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.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps waiting for the end of the world

Well, maybe not the end of the world but definitely the end of the regular season because right now Carl Robinson and his players are caught in the limbo of knowing that they’ve already done enough to make the playoffs but still have three games to get through before all the post season hoopla begins in earnest.

It might even be to the coach’s advantage that he has a few players missing due to international duty for Saturday’s visit to the New York Red Bulls because he can at least keep things fresh by throwing in a few who are on the fringes of the first eleven before hopefully using the San Jose and Portland games to really hone his thoughts on who he starts from that point on.

And that’s important because although these playoffs may not be career defining for Robinson they could well define how he is ultimately regarded by Whitecaps fans once he leaves the organisation.

That’s because in his previous post season test he messed up royally.

He opted to go ultra defensive in the first leg when facing a Timbers team on minimal rest (Gershon Koffie at number ten!) and the resultant 0-0 in Portland was promptly undone as soon as the Timbers got a tie killing away goal in the return leg at BC Place.

And while it’s a truth universally acknowledged that nobody will relish facing Vancouver over two legs this time around they do still feel like a team who are more likely to lose a game by three or four goals than they are to win by that kind of margin.

So it will be interesting to see just how Robinson’s innate caution manifests itself.

He must know that an away goal in the first leg (this is assuming they do indeed get one of the top two spots in the West) would be huge for a team that is never happier than when waiting for the opposition to make a mistake.

But perhaps the biggest advantage he has over his options in 2015 is that this time around he’s in charge of a much deeper squad and while they may still be prey to the whims of form and injury the vast majority of those ready to go will have had the benefit of at least some rest during the slog of the regular season.

And speaking of analyzing the playing style of a particular coach (which we really weren’t but I’m too lazy to think of a cleverer segue) there seems to be another universally acknowledged truth that the coach only opts for the tactics he does because of the players he has.

That given his limited options he has no choice but to play low possession counterattacking football.

That argument is spurious of course because nobody really thinks that every coach in the world  would set up this group of players with two defensive midfielders and a lone striker.

The Whitecaps play the way they do because that’s how Carl Robinson wants them to play and that’s fine as long as the results keep coming, but let’s not pretend that the current squad is simply incapable of playing 4-3-3 or 4-1-3-2 for example.

A slightly more nuanced take on that argument is that the current system may not be the only way this team can play but it is certainly the best way for them to play and at least that argument has some merit given the current position in the standings.

But an advocate of the devil might say that the coach’s philosophy isn’t limited by the players he has but rather that a few of the players are limited by the coach they have.

The whole thing still doesn’t feel sustainable over a long period if we’re speaking in terms of seasons, but it definitely feels sustainable for the rest of this campaign and, right now, that’s all that really matters.

We can enjoy today for what it is and we don’t need to worry about tomorrow until tomorrow (or even the day after that).

Can the bad boy of Canadian soccer be tamed?

It’s Labour Day Weekend and those of us not distracted by having to play international soccer are no doubt using the time to pretend that summer isn’t really nearly over and that the days aren’t really getting shorter.

And it was probably such concerns that led to Alphonso Davies collecting his first red card as a professional when he was dismissed for an errant boot after just six minutes of his cameo appearance for Canada against Jamaica in Toronto.

But what sixteen year old isn’t distracted by the imminent onset of Autumnal hues?

Was the red mist Davies glimpsed nought but the mists of Fall?

When he covered his face as he walked to the touch-line was he contemplating the barred clouds blooming on a soft-dying day as they touched the stubble-plains with a rosy hue?

No he wasn’t.

He was thinking that he definitely shouldn’t have lashed out with his cleats in such a petulant manner.

But timing is everything in sport and if Davies had to pick up his first red card then an international friendly in which Canada are leading 2-0 is about the best time possible.

No doubt Carl Robinson was watching the action with mixed feelings.

A feeling of concern that his young star displayed a hitherto unseen lack of temperament, but also a feeling of arriving at a “teachable moment” where the youngster can learn one more lesson on his path to maturity.

