Time for a tactical thought experiment in the mental laboratory (or should that be the Laba-ratory?).
No don’t stop reading now! It gets better! (Spoiler alert: It really doesn’t).
Matias Laba wasn’t alone in underperforming for the Vancouver Whitecaps in 2016 but it could be argued that his underperformance hurt the team most of all.
In the previous seasons Laba had been both a shield and midfield destroyer for the team and the absence of those qualities played no small part in the dreadful defensive performance of 2016.
But the kind of player Laba is offers its own problems for Carl Robinson.
Take a look at these two shots of his defensive performance against Seattle and San Jose at the tail end of the season
Laba may be a defensive midfielder but he’s not a holding midfielder. He doesn’t just sit in front of the back four protecting them because his game is about following the ball.
Perhaps the player Laba most resembles (in style if not in quality) is N’Golo Kanté the former Leicester and now Chelsea midfielder.
Like Laba, Kanté is about chasing down the opposition rather than waiting for them to come to him and he was hugely successful playing that style with Leicester and is developing similar success this year with Chelsea.
So what can the Whitecaps learn about the way Kanté has been used to get the best out of Laba? There are probably three main options.
Kanté worked for Leicester because they were primarily a counter attacking team and his ability to break up play was invaluable in such a system. But this was reliant on there always being defensive cover for Kanté no matter where he was on the field (usually Danny Drinkwater).
Of course Laba was equally successful last season in a counter attacking team because he had Gershon Koffie to cover for him.
So one option is for the Whitecaps to revert to what they were good at; put Jacobson, Teibert or McKendry alongside Laba and hope that a new number ten and a new striker are more capable of breaking down packed defences than the team were at the tail end of 2015.
Kanté’s success at Chelsea is partly because he has Matic as defensive cover and partly because Chelsea have now adapted to play three central defenders.
So Kanté can wander wherever he needs to because the middle of the pitch is always covered.
Playing three central defenders would solve one of Carl Robinson’s major selection headaches and allow him to field all three of Waston, Parker and Edgar (and the current backups of Dean and Seiler are more than adequate for MLS).
He also has the players to play as more attacking wing backs in Harvey and Levis on the left and Aird on the right (although an upgrade and cover on the right certainly wouldn’t hurt).
Again this would eliminate the need for a “box to box” midfielder and make the acquisition of a number ten and a striker the sole priorities.
The third option is to not use Laba at all.
Despite a poor season he’s still highly thought of in MLS and there would no shortage of teams willing to trade.
So cashing in on Laba and (hopefully) finding a central midfielder who can chip in with six or more goals a season and add a much needed attacking string to the Whitecaps’ bow isn’t an impossible dream.
The best option of these three?
That entirely depends on how Carl Robinson wants his team to play but the very worst thing he could do is to ignore the type of player Laba actually is and leave both him and the team caught between the rock of a misused DP and the hard place of carelessly wasted salary spending.