Pessimist Festival At Mollington Sold Out

It’s hard to even be angry any more.

After a week of the club pumping out social media posts about “Road Warriors” and how they always bounce back from adversity the Vancouver Whitecaps went to Sporting Kansas City and promptly went three goals down after thirty minutes before having two men sent off and eventually losing by six goals.

Maybe the two red cards wouldn’t have happened in the pre VAR era but Carl Robinson has created such a culture of victim hood at the hands of officials it’s hard to be surprised when his players react in the same petulant manner.

He’s also created such a tactically stale environment that when he plays the way he wants to play the opposition coach has already figured it out and when he tries to change things up (as he did in Kansas by deploying three at the back) he doesn’t know how to get his team to execute it effectively.

What else is there to say that hasn’t already been said?

The Whitecaps are regressing with Robinson as coach and all anybody at the club seems prepared to do about it is schedule meetings to workshop another hashtag.

Saturday Morning Update!

Now that we’ve all had a night of restless sleep thinking about just how bad that game was let’s move on from the pointless howl of existential angst to actually thinking about just what went wrong.

It’s hard to know if Carl Robinson made the decision to switch to three at the back based on the specific needs of this one game and opponent or based on the need to just do something (anything) to turn the sense that the team was treading water around.

Whatever the reason it didn’t work.

Kansas exploited the wide areas supposedly covered by Davies and Juarez time and time again and the central midfield two of Ghazal and Felipe offered little or no cover to the central three defenders.

The disappointing thing is that this squad could play a three at the back with wing backs system if they were set up to do it properly but we’ve seen in the past that the coach either doesn’t know how to get it to work in an effective way or doesn’t really commit to the idea and so leaves the players hanging on the line of half-formed plans and half-hearted decisions.

It’s now hard to imagine that Friday night will do anything other than convince Carl Robinson that his tried and tested “safety first” football is the only way to go.

And maybe it is if he can’t get the team to play in any other way?

As for the dismissals of Juarez and Reyna they summed up the season of each player thus far.

Reyna has looked like a man out of sorts all year. Put that down to personal circumstance, injury, loss of form or just plain old frustration with the role he’s being asked to play but it seems more likely than not his time in Vancouver is getting shorter by the day.

And once again the Whitecaps will have lost the kind of player who could make a difference if there was a way to get the best out of him.

Juarez has been a strange one since his arrival.

There are times when he seems to be the genuine leader on the field the team need and then there are times when he seems adrift both tactically and mentally.

He certainly reacts badly to losing games and while that’s a good thing in the abstract if it impacts his own performance and that of the team as a whole then the reality is not so alluring.

But, again, that issue stems from lack of in game discipline from the coaching staff down.

Maybe you could make the argument that if the Reyna chance had been taken early in the game the whole thing would have been different but if you end up talking about “fine lines” in a game you’ve lost by six goals you’re just clutching at the shadows of straws.

Which leaves the Whitecaps where?

Back to the drawing board I guess, but they’ve taken that trip so many times already that anything they do add to it will just further blur out whatever made any kind of sense in the first place.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings!

Marinovic-4, Juarez-1, Waston-3, Aja-4*, de Jong-3 Davies-3, Ghazal-3, Felipe-3, Reyna-2, Shea-3, Blondell-3 

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Trying to find a future

One of the more annoying traits of us human beings is our capacity to not do anything about a problem until it gets completely out of hand.

That road junction everyone in the neighbourhood has been complaining about for years? It won’t get fixed until somebody gets killed.

Foreign government interfering in an election process? No way it will make any substantive difference to the outcome.

And it seems we’ve reached that stage with the Vancouver Whitecaps.

There are so many reasons to not change things (playoff games last season, length of Carl Robinson’s contract, the worry of getting it wrong again) that inaction is a far more welcoming bedfellow than action.

But anybody who has watched this team closely over the last two or three years knows there are underlying issues that can’t continue to be covered up by sneaking victories on the road every now and then.

So let’s list them.

Tactics– Faced with the absence of both Kei Kamara and Anthony Blondell against LAFC on Friday evening Carl Robinson said that he toyed with the idea of three at the back or playing Yordy Reyna as a False Nine (because “everybody talks about those”) but in the end, and with crushing inevitability, he stuck with playing a lone striker even though Erik Hurtado isn’t suited to the role.

And can anybody figure out where Efrain Juarez is supposed to be playing? A defensive midfielder/right back/number eight might be impressive in a Pep Guardiola team but for a team that’s supposed to be as rigid as Vancouver it’s a mess.

Friday also offered the chance to see Felipe play in a more advanced position but the supposed playmaker on the field didn’t complete one succesful pass into the opposition penalty area.

