Vancouver Whitecaps:The anti counter intuitive argument

Counter intuitive thinking is great.

Done well and it can be intellectually interesting, entertaining and also make us consider the world in a new way.

In Yuval Noah Harari’s eminently readable book “Sapiens” for example he devotes one chapter to contending that human beings didn’t domesticate wheat but that wheat domesticated us; a once free roaming people were suddenly forced to stay in one spot and devote almost all of their time, energy and ingenuity towards keeping this single crop alive and plentiful.

But sometimes counter intuitiveness is just contrariness in a new set of clothes and that’s often the case when a sports team is in the midst of a poor run of form because, once the initial visceral emotion of defeat recedes, it becomes almost obligatory to offer reasons as to why everything is fine really and that all will ultimately be well.

That’s probably three parts a very human reaction and at least two parts simply the need for something new to say.

But rest easy dear reader, because there will be no glimpse of humanity or new things to say here as we continue to wallow in the misery of what has gone before and take a cold, uncaring look at the reasons why everything is so terrible for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

Sounds like fun!

Well, first there are the injuries.

David Edgar was obviously earmarked to be both the new captain and the man to organize the defence until an errant golf cart put paid to that plan. Would Carl Robinson be so obsessed with defensive midfielders if he had the experienced Canadian at the centre of his defence?

Almost certainly he would be but so let’s throw that idea out of the window.

The loss of Yordy Reyna until the Summer was probably the bigger blow however as the Peruvian offered the possibility of genuine pace and flair and the thought of he and Fredy Montero linking up and switching positions at least gives hope that things could turn around from a purely entertainment perspective given the right metaphorical weather.

But what those injuries really do is cover up the cracks at the heart of the issue.

Back in the days when the local newspaper industry employed more people than a Beatle’s tribute band Marc Weber detailed Martyn Pert’s off season sojourn to meet and talk with various top level coaches (Pert is Robinson’s assistant coach).

Marco Bielsa, Arsene Wenger and Brendan Rodgers were just three of those he consulted and at the time I thought “That’s interesting, hopefully he will bring back a fresh way of playing for a team that looked bereft of ideas for much of 2016.”

From what we’ve seen so far it’s safe to say that those ideas have either not been forthcoming or, if they have, they’ve not been acknowledged by the head coach because it’s hard to believe that some of the world’s finest footballing minds were all quite so set on the style of play we’ve seen from the team of late.

It would be disheartening to watch a veteran and grizzled manager in the twilight of his career send out a side with such limited attacking intent as the Whitecaps have, but to see a young coach be so conservative disses the heart even more.

It’s easy to sit and carp from sidelines of course (As Robinson himself can testify) and it’s probably too much to hope that the current two week break will produce fresh ideas and a bolder way of playing but it’s hard to imagine that many of the squad enjoy playing in a system that limits their talents so severely.

Robinson likes to think of himself as a “player’s coach” but that doesn’t just mean defending them no matter what the merits of the case. It also means making them better players as individuals and making the team better than the sum of those individuals.

And that hasn’t happened in Vancouver for a long, long while.

Whitecaps v TFC: What did we learn?

Well I think we learned that a lot of people are running out of patience with the way the team is playing as much as the results themselves.

We don’t need to rehash the appalling stats here (Mainly because I can’t be bothered to look them up) but the Whitecaps seem to be on a personal mission to prove all those folks who say that soccer is boring to be bang on the money.

It’s hard to believe that any newcomers to the team will be returning to BC Place anytime soon after the two opening performances and while we all wanted the team to turn BC Place into a fortress this season I don’t think we imagined it becoming a veritable Fortress of Solitude as more and more casual fans stay away.

That red card to Brek Shea didn’t help things of course and in the last two games the American has accumulated a yellow card for diving, a yellow card for a lazy foul and a yellow card for shouting abuse at the referee.

Maybe the next installment of the club’s “Challenge a Whitecap” feature could be Brek Shea trying to go ninety minutes without making a fool of himself?

