Pedro: Not deep or deep?

Most of the talk this week within the Whitecaps camp has concerned the kind of intangible states of mind which ultimately add up to “grit”.

And while there can be no doubt that the team has been desperately lacking something from a psychological point of view in recent weeks we haven’t yet got the stage where we have access to CAT scans of players emotions throughout the game.

So, in the absence of such fascinating data, let’s stick to the mundane facts of what happened on the field

There’s been pretty much universal agreement that Pedro Morales needs to play in the deep lying midfield role if he is to be effective and that’s what happened against San Jose last Friday.

The good news is that the Captain got much more time and touches than he ever does when playing the number ten role but (and it seems there’s always a “but” with the Whitecaps this season) how effective that time and those touches were is open to question.

Stats show that Morales sent most of his passes to Christian Bolaños  and the second most to Matias  Laba followed by Giles Barnes and Kendall Waston.

Passes to the front two you ask?

Here’s a shot of his passes to Masato Kudo

 

mezquida

And the same for Nicolas Mezquida

kudo

So the teams most creative player hit the grand total of six passes to the two forwards of which two were inside his own half and the only pass to finish in the penalty area was from a corner.

Now we can argue whether this deficiency is down to Morales or whether it’s down to Mezquida and Kudo but the truth is probably that those two forwards just don’t play the game in a way that fits with the way Morales plays the game.

They both want quick, short passes in front of them whereas Morales wants to hit longer, searching passes across and up the field.

We can save the debate of why a Designated Player needs to be accommodated so specifically for another time but right now the Whitecaps are where they are, and where they are is needing to find something (anything) that works.

And that means giving Morales the forwards who suit his game.

There were hints against San Jose that Barnes could use his pace to fill a kind of surrogate Manneh role and it’s probably time that the in game savvy of Blaz Perez was used to full effect.

That gives a front two with both pace and height (the ideal targets for Morales to hit) and should also mean that Vancouver are able to hold the ball far more effectively up front than they have been in recent road performances.

It would be rough on Mezquida to make him pay the price for the overall troubles of the team, but it would mean that both he and Kudo could start the CCL game against Kansas that could well be the main priority for the season by the time that Tuesday rolls around.

It all feels very “make do and mend’ for this team at the moment and the fact that with nine games remaining nobody (and I mean “nobody”) can confidently name the best starting eleven is a startling testament to just how awry this season has been.

But sometimes if you throw enough things at the wall one of them will actually stick.

You should get the FourFourTwo app by the way, it’s a great way to find out the kind of info about a game that can bore people to death for hours (just mention my name to Siri when you go to the app store).

D-Day for Robinson and the Whitecaps

“Must win game” is one of those eternal footballing cliches that is almost never literally true but does occasionally speak to the heart of the matter.

And Friday evening’s game against the San Jose Earthquakes very much fits into the “not literally true but it sure enough feels like it” category for the Vancouver Whitecaps.

The Whitecaps really aren’t in a good place right now (apart from Vancouver which is great right!?) with new signings having little time to settle in and a coach who seems to be struggling to settle on both a first eleven and a preferred way of playing.

So if Vancouver do fail to beat the Earthquakes then the two subsequent MLS road games (Kansas and LA) could see them drifting away from the red line of competence that constitutes the playoff marker and down into the murky depths of “there’s always next year” land.

How we’ve got to this situation is up for debate; players either not getting or not buying into how the Robinson wants them to play, a fundamentally conservative coach who is trying to get his team to play more expansive football but just can’t figure it out, key players failing to perform all over the field, a series of unfortunate incidents beyond the control of anybody.

There is probably something to be said for all of those scenarios (and many more) but while we can all have fun theorizing and hypothesizing Carl Robinson just doesn’t have that luxury.

He needs to get it right on Friday (and beyond).

And that probably means a return to the comfort zone for both the coach and the players and that means 4-2-3-1 (obviously) but with Giles Barnes in the “Manneh” role on the left.

Barnes doesn’t have the pure pace of Manneh but he can at least run with the ball and he can at least make other teams worry about his presence and force them to be a little more cautious when pushing forward. Couple that with a return to Mezquida and Kudo as the front two (who actually do provide the kind of “defence from the front” that one would assume Robinson would like) and if Morales has to play then play him deep alongside Laba or Jacobson.

