Rank(o) and File: Analyzing what Ranko Veselinovic can bring to the Vancouver Whitecaps backline

Another Vancouver Whitecaps signing was wrapped up this past weekend, as the team brought in 20-year-old Serbian centre back Ranko Veselinovic on a 1-year loan. Here is a look at what he can bring to the team. 

He might be the latest addition to their ‘rank and file’, but his leadership attributes suggest he’ll be more than just an ordinary squad member.

The Vancouver Whitecaps dried the ink on their latest signing this weekend, bringing in Serbian centre back Ranko Veselinovic on a 1-year loan, complete with an option to buy at the end of 2020. The 20-year-old 6’3” centre back comes from Vojvodina in the Serbian Super Liga, where he helped captain their side to their current ranking of 3rd place in the league, with only traditional heavyweights Partizan and Red Star Belgrade ahead of them in the standings. 

He comes to MLS as a very promising prospect, with many people familiar with the Serbian league complimenting his growth, as Caleb Wilkins of 86 Forever explored in his piece on Veselinkovic. For a Whitecaps side looking to grow into the new era of MLS, where buying young and undervalued talent can be a key contributor to success, it seems a promising move upon first glance.

But what exactly can Veselinovic bring to this team? On a Whitecaps team currently short a right back and a couple of midfielders, bringing in another centre back seems a curious choice, especially considering how stocked they seem to be at the position. With Erik Godoy, Derek Cornelius and Jhesser Khemiri locked up, along with FC Edmonton standout Amer Didic in on trial, you would have thought that they were done upgrading at the position, bar maybe a veteran MLS name to fill out the roster. 

However, given the strong pedigree that Veselinovic is bringing to the west coast, you’d figure he’s going to be starting sooner rather than later, and, more importantly, he brings the team tactical flexibility, which may prove to be beneficial in the long run. The Whitecaps have experimented with a back 3 in the past, and considering that Godoy can also play as a right back, bringing in Veselinovic has just given Vancouver more freedom to play around with their tactics, which in a gruelling MLS schedule, may be the biggest reason why this signing makes sense. 

Yet all of that aside, what can he bring on the pitch to Vancouver? Let’s take a deeper look and see…

Style of Play and Statistical Profile

By all indications, Veselinovic looks to be your modern kind of ball-playing centre back, which on a Vancouver side looking to play an up-tempo style of play, fits their needs to a tee. Along with Godoy, Cornelius and Khemiri (and Didic if he signs), it gives the ‘Caps a core of young, rangy centre backs with strong passing skills, without mentioning the fact that all of them are also capable of playing in the mid-to-high defensive line that Max Crepeau talked about last week. 

A right-footed centre back, he’s played in all but one of Vojvodina’s games this season, going the full 90 in every one of those appearances, each of them coming with Veselinovic being deployed as the right centre back. With his side having the third-best defensive record in Serbia, what is traditionally considered a strong league in Europe, it’s positive to see him play such a big role in their success, especially as a young captain. 

Statistically, he contributed to that by being an all-around force, as he was very involved both with and without the ball. Passing wise, he averaged over 35 passes a game, completing 83.2% of them, while also adding 5.52 passes to the final third (at a 62% clip), and 17.76 forward passes (at a 75.4% clip). 

For a Vancouver team who wants to be very comfortable when playing out of the back, those numbers are quite important, as they want to be able to move their way out of trouble without punching too many hopeless long balls forward. 

Defensively, he likes to get involved, averaging an impressive 5 interceptions a game, while getting stuck into 7.62 duels per game (winning 67%), and 4.89 aerial duels (winning 61.3%). He only attempted 0.32 sliding tackles per game, which is actually quite impressive for a defender on a quality defensive team, as it suggests that he doesn’t often find himself out of position to make those last-ditch attempts. 

That is a claim backed up by his high interception numbers, as he seems to have a knack of getting himself into good positions to block passes, which can be an important attribute for a defender to have. 

Numbers aside, one big thing that stood out among the reports is his leadership, which certainly fits the ‘4 cornerstones’ mantra that the Whitecaps have been pushing this offseason. Getting the captain’s armband as a 20-year-old definitely suggests that he has the “mentality, team spirit, work ethic and discipline” needed to fit into the Whitecaps profile, which is why this signing makes sense for them. 