But that foolishness can’t be divorced from the locker room culture that seems to be such a prominent topic of discussion around the Whitecaps.

Now, it’s probably such a prominent topic of  discussion because it gets mentioned so much by the club themselves but there still have to be questions around said culture given the events of the last two MLS games.

One interpretation is that the Whitecaps were defending comfortably in both games and haven’t conceded a goal until they were reduced to ten men. The other interpretation is that at the first sign of adversity they fell apart both mentally and tactically.

Strangely enough in 2016 the almost obligatory red card actually did seem to concentrate their minds and they played some of their best football while down a man (the home game against LA stands out in particular).

This year though it has felt as if Vancouver either lose their collective focus or the opposition are so confident that the ten men left on the field won’t be a threat that they pour forward in incessant waves.

They’re probably equally confident that the eleven men won’t score either because watching the Whitecaps trying to figure out how to break through a defence is like watching a marmoset trying to configure bluetooth in a rental car.

There was a gloriously typical moment in the first half against TFC when the Whitecaps were awarded a free-kick just inside the opposition half. Russell Teibert was assigned to take it and although this felt like an excellent opportunity to get the ball forward the alarmingly bearded Canadian was clearly desperate to pass the ball back to one of his central defenders.

Unfortunately that route was blocked off so he was forced to play a daringly brave ball ten yards forward. Thankfully two passes later the ball was back with Teibert and this time the reassuringly safe backwards pass was on.

Mission accomplished!

Where the team go from here is anybody’s guess but the news that Real Salt Lake have fired coach Jeff Cassar after just three games must give some pause for thought.

It’s either an indication that MLS teams will be getting itchier on the managerial trigger than they have been in the past or it’s a singular event signifying nothing of import.

It’s probably more of the latter than the former but if it gives Carl Robinson pause for thought and tempts him to move away from his philosophy that every game is essentially a fifty-fifty affair to be decided by the first goal (Let’s call it the “Fine Lines Doctrine”) and actually have his team try to take the initiative in a home game then it will be all to the good.

And while we’re on the subject of “fifty-fifty” how come I’ve never won the thing when the name literally implies that there is a 50% chance of scooping the big prize at every game?

Weird.

Whitecaps still have no particular place to go

The first priority of a football coach is to win games. The second priority is to entertain the home fans.

Take care of both and you’re a god. Take care of the first and nothing else matters. Take care of the second and you’ll be given some leeway before the axe finally falls.

Right now Carl Robinson is taking care of neither and for the second consecutive home MLS game the Whitecaps failed to score and failed to even threaten against an Eastern Conference opponent as they went down 2-0 to Toronto FC at BC Place.

The only thing that really worked out for Robinson on the day was the red card to Brek Shea (actually a second yellow for dissent) because that will no doubt move the narrative away from just how poor his team were.

Everybody knows how to play the Whitecaps at BC Place by now; sit back and let them come at you because they never really do come at you anyway.

Never has a team been able to turn an attacking corner into a back pass to their own goalkeeper with the alacrity of the Whitecaps and there can’t be many home teams who are so unwilling to use the home crowd to their advantage.

Quietening the supporters with dull football is a great idea if you’re on the road but not so great when you need those fans to be the twelfth man.

Vancouver did get better in the second half with the introduction of Christian Bolaños and, for a brief fifteen minute spell, it even seemed as though they were intent on scoring a goal.

That all fell apart once Shea got that red however and while we can argue all day about the rights and wrongs of the call it’s tough to criticize a player for doing the exact same thing his coach does for almost the entirety the game.

There was a moment in the first half when Robinson was making an unnecessarily petulant point about where a throw in should be taken and if I’m officiating that game I know which team I’m going to be happy to make a big decision against when the time comes.

Even MLS referees are human.

If Robinson spent as much time telling his players where they were going wrong as he does the match officials the results might actually improve.

