Vancouver Whitecaps: Something we learned yesterday

The Vancouver Whitecaps 2-0 half time lead over Minnesota United on Saturday evening wasn’t so much a vindication of Carl Robinson’s switch to 4-4-2 as it was a statistical anomaly caused by a penalty kick and another set piece goal.

A better coach (Or even a more proactive one) would have cashed in his chips at the break and reverted to the 4-1-4-1 system that has served the team well in recent weeks.

That didn’t happen though and the home team came out with something to prove and levelled the game with relative ease.

Fortunately that seemed to be the limit of their ambition and from that moment on the game felt like two broken down boxers taking half-hearted swings, each more concerned with feeling the mind numbing force of the knockout punch than landing it.

I’m not sure what it will take for Robinson to realise that Brek Shea is unable to play the central attacking role effectively, but Brek Shea constantly being unable to play the central attacking role effectively doesn’t seem to be it.

Against Minnesota he and Fredy Montero weren’t so much supporting each other as drifting in orbits dictated by a differing gravitational pull.

And though it’s good that the team are now so effective from set-pieces sooner or later they will have to figure out how to give Montero some actual service or risk turning their Designated Player into yet another journeyman forward scampering for space where none can be found.

Elsewhere Alphonso Davies provided a modicum of momentum when he was on the ball and Tony Tchani finally produced a goal without ever offering much of an attacking presence from the middle of the field.

And the makeshift defence did what we expected it to do; be largely solid while always hinting at the possibility of conceding when under genuine pressure.

Whether we see this game as two points dropped after being 2-0 up against one of the League’s less impressive teams or a point gained on the road during an injury crisis will largely depend on the tale of the table at the end of the year.

But next week’s trip to Chicago and the following home game against New York City will be much tougher tests than the one faced on Saturday and just doing enough to get by won’t be doing enough against either of those opponents.

Injuries and suspensions are no doubt a cause of much of the malaise but those injuries and suspensions seem to be tempting Carl Robinson back to the comforting cloak of safety first football that he looked to have discarded earlier in the season.

Let’s hope not.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings.

Ousted-6, Nerwisnki-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6, Laba-6, Tchani-6, Davies-6.5*, Techera-6, Shea-5.5, Montero-6

 

 

 

 

Carl Robinson and the Shadow of Forgotten Ancestors

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”

-Carl Sagan

How does genuine change occur?

Well, one way is by seeing the past as not so much a template for what is to be and more as one specific instance to have played itself out from a multitude of possibilities.

What’s happened may indeed have happened but that doesn’t mean that it had to happen and it certainly doesn’t mean that the future can only be defined in the narrow terms imposed by what has been.

(You will soon be able to sign up for my weekly newsletter “Random phrases that seem quite deep but really mean nothing upon closer analysis)”. 

Anyway, this is a very all around the houses way of saying that whatever anybody may have thought of him before the Whitecaps coach 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.

So the long awaited return/debut of Jordy Reyna and even the moment when Bernie Ibini is fully match fit may see the coach push the envelope even further and deploy two forwards in the same starting eleven.

The biggest problem he faces is that the squad he has assembled just doesn’t seem to have either a natural starting eleven or even a natural starting formation.

There’s no way that Bolaños, Shea, Davies, Techera, Tchani, Reyna, Montero et al can all fit into a lineup that makes any kind of sense and while the argument for depth is always a persuasive one there exists the distinct risk that Robinson will confuse adaptability with fitting square pegs into round holes once he has a full roster to choose from.

So perhaps the biggest change that needs to occur (And there have already been signs of this in both the Manneh trade and one or two of his post game comments) is that he moves further and further away from being the players friend and closer and closer to being their manager.

It seems harsh to say that a coach is too involved with his team but following the terrible penalty call against DC United on Saturday it seemed as though Robinson lost his focus on the game for maybe ten to fifteen minutes.

Now I get why that should be because we all probably reacted in the exact same way, but that was the moment when his players really needed a clear head from the sidelines.

