Pessimist Festival At Mollington Sold Out

It’s hard to even be angry any more.

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Morning Update!

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

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

Whatever the reason it didn’t work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Juarez has been a strange one since his arrival.

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

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

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

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

Which leaves the Whitecaps where?

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

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings!

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

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Trying to find a future

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

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

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

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

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

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

So let’s list them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying to solve everything and thereby solving nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s just so much easier to do nothing.

Russell Teibert: The Whitecaps Unexpected Item

For the last two years (maybe a little longer) there’s been a plastic shopping bag hanging from the tree that sits directly outside the window from which this very blog is written.

And for all that time it’s taunted me.

During the Fall and Winter it’s dangled there as a constant reminder of the folly of humanity. A damp and dirty piece of plastic wrapping itself around one of nature’s finest creations.

And in the Spring and Summer when the tree is in full bloom it remains visible. Peaking through the blossoms like the spectre of death at Prom Night. A constant reminder that the only permanent and inevitable aspects of our lives are the ones we prefer not to contemplate.

But then, last week, it was gone.

Perhaps somebody else had grown tired of it’s presence and had finally taken action? But the more likely explanation is that two years (maybe a little longer) of Vancouver rainfall had filled it to bursting point and it had splashed to the ground in the night, unnoticed and unmourned.

Except, to my surprise, it’s not completely unmourned because now that it’s no longer there my contempt has been replaced by a kind of melancholy.

After all, if I can project so much feeling onto an inanimate object when it’s there then why not do the same in it’s absence?

If that scrap of plastic can represent the folly of humanity when I can see it, then why can’t it represent our transience when I can’t?

This is all incredibly (and mundanely) human of me of course. It’s what we do. We make up stories about just about everybody and everything in a desperate attempt to somehow explain the inexplicable.

And that’s very much what we do with sports and the players who play them. Turn them into characters in our personal fictionalized version of the world.

But every now and then one of those players does the exact same thing to themselves.

So say “hello” to the new Russell Teibert.

The Canadian is almost the very definition of a limited player. He’s not especially fast, not exceptionally skillful and his range of passing mostly falls within an arc of about twenty metres behind and beside him.

But this season, the season when it seemed the overall calibre of the squad would finally see him eased out of the picture altogether, Teibert has stepped his game up a notch.

It’s a small sample size to be sure but he has at least thought about playing the ball forward this year. And not in the “I’ll hit this in the general direction of Kei Kamara” kind of a way but in the “I’ve seen a breaking player in space and I’m going to find him” kind of a way.

Maybe that change is a reaction to the increased competition, maybe it’s a reaction to instructions from the coach or maybe having better players around him makes Teibert a better player?

But it could just be that he took a good look at where his career was heading during the post-season and decided the narrative needed to change before it petered out in a banal series of increasingly low level moves.

So right now seeing Teibert’s name in the starting eleven isn’t quite the sigh inducing news it used to be because, at the very least, he will offer just a little bit more than safety first, second and third.

It’s still a long shot to suggest he will become a regular starter as the season progresses and as the higher quality players begin to find their feet and their groove, but that’s no longer an impossibility.

Teibert has had the presence of mind to bring his own bags with him and he’s been rewarded by not having to try and explain to a computer screen that he can’t remove the item because the item isn’t even there! (sorry, the whole metaphor got a bit lost at the end) .

 

 

Vancouver Whitecaps: Everybody’s Happy Nowadays

Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of the Vancouver Whitecaps 2-1 defeat to Real Salt Lake on Saturday evening was that there was something in it for everybody.

If you think the Whitecaps are on the right track with their new signings you can point to a first half in which they were easily the better team.

If you think there are core issues that still need to be resolved you can point to another failure to break down a defensive opponent.

It’s hard to convey just how poor Real Salt Lake were (particularly in the first half) but there were times when Vancouver looked to be at least a division above them in terms of quality and organization.