Hopefully the coming two week break will prompt a little bit of introspection about how the team is being set up because (Soccer Shorts bingo cards at hand!) those two defensive midfielders are killing the team and Fredy Montero looked a figure of despair as he left the field because once again not one chance had been created for him from open play.

That’s partly because almost every other player on the team is being asked to prioritize their defensive duties over any notion of attack and that turned both Shea and Alphonso Davies into meaninglessly insignificant figures going forward.

It’s great that Davies does the defensive duties so well but the kid needs to be allowed to play and to enjoy his football, otherwise he’s going to be transformed from a phenomenon into a journeyman before our very eyes.

On the plus side the weather seems to have got much better!.

Time for Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Richey-6, Williams- 5, Parker-6.5*, Waston-6, Harvey-6, Laba-5.5, Teibert-5, Davies-5, Shea-4.5, Mezquida-5.5, Montero-5.5, Bolaños-6.5

 

 

Aim not true enough for the Whitecaps

“If there’s anything that you want

If there’s anything that you need

There’s no need to be evasive

Money talks and it’s persuasive

Possession”

Elvis Costello is right of course.

If you do want good possession stats in soccer then money really is a persuasive talker because good players pass the ball better than bad players and good players command a higher salary than bad players do.

We shouldn’t get over obsessed with possession stats however because although they do tell a story about how a game has played out they don’t always tell the true back story.

Some teams (Whitecaps included) are happy to concede control of the ball knowing full well that the opposition is often at its most vulnerable while in an attacking formation and a swift and sudden breakaway can be their undoing.

The problem for the Whitecaps is that their possession stats in the last two games have been so bad they restore the intuition to any counter intuitive arguments to be made about counter attacks.

Against both San Jose and Tigres the Whitecaps were south of thirty percent when it came to being in control of the ball and even the provisos of being a man and a level of class down can’t hide the fact that those numbers can be brutally damaging to a team.

So what’s the cause?

Function mostly follows formation in this case because the two deep-lying midfielders offer little in terms of receiving the ball from the back four and even when they do they offer equally little in terms of distribution.

None of Laba, Jacobson or Teibert are consistently capable of quality passes and the result is that either one of those three or one of the back four hits a hopeful long ball to the designated lone striker of the day.

In a perfect world said striker would either hold up the ball or flick it on to a marauding team mate but now that opponents have figured out that particular plan any such play is almost always shut down at birth.

That leaves Erik Hurtado charging valiantly across the forward line, Brek Shea wondering why yet another coach isn’t playing him in his best position or Fredy Montero perplexed at the prospect of constantly craning his neck upwards in an attempt to find the ball.

But it doesn’t have to be this way and there is at least hope that the style of play will become easier on the eye as the season develops.

Getting Christian Bolaños back into the first eleven is crucial because even in his brief cameo in Mexico he demonstrated the ability to actually stop and think about what he wanted to do with the ball while it was at his feet.

Combine that with the quality of Alphonso Davies and some combination of Brek Shea, Nicolas Mezquida and (when fit) Jordy Reyna and it’s not inconceivable that Montero may one day get the kind of service he wants.

That’s dependant on Carl Robinson showing a degree of tactical flexibility so let’s not get too over excited but, for home games at least, the team is crying out to be released from the shackles of those two defensive midfielders (And then maybe I can write something about the Whitecaps without having to use the dreaded “two defensive midfielders” phrase?).

This coming Saturday the Whitecaps face a Giovincoless Toronto and while Robinson is never afraid to give his players an excuse for underperforming both he and they need to put thoughts of physical and mental weariness out of their minds.

Firstly, it’s only the sixth game of the season and secondly there’s a two-week break to come following this game, giving everybody a chance to fully recover.

People mostly felt good about the team after the defeat to Tigres but much of that good will was due to tempered expectations and another uninspiring performance at BC Place would undo much of the good work from Tuesday evening.

Has Robinson got the will to unleash his team at least a little bit?

Let’s hope so.

