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.

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)

 

 

Whitecaps versus Union: What did we learn?

Mostly we learned that the world is a strange and terrible place and that although we may try to avoid staring into the void there will be times when the void stares straight into us with it’s unblinking and uncaring gaze.

Okay the goalless tie with the Philadelphia Union wasn’t quite that bad for the Vancouver Whitecaps but it certainly felt like it at times.

Once again Vancouver were faced with an opponent content to sit back at BC Place and once again the home team had little idea of how to break through such a tactic.

Long balls to a fast forward line are inevitably less effective if the opposition are sitting deep yet that remained the go to move for the Whitecaps for much of the game.

That way of playing is inevitable when a team has no central midfielder who is either willing or able to get forward and, the odd scrambled clearance from a set piece aside, the Union were left largely untroubled at the back and will no doubt be delighted to take away a point from such a long road trip.

The main positive on the night for the Whitecaps was the play of Christian Dean who was both solid in defence and displayed a degree of quality distribution that neither Waston or Parker is capable of.

That leaves Carl Robinson with an interesting choice; if his team largely relies on the long ball from the back then much better to have a player back there who can play those passes with aplomb.

It’s hard to see him dropping either Waston or Parker so early in the year but that may prove to be the right move to make as the season progresses.

Otherwise Kekuta Manneh looked lost in the centre and clearly needs the space to run into that the wider role provides and Brek Shea looked like a drunken gazelle on ice as he repeatedly failed to find either his feet or the ball.

We’ll put that down to the early days of playing on turf.

We shouldn’t get carried away with how bad the performance was I suppose because there were the mitigating factors of it being early in the season, injuries and players just starting to get to know each other on the field.

Yet there have been mitigating factors for this team for the last eighteen months; “they are young”, “the schedule”, “fine lines” etc.

So we are probably just going to have to accept that Carl Robinson is a coach who wants to play in this limited style and that he will never produce an aesthetically pleasing brand of football.

The good news is that this can still be effective (especially in MLS) but the bad news is that when it doesn’t work it can be brutally uninspiring to watch.

And Sunday’s game was brutally uninspiring to watch.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Williams, 6- Dean-6.5*, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Laba-5.5, Jacobson-5.5, Techera-5, Manneh-4.5, Davies-6.5, Hurtado-5.5 (Montero-5.5, Shea-4.5)

 

Whitecaps versus Red Bulls: What did we learn?

The CCL games against the New York Red Bulls existed in a strange netherworld between pre-season friendly and most important games of the MLS era for the Whitecaps.

But at least the game on Thursday evening was close enough to the regular season to allow us to draw some kind of meaningful conclusions despite the slightly alarming number of absentees for the home team.

And those conclusions probably confirmed what we already knew (confirmation bias notwithstanding) but the new season is finally here so ’tis the time for rapidly evolving mood swings and definitive statements that change on an hourly basis.

Two defensive midfielders doesn’t work-  Yeah, yeah, yeah this is playing the same old song but the Whitecaps were fortunate to score an early goal which really forced the Red Bulls to come at them and so set up the “sit deep and counter attack” style that Carl Robinson finds so endearing.

The problem with that is the same problem they faced all last season at home; visiting teams aren’t going to allow space for Manneh and Davies to run in to so Vancouver need to find a different way to break teams down and they won’t do that with both Laba and Teibert on the field.

Jacobson is a slightly better option in the role as he at least possesses some attacking instinct, but Thursday was a classic example of a formation designed to draw the opposition forward and not too many teams will accept that invitation at BC Place.

Fredy Montero needs support- It was great that the Colombian scored on his debut but that can’t disguise how isolated he often was in his thirty minute appearance.

Sure, the state of the game had some influence on that but (and this comes back to the first point) he won’t flourish if all he has to go on are long balls forward from the back four.

A deep lying number ten could be the link man he needs or perhaps the pairing of Davies and Bolaños could offer more consistent support, but let’s hope that what we saw against New York wasn’t a harbinger of loneliness to come (Memo to self: “A Harbinger of Loneliness to Come” would be a great title for that pretentious novel you keep meaning to write) .

The squad depth looks impressive- It feels as though we say this every year but Carl Robinson isn’t short of options if he wants to switch things around.

Bolaños, Mezquida, Techera, Hurtado, Reyna and Rosales were all unavailable for selection but he was still able to put out a decent first eleven and bench. And the performances of Jake Nerwinski and Marcel de Jong in particular must have pleased the coach.

Both are expected to be bit part players this year but although Nerwinski got caught out of position a couple of times he didn’t lose his calm and even offered an attacking threat. And he also understands the right back position which by itself is an improvement on last season.

Marcel de Jong was even more impressive aligning defensive duties with an attacking threat and some great deliveries and it’s easy to see Robinson giving him plenty of minutes, especially on the road.

Overall this probably feels a bit harsh given the injuries, a 2-0 win and a place in the Champion’s League semi-final but deficiencies are deficiencies no matter what the score and they still need to be addressed.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Does the captain matter?

With the Whitecaps still to announce who will replace Pedro Morales as the team captain it at least begs the question of whether it’s at all relevant who is in possession of the armband.

As is so often the case around here the answer to that question is “it depends” because context is everything.

There are some teams where it really doesn’t matter.

Make any player captain of the current Juventus or Chelsea squads for example and it won`t make a difference because they are both experienced, well-balanced squads with clear ideas about what thy are expected to do on the field.

But the Whitecaps didn’t fit that description in 2016 and they likely won’t in 2017 either so who Carl Robinson chooses for the role actually will matter. Not least because of the slightly bizarre behaviour we’ve seen from Morales himself on social media recently.

It’s hard not to conclude that Pedro was a destabilizing presence last year and that, at the very least, a small number of players will have lost respect for him.

That loss of respect may even have seeped through to the coach who selected him and you can bet the players will be a little more interested in who is chosen than would normally be the case.

Will Robinson once again opt for simply naming the highest paid player as team captain? That seems unlikely given that Fredy Montero has only just arrived at the club which leaves the coach with a far more interesting decision.

In his ideal world he would probably have named David Edgar to the position; experienced, vocal and not at the club long enough to have fallen into one clique or another.

But Edgar’s long-term injury takes that option off the table, so the choice will now have to be made from one of last season’s regular starters with Harvey, Waston and Ousted being the most obvious contenders.

There are issues with each one though.

Ousted’s public spat with Pedro must have put a few noses out of place among friends of the latter. So selecting Ousted would put Robinson firmly on one side of the camp and risk exacerbating the tensions of last year.

Waston’s disciplinary record doesn’t bode well in a potential captain and furthermore if any player needed to focus solely on their own play this year then that player would be Waston.

That leaves Jordan Harvey who has the positives of being likeable and honest in post game interviews (something that the language barrier made it impossible for Morales to do) but the negatives are largely that he isn’t the most vocal of players on the pitch.

Tries his heart out sure, can organize a defence definitely, but probably not an imposing enough figure to take control of the whole team.

Still, his work rate would at least be a good example to the rest and given the somewhat limited other options available to him Robinson may have to conclude that if his captain isn’t going to be a transformative figure on the field he can at least pick the player who would do the least harm.

That looks to be Jordan Harvey.