Shapes of MLS
The Formations: Carl Robinson's Vancouver Whitecaps went back to a 4-2-3-1 for Saturday's game after finishing last week's 1-1 draw at Chivas in a 4-4-2. The move was not surprising, although Pedro Morales (stiff back) being left on the bench was a move that wasn't expected. Russell Teibert returned from injury and was back on the right, where he played against New York, pushing Kenny Miller central.
New England, coming off two poor performances to start the season, stuck to their favored shape and welcomed back captain Jose Goncalves after he was left out of the 18 in Philadelphia for the ongoing dispute over his contract status.
The Game: It ended 0-0 and was not a classic, however, from a tactical perspective, it proved to be a fascinating one with many changes happening throughout the match. New England had played very narrow for the first two games and were expected to do so again but Saer Sene and Diego Fagundez started the game very close to both touchlines. They were able to do this because the midfield central three of New England completely dominated the opening 45 minutes. Sene and Fagundez were excellent outlets for the trio, while also helping to cause key overlaps with full backs.
Matias Laba and Nigel Reo-Coker, in particular, really struggled distributing the ball in midfield and were regularly pressed quickly, allowing New England to make crucial turnovers and start quick transitions. The double pivot works best when one of the midfielders can drop deeper, make crucial tackles or be the outlet for the centre-backs to start an attack, while the other one pushes slightly more forward and into space. With New England dominating this area of the field, both Laba and Reo-Coker were reluctant to get forward, pinning the Whitecaps deeper.
This had a knock-on effect towards how the front four played. Kenny Miller had to come deeper and turned the formation into a 4-5-1 while the wide players also retreated to try and help their teammates. This allowed New England to also win the battle on the flanks with Sene and Andrew Farrell, in particular, on the right side really dominating Sebastian Fernandez.
Farrell was the best player on the field, defending excellently while making intelligent runs to create overlaps and chances for Sene.
The Turning Point: Vancouver desperately needed to pass the ball better in the second half and needed a ball treasurer. Up stepped Morales, who replaced the ineffective Fernandez at half-time. Immediately, the visitors were a better side at the start of the second half. Andy Dorman had a lot of the ball in the first half because the Whitecaps were so deep but now his mind was occupied by the playmaker, Morales.
A very interesting point to note with this change was how Robinson stuck to his shape but put Mattocks on the left and kept Miller central, now up top. Miller's defensive game on the flank against Chivas last weekend wasn't the best and it was clear that Robinson trusted Mattocks more to deal with Sene and Farrell. In fairness, Mattocks worked very hard at this part of his game. He committed three fouls and looked clumsy at times but his pace and workrate proved that Robinson was correct to not have Miller defend that side of the field.
When Teibert came off for Kekuta Manneh, Mattocks moved to the right and suddenly the Whitecaps had two track athletes on the flanks. Defensively, they were adequate but on the break they were breathtaking. The final ball too often was the wrong one but having those players out wide stopped New England's danger out wide and pinned the impressive full backs deeper with Farrell only getting the better of Manneh once, allowing a great chance for dangerman Diego Fagundez who drifted centrally.
New England boss Jay Heaps tried to counter Robinson's changes by, first, moving Kelyn Rowe out wide (who was very clever with his movement and range of passing) and then putting Teal Bunbury there in the final minutes. To be fair, Heaps had to do something with Bunbury after he spent most of the second half inside Andy O'Brien's pocket.
The Positives: It should be noted that the playing conditions for this game were very poor. The wind played a massive part in the game and that certainly is one reason why the Whitecaps, playing against it, struggled in the first 45 minutes. At one stage, the exceptional O'Brien misjudged the wind and allowed a simple ball back to his goalkeeper to be held up, which required David Ousted to come out quickly to deny Bunbury. Ousted was brilliant in this game and allowed the Whitecaps to get a point.
Despite the poor conditions, a real positive was Robinson's proactive nature. It is refreshing to see a young coach demand so much of his players in terms of a style and identity. Through three games, we already know what a Robinson side should look like and in the first 45 minutes, he clearly wasn't happy with how they were playing. In the second half, with Morales on, the Whitecaps trusted themselves more to play through midfield which turned the momentum away from New England and allowed them to dictate the game more.
The Negatives: The season is only three games old but the Whitecaps need to be able to stick to their identity when opponents are on top. Far too often in the first half, long balls were sent up by the defence to try and get the forwards into play.
One of the reasons for this is the Laba-Reo Coker partnership. A problem with the 4-2-3-1 is that if both, in the double pivot, are too deep, a team becomes divided and a back six may as well send postcards to the front four because they are so far away. One team becomes two.
Reo-Coker lost the ball, similar to the way he did against Chivas for their goal, early in the game and was booked after just eight minutes. Once he is booked that early, it is virtually impossible for him to play the entire 90 minutes because one of his real strengths is his power and ability to cause turnovers by riding that fine line between a foul and a fair tackle.
A solution may be to play a diamond in midfield, pushing Reo Coker on to the right where he feels he has a bit more of a license to get forward. This would, obviously, depend on the opponent.
However, what this could also counter is who to play in the wide areas of a 4-2-3-1. After a bright start at home to New York, Fernandez's performances in the last two away games can be described as average followed by very poor. Playing in that position away is very different than at home, as attacks are started much deeper and defensively, you have to be more diligent. This is something Robinson will need to monitor as the season goes on. With Miller showing he is less than capable to be trusted on a flank regularly, if he is to play 4-2-3-1, he will need to work with the likes of Mattocks and Fernandez on how to get better in those positions.
The Star Man: David Ousted was clearly the best player for the Whitecaps on the day but tactically, it was an impressive performance from the two centre-backs. O'Brien was a rock while Johnny Leveron, making his first start of the season, certainly brought a new dimension to their side. He is, by far, the most comfortable centre-back in possession of the ball and when a 4-2-3-1 is working at its best, against a team playing with one striker, very often the second centre-back can be the free, isolated player not picked up by the opposition. This happened just before half-time when the Honduran got forward down the left, beat Sene and Bunbury, in an attack that ended with Miller just firing wide.
Leveron needs to be careful and a bit sharper with his passes and distribution when he gets the ball but, with time, he can be a real asset for Robinson.
In many ways, he sums up the early season storyline for the unbeaten 2014 Whitecaps – plenty of versatility with options and a lot of promise to develop quickly into the identity Robinson doesn't just wish for but demands.