Actually that’s not true because he didn’t even attempt to make a pass into the opposition penalty area. At home. Against one of the worst defences in MLS.

Defensive Frailties- It’s perhaps reasonable to grant a little bit of a pass on this given how early it is in the season but the lack of cohesion in front of them seems to be throwing the defence out of kilter.

Stefan Marinovic has become a man torn between the Scylla of the punch and the Charybdis of the catch and Kendall Waston is back to doing what he was doing two seasons ago.

Trying to solve everything and thereby solving nothing.

If the Whitecaps don’t have a defence that works then they have nothing.

In Game Decisions- Carl Robinson has never been a man to make an early substitution and he somehow retains the ability to watch his team play dreadfully for sixty-five minutes before even thinking about making a change.

But that’s been exacerbated this season by his compulsion to move Alphonso Davies to left back when his team need a goal.

This isn’t so much tactical thinking at this stage as it is a kind of muscle memory of something that sort of worked once but really hasn’t since.

Maybe somebody else on the coaching staff could have a word? But that seems unlikely because, against LAFC, most of them seemed too incensed about a foul throw that should have been given in their favour.

They were right. But to still be arguing about it fifteen minutes later (with the fourth official no less) indicates a bizarre sense of priorities.

There are times when it seems the whole narrative of officiating injustice and lack of tactical flexibility is all they have to fall back on.

Style of Play- “If it works it works” has been the best defence of Robinson up to this point and that’s fair enough. But as better players arrive (and they have arrived) he needs to have the option of a Plan B. Just the glimmer of a thought that good players could play good football.

But when was the last time you saw Vancouver string a series of passes together? Or even move for each other in a meaningful way on any area of the field let alone around the opposition penalty area?

That should be one of the basics of any team but it’s not for the Whitecaps.

Sense of Their Own Worth– This is a two-edged sword because it’s hard to say whether Carl Robinson does actually think his players aren’t very good or whether he just keeps saying that as a way of protecting his own position.

But for a coach to be so content (even eager) to talk down his players is bizarre, especially when he’s coaching a team that are in the top half of the salary spending league.

And it’s bizarre the Front Office don’t seem to mind this. “Come and see the not very good Whitecaps try to get a result against a much better team” is an odd marketing strategy to hang your hat on.

And it’s odd the ownership group don’t seem to mind this inaction from the Front Office either.

To Conclude– Let’s just say the whole situation has become like a Carl Robinson substitution.

Pretty much everybody else can see things need to change before it gets out of hand but the people in charge of making that change seem content to allow mediocrity to slide into chaos.

It’s just so much easier to do nothing.

Vancouver Whitecaps: How Soon is Now?

Yay!

The Vancouver Whitecaps players are back at preseason training which means no more Christmas miracles, no more dystopian futures and much more opportunity for me to phone all this in with the kind of “Here are five things…” kind of posts that you, dear reader, will plough through until the end in the vain hope of excavating maybe a nugget of information or insight or just something, anything, to make the whole sorry exercise worth while.

Like I said.

“Yay!”

But worry not because this won’t be one of those “Here are five things…” kind of posts at all. Oh no! This is very different. This is a “Here are five people….” kind of post.

Here are five people who will (or could) most influence the Whitecaps 2018 season.

Yordy Reyna- Last season Reyna arrived from a half season long injury to look like the wild card who could turn the team from “possible” to “probable” in the MLS Cup stakes.

It didn’t quite work out that way in the end and his season (like everybody’s) ended with a whimper.

This season Reyna could prove to be even more of a wild card.

His off-season travails have been well documented and remain unresolved and how he reacts to those is yet to be seen.

But right now Reyna is looking like the only genuine creative spark the Whitecaps have so, from a purely footballing perspective, let’s hope he can find focus on the field and that the prospect of being a member of the Peru team that travels to the World Cup in the summer either concentrates or clears his mind.

Without Reyna’s spark of ingenuity the Whitecaps could be a very laborious team to watch indeed.

Kei Kamara- Carl Robinson has been keen to emphasise that Kamara is the first genuine number nine he has had at his disposal and it’s true the big man should suit the team’s style far better than his predecessors.

The tactical naifs among us will wonder why that system was being played when there wasn’t a player suited to it but ours not to reason why the water has passed under a bridge that has already burned and if Kamara does get the service he needs (and with Anthony Blondell as backup) we may finally see those crosses and long balls from the back pay greater dividend.

Alphonso Davies- Sooner or later Davies is going to have to start earning column inches because of how he plays rather than because of his untapped potential.

And that “sooner” is getting awfully close to “now” if he’s going to fulfill that promise.

