Vancouver Whitecaps and the fine art of surfacing

I was going to open this with a bit about how krill spend their whole lives constantly treading water and therefore their two main roles within the ecosystem were to act as food for predators and as metaphors for people desperately trying to find an original introduction to their blog.

But it turns out they actually have inflatable air sacs in their bodies which act as flotation devices, thus rendering them metaphorically useless.

Lazy bastards.

Anyway, for much of last season and at the beginning of this it felt as though the Vancouver Whitecaps were treading water when it came to the progress of the team.

The system had grown stale, the coach seemed unaware that the system had grown stale and the players had the disinterested demeanour of a teenager at a family wedding.

But then, seemingly out of nowhere, Carl Robinson began to make tactical changes; three at the back, Bolaños as the number ten and finally the 4-1-4-1 formation that played well in Portland but lost and then played well in Montreal on Saturday afternoon and won 2-1.

Robinson is often keen to point out that formations don’t matter, players do. And in this particular case he’s both right and wrong.

Because the real strength of this system appears to be how wholeheartedly the players have bought into it.

Listen to any interview with any one of them recently and they will all enthuse about how they are now determined to adopt a more attacking style when playing on the road.

And we can probably conclude one of three things from this.

The coach has thoroughly convinced them of the benefits of this way of playing, they’ve been briefed by the club to say this to drum up interest in the games or the players themselves were partly instrumental in instituting the change.

Whatever the reasons behind it though the win in Montreal will only strengthen the belief in that particular way of playing.

There are still issues though.

Fredy Montero barely gets a look at goal and is used more as the hold up man than the striker and, somewhat bizarrely, two of the goals conceded in the last two games have come about because a Montero pass was hit slightly behind Bolaños causing the Whitecaps to lose possession.

That doesn’t mean that the errant Montero pass was the sole cause of the concession (there were many other factors involved) , but it does indicate a weakness in the formation because Vancouver are now much more vulnerable to conceding once they lose the ball

That’s because the defensive “double shield” is no longer there and though few will mourn the passing of that tactical trait work needs to be done at either getting Laba to stay deeper and more central or for Tchani and Jacobson to not over commit too early in a move (I can’t believe I’m complaining that the Whitecaps midfielders are being too attack minded!).

Another issue is that neither Jacobson or Tchani are true goal scoring midfielders.

Jacobson at least has some of the instincts to play in that way (even if his finishing leaves something to be desired) but Tchani has shown little going forward and that’s going to be an issue as the games go on because a team set up like this can’t afford to spurn chances on a regular basis.

But these are relatively minor gripes given how much things have improved with Bolaños, Techera and Montero beginning to find some kind of understanding and Sheanon Williams looking like the answer to all the right back woes of last season.

The question now is whether Robinson will stick with what he’s got or continue to experiment with systems and lineups.

It would be brave of him to try the latter given how well his side have played in the last two weeks but it’s tough to see how a player like Brek Shea will fit into this lineup and even harder to see a fit again Yordy Reyna playing any of these roles.

So maybe there is room for more tactical tweaks as the weeks and the games go on and that’s no bad thing as long as the core philosophy leans toward going forward more than dropping back.

Because while it may not be true that teams that try to win games always fare better than teams that try not to lose them it is true that fans will forgive the former far more easily than they will the latter.

And the Whitecaps have become almost likeable again.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings-

Ousted-6, Williams-7, Parker-6.5, Waston-6.5, Harvey-6.5, Laba-6.5, Tchani-5.5, Jacobson-7*, Bolaños- 6.5, Techera-7, Montero-6

 

 

 

Portland v Vancouver: What did we learn?

So I was listening to the new WhaleBone Shampoo album the other evening (“Restructuring the Forest” only available on vinyl through the “Perplexed” record label) and while the majority of the tracks are minor updates on the mashup of Trap music and Eastern European influenced Psychobilly that made their debut album “A Carwash for Dr. Ernst Janning” such essential listening it was the title track that I found so compelling.

This was clearly the band stepping away from their comfort zone and featured a kind of Kraftwerkesque electronica backing while individual members took turns in reading out random abstracts from past editions of National Geographic magazine.

Does it work?

Probably not, but it is at least an attempt to create something of an escape clause for the band; something that extends beyond the already slightly tired boundaries of their debut offering.

And as I was listening to that song it made me cast my mind back to the Whitecaps 2-1 defeat in Portland last weekend and then when I further heard Jordan Harvey being interviewed in a post-scrimmage scrum and listened to him opine that the team had vowed to break away from the defensive structure of previous years when it came to road games it made me re-evaluate what had gone before.

So let’s review.

A defeat in San Jose which only came about when David Ousted was red carded after Vancouver had sped into a 2-0 lead.

A mess of a game and a performance in Salt Lake in which an untried three at the back system was utilized with disastrous results.

And finally the recent Portland game where 4-1-4-1 was the order of the day with Andrew Jacobson playing as the most forward thinking central midfielder.

