Time for the Whitecaps to feel possessed

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.

Whitecaps battle for a point against Kansas

The Whitecaps 1-1 tie with Sporting Kansas City at BC Place on Wednesday evening can go down as one of those games in which Vancouver probably should have won but were also quite happy to leave the field with a point.

In a way the game hinged on the red card for Kendall Waston in the fifty first minute but there were turning points galore before that too.

The Whitecaps started brightly and earned a deserved lead when Christian Bolaños volleyed home a Cristian Techera corner in the fourteenth minute and the stage was set for the home team to build on Saturday’s 3-0 victory and produce another statement performance.

Instead they reacted to taking the lead by playing as though the game was as good as won and the subsequent lethargy allowed the visitors to get back into the contest. No surprise then when Diego Rubio levelled in the twenty seventh minute.

By the start of the second half it was clear Kansas had worked out that the Whitecaps wanted to play the ball short from the back four but didn’t really have the players to pull that off and began pressing in earnest and after surviving one or two unnerving moments, the Whitecaps luck finally ran out when they turned their own free kick on the halfway line into a desperate chase to clear the ball for both Waston and David Ousted.

Waston got the man and not the ball and therefore a second yellow card.

Fortunately the dismissal seemed to affect Kansas as much as it did Vancouver and from that moment on the game dissolved into a series of spats and penalty appeals as referee Armando Villareal struggled to have any control at all.

In retrospect the most interesting aspect of the evening is to consider how the first eleven changes made by Carl Robinson stacked up.

Pedro Morales showed glimpses of his class but is still better suited to a deeper role than the traditional number ten position and pushing Morales forward meant that Russell Teibert played alongside Matias Laba in the centre of midfield.

Teibert will always be a willing worker but he offered almost nothing going forward and no home team can afford to be a midfielder shy when it comes to the attacking areas of the pitch.

Kudo looked lively without really doing anything to make him an obvious starter ahead of Rivero and Bolaños scored a lovely goal but faded out of the game just at the time the Whitecaps needed him the most.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the performance was how unsettled the back line looked when dealing with crosses with Waston and Parker both relying far more on the hasty clearance than the calm one but Fraser Aird and Jordan Harvey both had solid games.

In fact it’s credit to Aird that after trying to attack down his flank for most of the first half Kansas switched to trying to find a way through on the other side of the field in the second period.

In the end though it was an unsatisfactory evening for a number of reasons and I think we’re allowed to say that the 2016 Vancouver Whitecaps are still very much a work in progress.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Aird-7*, Harvey-7, Waston-5, Parker-5, Laba-6, Teibert-6, Bolaños -6, Techera-6, Morales-6, Kudo-5 (Kah-5, Manneh-6, Rivero-6)

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I was considering the last game

And while I am probably higher on Kekuta Manneh than many it still seems odd how little on field connection he actually has with the other forwards in terms of where runs and passes should be made; not even with Jordan Harvey who he regularly plays with on the left side of the field. The only player who seems to regularly connect with Manneh is Pedro Morales who tends to look for him as his first option for those raking cross field passes of his.

And while we are on the subject of connections, the small sample size we have indicates that Christian Bolaños and Blas Pérez are two players who seem to “get” each other. Bolaños has only really looked effective in Seattle (when Pérez was on the field) and in the closing minutes against Dallas (when Pérez was on the field). Carl Robinson will probably stick with Octavio Rivero again on Wednesday evening but it would be interesting to see Bolaños and Pérez given a solid sixty minutes at the start of a home game just to see how their presence affected the Whitecaps’ style of play.

And is it just me (and whenever people say “is it just me” you can bet they think everybody else feels exactly the same way) but are the in game announcements more intrusive this season at BC Place? I get that these have to be made and I get that soccer is a nightmare sport in which to predict exactly what will happen in the next ten seconds (witness the number of TV directors who miss vital live action in the name of showing us a yellow card tackle for the third time) but there was a moment on Saturday when Dallas were swarming the Vancouver area amid the sound of the 50/50 draw result being announced. It was all very jarring.

And I’m also not a fan of announcing that an opposition player has been yellow carded for “diving” as happened when Max Urruti was cautioned on Saturday. No reason is ever given for any other bookable offence and “diving” isn’t even mentioned in the official rules of the game so it all seemed unnecessarily self-satisfied. But this time around I honestly think it might really be “just me” who feels that way about this one.

And aside from my own outpouring of pedantry and joy killing the major question for Wednesday’s game is whether the Whitecaps can build on the way they finished against Dallas or whether they revert to the way they began. I doubt Kansas will come out all guns blazing in the way that Dallas did so we should get to see how this team deals with trying to break down a defensive opposition and that’s partly why I like the idea of the Bolaños and Pérez combination because they should have the experience and the patience to avoid the frustration and loss of focus which frequently fazed the Whitecaps last season whenever the first twenty minutes failed to produce a breakthrough.

And that’s your lot.


