Door wide-open: Do the recent Vancouver Whitecaps moves suggest a formation shift for 2020?

As it looks less and less likely that Michaell Chirinos returns to Vancouver, we look at why a shift to the 3-5-2 may now be in order for the Whitecaps, especially with Lucas Cavallini coming into the fold. 

With another winger supposedly out of the picture, the push away from a 4-3-3 might have just gotten another boost.

Reports emerged out of Honduras late Wednesday evening that Michaell Chirinos would be staying at Olimpia in 2020, with Olimpia’s head coach, Pedro Troglio, revealing that Chirinos would be staying during an interview. As we explored last week, when breaking down the Chirinos situation, it was never going to be an easy set of negotiations, but it’s still surprising to see that the Honduran International will not be returning to the Whitecaps next season. 

It also may have also given a hint of what Marc Dos Santos’s and Axel Schuster’s vision for 2020 might end up being, as this move would now leave Vancouver with 0 natural wingers in their squad, suggesting that a move from the 4-3-3 might now be a possibility. While Theo Bair, Yordy Reyna, Tosaint Ricketts and Hwang In Beom can all be deployed as wingers, Bair is the only one that it makes sense to deploy there, with the others being much better in other positions. 

Vancouver could easily bring in a couple of wingers to remedy that lack of wide threat, but given Dos Santos’s reluctance to use natural wide players in 2019, a formation shift starts to make sense. Considering that the Whitecaps started to play a 4-3-2-1 Christmas Tree in August, and that actual out-and-out wide threats Chirinos, Lass Bangoura and Lucas Venuto only played together 3 times (Venuto and Bangoura played 3 games together, their record was 2W-1L-0D), it isn’t hard to imagine the Whitecaps shifting formations next year. 

We explored the pros and cons of switching formations back in September, as we looked at what a 3-5-2 and a 4-3-3 could bring to the Whitecaps, and given the recent moves, the latter continues to look less and less likely. With winger supply continuing to get depleted, and considering that they have a wealth of strikers, as well as a very offensive left back in Ali Adnan, a 3-5-2, or at least some variant of it, appears to be in the cards. Here is how that could shape up.

How could they make a 3-5-2 work?

A possible lineup outlook for 2020?

Given the recent developments in Whitecaps land, with Lucas Cavallini soon expected to be announced as the 1st signing of this offseason, it actually helps them to shift towards a 3-5-2, as seen by this lineup graphic above. As we saw when we scouted what Cavallini could bring to Vancouver, the Canadian striker thrives off half-chances and crossed balls, and while a 3-5-2 doesn’t have the wingers to provide the latter, having Ali Adnan and an attacking right back does still make them possible. 

Along with Yordy Reyna, who is most comfortable through the middle, it would give opposing defenders a unique challenge defensively. Both Cavallini and Reyna love to play off the shoulder of defenders, but are also both comfortable with dropping to receive the ball at their feet. Given Cavallini’s physicality, he would probably be expected to wear down defenders by driving them into physical duels, with Reyna operating in the hole, but just having that interchangeability would cause matchup problems. 

With Hwang In Beom being a midfielder that loves to play the ball through the middle to his attackers, as well as a player that is comfortable with dribbling the ball forward, it would allow the Whitecaps to really load things up through the middle of the pitch. If they could add a quality transitional #8 or a creative #10, on top of a commanding #6, it would allow Vancouver to really control the midfield in games. 

One wrinkle offensively would be that things could get way too compact with all the bodies in the middle, but that’s where the full backs come in. If Adnan and Jake Nerwinski/a new signing can find a way to really jam those wide channels when in possession, it will force teams to choose between letting Adnan run rampant on the flanks, or allow Reyna, Hwang and Cavallini to cause damage through the middle, which are both less than favourable outcomes to concede. 

Along with the physical #6, who could act as a 4th defender depending on how high the full backs get caught up the pitch when they lose possession, it would still protect Vancouver in transition. With Doneil Henry, the centre back that probably struggled the most in transition, now gone, Khemiri, Godoy and Cornelius would be comfortable in a 3-5-2 that operates in a mid-to-high block, allowing them to be aggressive in possession, but still be solid without it. 

One issue would be how they’d press, as Cavallini and Reyna aren’t often the most active of pressers, which would allow teams to bypass them and push up the flanks. Given that winning the ball in the final third of the pitch is seen as one of the best ways to score, ceding that space is less than ideal, so they’d have to sort that out if they were to enact this formation shift. 