There was still plenty of time (And plenty of chances) to go but it could be that the Whitecaps lost a few valuable minutes because there was nobody on or off the field who could gather their collective heads together.

By this stage of this ramble it kind of feels as though I’m damning the coach with faint praise but that’s genuinely not the case.

It’s far more interesting to watch a team coached by a man who is willing to take chances than one who always adopts the safety first approach and the next two games will be a little tactical adventure in and of themselves.

First Robinson has to select a group of players capable of coming away with at least a tie in Montreal on Tuesday without damaging his team’s chances against Atlanta on Saturday.

And the Atlanta game should be fascinating.

They play the kind of high pressing game that, on one hand, could be catnip to a Vancouver team who must be sick of opponents sitting back at BC Place but, on the other hand, that high pressing game could be kryptonite to a Vancouver back four who regard any pass longer than five yards as more of an aspiration than an attainable goal.

But how Robinson must be relishing pitting his wits against “Tata” Martino (Ex Barcelona and Argentina coach).

In the past the Whitecaps would treat this visit with caution and simply sit back waiting to see who made the first mistake.

But now there’s a chance (There’s at least a chance!) that Robinson will try something fresh yet again and that would be (Has to be) a very good thing indeed.

Time for him to invent yet another new universe!

Vancouver Whitecaps rue everything!

It’s hard to know what to make of the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-0 defeat to DC United at BC Place on Saturday afternoon.

After all, on another day the Whitecaps could easily have won by two or three goals; they missed a spot kick, hit the woodwork four times and lost to an extremely dubious penalty call.

So was it just “one of those games”?

It probably was, although the lingering feeling that Vancouver have had “one of those games” quite a number of times over recent seasons might leave a person of a more worrisome disposition to consider it a trend rather than an anomaly.

Weak opposition sit back while the Whitecaps huff and puff with effort but no success.

And that lack of success in this particular game was down to a number of factors beyond the vagaries of the mythical “Soccer Gods”.

Christian Bolaños never quite found his passing range (Nobody else did either but Bolaños is key in this kind of game), Fredy Montero was a little less isolated but also a little less confident in front of goal than a top striker needs to be and Davies and Techera created next to nothing from the wide areas.

The fact that three of the Whitecaps four cracks against the woodwork came from set pieces also tells at least some of the story and even the chances that were created from open play were far more the result of a stray bounce here and and a mishit shot there than the well orchestrated and crisp passing we saw against Kansas last week.

That’s just the vagaries of MLS I suppose, but the Whitecaps have now taken one point from the three Eastern Conference teams to have played at BC Place this season and with the West being so close that they currently sit both out of the playoff places and only six points off the top with two games in hand those dropped points could be season changers come the end of the campaign.

The return of Matias Laba next week probably means a return to the 4-1-4-1 that has worked so well in recent weeks but it’s clear that this team is still a work in progress with Carl Robinson having to figure out how to fit his best pieces into his best eleven.

Bolaños is better suited to playing in the wide role, especially in a game as congested as this one was, and Alphonso Davies still looks more dangerous as a substitute than a starter and while Tony Tchani was a little bit better once again he’s still not offering enough going forward (Both in terms of quantity and quality).

These uncertainties are probably no bad thing given the way the season is structured but let’s hope the coach doesn’t allow a bad refereeing decision and the framework of a goal to persuade him that all is well within his team because if a dodgy penalty costs you the game at home to a poor DC United team then there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

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

 

Vancouver Whitecaps Win Again

Carl Robinson’s “Year of Great Experimentation” continued in the Canadian Championship on Wednesday evening as the Whitecaps beat the Montreal Impact 2-1 in the first leg of the tie.

This time around Robinson went with three at the back (de Jong, de Wit and Seiler)and then “something else” for the rest of the positions.

Jake Nerwinski was playing right wing back, Alphonso Davies was a midfielder with defensive responsibilities on the left, Teibert and McKendry were sitting in the middle and Rosales and Mezquida were constantly switching positions behind Brek Shea.

For the sake of simplicity let’s call it a 3-1.25-1.25-1-1.25-0.5-1.75-1 formation.