We’ve seen the odd flash of guile amid the pace, power and defensive diligence but those flashes need to become a feature of his play or Davies will turn out to be just one more MLS players who can be classed as “useful” rather than a game changer.

If Davies starts the season well then Robinson will surely give him the game time to further hone his craft, but a slow start for the youngster leading to a few weeks on the bench and suddenly the nagging itch of doubt will start to feel like something that even Davies himself can’t help but scratch.

A defining year for him? It probably is.

Defender X- The coach has already hinted he will be looking at playing three central defenders this year and that means one other player has to slot alongside Kendall Waston and Tim Parker.

Robinson has name checked Marcel de Jong  as the leading contender but Aaron Maund and Doneil Henry must feel they are in with a shout given a fair wind and a clean bill of health.

But whoever gets the gig will need to supplement the pairing of Waston and Parker without detracting from their defensive solidity from last season and it would also be great if they could pass the ball with a reasonable degree of competence.

That certainly makes de Jong the favourite but let’s bear in mind…

Carl Robinson- Robinson has shown in the past that he’s not afraid to try different formations and systems but he’s also shown that he’s not hugely successful at making them actually work and that, when push comes to shove, he will revert to the style he feels most comfortable with; containment and reactive football.

Whether he can break out of that rut this year is open to debate (although I don’t really think it’s open to debate but we have to start the season with some hope right?) but to hear him talk about new signing Efrain Juarez with the all too familiar refrain of being a”good presence in the locker room” brings on the kind of ennui that really should be saved for the dog days of summer when the traditional late season slump has really taken hold.

But, putting all the gloominess aside, the coach has the squad to play the way he wants to play and the MLS experience under his belt to optimise the way he uses that squad week in and week out.

Which is all good.

No excuses from here on in then (well there will be excuses, but there really shouldn’t be.)

Vancouver Whitecaps say “Adiós” to Bolaños

So farewell then Christian Bolaños.

It’sen announced that the Costa Rican international has moved back to his home country to play for his former club Saprissa.

So how do we assess his time for the Vancouver Whitecaps?

Well, his first season was an undoubted success with five goals and eight assists leading him to be voted Player of the Year and it was a joy to watch his ability to play the game at his own speed no matter what the circumstance.

The second season was less impressive and we can probably put that down to a combination of injuries, lack of focus due to the distractions of international duty and the team not playing in a style suited to his game.

 

In an ideal world the Whitecaps would have got more from his undoubted quality on the ball but by the end he had simply turned into a “useful at set pieces” kind of player and there are others that can fill that role for far less of a salary hit.

Maybe there will be a direct replacement signed but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to move Yordy Reyna to his more natural left wing spot and stop thinking of him as the number ten that he actually isn’t.

In other news the Whitecaps have signed Efrain Juarez from Mexican team Monterrey and he can play in a number of positions but is most suited to either right back or defensive midfield.

In that ideal world we were dreaming of earlier he’d slot in at right back to give Jake Nerwinski another season of learning the ropes of defending but given Carl Robinson’s tendency to view playing defensive midfielders with the same restraint Winnie the Pooh views a jar of honey that central spot may prove to be his main role.

That would mean the ongoing “talks” with Nosa Igiebor are less likely to prove fruitful and would surely make him one of the strangest signings the team has made.

Igiebor didn’t play for the first few moths of his time in Vancouver but was then thrown into the playoffs in a manner which suggested Robinson felt he was the answer to whatever ailed his team at the end of the campaign.

He wasn’t the answer, but it seems odd that the current prevarication seems to be leaning more toward departure than extension.

To be fair it’s still too early to make any kind of definitive judgments about the comings and goings around the squad until we see the final picture but the hope has to be that any moves are designed to support the style of play Carl Robinson favours (while simultaneously wishing he didn’t favour that style of play).

I also really wanted to get some kind of Dylan themed”Lost in the Reyna in Juarez” kind of pun into this post but to no avail!

Vancouver Whitecaps: A fair and balanced schedule

If there’s one thing we’ve learned in recent years about making predictions around how the MLS schedule will impact the Vancouver Whitecaps it’s that we just can’t do it.

That tough stretch of four road games that we suspect will derail the season yields ten points, those three easy home games in July yield two.

This time around though even those scenarios are taken away from us as the team are faced with their most balanced fixture list (in terms of home and road games in a row) in the MLS era.

At first glance it even looks like a “traditional” season with as close to a home game followed by a road game as makes no difference.

This is MLS of course so there’s always the hidden easter egg of one extra game against San Jose to slightly destroy the illusion.

And the fact that Seattle and Portland get to play each other three times while facing the Whitecaps twice not only messes with the Cascadia Cup it also takes away one of the moderately accessible trips for any travelling supporter.