A way to counteract that would be pressing in a 3-4-3, with Cavallini and Reyna pushing wide, while a supposed #10 or In Beom pushes up into the space in the middle, with the other midfielders and the full backs shifting into a block of 4. While that would put a lot of pressure on the centre backs, especially if the middle 4 were to be bypassed, keeping a mid-line could also cut off a lot of the space ceded if needed. 

Overall, especially given the recent roster moves, a move to the 3-5-2 seems likelier by the day. While a breakdown in negotiations with Erik Godoy would completely throw the idea out the window, that seems very unlikely at this point, and either way, they’d still need to add wingers to play a 4-3-3, anyways. 

The formation used does also depend on how the rest of the roster moves pan out, depending on how the hunt for midfielders, wingers, full backs and more defenders goes, which could also change how things shape up. But until we see how these moves end up going, a 3-5-2 seems likeliest, for now, especially considering Dos Santos’s penchant for experimenting with 3 defender formations in 2019. 

The winger question:

Michaell Chirinos looks to be the next wide player on the outs in Vancouver (Keveren Guillou)

Another question that emerges with the imminent departure of Chirinos is concerning the dynamic between Dos Santos and wingers, as he continues to be reluctant in how he uses them. As mentioned earlier, he only really used his out-and-out wingers for less than a handful of games, but despite finding success in those games, he’s preferred to try other options. 

On the other hand, him moving Theo Bair to the wing, a position that Bair had played in his academy days, did work wonders, with Bair putting in some solid shifts on the right-hand side, so it does show that Dos Santos can have a use for wide players. While the move of Yordy Reyna out wide hasn’t worked out too well, with the Peruvian looking his best through the middle, the success of Chirinos and Bair shows that he can make things work with the right profile of wide players. 

Interestingly enough about both Chirinos and Bair, they’re both wingers that prefer to occupy space centrally, which does also give an idea of what Dos Santos prefers from his wide players. He seems to love it when his wingers cut inside, allowing his full backs to push forward, which is part of the reason why a move to 3-5-2 also makes sense. 

So in a sense, that also explains the struggles of Lucas Venuto and Lass Bangoura in Vancouver, as they were both players that preferred to take on opposing defenders out wide, which they often weren’t able to do under Dos Santos. Instead of pushing onto the full backs as one would expect from the two speedsters, they often had to help start possession from their own end, leading to giveaways in deeper areas of the pitch. 

It also explains the success of Bair and Chirinos, as well as why he often played PC and Reyna there, as they were all players that are comfortable starting out from deep, before pushing forward when Vancouver was in possession in the final third. That’s also another reason why a move to a 3-5-2 wouldn’t be surprising, as that slower build-up style would benefit from having that overload of players in the middle, while also giving them the solidity of 3 defenders.

At the same time, Vancouver could also easily bring in a winger or two that fits the profile that Dos Santos seeks, while also being proficient in wide areas, throwing the idea of a 3-5-2 right out the window. But with Reyna and Bair still in the fold, and given Dos Santos’s push for Reyna to be a winger, at the very least expect a side flexible enough to play both in a 4-3-3 and a 3-5-2 depending on the opponent. 

With Dos Santos hinting at a more rigorous preseason in 2020, and long citing the need for tactical flexibility, that could also be the likeliest outcome of all the formation scenarios. 

Looking Forward:

All in all, the signs continue to point towards a formation shift for 2020. While it is too early to yet determine what exactly that shift will be, with several signings still in play, the latest Chirinos news, along with the Cavallini signing, suggests that a move to the 3-5-2 seems the likeliest option for now. While it wasn’t the greatest formation for Vancouver in 2019, as we saw this past summer, if they properly work on it through preseason, better results could be in order, especially if the right personnel is brought in. 

And even though the Whitecaps not bringing back Chirinos is unfortunate, his negotiations were always going to be super complicated, so in a sense, it’s no surprise that a deal hasn’t worked out. Depending on how the rest of their moves shape up, it may be looked back upon as a great or terrible decision, but at the very least, it appears to be one that will shape their formation in 2020 for now.

With a Technical Director now in place, we’ll also soon start to see the direction that the Whitecaps hope to take for the future. The Cavallini move shows that it’s going to be a relatively aggressive future, but how it will shape up stylistically is yet to be seen, even despite hints from recent moves. 

And as the preparations for 2020 continue, those next moves will truly shape how Vancouver will look next year, as well as long-term. Whether or not that’s in a 4-3-3 or 3-5-2 is to be decided, but either way, as long as lessons are learned from 2019, improvement should hopefully be in order in Whitecaps-land.

After a rough couple of seasons, that would be the least anyone would hope for in 2020. 

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