as the defence has mostly needed to be perfect for the ‘Caps to even have a chance to grab points. 

That’s no exaggeration, either. 

A look at the advanced stats backs up that theory. 

Through those 15 games, they’re averaging 1.16 xG for per game offensively, and 1.55 xG against per game defensively, which shows that the ‘Caps are actually defending better than their expected goals, but are underperforming at the other end. 

All of that opens up the door for a 4-3-3. 

With more of an emphasis on midfield play, the ‘Caps can still keep teams out of dangerous areas defensively, but put themselves in a better position to succeed offensively. 

There is still a lot of work for them to be a top offensive team, but with the names that they’ve got at their disposal, they shouldn’t be among the worst attacking teams in the league, either. 

To be fair, a #10 could help solve those woes, and that player will help out massively when signed, but until then, switching to a 4-3-3 could offer the ‘Caps a way to offer more of a balanced threat than what they’re offering right now. 

By going to that 4-3-3, that could allow Caio Alexandre to exercise ‘Caio Alexandre theory’, for example, which is one of many potential bonuses of switching to that formation. 

So when considering all of this, it makes sense to at least be considering some sort of change, be it a tweak to the current 4-4-2, or by making the change to a 4-3-3 outright, because change is needed. 

Considering the circumstances, though, that change will be delayed by a game, but afterwards, it sounds like change could be on the table, which is good to see. 

In the ‘Caps seemingly never-ending quest to establish an identity, the possibility of seeing another formation change is daunting, but as the numbers suggest, it’s time for a tweak. 

Based on what we’ve seen, the ‘Caps have shown flashes of good things in that 4-4-2, but seem a step away from showing them with more regularity. 

The 4-3-3 just might be that stepping ladder that they needed, and while a few minutes against SKC wasn’t enough to prove that, it certainly showed that it’s something worth exploring more.

That exploration won’t come until after this break, unfortunately, but once it’s here, it could be what the ‘Caps need to make their ‘Midsummer’s Night’s Dream’ come true. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Houston Dynamo, May 22nd, 2021, 18:00 PDT, 21:00 EDT (BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston)

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