Whatever it was though it certainly worked well in the first half as the Whitecaps cruised to a 2-0 lead thanks to goals from Davies and Mezquida.

Nerwinski was a constant danger on the right, Teibert and McKendry were busy and neat (In that order) in the centre and the front three/four always looked capable of unlocking the Montreal backline.

Things changed for the worst in the second half however and that was down to one of three, two of three or three of three things.

Maybe the Impact worked out how to get behind that back three by playing diagonal balls out wide, maybe Mezquida, Rosales, Shea and Davies all tired quite suddenly or maybe the youngsters at the heart of the defensive effort suddenly found themselves lacking a little big game experience?

By the final whistle Spencer Richey (Who often looked a little reticent when coming out to meet the ball) had saved a penalty and made a last-ditch last-minute save with his feet to keep the lead alive.

Retrospect may tell Robinson that having one or two experienced players on the bench may have been a better move than completely filling it with youngsters and hopefully retrospect will also mention that Brek Shea definitely isn’t a lone target man.

The American was often caught offside when there was no need to be and just doesn’t possess the physicality or skill set to play that role.

In the end though it’s another win at BC Place in a largely entertaining game and though the second leg still hangs precariously in the balance the weight of that balance is just about tipped to the side of the good guys.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Richey-6.5, Nerwisnki-7*, de Wit-6, Seiler-6, de Jong-6.5, Teibert-6, McKendry-6, Rosales-6.5, Davies-7, Mezquida-6, Shea-5.5

 

Game of two halves for Schrödinger’s Caps

There aren’t really any “must win” games at this stage of the Major League Soccer season but the Vancouver Whitecaps home game to Sporting Kansas City at least felt like an “it would be really, really, nice to win” game.

Following up a positive four game road trip with a flat and futile performance at BC Place wold have felt like a step back in a season that had lurched toward the positive in recent weeks.

The end result was a comfortable 2-0 win for the Whitecaps but for the first thirty minutes “flat and futile” felt like a pretty good description of the game.

Coach Carl Robinson announced an unchanged team for the fifth consecutive game and he can’t really have been surprised to discover that a lineup which was very effective on the road proceeded to produce yet another effective road performance with few chances given or taken.

That really isn’t good enough for a home game though but, just when it appeared that the Whitecaps had lapsed into relying on hopeful/hopeless long balls from Kendall Waston to fashion any kind of chance the big central defender produced a decent pass to Sheanon Williams who hit a great cross to Christian Bolaños who chested it down to Cristian Techera who volleyed home first time.

It was a goal of genuine class in a half that was largely bereft of that particular commodity.

Thankfully the second half was far better and whether that was down to Kansas being forced to push forward and leave space at the back or whether it was down to Vancouver being more adventurous is open to debate but chance after chance was spurned (Including another Montero penalty miss) before Tim Parker headed home a Bolaños free-kick to all but seal the deal.

The question now for Robinson is how he sets the team up for the game against DC United next saturday.

Tony Tchani is still struggling to find a role in the side and the balance looked far better once he was removed and Alphonso Davies pushed wide and Bolaños moved inside.

Let’s call that a 4-1-1-3-1 for now with Jacobson being the second ‘1’ and playing the role of the Schrödinger midfielder; vacillating as he did between attack and defence.

That certainly feels more like the way forward than what we saw at the start of the game and it would also offer up an easy way to get both Brek Shea and the in form Techera into the starting eleven.

Will Carl Robinson continue in his great adventure toward tactical flexibility? This game should have convinced him that he needs to do just that but, for now, we can all enjoy three valuable points and a long and sunny holiday weekend.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

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

 

 

Whitecaps v Rapids: What did we learn?

So I was beginning to develop an embryo of a theory which vaguely posited the assertion that Major League Soccer had evolved from one form of creature to another.

Maybe it wasn’t quite a fully fledged invertebrate yet but it had at least emerged coughing and spluttering on to the beach and was definitely beginning to think about using those newly acquired lungs that the persistent sales-octopus had sworn were bound to be the next big thing.

