“Aim for the sky and you’ll reach the ceiling. Aim for the ceiling and you’ll stay on the floor”. Bill Shankly
Carl Robinson will almost certainly be back as coach of the Vancouver Whitecaps next season.
After all, he’s a safe pair of hands who can do enough to get them into the playoffs most years and who is happy to talk down the potential of his own team to ensure nobody gets too upset whenever they fall short or fail to perform.
But if there’s one metaphor to sum up his tenure thus far it’s those “ceilings” spoken of by Bill Shankly.
There’s the ceiling of his own coaching ability which is limited to one particular style of play no matter who is in the squad.
The illusion that a forward of genuine quality and a dynamic creative presence would allow Robinson to play more attractive football has been shattered by the realization that Fredy Montero and Yordy Reyna are still playing in a team that is specifically designed to isolate them.
Neither does it matter who is touted as a box to box saviour because Robinson won’t want them to play as a box to box saviour. He will want them to sit deep and stifle the midfield.
And in every game of consequence he has been out coached to an alarming degree, largely because the way he sets up the team is so predictable.
Don’t give away silly fouls near your own penalty area, don’t push too many men forward and the Whitecaps just won’t be able to beat you.
There’s the ceiling his style of play imposes on young players.
It can be argued that defenders such as Parker and Nerwinski have flourished under Robinson but not a single young attacking player has improved.
What that means for the future of Alphonso Davies is cause for concern.
Is playing in a team that doesn’t want possession good for his long-term growth? Is playing in a team that seems to value his defensive contribution over all else beneficial? Is playing in a team in which the coach constantly thinks the opposition are to be feared no matter who they are or where the game is played good for his confidence?
The answer to all those questions is “No” by the way.
There’s the ceiling of how much the club can grow under his stewardship.
It’s true that Robinson’s main focus has to be on getting results but the first leg against Seattle was so devoid of ambition that very few of those “Whitecaps curious” attendees among the 27,000 will be coming back.
Play conservative football and win and perhaps something limited but substantial can be built. Play conservative football and lose and the foundations will begin to shift.
Right now the Whitecaps are at the limit of how far they can go in terms of crowd numbers with this style of play (actually, that limit may have already been reached last season and this year could be the start of the decline).
Whatever the case, more of the same next season will see those numbers dissipate just a little bit more.
There’s the ceiling of his relationship with the supporters.
It’s kind of odd that Robinson, who clearly has a very good relationship with his players, has never really connected with the Whitecaps fan base.
Part of that is because he treats all interviews and press conferences as a way of either saying nothing or as a way of dissembling.
And again, just like his preferred style of play, that’s his prerogative.
But if you don’t engage with the fans by acknowledging their concerns or speaking in a way that elicits or invites empathy then those poor performances are so much tougher to get through.
It could be that his whole “we are up against it” philosophy precludes him from this kind of engagement or it could be that he regards his own knowledge of the game to be so far above those who pay for tickets week in and week out that they don’t merit consideration.
But if Robinson displayed the same openness and willingness to engage with the fans as he does with an opposition player taking a throw in he might be given a little more slack when things go awry.
And finally there’s the ceiling of his own ambition.
Maybe he’s not to blame for this particular flaw because it could be the club ethos as a whole but the overwhelming sense is of a coach who once he’s reached a level he thinks is acceptable for the season regards anything else as simply a bonus.
From the moment the Whitecaps reached the playoffs this year Robinson began to tinker with team selection and tactics and lo and behold the performances dipped.
Instead of asking more of his players he asked less. He left in-form performers out of lineups and seemingly saw the final three games of the campaign as the chance to decide what his best eleven should be.
Which is kind of crazy once you really think about it.
Unsurprisingly any momentum was lost and we ended up watching the team turn in those two performances against Seattle.
So after four years of observing his body of work as a coach we can conclude that while Robinson really wants to win games and trophies he doesn’t really need to win them.
He’s more than happy to hit whatever preseason target the back or front office assign him and then explain with a smile that his players just aren’t as good as their opponents.
Despite all of the above though he will probably be back in 2018 and there will no doubt be talk of new signings and rumours of departures and then the preseason advertising campaign will proclaim how much everybody involved with the Whitecaps cares for the club and for the supporters and for the history.
And then this time next year Carl Robinson will once again be shrugging his shoulders and giving a “Well, what can you do?” grin while our Cascadian rivals celebrate in the background.