I’m willing to wager that if any of us were asked to conjure up a single image to define the Whitecaps forward line in 2015 it would be that of Octavio Rivero surrounded by opposition defenders as he plaintively stared in the direction of either an unimpressed referee or an uncooperative ball which had just bounced haplessly off his shin.
Clearly this wasn’t a recipe for long term success and so Carl Robinson used the off season to bring in both Masato Kudo and Blas Pérez; two players specifically designed to offer either support or alternatives to the Rivero isolationism.
The coach was never going to make instant changes to how he set his team up but defeats in the first two games of the season maybe pushed him to be a little more adventurous a little earlier than planned and a road trip to Seattle saw Pérez start alongside Rivero in a 4-4-2 formation.
And the 2-1 victory which followed probably did as much to convince Robinson of the virtues of tactical flexibility as all the articles podcasts and blog posts combined (although it’s not that hard to achieve better than 0% influence to be fair).
After that day we saw Kudo play alone upfront, Manneh and Hurtado as an attacking pair, Hurtado on his own, Rivero with Mezquida just behind him and Pérez and Kudo as a forward duo.
Not all of them worked, but enough of them did to offer the Whitecaps greater tactical options while simultaneously keeping opposing coaches on their toes far more than they were last season.
So, after all the to-ings and the fro-ings where do we stand on the best attacking lineup for Vancouver?
Still in a frustrating state of flux I’m afriad because the best individual pieces don’t necessarily fit in with the puzzle overall.
Pérez has been the best striker in terms of consistent quality but he doesn’t combine as well with Mezquida as Rivero does, Manneh showed in Toronto that his pace and his better decision making when playing centrally rather than out wide helps his game (or maybe it’s just that there are less decisions to be made when playing as the forward most striker?) and before his horrendous injury Kudo displayed the kind of quick and clever movement the other strikers are lacking.
So here are the (less than definitive) conclusions about all concerned.
The team always seem to be better when Nicolas Mezquida is on the pitch or, at least, the other forwards always seem to be better when he is on the pitch largely because his constant energy makes the life of a defender so much harder.
His goal against Ottawa doesn’t completely allay any qualms about his goal scoring record in general but it does at least dampen them.
Octavio Rivero has scored in three of his last four starts meaning that he probably gets the nod when he is either fully fit or not suspended but he seems to need Mezquida in the team more than any of the other forwards.
I’m not saying “don’t play Rivero if Mezquida isn’t available” but I’m definitely thinking it.
If Pérez could guarantee he could play a full ninety minutes every week he would be the default setting for this team (and there may be the worry that Robinson “does an Earnshaw” and underutilizes a quality striker based solely on his age).
Manneh must be a frustrating player to both coach and select; capable of winning games on his own in one performance while grinding the gears of any attack to a standstill in the next.
His sheer pace on the ball alone makes him an outlier but the biggest problem he now poses is that his best position is central striker alongside a more robust partner and that means playing a 4-4-2 system that is a nice option but not the best use of the rest of the attacking or creative talent.
Erik Hurtado was a forgotten man last season and his not particularly impressive loan spell in Norway hardly inspired thoughts of a triumphant return to MLS, but he has at least shown his worth this year.
As an attacking substitute he’s been useful and he worked well with Manneh in Toronto but….he was poor as the lone striker in Portland and his brief appearance as a more defensively minded wide player against Ottawa was a timely reminder of how limited a player he actually is (knocking an over hit and needless pass for an exhausted Pedro Morales to chase after being a particular highlight).
And we have to hold back on any decision on Kudo until we see just how he returns from his lengthy layoff.
So Rivero works best with Mezquida, Pérez works best with Bolaños and Manneh has had his best game alongside Hurtado and somehow Carl Robinson has to make one or all of these disparate pairings click with the rest of the team.
Do UEFA do a badge in relationship counselling?