Vanni Sartini‘s team has started their MLS season with two losses and two draws. Despite being the better team on the opening day, Whitecaps couldn’t stop RSL from turning the game around in the second half. A similar theme of events followed the Vancouver team to their trip to San Jose on game week two and a fair draw was the result when they went toe-to-toe with FC Dallas last Saturday.
Not in MLS, but Vancouver Whitecaps have registered a win this season- 5-0 thrashing of Real Espana in CCL Round of 16, 1st leg. It might be too early to judge whether Whitecaps will taste success this season but the small sample size of games played is enough to take a deep dive on their tactics, dynamics and much more.
System & Dynamics
Sartini has switched his preferred formation from last season (3-4-2-1) to a 4-3-2-1. The following graphic is of Vancouver Whitecaps’ starting 11 against Dallas, the arrows indicate how players mainly interact with the system and not all of their movements.
The dynamics depend on the players on the pitch, the midfield trio of Alessandro Schöpf, Andrés Cubas and Julian Gressel seems to be Sartini’s go to as they have started all three MLS games. However, up front Vite and Cordova are in contention for starting positions and change how the front three operates. Vite, a hybrid of attacking midfielder and winger, likes to come inside and behind strikers like Gauld but also drift wide like Dajome. Cordova is mostly like for like for White but the Venezuelan does drift to the side of play more than White.
Both Attacking midfielders in this system come inside when Whitecaps have possession but Gauld more or less operates as a no.10. When playing in the Right AM position instead of left, Gauld gets more involved in the buildup and receives the ball in deeper areas. Dajome can also drop and play quick wall passes to help in the build up phase.
The most interesting dynamic in this system is how the central midfield trio operate. Schopf and Gressel have the licence to go really advanced when the team has possession, almost becoming Right and Left Forwards in situations. Schopf mostly operates in the left half space channel whereas Gressell also drifts wide to the right to put in crosses and make most of his wand of a right foot. Both Schopf and Gressel can drop in central areas alongside Cubas to receive from the back line, link & switch play, which Gressel does more than Schopf, and it’s what they are required at times as Cubas is often marked out by opposition strikers.
In Cubas, Vancouver Whitecaps have a destroyer and one of the best DMs in the league. He anchors the midfield and in possession drifts left and right to help move the opposition around. He is critical to the defensive functions of Whitecaps and we will go in detail on his defensive role in part two of Whitecaps analysis.
Alternative systems used to date:
4-4-2 off the ball and 4-2-4 on possession
Used from 75’+ vs RSL
3-4-3 to match up the opposition
Used from 83’+ vs Dallas
Attacking Organisation and Patterns of Play
Whitecaps have shown versatility in their build up play. And it’s thanks to their new acquisition between the sticks- Takaoka – that they can switch between possession and direct build up depending on situation and opposition.
Direct Build Up
Apart from being a good shot stopper, Takaoka is comfortable with the ball at his feet and has a good range and accuracy with long passes, though his distribution was off for periods against FC Dallas. This is what Whitecaps direct build up looks like.
Takaoka almost always plays a long pass to the striker (White or Cordova) when building directly. The two attacking midfielders (Gauld & Dajome) place themselves just behind the striker and the RCM & LCM are positioned just in front of the striker, forming a box around White.
In these situations, White competes for the first contact and tries to either flick it to one of the AM’s or guide it to the CM’s in front of him. The two AM’s and the 8’s (Schopf and Gressel) place themselves in good position to win the second ball even if White doesn’t get the first contact, in this example Gressel won the second ball after the RSL defender made the first contact. From there they look to breakaway creating a transition like situation or if a forward pass is not on they maintain the possession.
Gressle gets the second ball and the three attacking players in front of him make runs- Gauld and White towards the box and Dajome runs out wide.
Gressel carries the ball forward before playing a pass for Gauld.
But the skipper’s heavy touch under pressure lets him down.
This a simple but an effective way for the Whitecaps to build up especially when trying to avoid their opposition’s high press.
Possession Build Up
When building through possession, Whitecaps’ 4-3-2-1 system can also be described as a 4-3-3 with a narrow front line, one anchor and two eights in midfield and the full backs spread high and wide providing width as the attacking midfielders come to the inside channels and close to the striker. In settled possession, the shape can also look like a 4-1-4-1 with both RCM and LCM also occupying advanced positions. Let’s look at some examples of how Whitecaps build up from the back.
In this situation, Whitecaps are building against FC Dallas’s 4-4-2 defensive shape, (Dallas switched between 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 defensive/pressing structure in Whitecaps half and defended in a 4-5-1 block in their own half) Lletget is up front with Ferreira- both working together to mark Cubas and apply pressure on VWFC CB’s.
Through Veselinovic, Brown receives a pass on the touchline, making Dallas’s defensive structure to shift to their left
Brown passes it back and Vancouver Whitecaps work it out Blackmon on the other side who now has space to carry the ball into. Also notice how Vancouver’s flat midfield on paper & defensive organisation spreads out with Cubas being the anchor.
Blackmon carries it into the space and passes to Roposo and Schopf makes an advance run and provides support.
Roposo goes on to find Gauld in the inside channel, Gauld combines with Schopf who had continued his run and taken a forward like position.
Schopf finds Gauld inside the box and the move leads to a good chance but Gauld’s shot goes just wide of the post.
In the following example, Vancouver Whitecaps are in a phase of sustained possession inside Dallas’s half. Whitecaps had 5 players behind Dallas’s midfield line with Gauld and Dajome coming very central and Schopf and Gressel taking advance positions and also White positioned between the CB’s- forming a 4-1-4-1 looking shape. Veselinovic plays a pass to Gauld through the lines, Gauld flicks it to White, who flicks it on to Dajome.
It leads to a dangerous situation just outside Dallas’s box from where Dajome could have shot or played a pass but the Colombian takes too long on the ball and the move breaks down.
Vancouver Whitecaps’ possession build up has the purpose of getting their attacking players to receive the ball in dangerous areas from where they look to combine and create openings.
The LCM and RCM are constantly on the move during possession build up as they provide attacking support in advance areas and also drop to facilitate switches. Let’s look at an example of how the central midfielders move in possession to help with switches of play.
Here, Whitecaps have possession inside Dallas’s half, Cubas is being marked by Dallas’ no.9, Ferreira, and Gressel and Schopf moving towards advanced areas.
Roposo received the ball on the touchline but Dallas’s defensive structure had shifted well and a forwards pass wasn’t on. Notice how Cubas had come to the left side of the pitch dragging Ferriera with him and Gressel was already moving backwards before Roposo played the pass back to Blackmon.
Gressel drops to the central area to receive the pass from Blackmon, that space had been vacated because of Cubas’ movement towards the left and dragging Ferriera with him.
Gressel turns and completes the switch of play.
Brown received the ball near the touchline but Dallas again did well to shift their defensive structure and Vancouver Whitecaps had to switch the play. Now Cubas moves to the right side again taking Ferriera with him, Gressel continues to move forward and Schopf is ready to drop back to facilitate the switch.
Schopf drops to the central area and exchanges passes with the CB’s to facilitate the switch.
This time Roposo finds space to play a pass for Gauld but Ibeagha makes a good interception.
To be continued in part two in which we will look at Vancouver Whitecaps’ defensive organization, how they operate in transitions and their strengths and weaknesses.
Feature Photo Credit: VWFC
Achyut has been involved in soccer as a writer, analyst and scout. He is a Journalism-Broadcast graduate, pursuing his coaching badges with Ontario Soccer and loves to play footy on the weekends.