And while the value of leadership can certainly be overstated, what Veselonivc can bring could go a long way on this Whitecaps side, who lost a big leader at the back when they transferred the very vocal Doneil Henry out this winter. Godoy, Cornelius and Khemiri can all lead, but the first two are more of the ‘lead by example’ type, while we’ve yet to see enough from Khemiri to tell the kind of leader he is, even if his outward personality does suggest something could be there in that regard. 

So from an overall standpoint, Veselinovic seems to be a well-rounded centre back, which should be good for Marc Dos Santos to work with. He’s already played 3 solid seasons at the top level in Serbia, which for someone who is only 20 years old, is quite impressive, and considering his ability, along with his leadership, he should prove to be a good pickup as he adjusts to MLS. 

Who plays where now?

But the next question is a big one: where do all of these guys fit in? The Whitecaps now have 4 centre backs locked up, with Didic still remaining a real possibility of becoming the 5th, giving Vancouver a pretty deep defensive unit. 

With Derek Cornelius looking good in the second half of 2019, the consistent excellence of Godoy last year, without mentioning the real wild card, Jhesser Khemiri, the ‘Caps won’t be short of options in terms of how they set up defensively. 

One option could be to play with a 3 at the back, which wouldn’t be the worse idea. Left back Ali Adnan is arguably one of the most proficient players in MLS at going forward from his position, but sometimes defensively he leaves a lot to be desired, which could necessitate more cover in the form of an extra centre back. 

With all of Vancouver’s centre backs capable of playing the ball forward well, it could also give them the ability to throw a centre back forward into a sort of hybrid CB/#6 role when deployed in a 3 at the back, based on how comfortable the ‘Caps are in possession. 

Take a look at the stats of Veselinovic, Didic, Godoy and Cornelius in 2019. (Khemiri only played one game, so he’s excluded). 

Passes Completed35.2538.4641.0845.14
Passing Accuracy83.2%84.8%86.5%85.5%
Accurate Long passes (%)6.2 (47.5%)5.51 (44.7%)7.43 (55.6%)7.9 (60.7%)
Passes to Final third (%)5.52 (60%)4.22 (52.8%)5.16 (72%)4.58 (64.3%)
Forward Passes (%)17.76 (75.4%)15.54 (72.1%)18.55 (77%)17.12 (77.1%)
Defensive Duels (%)7.62 (67%)4.87 (56.6%)4.17 (63.8%)5.23 (69.8%)
Aerial Duels (%)4.89 (61.3%)3.99 (50%)2.79 (40.2%)5.83 (70.1%)
Erik Godoy in action against DC in 2019 (Keveren Guillou)

All of the centre backs played upwards of 35 passes per game, completing them at a solid 83% or higher clip, with a good chunk of those going forward and into the final third. In a 3 at the back, that allows them to rotate who could push forward into a ‘ball-playing’ CB role, as that #6 hybrid role is more commonly known as, giving Vancouver another body to play with in the midfield when in possession.

Another possible solution would be to stagger how the team lines up in a 4 at the back, with Godoy able to shift out to become a right back. It would be a bit strange, especially considering that the Whitecaps deployed upwards of $1.5 million dollars to retain the services of Godoy, but it could work. He played there to end the season, looking good, and a peek at his stats support that. 

Among the 4 centre backs in that chart, he led them in forward passes per game, and was second in passes to final third, but lagged behind in defensive duels and aerial duels. That’s not a slight against his style, as he is quite skilled at winning back possession without getting stuck in as much, but in a physical MLS, having guys who can hoover up long balls and get stuck into duels can be huge (just ask one of Vancouver’s only-ever MLS all-stars, Kendall Waston!). 

Alongside a pairing consisting of two of either Derek Cornelius, Jhesser Khemiri, Amer Didic and Veselonvic, it gives the team a pair of solid centre backs, allowing Godoy to play in a specialized right back role.

