Get in formation: Weighing the pros and cons of 4-3-3s and 3-5-2s for the Vancouver Whitecaps 

The Vancouver Whitecaps face some formation questions heading into 2020, so we decided to weigh the pros and cons of their two main options to line up in next season. 

Marc Dos Santos has had a few preferred alignments in his first year as a Whitecaps head coach, with the Caps mainly using a 4-3-3 throughout his inaugural campaign in Vancouver. He hasn’t been completely sold on it, however, as evidenced by his sporadic use of the 3-5-2, a formation he seemed committed to switching full-time up until the month of July decided to hit his team like a ton of bricks. 

So far in MLS play this year, the Caps have lined up 18 times combined in the 4-3-3 and other iterations of it, going along with their 5 further uses of a similar 4-3-2-1 Christmas tree. In 7 other games, they went with 3 at the back formations, with their favoured alignment being a 3-5-2 allowing the full-backs having the range to go forward. As we analyzed during the summer, the 3 at the back experiment didn’t yield the greatest of results, as Dos Santos thankfully decided to return to the more familiar 4 defender set-ups. 

With the offseason coming up, Dos Santos is going to have to answer some lineup and tactical questions, with one of them being deciding which alignment he decides to set his team up in. The 4-3-3 has worked best for his side, giving them their most positive performances, but given that it doesn’t appear to suit some of their best players, might a return to the 3-5-2 be in the cards? Here are some pros and cons of both formations for the Caps heading into 2020.  


The Caps lined up in a 4-3-2-1 against DC United, winning 1-0 (Keveren Guillou)


There is a lot to like about the 4-3-3, a popular formation worldwide due to its tactical flexibility and balanced set-up. Depending on how the midfield is aligned, teams can choose to sit deeper, push bodies further forward or try and find that balance in between, making it a dream formation for coaches. Offensively, it offers a lot of different looks for the wingers, as they can choose to operate really wide and allow for the midfielders to push forward, or they can play right off the striker and leave space for the full-backs to overlap into, based on how the manager decides to line up his crew. 

For the Whitecaps, it’s a formation that can fit the tactical identity they hoped to achieve at the beginning of the campaign, as it allows for a strong press going forward, a lot of interplay when in possession, as well as a strong defensive foundation with the back 4 and bodies in the middle. It has been huge for playing out of the defensive phase of play, as well, as having 4 defenders always ensures numerical superiority since most teams usually only press with 3 players, making it easy for the Caps to funnel the ball into midfield. With their problem not stemming from the set-up in the midfield instead coming more from the personnel they employ, it’s easy to imagine them improving on their woeful league-worst 23% of possession spent in the final third with some new bodies there. 


With the main issues being a lack of personnel and struggles attacking-wise, it’s easy to suggest that the 4-3-3 should be their main set-up going forward. There is just one hitch, however, and it’s one they will have to decide how to best address, because for all the personnel they lack, a lot of the guys they do have don’t necessarily fit the 4-3-3 either. With some of Vancouver’s top players such as Yordy Reyna and Ali Adnan seeming to fit a 3-5-2, without mentioning that a 2 striker partnership could get some of the 4 or 5 strikers that they do have onto the pitch, the way they are currently set up does make a switch plausible. 

Adnan, one of the team’s highest earners as a DP, can be a liability at times, as he is 10th among MLS defenders in unsuccessful touches per game with 1.5, and is 25th in dispossessions per game with 0.7. While he is second on the team in tackles and interceptions per game, as he has shown to be a good defender when he gets behind the ball, he’s an offensive player that thrives up the pitch, which makes it tough on his fellow defenders when he loses the ball high up the field. In a 4-3-3, that does not make it easy on the defenders when a team has to deal with opposing team counters, especially when it’s because their left-back is the one caught high up in the opponents half.

Reyna is another such example of a player out of position, as he has shown to thrive playing through the middle, both as a 9 and a 10, as he does a good job at sucking in players when in those positions, freeing up his teammates while still being proficient enough to bury a few himself. He has looked good when deployed as a 9 this year, but due to the logjam the Caps have at forward, he has often had to settle on the wing, where he doesn’t look as dynamic as he did in the middle. It is shown in his stats, as he is 3rd on the team in both dribbles and key passes per game, showing that he gets the ball to good areas on the pitch. He also leads the team in unsuccessful touches and dispossession per game, but higher up the pitch, those can be the kind of risks you can handle having. 

The last of the issues is the Caps wing conundrum. Michaell Chirinos is the lone winger that Dos Santos seems to have any confidence in, with Lass Bangoura seemingly out of favour and PC having seemignly disappeared with a mysterious injury. Given that Dos Santos has not shown much confidence in playing 2 wingers at once, usually playing Reyna or Theo Bair out wide instead of employing some of the true out and out wingers at his disposal, a formation without them could suit him, as he could just rely on his full-backs to provide a wide threat. It’s a risky game to play, as that kind of forward threat could leave some serious holes at the back, but it could be some risks worth gambling on. 