 
There’s a decent argument to be made that what the Whitecaps defence need more than anything right now is just for somebody to sit in front of them and thus guarantee some kind of shield and Jacobson could probably do that job better than the more proactive Laba.

None of this solves all the problems of course. The right back roulette and the lack of cohesion just about everywhere on the field, but at least getting back to the basics of what the coach feels comfortable with may at least imbue some of that comfort into the team.

There’s still time for the Whitecaps to turn this thing around (and the pieces are definitely there to coalesce into a genuinely threatening MLS team) but the time for trying things (and players) out is well and truly over.

The only way the Whitecaps are going to get into the post season is by returning to what they once were.

Forward to the Past!

Throwing Pedro at the wall to see what sticks

Not literally of course because that would be insane given his somewhat sketchy injury record but in a league in which tactical nuances are often boiled down to “faster, higher, stronger” it’s kind of fascinating to think about how to get the best out of Pedro Morales

Carl Robinson for instance tends to be pretty keen on emphasizing that he cares less about formations than he does about getting his best players on the field.

That assertion would carry slightly more weight if he wasn’t quite so wedded to the 4-2-3-1 formation but the conundrum of formation over talent is a circle that just about every international coach has to square at some stage or another.

And for every “Ronaldo playing as a striker” there is a “Rooney playing as a central midfielder” which means that the formation over talent question doesn’t actually have a one size fits all solution; it’s more of a template that can be bent to fit the specific circumstance.

Robinson’s current solution is to bend the template so that his best player is playing wide left.

It’s a moot point to wonder what he would do if Kekuta Manneh hadn’t picked up an injury, but it’s not a moot point to wonder if Cristian Techera’s recent return to goal scoring form might be a better option in that role or to wonder if Morales himself isn’t wasted so far away from the heart of the action.

There were at least signs against Houston that he was more than willing to drift centrally to collect the ball and indeed it was Morales who played the pass that set up Erik Hurtado for his disallowed goal.

So maybe Robinson has actually found his long term solution?

Not so fast with all that optimism! Because as a more solid right back seems to be emerging (be it in the guise of Parker, Seiler, Edgar or a returning Aird) that means opponents will probably look for new avenues of attack other than wherever Jordan Smith happens to be on the field

And what better area to exploit than a side of the pitch where the nominal wide midfielder has wandered away from his home in order to find the ball?

It’s not hard to imagine Jordan Harvey suddenly finding himself more and more isolated and more and more under attack and it’s not hard to imagine that the innately cautious Robinson will soon want to take steps to remedy the weak link once again (All football tactics are essentially a slightly more sophisticated version of “whack-a-mole”. Discuss).

Which could once again leave Pedro searching for a home.

But it could be that home turns out to be where the heart of the midfield is after all because if (and it’s a fairly big if I grant you) the defensive woes are remedied then the presence of both Jacobson and Laba may no longer be needed as a central shield and if (and this isn’t quite so big an if) Kudo and Mezquida continue to form a bond as the front two then the Whitecaps may suddenly find themselves playing a style of football that actually suits their captain.

Take a look at this tweet

In other words Morales has been more likely to take a shot having done the work in setting it up himself than he is to have taken a shot after being set up by a team mate.

Now I like stats as much as the next guy (assuming the next guy is a guy who doesn’t really like stats) but this seems to be a bit of a Rorschach Test about what you think of Morales more than saying anything definitive about his game.

Does it mean he’s selfish? Does it mean he’s getting no support? Does it mean he’s just not gelling with the rest of the team?

My own reading is that it’s probably a little bit of all three  with the extra emphasis on the lack of support or, perhaps to be more accurate, the lack of options.

Whatever you think of Morales he’s just too smart of a player to pass up the chance of a killer pass in favour of a low percentage shot on quite so many occasions.

The isolationism of the lone forward almost actively encouraged by Rivero’s style of play is somewhat mirrored in both Perez and Hurtado in that both work hard and are physical enough to invite a the long pass even when it isn’t actually the best option.

But Kudo and Mezquida are horses of a different colour.