But the Whitecaps couldn’t turn that dominance into goals (or even any clear-cut chances) and a late defensive lack of concentration in the first half and a late breakaway goal in the second half were enough to stave off a very, very late goal from Brek Shea.

In hindsight (and probably with some foresight too) it’s hard to know why Shea didn’t get the start given his road form and aside from one surging run Bernie Ibini offered little attacking threat.

And the same went for Alphonso Davies on the left as he reverted to consistently taking the wrong option with his final pass. It looks like it’s going to be two steps forward and one step back for the kid this season.

It certainly hampers a team built on the importance of the cross to have two wide players who aren’t actually all that good at crossing and the two best deliverers of the ball on the team (de Jong and Nerwinski) aren’t getting forward enough to make their presence genuinely felt.

And that can be the only reason why Kei Kamara felt the need to drift wide so often.

As the second half progressed Salt Lake were content to turn the whole affair into a de facto home game for the Whitecaps and so sat deep content in the knowledge they wouldn’t be broken down.

It’s not hard to see why they would do that given their form and it’s not hard to see why Vancouver failed to breach their back line but it is kind of baffling why Carl Robinson isn’t prepared to throw the dice on something new when things aren’t working out in that way.

Felipe does a decent job of neat passing and the occasional through ball when sitting deep but to have your best passer of the ball closer to your own penalty area than your opponent’s when trying to find an elusive goal doesn’t really make much sense.

And can we now consign “moving Alphonso Davies to left back” to the dustbin of tactical history?

It doesn’t create more offensive chances and it just makes the defence weaker, as outlined by Davies losing his man on the second Salt Lake goal.

Next week the Whitecaps face LAFC, a team who seem determined to play every game in the most open manner possible so the chances are there will be chances and goals galore at BC Place on Friday.

But following the rather impressive performance in Columbus the Whitecaps regressed to their traditional mean in Salt Lake.

A well organized team who don’t really know how to break down a well organized team.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-5.5, Nerwinski-6*, de Jong-5.5, Waston-5.5, Aja-5.5, Juarez-4.5, Felipe-5, Ibini-4.5, Davies-5, Mezquida-4, Kamara-6

Vancouver Whitecaps: The Sign on the Cross?

It might be an exaggeration to say that Carl Robinson has been laying out his footballing philosophy in recent days.

But he’s certainly been far more specific about how he believes the game should be played.

Maybe that specificity comes from the confidence of a few good wins or maybe it comes from the sting of criticism in the face of those good wins?

Whatever the motivation it’s refreshing to hear him speak openly about tactics rather than the more traditional post game platitudes and obfuscation.

So kudos to him for that.

Following the scoreless game at BC Place against the LA Galaxy the coach said that his team needed to work on “crosses and shots”.

That’s a fairly simplistic way of solving the problems apparent in that game but he could quite rightly point out that the following match in Columbus was won by those exact skills.

Then, in an even more revealing question and answer session this week, Robinson said “the major factor on where goals are scored is on crosses, so we’re focusing on that”.

Now in a general sense that isn’t true.

Feel free to dive down the rabbit hole of statistical analysis of how and where goals are scored in football in your own time but there’s nothing to indicate that crosses are the “major” factor.

They perhaps become more important if you take into account the effects of the “secondary ball” resulting from the cross but they’re still just one club available in the bag for selection rather than the only game in town.

And don’t go thinking that mixed metaphor was just sloppy writing because that metaphor is a metaphor for how to make the most of crosses.

Because putting it “in the mixer” should be mixed with other approaches if it is going to reap the most rewards.

Against LA the Whitecaps fell victim to the exact plan they use themselves; force teams to constantly put balls into a crowded penalty area where the attacker is outnumbered by two to one at least.

There was no Plan B.

That’s fine on the road because Vancouver rely on the counter which means the crosses are being hit into a much more sparsely attended penalty area. I’d fancy Kei Kamara’s chances of getting decent contact on a ball if the defenders around him aren’t set and are mostly backtracking.

But ask him to do the same thing when four or five opponents are in position and comfortably facing play and the odds change dramatically.