Mostly though Robinson’s heart will have sunk with the realisation that the Davies red card is literally the only thing he will be asked about by the media for the next seven days.

Safe to say that future MLS opponents will have been watching and taking note and will be trying to wind Davies up for the remainder of this season at least.

One player who doesn’t really need to get wound up is Kendall Waston and he nearly did just that in Costa Rica’s 2-0 win over the USA on Friday evening when he clashed with the always loveable Clint Dempsey.

But much like the rest of this season Waston dialled it back enough to stay on the field and stay on just the right side of the referee.

Much of Waston’s improved disciplinary record has been put down to Robinson’s decision to name him captain for the season.

But I wonder if it isn’t just something more fundamental?

As we saw in the win in Orlando the Whitecaps are once again very proficient at blocking teams from attacking through the centre of the field, thus forcing them out wide, thus forcing them to cross the ball.

That’s meat and drink to Waston and it must be so much easier to keep his head when using his head than it was last year when a seemingly endless supply of pacey players were running toward him with the ball at their feet.

Somewhat bizarrely there were some MLS games played on this international weekend and the FC Dallas home tie with the Red Bulls leaves the Whitecaps still in fourth and a point ahead of Dallas with a game in hand (and who would have predicted that a few short weeks ago?).

And if Vancouver can beat Real Salt Lake in the upcoming game at BC Place that should effectively kill off the visitors chance of catching the Whitecaps given that they have played three games more.

Such a win would also push Vancouver somehwere near the top of the standings given the nature of the other match ups.

So much to play for, so much to lose!

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Hot takes! Get your hot takes here!

Grab them quick because they are selling like hot takes!

Why football is so great- For the first sixty minutes the game on Wednesday was just terrible if you were a fan of the Whitecaps.

The team were lacklustre, the tactics were wrong and Seattle were passing the ball around like they actually practiced that kind of thing.

Then a red card, a goal created out of almost nothing and suddenly the final thirty minutes were a heart pounding mix of agony, hope and hastily thought through bargains with the gods of the sport.

Spinning dramatic silk from a sow’s ear of a game is what football does best.

Mystery solved- We don’t want to delve too much more on Carl Robinson’s decision making (we do really) but there’s always been some debate about whether his reluctance to make early changes is down to an inability to see what is wrong with the team or simply his footballing philosophy.

Well, after the Seattle game he said “I knew straight away after about ten minutes, I probably would have made two subs after about ten minutes” when speaking about how poor his team were.

Why he then waited another forty minutes to make any change at all speaks volumes about his willingness to sacrifice the present performance over the possibility of future player unrest.

The remainder of the season will determine if that is the right strategy.

BC Place is not Shea stadium The Brek Shea for Giles Barnes deal is beginning to look more and more like a like for like swap (that’s more likes than this blog has ever had!).

Because, like Barnes, Shea seems to be a player who doesn’t quite fit into the way the team want to play.

He will almost certainly start in Orlando so maybe that will be the breakthrough performance that kickstarts his career in Vancouver, but when your benched DP (no matter how tenuous that designation is) isn’t one of the three changes you make in a big game at home you’ve got a square peg/round hole scenario for sure.

So what now? Predicting MLS in general is folly and predicting this Whitecaps team is folly cubed.

We will get what we will get.

One thing for sure though is that if their “character” only stretches to playing well at home when there backs are against the wall it’s going to be tough haul for the rest of the year.

Sooner or later that “character” will have to demonstrate that it can take control of a game before it gets away from them if they are to genuinely prosper

 

At least it’s a point for the Vancouver Whitecaps!

Carl Robinson’s innate conservatism won’t destroy the Whitecaps season (they’re still likely to make the playoffs somewhere between fourth and sixth in the standings).

But it will always prevent this current group of players from flying anywhere higher than the ceiling of their collective abilities and it will always cause them to falter in the kind of game where something meaningful is on the line.

Case in point.

For the second consecutive Cascadia derby home game Robinson sent out his team to play in a manner that effectively killed the home team advantage by allowing the opposition to stroke the ball around for the first ten minutes just to make sure that they didn’t feel too uncomfortable.

Maybe that’s unfair?