Now, we may not like much of what we’ve seen in those games (and we certainly haven’t liked the results) but there are clear indications that Carl Robinson is desperately trying to break away from the fetters of that old 4-2-3-1 routine that pretty much every other coach in the league figured out how to play against as early as September of 2015.

Much like listening to members of WhaleBone Shampoo earnestly reciting disconnected phrases about the lost tribe of Sapanahua and the latest breakthrough in mosquito repellent we have to acknowledge that, even if we don’t necessarily rejoice in the final cut that made it through the editing process, we should at least rejoice in the willingness of those involved to stretch their boundaries.

So it’s probably time to cut the coach some slack and hope that he continues with this experimental phase of his coaching career and to really, really hope that it produces something more tangible than interesting tactical variations in the very near future because the alternative is too awful to consider.

A return to the kind of road games where the Whitecaps sit back and sit back in the hope that nothing at all ever happens.

And it never, ever did.

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Wishing they were lucky

Napoleon Bonaparte famously preferred his generals to be lucky rather than good which, when you think about, is a startlingly incompetent way of running any kind of army and can therefore probably go into the history folder marked “apocryphal quotes”.

Nevertheless there are moments in any campaign when the fickle hand of fate can intervene when least expected.

And, while the overarching narrative around the Whitecaps this season has been the tale of woe relating to injuries and such, could there be an argument that Carl Robinson has actually enjoyed a good degree of fortune so far in 2017?

Let’s see if we can’t at least make some kind of case in favour of that contention.

The injury to David Edgar certainly stymied the coach’s plan to use the Canadian central defender as a cohesive force on both the field of play and in the locker room.

But his absence meant that Kendall Waston and Tim Parker were forced together again and the signs are that they are at least returning to something akin to their form of 2015.

It also forced Robinson into making a difficult choice about the captaincy and he eventually settled upon Waston and we soon discovered that while the burden of leadership didn’t eradicate every error from the big Costa Rican’s game it did encourage a more level-headed approach when it came to physical challenges.

Having Waston as captain reduces the risk of Waston as a red card collector.

The next piece of fortune came in the double whammy of the sending off and injury to Brek Shea.

Shea hasn’t done badly since joining the Whitecaps but it was clear that, given the numbers available to play out wide, Robinson was seriously toying with playing him as either a target man or as a number ten alongside Fredy Montero.

Shea is neither of those things and both he and we were spared witnessing any such experiment by his extended lay off.

That also forced Robinson to bring in Cristian Techera and the Uruguayan has now been instrumental in helping the team pick up a much needed six points from their last two MLS home games.

No Shea injury, no whipped in cross from Techera to set up for the first goal against Seattle.

But surely Jordy Reyna being ruled out before the season even began was nothing but bad news?

Well, it certainly looked that way for the first few games as Robinson played around with the ideas of Shea, Mezquida and Hurtado as striking options, but then Christian Bolaños got back to fitness and slotted into the number ten role with aplomb.

The general feeling is that Bolaños much prefers to play out wide but his presence in the centre brings a calmness and vision to a team that frequently lack both attributes.

No doubt that Reyna should be the long-term solution but when he is finally ready to play his first meaningful game he should be doing so in a side that has found some cohesion rather than the generally haphazard lineups we saw in the first few games.

There’s also the fact that the absences of Reyna, Shea, Bolaños and Manneh (For various reasons) helped Robinson through the difficult chore of rotating his squad.

There’s always been the sense that some players will get the nod no matter what their level of play (Witness Laba and Morales last season) but this time around there’s no chance for a player like Techera to feel slighted after being dropped following a game winning performance because there’s almost nobody to drop him for.

And let’s not forget that the arrival of Fredy Montero was the result of the striker being friendly with Mauro Rosales rather than any extensive behind the scenes machinations from the club.

No doubt the upcoming four game road trip will test this hypothesis to the limit but it could be that the virtue of selection necessity has been the saving grace for a team that can now find a level of consistency (In both style and personnel) before they get a fresh induction of renewed blood in the oft difficult to manoeuvre summer months.

You make your own luck in sport to be sure, but sometimes the raw materials are a little easier to assemble than others.

Vancouver Whitecaps: Well excuse me!

Just over a week spent in the land of Great Brexit meant that I missed seeing the defeats to Tigres and Real Salt Lake as they happened.

That was probably a blessing in many ways but it was also kind of interesting to view the games almost solely through the prism of social media because the people who follow the Whitecaps (Or at least the people who I follow who follow the Whitecaps) are a remarkably forgiving bunch on the whole.

Lose to Tigres: “That’s to be expected because it’s the Champion’s League game”.

Lose to Real Salt Lake: “That’s to be expected because the game was so close to the Champion’s League game”.

I may be paraphrasing slightly for dramatic effect but it’s still not too far away from the truth and if any group of players or any coach didn’t need this kind of forgiveness it’s the current Vancouver Whitecaps.