They both work hard for sure but neither offers a midfielder the “easy” option of the long ball. Mezquida and Kudo both want the ball to feet and they mostly want the ball in front of them (Kudo in particular) so suddenly Morales may find that a) shorter passes are often the better choice and b) when he is in those aforementioned “shoot or pass” positions he really does have a better option than simply letting fly at the net.

There’s a theory (just from me but it is still a theory) that the Whitecaps could be much improved simply by making more of their final key passes twenty yards closer to the opposition goal and one way of achieving that is by taking away the option of the obvious target man.

By accident or design that may have been achieved and a centrally situated Morales could find that he has to move forward if he wants to make those key passes (and I’m certain he does) as the gravitational pull of the assist drags him toward two quick  footed forwards who are constantly on the move.

Maybe the real solution to the Morales problem is determining which way he chooses to drift?

Play wide left and he drifts inside leaving the defensive flank unguarded, play centrally and he drifts forward creating more attacking options (All football tactics are essentially a slightly less sophisticated version of the “The Theory of Tides”. Discuss).

 

 

Whitecaps find some Philadelphia freedom

You know those “five things we learned” articles that tend to appear after every major game?

Well I’m not convinced they have much value at the best of times but I’m even less convinced they have a value when being applied to Major League Soccer games which are, more often than not, a series of random incidents masquerading as a football match.

Okay I’m exaggerating for dramatic effect but the Whitecaps 3-2 victory over the Philadelphia Union was about as disjointed a game as you could wish to see even though it was brightened by a couple of well taken goals for the Whitecaps.

So instead of five things I learned let’s just go with five things I noticed. That seems more reasonable.

Octavio Rivero wasn’t missed- With rumours swirling about a move to Chilean side Colo Colo Rivero wasn’t even in the eighteen for this game and his deputy Erik Hurtado did a very good job as the target man.

Hurtado isn’t everybody’s cup of tea (he isn’t even most people’s idea of a target man) but against Philadelphia he kept things simple, used his strength and his speed to good effect and even helped set up the third goal for Bolaños.

He may not be the long term solution as first choice striker but he’s getting more and more convincing as a very useful member of the squad.

Manneh showed why he always has to start- He may not have been all that involved in the game but essentially won it near the end of the first half when he picked up a ball near the halfway line and ran with it to the edge of the Union penalty area before firing home.

He’s the only player on the Whitecaps who can do that and it’s an invaluable asset for any coach to have.

A new central defensive partnership- It’s almost certain that Kendal Waston will be back in the team when he returns from suspension but Jacobson and Parker are starting to look like the better option.

Two goals conceded isn’t great but neither was down to those two and they have a solidity and calmness that Waston has been lacking all season.

The big Costa Rican hasn’t earned the right to start but the weight of his salary may prove to be too much for Carl Robinson to ignore.

Morales and Bolaños are casual but smart- It was a Morales giveaway which ultimately led to the opening goal for Philadelphia and Bolaños always seems to have at least one moment per game where he tries a no look pass that ends up at the feet of an opponent in a dangerous attacking position but it was Morales who played the ball that set Manneh free (Manneh still had tons to do but at least the ball was played in front of him rather than to his feet) and Bolaños kept his cool near the end to effectively seal the game with some chest control and a smart finish.

Both have flaws but the Whitecaps are always a better team when both are on the field together.

So who next? Assuming Rivero does leave it’s in inconceivable (or incomprehensible at least) if there isn’t another striker in line to replace him.;

Who that player is will tell us a lot about how Carl Robinson sees the team developing for the rest of the season.

Do we see another young gun with something to prove? A proven MLS goal scorer? Or maybe even a “name” player from Europe?

Whoever it is will probably define the remainder of the season.

Time then for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-5, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Laba-5, Morales-5, Manneh-6, Mezquida-5, Bolaños-6, Hurtado-6*

Whitecaps blast passed the Fury

Maybe Carl Robinson should tell his team they are 2-0 down before every game?

That knowledge certainly helped to get the Vancouver Whitecaps out of the blocks quickly in the return leg of the Voyageurs Cup as they overturned a two goal deficit to win 3-0 on the night and beat the Ottawa Fury 3-2 overall.

Every Canadian Whitecap who started in Ottawa was dropped for this game, but fifteen year old Alphonso Davies did get the nod and after a shaky opening half hour he finally produced a little bit of magic before caroming the ball off the far post and coming within inches of giving the BC Place crowd a fairy tale story.