Tigres v Whitecaps: What did we learn?

Well, apart from the obvious fact that a team with higher paid and better quality players will always outplay a team with lower paid and lesser quality players that is.

Fredy Montero won’t create chances on his own- Let’s not say that Carl Robinson didn’t want to sign Montero but let’s at least accept that the striker sort of turned up on his doorstep after being dropped there by Mauro Rosales.

The Whitecaps weren’t in a position to turn down a proven MLS goal scorer but it will be interesting to see how Montero fits into Robinson’s view of how a striker should be utilized.

 
In that world the forward tends to be a combination of a man isolated on an island away from the rest of the team while simultaneously being set up to comically fail due to no fault of his own.

A kind of Robinson Clouseau.

Erik Hurtado makes the most of the role because he runs around a lot and Nicolas Mezquida showed against Tigres that he can carve out a chance through his harrying of defenders but Montero already looks like the kind of striker who feeds on other people’s scraps.

Being paired with Mezquida up front feels like it would be the right move but Robinson’s aversion to the Uruguayan probably means we’ll see a platoon of  Brek Shea as the target man he isn’t and Hurtado as the hard worker with limitations he is before we see that.

Kekuta Manneh drops down the depth chart-  There was a time when the last thirty minutes of the Tigres game would have seen the automatic introduction of Manneh.

Unleashing his speed against a team that were pressing for a goal was virtually Robinson’s “go to” move when it came to substitutions.

But a mixture of indifferent form and unwillingness to put in a defensive effort meant the coach couldn’t trust the former rising star in such an important game.

It’s ironic that the man he did trust, Cristian Techera, also failed to track back for the crucial second goal but either Manneh treats his lack of deployment as a wake up call for the season or he should be used as trade bait before his stock falls any further.

Parker ahead of Waston in the defending stakes- Nobody should underestimate just how difficult it was for the Whitecaps defence on Tuesday evening.

A team that is used to facing one or two dangerous players was suddenly facing a plethora and while Ousted was excellent and Harvey admirably steady it was Tim Parker who stood out for his ability to only go to ground when absolutely necessary.

The modern defender needs to be as much a shepherd as he is an enforcer and Parker demonstrated the necessary patience for such a role.

Kendall Waston was mostly excellent too but he’s developing an unnerving ability to throw in at least one disastrous mistake per game.

That probably comes from a desire to be a “leader”  on the field but more often than not the end result is that he tries too hard to intercede in situations where intercession is best left to somebody else and that tends to leave a gaps where no gap should be.

Isolated incidents to be sure but ones that add up to a less than stellar body of work.

He can’t be blamed for deflecting the ball into his own net against Tigres but he can be blamed for what went before and what went before was two failed attempts at a hasty clearance.

Suddenly he’s rushing back to make amends and the rest is history.

All in all though the game offered more positives than negatives for Vancouver and the trick for Carl Robinson now will be to somehow configure his team so that it can regularly threaten the opposition goal.

That would be nice.

Tigres burn a little too bright for the Whitecaps

In the general scheme of things a 2-0 defeat on the road to Tigres isn’t that bad of a result for the Vancouver Whitecaps in the first leg of the CONCACAF Champion’s League semi-final.

The problem is that we don’t live in the general scheme of things (Actually, strike that. We very much live in the general scheme of things). I guess the point I’m trying to make is that 2-0 is both a good result and a frustratingly annoying one given the tenor of the game.

Tigres were clearly the better team for the full ninety minutes but the Whitecaps were able to scrape out two of the kind of chances that Carl Robinson must have been dreaming about if he ever managed to get any sleep last night.

On the first chance Brek Shea miscontrolled the ball, then half fell over and then fully dived to earn himself a yellow card for simulation (If you’re going to dive then dive properly!) and on the second Nicolas Mezquida shanked the ball wide when more composure could well have found the net.

The other disappointing element of the night for Vancouver was the quality of the set-pieces as they constantly failed to clear the first defender and, in a game where possession is as rare as a Donald Trump supporter in Mexico, those kind of chances cannot be squandered.