Perhaps behind closed doors Carl Robinson runs the whole operation with the kind of sadistic brutality of Sergeant Williams in the 1965 movie “The Hill” but all indications are that he runs them more in the style of Sergeant Wilson in the long running TV series “Dad’s Army” (Forgive the overly British references here I’ve only just got back!).

Let’s look at the evidence.

Last season Cristian Techera showed up for preseason clearly out of condition and never found any kind of form until the latter half of the campaign.

This season Robinson himself has admitted that Christian Bolaños was unfit when he arrived at training and when Kekuta Manneh was sent to Columbus Crew their coach, Gregg Berhalter eschewed playing him because, “We want to make sure he’s right and prepared and we did notice a little bit of a difference in I guess his stamina compared to our guys”.

All individual incidents for sure but individual incidents that hint at a culture aimed more at keeping the players happy than keeping them at their physical peak.

And do we really have to listen to Robinson list a series of excuses for yet another defeat before he then utters the deathless phrase “You know me, I don’t like to make excuses”?

Or listen to another player saying that the latest loss will “Only make us stronger” and is “Something we can learn from”?

Here’s a word to the wise; if you keep losing games of football then you’re not getting stronger and you’re not learning anything.

You’re just losing games of football.

The next five games already feel season defining given that they consist of a home game to Seattle followed by four tough road games and while the excuses are already built in to that agenda; injuries, travel, playing good teams (Got to love the last of those as it implies that having a good team is some kind of cheat mode) the Whitecaps could emerge from that spell already adrift of their much coveted sixth spot.

Maybe I’m wrong (Hopefully I’m wrong!) and this is just the jet lag talking and Vancouver are about to embark on a run of form that overturns everything that has gone before but, as of now, the Vancouver Whitecaps feel like a really fun place to be if you’re a player but not so great a place to be if you just want to watch the games.

That’s probably not sustainable as a business model and it’s definitely not sustainable as a way of achieving meaningful success on the field.

Unfortunately, unless Carl Robinson has some kind of unexpected epiphany (Though all epiphanies are unexpected I guess) the likelihood is that things will carry on as is for the forseeable future with the parity of MLS ensuring just enough points to keep the hopes of the playoffs mathematically alive until late summer and the inevitable fading away of yet another season.

As Sergeant Wilson himself would enquire of the coach and the organisation as a whole, “Do you think that’s wise?”

Vancouver Whitecaps v LA Galaxy: What did we learn?

Fair warning to you all that I watched the majority of the Vancouver Whitecaps 4-2 win over the LA Galaxy on my phone while waiting to board a flight to the UK so the insights contained within will be those of a man both jet lagged and uninformed.

Maybe that’s the magic bullet I’ve been looking for?

Whatever the case I won’t allow being in England to influence my perspective in any way but cor blimey guvnor it weren’t half smashing to use me old apple pies to have a gander at them there fellas using their plates of meat so well.

Anyway, what did we learn?

Carl Robinson proves his critics right- One possible reading of the game is that the coach had been right all along with the formation he was playing, it just needed time to bed in.

The other, less charitable, reading is that everybody else was right all along and that the team needed to play in a far more proactive manner (especially at home).

This was certainly helped by the Galaxy’s strange compulsion to make the game as open as possible but even so the Whitecaps actually got men forward from the midfield and perhaps the most unexpected consequence of the Tony Tchani signing is that he allowed Matias Laba to get forward rather than the other way around.

It’s ludicrously early to be making any kind of relevant assessments but if Laba suddenly finds the will and the way to get into the opposition penalty area on a regular basis then that’s nothing but good news.

Selection headaches ahoy!– Brek Shea’s suspension gave Cristian Techera the chance to start a game and boy did he take that chance.

Techera hasn’t looked that good since he first arrived in Vancouver and it was a reminder of just how effective he can be as an attacking presence.

Maybe the Manneh trade has either invigorated or terrified the Uruguayan (nobody wants to wake up to find themselves on a plane to Columbus) but whatever the cause Techera should have moved ahead of Shea in the starting eleven reckoning after Saturday.

Shea will undoubtedly start against Tigres on Wednesday and so he has a chance to make a counter-claim but if Robinson doesn’t reward Techera with more minutes then we may well be back to the unmotivated bug of yester season.

There are still issues- Of course there are; one win does not make a summer after all.

In the first half the Whitecaps all but lost their way after the non-call on the Davies PK decision and the first LA goal and, after a very bright start, were somewhat grateful to get back into the locker room just one goal to the bad.

That hints at the still lingering suspicion of a soft underbelly at the heart of the team (Why is the underbelly near the heart anyway? They need medical help stat!) but hopefully that particular flaw will be partially remedied by the memory of achieving a come from behind win in such thrilling fashion.

Erik Hurtado’s attempt at a “Beckham”- We must never speak of this again.

Time for the (belated) Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted- 5.5, Williams-6.5, harvey-6, Waston-6, Parker-6, Laba-7, Jacobson-6.5, Davies-6.5, Techera-7.5*, Bolaños-6.5, Hurtado- 5.5 (Montero-6)   

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.