Given how poor Vancouver were against their Cascadian rivals in 2017 that may be no bad thing in the long-term and the Sounders and the Timbers beating each other up (metaphorically and literally) might be a blessing in disguise come season end.

If I were Carl Robinson though (I’m not) my biggest concern would be the opening of the season with five of the eight games on the road and the three home games consisting of Canadian rivals Montreal and the two LA teams.

Nobody really knows what to expect from either of those entities but it’s just possible that Vancouver could have a really bad start to the season which would only exacerbate the negative feelings some of us felt towards Robinson given how the 2017 campaign ended.

Looking back through my posts from last season it seems I wrote this in May

Anyway, this is a very all around the houses way of saying that whatever anybody may have thought of him before…..Carl Robinson has displayed a somewhat remarkable degree of tactical flexibility this season.

Gone is the rigid belief (and fear) of the power of the first goal and gone too is the stubborn adherence to 4-2-3-1.

It’s only May in 2017 and Robinson has already trotted out a greater varieties of tactics than he did in all the previous years of his tenure.

It’s true that this doesn’t always feel like the perfect fit for his (football) personality and there’s still the sense of a man desperately trying to come to terms with a belief system that he doesn’t quite buy into.

No coach who genuinely believed in pure attacking football would leave Fredy Montero quite so isolated for example, but it’s also true that often the most zealous adherents to any faith are those who have converted late in life.”

It turned out that Robinson wasn’t going to be a radical zealot proselytizing the beauty of attacking football and I was as slow as anybody to fail to hear the thrumming of the rumble strip as the coached veered back to the security of what he knew.

Will Robinson be as tactically adventurous at the start of 2018?

Well, given he’s already said his main regret of 2017 was not taking the opening games of the season seriously enough (and concentrating on the Champion’s League instead) he clearly wants his team to hit the ground running this year.

That doesn’t seem to be a good fit for variety and change.

So what we see at the start of the year will likely be what we can expect to get for the rest of the season.

Let’s hope it turns out to be a road worth travelling.

 

 

Can the Vancouver Whitecaps change their ways? (Part Two)

Last time out we wondered if maybe, just maybe, the way the Vancouver Whitecaps dealt with the manner in which their season ended could have been handled in a more effective manner.

This time out we’ll look at the thing most of us care about a little bit more.

What happens on the field.

In a recent article for The Guardian Jonathan Wilson wondered whether Jose Mourinho’s coaching style had drifted from the pragmatic to the dogmatic.

In other words, playing defensively and picking up a point against other top teams in the Premier League was no longer working in a competition where rivals Manchester City were more often than not picking up three points in the same games.

Pragmatism isn’t pragmatism if it doesn’t actually work.

His kindest critics would argue that Carl Robinson is a pragmatist. That he makes the most of his resources by setting up a team designed to shut down the opposition while simultaneously being able to make hay out of the sunshine of their mistakes.

And the final league table gives that argument a degree of validity.

But what if we lived in a world where the Whitecaps as an organization weren’t content with that kind of approach? What if we lived in world where the coach was told his style of play would always be ineffective when it really mattered and the time had come to adapt the way he sets up his team?

Ironically I think we may already have lived in that world and it was called 2016.

Back then Robinson toyed with the notion of a genuine number ten, played with the idea of only one defensive midfielder and even flirted with the prospect of a deep lying playmaker.

None of them really worked of course and we will have to decide for ourselves whether that failure was down to the players (mostly Pedro Morales) or the coach being unable to set up a team capable of taking the game to an opponent.

To be fair to Robinson the form and fitness of Morales was poor for most of that year but the coach’s failure to fit the most talented player the Whitecaps have had in the MLS era into any kind of system other than bunkering counter attack was telling.

And it’s Robinson’s inability to send out a team willing to attack that remains his greatest weakness as a coach.

And logic says that it has to be inability rather than unwillingness because no coach  would fail to attack the decimated Portland Timbers team we saw at BC Place earlier this season would they?

Would they?

And no coach would not want to take advantage of a a decimated Seattle Sounders in the first leg of the playoffs would they?

Would they?

Actually that second one he definitely wouldn’t because he said so after the game.

But the pattern of passivity is now so fixed that it’s become like some kind of Nietzschean Eternal Recurrence in which we are condemned to relive the same incapacity to break down a reasonably competent defence “once more and eternal times more”.

And the most terrifying thing of all, the thing that is the void we must all stare into, isn’t that Carl Robinson doesn’t want his team to play in a more open and appealing fashion.

It’s that if even if he did want it he wouldn’t quite know how to make it happen.

 

Frankly, Mr Robinson

“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.