But for all those flaws the Whitecaps were mostly very good indeed.

And for once Robinson’s defensive mindset was both fully justified and well executed with Laba and Jacobson closing down space in the middle and Tim Parker looking every  inch the future international he surely is.

Perhaps Sheanon Williams struggled to find his feet (Both literally and metaphorically) and Kendall Waston would love to have the few seconds that led up to his own goal back again.

But sometimes you just have to acknowledge that the opposition were the superior team and that both tired minds and tired bodies are unbeatable enemies in the end.

It seems unlikely that Vancouver can prevent Tigres from scoring at BC Place but at least the tie isn’t dead and buried.

And, perhaps for the first time this season, there is at least a sense of the team finding some kind of structure to build on.

Strange how uplifting some 2-0 defeats can be.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted- 7, Williams-6, Parker-7.5*, Waston-6.5, Harvey-7, Laba-7, Jacobson-7, de Jong-6, Shea-6.6, Montero-5.5, Davies-7 (Bolaños-6.5, Mezquida-6.5,)

 

Whitecaps soar before falling in San Jose


Ken Loach isn’t a great movie director but he has directed some great movies.

True, there’s a certain Cinéma vérité about his style but, primarily, he’s concerned with substance over style and that substance is mostly about the heartbreaking futility of working class people trying to negotiate a system that is explicitly set up to thwart their dreams.

A generation of British schoolchildren grew up watching Loach’s film “Kes” in which a boy escapes the trials of his mining village upbringing by finding, nurturing and training a young kestrel.

In those moments in which he watches the bird soar he glimpses a kind of redemption for himself; the possibility that a frail and injured thing can somehow live magnificently in the world.

Then one day he comes home and finds that his elder brother has snapped the kestrel’s neck and left it dead in a trash can.

Cheers Ken! Life lesson learned!

Anybody who has seen the new “Rise Up Rain City” segment that’s played on the big screen before the Whitecaps home games this season will have noticed the Loachian influence.

The dreariness of the city, the players miserable and clearly pining for warmer climes they will never attain and a bedraggled pigeon standing sadly in a dirty puddle.

It doesn’t quite end with Alphonso Davies finding the pigeon in a trash can with a snapped neck but that’s the general tenure.

The system, it seems to say, will always thwart your dreams.

And that feels apt for the team this season because they are still battling to find a way to get the best out of themselves.

In San Jose on Saturday evening they raced into a two goal lead over the Earthquakes before a defensive mix up between Kendall Waston and Christian Dean enticed David Ousted to rush out of his penalty area and leave a trailing leg to bring down Chris Wondolowski and earn a red card.

At that time nobody thought that the player to bring off was Nicolas Mezquida. After all the Uruguayan is one of the hardest working players in the team and often proves to be a very effective first line of defence.

Much better to remove one of the more defensively limited forwards such as Techera  or Manneh.

I say “nobody” thought that but it’s actually not true because one person did think exactly that and, unfortunately for the Whitecaps, that person happened to be Carl Robinson and his reputaion for not being able to make effective in game decisions took yet another hit.

There was a sense of inevitability about the subsequent three goals with Manneh failing to track back for the second and Russell Teibert failing to close down for the third and a bright start was left amounting to nothing.

Robinson does get some credit for fielding a weakened starting eleven that was able to make such an impressive start but he was as complicit in undoing that good start just as much as his players were.

And right now it feels as though he’s forcing those players into a system that seems explicitly designed to thwart their strengths.

In the post game interview Robinson went on at some length about how important it was for the officials to make the correct call on the big decisions.

Right back at you Carl.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings!

Ousted-4, Nerwinski-5.5, Waston-5, Dean-5, Harvey-5.5- Teibert-5, McKendry-5.5, Manneh-4, Techera-4.5, Mezquida-6, Hurtado-6* (Tornaghi-5)