In other words, MLS was developing a very definite hierarchy with a handful of teams pulling away from the rest and the rest being separated into the “mostly looking up the table” or “mostly looking down the table” categories.

Unfortunately actual results have tended to thwart this particular theory and though we can perhaps class Toronto, Dallas and maybe New York City, Kansas and Portland/Orlando as comfortably belonging in the upper echelons the rest of the pack are still fighting for their places in the standings like coked up ferrets in a sack full of white hot rivets

So what was interesting about the Whitecaps win in Colorado was that it was Vancouver who were able to introduce difference makers from the bench with Mezquida and Shea linking up for the winner in addition to the inevitable Alphonso Davies hype fest (HypeFest is like FyreFest but with better catering).

And now that the Whitecaps have announced the signing of Bernie Ibini from the Australian A-League that ability to change the game late on has increased again.

Now, there are two ways of looking at the recent acquisitions of the club.

The first is that they are demonstrating a remarkable lack of imagination in constantly signing players who are essentially hybrid winger/forwards and thus creating a one size fits all approach to tactics that will eventually lead to a dearth of flexibility in the approach to any game.

The other view is that there is a deliberate policy of recruiting exactly the kind of players who can be switched in and out of the team without altering either the shape or flow of the side.

It also provides the opportunity to better recreate what we saw in Colorado; late introductions that can change a game.

Carl Robinson already had this weapon at his disposal to some degree with Manneh and Hurtado but the hope has to be that the recent additions are a step up (in either quality or consistency).

Even then they are probably still over reliant on Fredy Montero to sniff out goals where none seemed to exist and the “there’s definitely a plan to the signings” narrative may be based more on wishful thinking than concrete evidence.

But there’s definitely a plan to the signings!

Whitecaps v Impact: What did we learn?

Sheesh! Do we have to go through this after every game?

Few things are a more damning indictment of modern culture than the need to “learn” from everything. Can’t we just enjoy the moment for once? Immerse ourselves in the warm glow of three points on the road? Live with the memories for what they both are and were without needing to contextualize them with increasingly shallow and repetitive insights that offer nothing but the banality of half remembered events and genuflection at the altar of passing charts and expected goals?

No, we can’t do any of those things so let’s just crack on with it shall we?

So having stared in wonder at Carl Robinson’s new found tactical creativity there remain a few tingling questions of doubt despite the performance and the result.

Firstly, there’s the Christian Bolaños role to be considered.

The Costa Rican has now played out wide, in the number ten role and, in Montreal, in the void left by Tony Tchani’s removal from the field (And the void left by his presence on the field to be fair).

There’s nothing to indicate that this will be anything like a long term project but asking  Bolaños to move inside and deeper to allow the attacking threat of Alphonso Davies to get on to the field feels like subtraction by addition.

Bolaños wasn’t at his best on Saturday but he’s always capable of one exquisite pass or cross and the higher up the field he is to do this then the better it will be for the Whitecaps.

There’s also the question of whether Davies himself really is an impact sub at all because in both the game in Portland and the game in Montreal he was introduced to the action late and offered little in the way of attacking threat.

Sure, he played the pass that led to the pass that set up the Techera goal but that’s a stretch by anybody’s reckoning.

In Montreal he was also responsible for two really poor attempted clearances from the edge of his own penalty area that plunged his side straight back into trouble.

Not all players are comfortable in picking up the pace and feel of a game that is already in progress and it’s a reasonable bet that Davies has barely been used in that role at all in his short but brilliant career.

It’s a ludicrously small sample size to make any kind of definitive statement upon, and it would surprise nobody if he emerged as a game changing sub in the next couple of weeks, but it’s at least something to keep an eye on as the season unfolds.

The only other major/minor take away is that Robinson may finally have abandoned his “The first goal always wins the game” philosophy and that can only be for the good because it felt as though it weighed a ton around both the necks of the players and the tactical imagination of the coach for far too long.

Sure scoring the first goal is great but, as the Whitecaps have already shown this season, it shouldn’t sound the death knell of the game .

Is that enough? Vaguely feel like the whole thing was worth it?

Nah, me neither.