By Cheuk Hei Ho (@tacticsplatform)
The Vancouver Whitecaps' 2018 season was dull. Their biggest highlight last season wasn't Alphonso Davies's dazzling dribbles, nor his record-breaking sale to Bayern Munich. It certainly wasn't their dirty laundry washing exercise in the form of a season-ending press conference. The players must have found out the management had decided to clean house before they publicly lashed out at each other. The decision to rebuild is painful, but it was also Vancouver's best accomplishment last year.
2018 Season Recap
Last year’s Whitecaps were the epitome of Carl Robinson's philosophy: soaking up the pressure, exploiting the other team's mistakes, and hitting them with a counter-attack. A non-romantic description of such an approach is to park the bus.
To minimize mistakes and exploit the ones the other team made, the Whitecaps conceded touches; Vancouver had 398 passes per game and conceded 512 passes per game. Its passes vs. opponent's passes ratio was the lowest in MLS last season, 24% lower than the average. The Whitecaps waited for the opponent to commit turnovers.
Staying true to Robinson's principle, they converted those turnovers into chances with high efficiency: they recorded 17 shots from counter-attacks last year, second only to Atlanta United (Jamon is redefining the counter-attack, stay tuned to his upcoming article).
The goal was to lure the opponent out, so Vancouver didn't press in any form and jammed most of the defensive actions in their own half. Even in the area where they had the most defensive strength, they applied close to zero pressure to the opponent; Vancouver's opponent advanced the ball with the same ease all over the field. Robinson must have worried that simply inviting them into his own half wasn't a big enough lure, so Vancouver let the opponent operate deep into their territory. Vancouver's last defensive line, approximated by the destination of a throughball, is the highest in its own box. No one could park the bus better than Vancouver did.
If you ignored the laundry-washing/press conference fiasco, Vancouver would look like they were in good shape; they were only two points away from making the playoffs. The players were doing exactly what their coach asked them to do. On the surface, the decision to have a total rebuild feels unjustified.
But the combination of those two things - getting a mediocre result while the players embodying Robinson's philosophy - explains the logic of the rebuild; barely not making the playoff was the best result Robinson's soccer philosophy could offer in Vancouver.
We can model the ceiling that Robinson's style, few touches and concession of the ball, can achieve by making the league’s best team play it, computationally. Atlanta makes the best comparison for Vancouver because they are both potent in the counter-attack. The counter-attack is a product of the opponent's turnovers and the opponent's number of touches (the more touches you have, the more turnovers you have). Atlanta operated with a brutal efficiency of counter-attack last season, creating one goal from the counter-attack per 630 opponent's passes. Pairing it with Vancouver's third highest opponent's number of touches, Atlanta would create nine goals from the counter-attack, one more than they did last season. But here is the catch, conceding so many touches means that you can't use the ball most of the time. And even using their attacking prowess, Atlanta United would only create 30 goals from Vancouver's 398 touches per game, eight fewer than they did. Combing both predictions, Atlanta United would have scored six fewer goals if they had adopted Robinson's approach.
Applying the same approach on the defensive end, we are talking about a difference of 10 fewer goal differential for Atlanta United. It would likely deduct 10-20 points from them, putting them into the same category as New York City FC's or FC Dallas. It is not a bad situation, but it is also the best one Vancouver can dream for IF they can spend as much money and scout as well as Atlanta United. They can't, so they need to find another model.
We can do the same exercise for every other team in MLS, and almost none of them will gain an advantage with Vancouver's touches' ratio. Parking the bus and hitting with the counter-attack is just not economical; the counter-attack happens so infrequently: an average MLS team creates ~ 0.3 shots per game from the counter-attack but ~10 shots from regular play. Prioritizing the counter-attack would never make up for the sacrifice of the touches you need to lure the opponent into your territory. The loss of the touches also increases the time a team suffers. Robinson's approach is outdated. You can do it for a segment of time, but not for the whole season.
Cleaning the house and starting from scratch is the only option that makes sense for Vancouver. Needing to rebuild is bad, but envisioning it and having the courage to carry out a complete revamp before it explodes to your face are the necessary qualities to carry a franchise forward. Vancouver's fans at least can hope that something better than Robinson's mediocrity may emerge in the future. (for more on how Vancouver completed the revamp, please read Harrison Hamm’s amazing article.)
Upcoming season preview:
Players Out: Everyone
Players In: Too many to list, click here.
Projecting how Vancouver will play is almost impossible, considering that they get rid of the players that contributed more than 60% of their total minutes last season:
Worse, most of those players were the primary contributors in their offense last season; of the 12 players that contribute the most xG/96 or xA96, only two remains. Vancouver has a brand new team.
Any "prediction" on how they will play next season will merely be speculation. What we can reasonably do is to get an idea of what types of players they bought in, using a similarity search of the existing players.
I first collected the activity data for most of Vancouver's new signings (thanks to Aaron Nielsen, ModernFitba.com, The Backpass Rule, InStat). I then defined a player's activity style by calculating the percentage of the activities (dribbles, pass, tackle...etc.) out of the total number of events. I also incorporated the success rate of each action as a variable. I then calculated the Euclidean distance between these players and all MLS players from 2016-2018 with more than 1000 minutes. Two same players will have zero distance between them. Similarity score is the normalized distance score. I could only focus on the midfielders and the attackers since the defensive activity data lack resolution from these sources.
Andy Rose is an English professional player who spent the past season in Scottish Premier League. His most similar match is Kofi Opare. Looking at the data, they do nothing well except for the aerial challenge: both players go for the headers an insane amount of times at a decent success rate.
The similarity of Alhassane Bangoura and Lucas Venuto to MLS players are quite low, meaning they don’t play very similarly to the existing player pool. Interestingly, Davies is one of the most similar matches for both players. Vancouver may have an eye on this particular type of player.
Jon Erice’s characteristic is similar to both a defender and a midfielder, consistent with his position as a defensive midfielder.
Joaquin Ardaiz is a young striker who has been a regular member of Uruguay's U20 team. His closest matches are Bradley Wright-Phillips and Alberth Elis. The defining characteristics of these players are the ridiculous amounts of shots, headers, key passes, and dribbles. These players are the true finishers who can hit the shots with exceptional accuracy. Ardaiz plays like a top hitman, whether he will become one in MLS remains to be seen.
In Beom Hwang is one of the most exciting young players coming into the MLS this season. His playing style is most similar to Mark-Anthony Kaye, Eduard Atuesta, Marco Delgado, and Oh, Steven Gerrard. Most of these players are number eights that can also part-time in the number six. For In Beom Hwang, he doesn't make too many passes but he focuses on making one that creates shots. He doesn't dribble a lot, but he dribbles well. He makes sufficiently amount of tackles, but his tackle lacks accuracy. He doesn't shoot a lot, and his shot isn't accurate.
After years of mediocrity and complete dullness, Vancouver's fans will get the first taste of excitement. The future is uncertain, but there’s reason to dream and have hope for the future.