Might Ali Adnan benefit from a move to the 3-5-2? (Keveren Guillou)


As seen, the Caps have the personnel to play in a 3-5-2, as some of their best players would thrive in the set-up made popular by Juventus earlier this decade. Ali Adnan would get the freedom to make his bombastic runs, the Caps could get Derek Cornelius, Doneil Henry and Erik Godoy (assuming he stays) all on the pitch at once to shore things up, and Yordy Reyna can find some freedom either as a 10 or as a 9. 

Defensively, playing Godoy, Cornelius and Henry together can work, as they have all shown to be pretty solid defensive options. Godoy is one of the best shot blockers in the league (5th amongst MLS defenders), he can pass the ball well, and he has shown to be a solid leader in the back. Henry has taken a big step forward this year, as he is confident with the ball, blocks a lot of shots (4th amongst MLS defenders) and intercepts the ball at a high rate, doing so 2 times per game, which is 7th amongst MLS defenders. The last of them, Cornelius, has stepped up a lot of late, as he has shown some of the biggest improvement on the squad, as he is also a good shot-blocker (6th amongst MLS defenders), clears the ball well (2nd in MLS for defenders) and he has shown a lot of confidence on the ball, showing why he used to play further up the pitch in his youth. 

If Dos Santos can instill the philosophies of the 3-5-2 into his team, and they add a good defensive stopper/box-to-box midfielder alongside Hwang In Beom, Vancouver should be fine defensively, and that’s without mentioning the boost Adnan will provide going forward. And if you also consider the strong defensive stats Adnan has when he tracks back, they would also get some positive benefit if his timing of overlapping vs staying back can improve, making a switch more feasible. 

Given Dos Santos’s plans for a revamped preseason in 2020, it would also give him plenty of time to instill the rigid philosophy the formation requires, meaning it would likely look better than it did this season, where he had to attempt its implementation on the fly. With the Caps preaching that most of their moves should be done by January next year, as well as the roster expected to bring more continuity than it did last year, Dos Santos will be in a better position to impose these kinds of tactical set-ups, because as seen this season, it always seems like the Caps are playing catch-up in that regard. 


For all the joy it can provide, the 3-5-2 is not an easy formation to implement, especially in MLS, often due to the roster constrictions. Teams in Europe can often succeed with it, as they can buy some quality players to fill some of the biggest roles the formation entails, such as midfielders and full-backs, but for MLS teams dealing with all the roster rules in place, it’s not easy to do. There’s a reason most teams stick with 4 at the back formations, as teams often don’t have the full-backs to handle playing in a 3 at the back set-up, as the league’s rules encourage teams best players to be both in attack and in the midfield, leaving left-backs and right-backs as forgotten positions. 

Look at Toronto for example. When they won in 2017, they often played with a 3 at the back, but it was thanks to the performances from full-backs Steven Beitashour and Justin Morrow that made it work, as they would often find themselves high up the pitch when Toronto had the ball. While the Caps have Adnan, who can certainly do that, will the Caps have enough space to fill the holes they currently have in midfield plus attack, and still find money to get a top right back as well? Jake Nerwinski and Scott Sutter have both been good at the position this year, but the Caps could certainly use a player that could make opposing team’s decisions to lockdown Adnan seem foolish, as their attack is currently quite centred around the left side. 

It also makes things difficult for some of the current Caps players, such as Michaell Chirinos, who has looked good in his cameo at left winger so far. If the Caps decide to make his loan deal permanent, there would be no home for him in a 3-5-2, as he operates primarily as a left-winger, preferring a spot out wide. Given that he loves to cut inside, opening up room for Adnan, he has looked a good fit in the squad so far, and it’s not hard to imagine him doing damage if the Caps could get someone dangerous on the right side to spread out the attacking threat. Combine that with a good striker and some solid midfielders, and they could be on the right path to success. Given that Reyna’s future in Vancouver remains a question mark, a possible departure from him would make the 3-5-2 moot anyways, and it’s not hard to imagine Vancouver receiving a windfall to pursue some other good players if that were to ever happen. 

Looking Forward

Luckily for Vancouver, those questions don’t have to be answered right away, giving them plenty of time to think about what their best options are. With a Technical Director expected to come in any day now, that person will also play a big role in both implementing a style of play and sorting out recruitment, so we should get a better idea of what to expect in the winter. For now, we are left to just to ponder, and given what we know, there is a lot to consider. The 3-5-2 didn’t look as attractive back in the summer when we penned the original piece, but it doesn’t look so bad if they decide to implement it over the preseason. However, with the 4-3-3 already looking improved on from preseason, and with team having worked on it all year, sticking with that could also prove fruitful as the players get a full offseason to recover ahead of next year, as that comfort might mean an improved start to 2020. 

Ultimately, all of that will depend on scouting and recruiting, of which we do not yet know the direction that will be steered in. Ahead of 2020, there are plenty of big questions still to answer, so now it will be interesting to see what Vancouver does to find those solutions. With plenty of fan support and interest hinging on those decisions, how they do so may prove to be crucial. 

One thought on “Get in formation: Weighing the pros and cons of 4-3-3s and 3-5-2s for the Vancouver Whitecaps 

Join the Conversation!