But perhaps when Robinson said “the major factor on where goals are scored is on crosses, so we’re focusing on that” he wasn’t speaking in a general sense but relating it specifically to his own team?

Well in that case he’s probably right, but that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy which tells us nothing of interest other than that the team will continue to be one trick ponies.

He is perhaps justified in feeling some of the criticism aimed at his style of play is unfair given the results he’s achieved, but much of that criticism stems from the very philosophy he’s outlined this week and the experience of recent seasons.

It’s a singular vision on how things should be done that will easily be nullified when the playoff train trundles into town.

 

 

Whitecaps find a fair wind in Columbus

Can the Whitecaps just play every game away from BC Place?

The 2-1 win against the Columbus Crew looked like being a case of the all too familiar “Meh” in the first half as Vancouver were easily outplayed by the home team and trailed 1-0 thanks to a Stefan Marinovic error.

But in the second half it all changed.

Jordon Mutch began to play as a kind of hybrid defensive/offensive number ten and suddenly it was the Crew who looked the team bereft of ideas.

Brek Shea scored his customary goal on the road and Kei Kamara got the obligatory “player facing his old club” goal to win the game.

The Whitecaps even brushed aside a glorious Alphonso Davies strike that was (correctly) disallowed following a video review.

For most of the game Felipe continued his penchant for playing deep and offering little of creative value other than from set-pieces but when he moved forward to take up the Mutch role once the Englishman had been taken off it was he who delivered the cross for Kamara to head home.

We’re still in the baby steps period of the season right now but if Mutch and Felipe were both played in more advanced positions,with Ghazal sitting deep, then Vancouver may be able to find a way to consistently threaten opponents beyond the tried and trusted counter-attack or set-piece options.

On an individual basis Shea once again showed that he is a useful player when he has space to run into and Bernie Ibini showed why he will only really be a starter in games played on the East Coast.

But Jose Aja had another good game at the back and is easily the Whitecaps most accomplished defender when in possession, capable as he is of bringing the ball forward as well as being genuinely two footed.

But while Jake Nerwinski did nothing spectacularly wrong from a defensive point of view he remains far too anxious with the ball at his feet and really needs to gain some composure in possession if his game is going to reach another level.

And even with Columbus struggling to find any kind of form in the second forty-five there was still a huge imbalance in the way each team passed the ball but if (and this is a really big “if”) the midfield can find some kind of consistency of personnel and if Carl Robinson allows the likes of Mutch and Felipe a little bit more free rein in home games there is definitely the foundations of the making of a decent team hidden away in there somewhere.

It’s all too often one step forward and one step back with the Whitecaps however and next week’s game against Real Salt Lake probably won’t tell us much more than anything we know already.

But the return to BC Place feels like it will help define the season in some ways.

Can the Whitecaps somehow find a way to be creative and proactive at home?

That doesn’t feel like it’s too big of an ask given the players at Robinson’s disposal but it’s been the one question to have hindered this team for longer than has really been necessary.

For now though Robinson can tuck a well-earned three points underneath his scarf satisfied that his team produced what was easily the best forty-five minutes of their season so far.

We now interrupt this blog for some thoughts from the following day.

That Davies goal may have been disallowed but it demonstrated just how much he has developed as a player this season.

There’s no way he shows that level of composure last year and he’s now gone from a promising prospect who hoped things would happen when the ball was at his feet to a player who knows he can make those things happen.

He is, as they say, “like a new signing”.

Over the years Carl Robinson has been somewhat fascinated by the idea of how much difference any new signing could make to the locker room.

But this season more than one of those signings seem capable of making a difference on the field.

Kamara, Juarez and Felipe all bring a level of, let’s be kind and call it “experience”, that will make the Whitecaps a nightmare to both play against and to referee.

There’s still the potential for so many “Type A” personalities to spontaneously combust given the wrong conditions but for now it’s a heady mix of arrogance and know how.