And within that role, his duties wouldn’t be that far off of his usual tasks as a centre back, as he’ll be relied upon to sit deeper and help the team’s build-up play, offsetting the bombastic nature of Ali Adnan. Given that all of their possible left wingers are right-footed players who love to cut inside when in possession, Adnan will have the green light to push forward, while Godoy can stay in a hybrid centre back/right back role on the other side.

It might make the pitch a bit staggered, but it can get the most out of this current Vancouver side, at least the way they’re currently constructed. The midfield remains a bit thin, but Leonard Owusu and Hwang In Beom have both played deep in the past, so they could certainly play off of each other in a pivot, with one pushing forward, while the other remains back. 

With Godoy also there, it also gives them another responsible body to rely upon if either Hwang or Owusu does push forward, and given Vancouver’s desire to press more this season, they’ll have more time to recover defensively in those transition moments when they do lose the ball. 

Here is peek at how all of that could look like in a lineup graphic. 

Another sign of intent

But for all the good that Veselinovic appears capable of bringing on the pitch to this Whitecaps team, his signing is yet another example of Vancouver turning to less-heralded markets in order to acquire talent, which has been a positive development on the sporting side.

Ashdod, Independiente Del Valle, Vojvodina, Puebla and Colon may not be the international footballing meccas that one may recognize upon first glance, but they’re all decent teams in good leagues, where clubs often make noise in conventional competition. Israeli and Serbian teams often make the Champions League, while Independiente and Colon met in the final of the Copa Sudamericana this season, and we all know the damage Mexican teams do in CONCACAF Champions League. 

As we explored back when reports surrounding Godoy’s signing started to pop up, there is plenty of talent to be found in these markets, where good players can be found at a good price. There is obviously a lot more risk in these signings, but with teams preferring to go for talent in more well-known leagues, it makes signings like Veselinovic possible. 

Considering his pedigree and his experience so far, it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him push up to a higher calibre European league, but given that he plays for a relatively unknown Vojvodina, it allowed the Whitecaps to come swooping in with their bid. Had he been performing at the same level in a different league, that might not have happened, as the name-value of a club can often play a big role in negotiations. 

So the key is to manage the risks, which is why having a plan and identity is so important. Vancouver doesn’t have all of its scouts yet in place, which is certainly risky when it comes to these kinds of deals, but Axel Schuster and Marc Dos Santos have laid out a clear philosophy, giving Vancouver a compass to guide themselves with when looking at bringing in these types of players. 

When we look back at the move later, the philosophy itself may prove to have been a success or a failure, but the first step is just having that map to guide yourself with, which as seen by the success of sides such as LAFC, can prove to be prosperous. Will Vancouver find similar levels of success with their unknown signings? That is still to be seen, but just having that plan has seemed to push them down a good path so far.  

Looking Forward:

All-in-all, this seems to be a very solid under-the-radar signing for the Whitecaps. He might not turn heads right away, but considering his statistical profile, what he has accomplished so far and the level he is coming in from, he can certainly help push this Vancouver side to another level defensively. 

With the new MLS CBA locked down, he’s the exact kind of player that the league will want teams to bring in, especially on the defensive side, as they look to improve the quality of the league. Often, due to the budgetary restrictions, teams didn’t splash out on defenders, but the ‘Caps have been able to do just that these past few windows, with Adnan, Godoy and now Veselinovic all joining the squad as TAM defenders. 

At only 20, with Serbian international experience at all levels except the senior team, Veselinovic also seems like a player still on his towards the top, which for Vancouver, could mean that he may fetch them a solid fee in a couple of years. As the league continues to embrace a ‘selling-league’ mentality, these are the kinds of players teams want to attract, as quality young talent can use these stopovers to improve themselves and put their names in the shop windows for big European outfits. 

And for the Whitecaps, who are looking to shore up their 2020 MLS lineup, they get someone who can step in and help them immediately, making this a win-win move. While they still have some wheeling-and-dealing to do, this all but finishes their work on the defensive end, leaving the midfield as the only thing left to shore up. 

Which after a scrambly 2019 offseason, it’s made for a lot more positive 2020 transfer window, as they’ve continued to get their business done quickly and effectively, giving them a foot up heading into first kick. 

Cover Photo provided by: Vancouver Whitecaps FC

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