If there was one thing everybody could agree upon at the end of 2015 it was that the Vancouver Whitecaps needed to find a different way of playing or, at the very least, a Plan B to supplement the Plan A of counterattacking football.
There was also almost universal agreement that the decisions to move Steven Beitashour and Gershon Koffie out of the club were the right ones. The former because his salary limited what else could be done to change the team and the latter because the limits of his ability hindered a change of style for the team as a whole.
The players that were brought in to bolster the side were clearly designed to facilitate change with Bolaños, Kudo and Pérez offering a mix of experience, guile, quality and goal scoring and, yet again, there were few questions raised about these acquisitions.
So why, after ten games, are the Whitecaps sitting outside the playoff places with so few signs of a successful system yet in place?
The easiest answer of all is the disruptions the team has faced through injuries, suspensions and international call ups etc. but that is a) a really boring answer and b) doesn’t quite tell the whole story of the season so far.
It’s clear that Carl Robinson has been trying to switch things up from a tactical perspective (particularly at home) and one of those changes is to try and build from the back.
The problem with that approach for this team is that building from the back requires central defenders who are comfortable on the ball and also good passers of said ball. Unfortunately Kendall Waston is neither of those things and though Tim Parker can lay claim to elements of both his distribution is still too erratic to be relied upon.
So what tends to happen is that one of the midfielders drops deep to become the main outlet in place of the central defenders and if that player is Pedro Morales that’s probably an okay move, but if it’s one of Laba, Jacobson or Teibert the passing quality is still up for debate so then one of the more attacking midfielders also drops deep to receive the next pass leaving the man in possession with the choice of either going back to square one (giving the ball to a central defender) or passing to a player who is almost as deep as he is.
Even if he takes the latter option it means that a nominally attacking player has received the ball far too deep in his own half and any forward ball inevitably becomes a long pass to the eternally isolated Rivero.
It could also be argued that even with Morales in possession the only difference is that the long forward pass is just of a better quality rather than any radically different tactical approach.
Either way it’s a player dropping deep in order to pass the ball to another player who has also dropped deep; no wonder the opposition are so rarely on the back foot.
But the distribution from the back isn’t the only problem in how the Whitecaps are attempting to perfect this style of play because the other big issue is the almost astonishing lack of movement from the team as a whole.
However critical we may be of the passing quality of some players that quality is severely undermined when there are so few options for them to choose from.
Far too often the man in possession is faced with the singular choice of giving the ball back to the man who gave it to him simply because the number of other players actively looking to receive a pass is precisely zero.
This isn’t even what Arsene Wenger once called “sterile possession” because that at least is possession solely for the sake of it. What the Whitecaps have instead is players who are passing to a man because he is the only option available and, because he is the only option available, the opposition know exactly where the ball will be heading and can easily intercept it.
So we’re left with players who aren’t great at passing the ball having to play passes they don’t want to play to players who don’t want to receive the ball.
Not an ideal scenario.
Obviously what I’ve just described is the absolute worst case in game scenario for the Whitecaps but it’s a scenario that has already reared its head on more than one occasion this season (and twice in the last two games) so the question now is whether Carl Robinson sticks with this particular plan or looks to something else.
If he chooses to stick with it then it can only be solved by better movement from the team as a whole while simultaneously convincing the first midfield receiver of the ball to turn away from his own goal the moment he is in possession.
There’s probably an element of chicken and egg about this whole problem in that players will be wary of turning into trouble for fear of there being no options to pass to while other players will be reluctant to make runs if they see the main outlet frequently eschewing them for the safer option, but the coach needs to instil in his players that the current “risk averse” policy in how they pass the ball actually carries more risk than the alternatives.
Robinson could no doubt point out that the return of Morales makes all this discussion moot, but betting the farm on a player with such a chequered injury history would be folly indeed and a Plan B isn’t really a Plan B if it falls apart the moment one player is absent from the first eleven.
Strangely enough it’s quite fascinating watching both the team and the coach attempting to figure this one out (there are moments when you can almost see the gears grinding through a player’s brain as he makes a decision) and it could be that time and a relatively consistent first eleven is all that is needed for the pieces to finally slot into place.
But it might not be a bad idea if somebody from the coaching staff was regularly ensconced in the locker room working on at least Plans C and D.