The real narrative of the evening though was how well Vancouver played in the opening twenty minutes as they produced the kind of fast paced, one touch football that left the visitors reeling and a penalty kick from Pedro Morales and a first goal of the season for Nicolas Mezquida sent them in at the break all square on aggregate.

Octavio Rivero added another with a fine strike after a little piece of Morales trickery and, despite a few minutes of anxiety at the end, the Whitecaps held on to face Toronto FC in the final in late June.

This result doesn’t bode well for the players left out of the starting eleven however as the more experienced squad members gave them a lesson in both ability and desire and it must surely be getting harder and harder for Robinson to leave Mezquida out of the team.

Perhaps the one knock against the Uruguayan is that he doesn’t score enough goals but he remedied that in this game and once again brought a level of energy to the forward line that is conspicuously absent when he’s not around.

In fact replace Davies with Christian Bolaños (and maybe Smith with Aird) and what we saw on Wednesday may well be the Whitecaps best outfield lineup with Jacobson proving to be an experienced and calming influence alongside Parker in the centre of defence and Rivero mercifully finding himself with company when he was near to goal (the second goal came about simply because Vancouver were willing to get men forward to pick up the second, third and even fourth phase of play; an almost unheard of trait up until now).

In the end this game was about digging themselves out of the hole they created last week and they did just that with some style and some aplomb.

The criticism that Robinson rightly faced last week is replaced with the plaudits he is equally deserving of this week and the ten day break before the next game is suddenly a whole lot easier for all concerned.

Time for the Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Tornaghi-6, Smith-6, Harvey-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Morales-7, Laba-6, Techera-6, Davies- 6, Mezquida-7*, Rivero-7

 

The Whitecaps season so far (the midfield)

At the beginning of the season the quintessential (maybe even existential) question surrounding the Whitecaps midfield was “How would Gershon Koffie be replaced?”.

Koffie’s leaving may have been at Carl Robinson’s behest but the Ghanaian had been an essential bulwark in helping to create the best defensive record in the league in 2015.

Robinson’s answer has been to (mostly) play Pedro Morales in the deep lying role alongside Matias Laba and that approach has (mostly) worked.

Morales isn’t the defensive liability he might have been and playing deeper has granted him the freedom to influence games far more than he does when playing just behind the forward line.

It could just be that a fit Pedro Morales will be effective wherever he plays (as he was on the left against Toronto) but it seems that deep lying position not only suits his own game but offers the rest of the team more flexibility in how they lineup for any particular game.

Nobody could claim that the loss of a purely defensive minded midfielder hasn’t impacted the team in terms of goals conceded however and so perhaps there needs to be an examination of just how Laba is playing in the new set up.

Last year Laba’s attacking influence was somewhat underrated if only because he wasn’t so much involved in forward thrusts as initiating them; not through a clever pass or a well-timed run but simply because he frequently broke up opposition passing moves and so created the perfect opportunity for the counterattack.

His hustle and bustle style of play was ideally suited to a side happy to concede possession, especially with the comfort zone of Koffie alongside him.

This year there may have been an expectation that Laba would be a more static presence in front of the back four; more of a watchdog than a hunter.

But that hasn’t been the case and even though (after a rocky start) he has settled down to being just as good as last season at breaking up plays that may not be quite what Vancouver need from their only defensive midfielder.

Maybe Laba can’t play any other way? Maybe Robinson doesn’t want him to play any other way? But a defence that has been so vulnerable could well benefit from the constant presence of a more reactive Laba than the occasional presence of his proactive alter ego.

Elsewhere Russell Teibert has been Russell Teibert; reliable enough without ever looking capable of being the difference maker he needs to be to become a regular first team player and Kianz Froese’s season was thrown off the rails by a suspension and a concussion and he now seems to be well down the pecking order when it comes to first team minutes in MLS.

New signing Andrew Jacobson has been “as advertised” but may well find that his minutes in midfield are surpassed by his time spent in central defence given the plethora of suspensions, injuries and mishaps that have become the calling card of that particular section of the team.

And perhaps the biggest disappointment in the middle of the park has been Cristian Techera.