Vancouver abuzz about the Whitecaps

I used to think that the most contemptible of all the creatures on this planet was the September wasp; that annoying piece of anger and sting which ruined every late summer barbecue and patio beer.

But then I stumbled across an outline of their life cycle and suddenly developed a new found empathy for my eternal nemesis.

It turns out that those creatures relentlessly swooping down on your craft beer have been dealt a pretty rough hand in life for, having spent the whole year helping to keep their colony alive, these “worker wasps” (for that is who they are) are heartlessly abandoned once enough new queens are produced to allow a fresh period of hibernation to begin.

The nest effectively shuts down and there is suddenly no food source for the poor souls who have toiled all their lives for others.

Naturally they immediately embark on a desperate hunt for any source of sugar to keep themselves alive which, in most cases, means the alcohol in your glass or the food on your plate.

Hard to blame them for being so angry and so persistent isn’t it?

I still kill them of course but whereas I used to think of my battle with the wasps as being akin to the Second World War (my heroically defiant battle against an unprovoked aggressor) I now see it as disturbingly similar to the Great War of 1914-18; a series of senseless slaughters in which neither side will ever make any significant physical or moral headway.

And as with the wasps so it is with supporters.

Not that I want to embark on the senseless slaughter of soccer fans you understand but it turns out they need wins and goals just as much as a worker wasp needs that sugar and without those wins and goals the poor supporter become irritable and sometimes aggressive.

Anyone sitting enjoying cool al fresco beer in these balmy April Vancouver days may have found the experience somewhat ruined by the angry buzz of a Whitecaps fan unhappy with the team or the tactics or the coach.

Thrown a surprise spring barbecue for friends? Then perhaps it was disrupted by the sting of criticism for the way the Whitecaps have either been defending, attacking or conducting their stadium security measures.

Biology is a powerful decider.

Yet so is the pervading culture and the pervading culture of the current day is to live and die by each game without ever taking the time to see anything within the context of the whole season, so it’s not hard to imagine how three bad results in a row has set the regular Whitecaps fan on edge.

Yet this isn’t me looking down on such behaviour because I’m exactly the same as I obsess over minor tactical changes, study the body language of the players and parse every Carl Robinson phrase for semiotic or semantic clues.

Fortunately the difference between us and the wasps is that they really do have no hope; there will never be a nest for them to return to no matter how hard they try to prolong the last few hours of their existence.

But we at least know there will eventually be wins and goals along the way because MLS is a parity league and because the law of averages is as reliable a guide as the law of gravity and so, when Saturday comes, we’ll be back among the safe swarm of the colony that is BC Place and no doubt we’ll all feel a lot better about things.

But let’s just hope that if there is a sting in the tail of that game it arrives in the form of Blas Pérez and not Mauro Rosales.

Salt Lake put Whitecaps in real trouble

The good news is that the Vancouver Whitecaps rediscovered some of their defensive solidity following the 4-0 defeat to DC United last week. The bad news is that defensive solidity counts for nothing when a team has very little attacking threat and so a 1-0 defeat to Real Salt Lake ensued on Saturday evening thanks to a Martinez goal in the fifty-fifth minute.

The Whitecaps were probably the better team in the first half but still failed to find the back of the net and the fact that they still haven’t scored from open play this season is starting to look less like a statistical quirk and more like an accurate reflection of what this team is capable of. There were half chances for Mezquida and Rivero but none of them ever looked like being taken and once Salt Lake had the lead it was hard to imagine the Whitecaps levelling the game up.

What’s worse though is that it didn’t seem as though the players themselves could imagine levelling the game up and the final thirty minutes were played with the languor of a pre-season game rather than the intensity of a contest which actually mattered.

And Carl Robinson’s substitutions did little to change anything with Bolaños and Kudo barely being visible and Erik Hurtado supplying his usual cocktail of high work rate and low skill set and it’s a worrying trend that Hurtado was thought not to be good enough for this team last season and has now become one of it’s most effective subs solely because he’s actually willing to put in that effort.

So where do they go from here?

Well to two home games against two good team in FC Dallas and Sporting Kansas City if we’re being literal but on a more abstract level everybody within the team needs to move away from the “it will click eventually” mentality that seems to permeate through the locker room to a more harsh examination of their performances so far.

Last season we knew exactly what this team was; it was a counter attacking team that was happy to essentially live by the coin flip of “first goal wins” and it worked incredibly well until other teams figured them out meaning that changes did have to be made.

Those changes have been made but so far it’s really hard to say what this team actually is because they neither seem comfortable in possession nor capable of hurting teams on the break. In short they need to find their identity before the season slips away from them and before we see any more performances in which they sleep walk to defeat with barely a shot fired in anger.

Those two upcoming home games are suddenly far more crucial than they should be at this stage of the season.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Aird-5, Harvey-6, Waston-5, Parker-6*, Laba-6, Jacobson-4, Techera-4, Manneh-5, Mezquida-6, River0-6 (Bolaños- 4, Kudo-4, Hurtado-5).

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