Maybe he didn’t deliberately send his team out to play in such a supine manner? Maybe that’s just how they play once they listen to his instructions?

Either way it was border line embarrassing for Vancouver to be playing so fearfully in a contest where the home crowd is so desperate for the blood and thunder of a local derby.

What to say about the actual game?

The Whitecaps were horrendously bad in the first half and were lucky to go into the break only one goal down and then they were horrendously bad in the second half as well before referee Ricardo Salazar finally found a way to fire up the home team by sending off Tony Tchani for a second yellow card.

Then Alphonso Davies did well to set up Fredy Montero for his obligatory goal against the Sounders and from there on in it was the kind of backs to the wall defending that exists well within the comfort zone of both the players and the coaches.

Almost predictably they hung on for a point and Robinson will get to answer questions about the red card and the penalty and the referee and the fourth official.

And the fact that his team played without any kind of intensity or courage for the first sixty minutes of a Cascadia derby game will be conveniently forgotten.

The Whitecaps will now probably fly to Orlando and get a decent result and the march to the postseason will continue until they’re finally forced to play that one playoff game with everything resting on it and then the inevitable will happen.

Robinson will coach afraid, his team will play afraid and the season will be over.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-7*, Williams-4.5, Waston-6, Parker-6, Harvey-6, Tchani-5, Jacobson-5, Techera-5, Bolaños-5, Reyna-5.5, Montero-6.5 (Davies-6.5, Ibini-6, Teibert-6)

 

The Nerwinski Reconciliation Papers

Following the recent 2-1 win over the Houston Dynamo the Vancouver Whitecaps full-back Jake Nerwinski was awarded a team low 5.5 in the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings (SSPR).

But could this number be wrong?

No it can’t be wrong because the SSPR are regarded as the gold standard of objective and analytically precise data analysis.

But what if that 5.5 was a price worth paying for the good of the team?

Let me explain.

Since that game the image at the head of this piece has been doing the social media rounds clearly showing that (Montero aside) Nerwinski was the Whitecaps player who was highest up the field when in possession.

And while we need to be careful about making sweeping assumptions from one game (no we don’t! late’s make them!) this was probably the first time Carl Robinson has allowed a full-back to play the position in the truly “modern” sense of the term.

That is, offering at least as much going forward as they do in defence.

This change was made possible because both Christian Bolaños and Cristian Techera played far narrower than usual thus creating space for Nerwinski out wide.

And that narrowness had other benefits too.

It allowed Jordy Reyna to roam wherever he pleased (often taking up position on the wide left where Jordan Harvey was  playing far more cautiously than Nerwinski) and it also meant that Bolaños was able to drop deep and be the distributor from the back instead of the more “agricultural” Waston or Parker.

It also enabled the Whitecaps to get extra bodies in the box when going forward, even if that did seem to lead to Techera constantly fighting futile aerial battles with central defenders.

But to really work the system needs a full-back on each side with the ability and willingness to get both forward and back on an almost constant conveyor belt and the current left-sided options just aren’t able to do that.

Neither Jordan Harvey nor Marcel de Jong possess the “legs”, “engine” or whatever other euphemism you wish to insert for the word “youth”.

So if Carl Robinson truly wants to switch to a system that employs the full-backs as almost the main attacking thrust (and MLS Cups have been won by just this kind of late season tactical change) he seemingly has two options.

The natural fit for the role is Brett Levis, who so impressed last season, but is only just getting back into match action with WFC2.

Levis on the left would be a kind of mirror image of Nerwisnki on the right (with perhaps a little more quality thrown into the mix).

The other option is Brek Shea.

Shea has played in pretty much every part of the left side of the field and so has experience of both sides of the defending and attacking coin.

He also adds height at set-pieces which Robinson might find an alluring prospect.

Chances are that none of this is going to happen and that the coach will revert to the experience of Harvey and maybe even Sheannon Williams when the crunch time of the season arrives.

But it’s good to dream every once in a while.

And even if it doesn’t happen let’s at least give credit to Robinson for once again dipping his toe into the murky waters of tactical innovation.