Last season Techera was a mid-season breath of fresh air as he proved to be just about the only Whitecaps with a genuine eye for the half chance; where others were back on their heels Techera was on the front foot always ready to pounce on an opposition mistake.

This season though he has reacted to every chance with diffidence and deliberation; always taking one or two touches too many and though that’s probably a confidence thing for “The Bug” rather than a feature a goal needs to come soon before that confidence drains away entirely.

And while none of the Whitecaps wide players are spectacularly good at helping out in defence Techera has been noticeably poor in that area too and he now has the second-half of the season to prove that Robinson’s faith in him wasn’t misjudged.

The good news though is that the arrival of Christian Bolaños has been a huge upgrade for the team and although the Costa Rican may never win any “Look at me I’m trying really hard” awards he has settled down to be exactly the kind of player the newly redesigned Whitecaps needed; capable of creating and scoring goals while also being able to slow the game down to his own pace when required.

There have been tantalising glimpses that he could form a formidable partnership with Blas Pérez if given the chance but, for now, when Bolaños and Morales are on the pitch together the Whitecaps have a genuinely enjoyable and watchable midfield.

Who would have thought it?

 

Whitecaps enter the MLS break with a whimper

Only time will tell if the Vancouver Whitecaps 1-1 draw with the Houston Dynamo at BC Place on Saturday afternoon will turn out to be a point gained or two points dropped, but a home tie against the worst team in the Conference can at least be described as “less than optimal”.

True the Whitecaps were without a number of key starters but that doesn’t excuse the lethargy with which they began the game and it came as no surprise when the Dynamo took the lead in the twentieth minute thanks to some nice build up play and some sloppy defending from the home team.

Vancouver didn’t really wake up until the fortieth minute when referee Drew Fischer decided to eject both Alex and Pedro Morales for an altercation that should have been a yellow card for each at most.

There’s nothing more tiresome than constantly harping on about refereeing standards in MLS but too many officials resemble those teachers we all had in our school days who couldn’t control the kids through gaining their respect but instead always went for the nuclear option of meaningless shouting or undeserved detention or the stick (depending on your age and your geography).

This of course simply lessened their authority in the same way that instantly reaching for the red card does to a referee.

But at least the Whitecaps came out with fire in their bellies for the second half and Octavio Rivero hit a fine shot into the top corner just seven minutes in and suddenly it felt as though Vancouver would surge to victory.

But then nothing.

They allowed the Dynamo to settle back into the game and seemed bafflingly content with picking up a point and maybe sneaking something on one of their forays forward without ever really committing to those forays with either belief or man power.

Maybe Carl Robinson was so unsure about his patched up back four that he felt the need to keep two defensive midfielders on the pitch for virtually the entire game, but having six defensive minded players against a team who hadn’t picked up a single point on the road was unnecessarily cautious.

It also meant that a huge gap opened between the Whitecaps forwards and the rest of the team with nobody capable of making use of the space that existed between those channels.

The Whitecaps did have such a player but he stayed on the bench until the ninetieth minute of the game.

It’s hard to know what Nicolas Mezquida needs to do to get more meaningful minutes but Saturday’s game was crying out for exactly his type of player; full of energy, can play centrally and just behind the forwards and so drag opposing defenders out of position.

And even in his three minute cameo he helped to inject more urgency into the attack than had been evident up to that point but all to no avail.

One further thought before we consign this game to the history books.

For the second consecutive game the Whitecaps played the first half at half throttle and then came out in the second all guns blazing and Robinson himself admitted this was an issue that needed to be addressed.

Maybe that issue is exacerbated by his policy of always giving the starting eleven a chance to redeem themselves in the first ten or fifteen minutes of the second half?

If players know they won’t be withdrawn at half time (or sooner) then they are always playing in the comfort zone (subconsciously at least) and the performance against Houston was a perfect chance for the coach to take them out of that comfort zone by making a change as early as the first thirty minutes.

If it’s not working then fix it as quickly as possible and let the players know that they will be held accountable for it not working.

Here then are your Soccer Shorts player ratings.

Ousted-6, Smith-6, Parker-6, Jacobson-6, Harvey-6, Teibert-6, Laba-7*, Morales-6, Techera-5, Manneh-5, Rivero-6 (Hurtado-5)

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