It always looked as though the opening half-dozen games could be the toughest spell of the whole season for Vancouver given the travel and the opposition so to have picked up ten points with one of those games still to play is a significant achievement.

Let`s hope that achievement can be built on rather than used as a cushion for a poor run of form at the business end of the campaign.

We now return you to your regular blog.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Marinovic-4.5, Nerwinski-5, Waston-6, Aja-6, de Jong5.5, Felipe-5.5, Teibert-5, Mutch-6*, Ibini-5, Shea-5.5, Kamara-5.5 (Davies-6)

Vancouver Whitecaps: For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen

Well at least we know one thing for sure after the Vancouver Whitecaps scoreless draw with the LA Galaxy on Saturday evening.

Carl Robinson hasn’t changed.

Give him an opposition decimated by injuries, suspensions and international call ups, throw in the most abundant collection of attacking talent he’s had at his disposal since he became coach of the club and he will still send out a team whose only chance of scoring a goal is from a set-piece or an opponent error.

But maybe in a world of increasing unpredictability we should all be grateful that the Whitecaps have a man in charge who steadfastly refuses to learn from the lessons of the past and continues to make the same mistakes over and over again?

It’s reassuring in a way.

Robinson can’t have been surprised that LA would sit deep and try to stifle the game and yet he still sent out a team designed to feed off the scraps of Kei Kamara knock downs.

The only problem with that approach (apart from the obvious one that it was never going to work) is that Kamara was operating in less than splendid isolation and any balls he did win in the air tended to result in Cristian Techera desperately scrambling to get beyond two or three Galaxy defenders.

Felipe’s role was a bit of a mystery too.

He was sitting deep, presumably with the intention of acting as the deep-lying play maker, but given his only option was almost always the long ball to Kamara it’s hard to imagine exactly how that plan was going to come to any kind of fruition.

Or it could just be that he was asked to sit deep because he looks a little bit like Russell Teibert? And that reason probably makes just as much sense.

Elsewhere Yordy Reyna looks bereft of confidence, Efrain Juarez continues to be great entertainment in his ongoing battle to reeducate MLS referees on the finer points of the game and José Aja showed glimpses of his capability to bring the ball out from the back.

But it’s dispiriting to leave BC Place and hear so many people remark on how little they enjoyed the game and while it may not be in Carl Robinson’s remit to make entertainment his primary concern it should be in his remit to get his side to play with more imagination and wit than anything we saw from them in this game.

There must have been at least one or two Whitecaps players walking back to the locker room at the final whistle and thinking “Footballing brain the size of a planet and I’m asked to play hopeful long balls to an isolated forward”.

We interrupt this blog for  bonus thoughts from the day after.

Was moving Davies to left back the right call? Well, it kind of worked in Atlanta since he provided an attacking threat even from deep.

But the Galaxy weren’t playing the same way as Atlanta and, given that Brek Shea is a player who thrives when given space to run in to, his introduction was odd in a game in which there was no space to run in to.

And let’s hope that just “moving Alphonso to a different position” doesn’t become the default replacement for any actual tactical acuity.

Hard to know what it was about that performance to make the coaching staff think no changes were warranted until the seventy-fifth minute but even when the changes came they merited something more innovative than just putting another big man up front.

Switch to three at the back and use Davies and Nerwinski as attacking wing backs? Get Felipe to play as an actual number ten? Pass and move?

Speaking of coaching, Saturday’s game between New England and NYCFC featured a genuinely interesting tactical battle between one team who wanted to play out from the back and another who were employing the high press.

One more sign that MLS is moving on when it comes to coaching.

That’s something we’ve yet to see from Robinson in any meaningul way and Sigi Schmid must have relished getting bonus sessions at the gym simply because he was able to dust off his 2015 game plan on how to stop the Whitecaps at home.

And back to your regular blog.

Time for the Soccer Shorts Player Ratings!

Marinovic-5, Nerwinski-5*, de Jong-5, Maund-5, Aja-5, Felipe-4.5, Juarez-5, Techera-5, Davies-5, Reyna-4.5 Kamara-5