Get on your Bike(l): Have the Vancouver Whitecaps found their #6 solution in Janio Bikel?

Less than 48 hours before the start of the MLS season, the Vancouver Whitecaps made a surprise move, bringing in midfielder/right back Janio Bikel from CSKA Sofia in Bulgaria, giving the ‘Caps a boost ahead of their 2020 campaign. In this, we look at what Bikel can bring to the team, by analyzing his style of play, statistical profile and fit with the club. 

As it seemed that the doors were closing, someone raced in, joining the club right before the 2020 MLS regular season kicked off. 

That player was Janio Bikel, a 24-year-old Portuese/Guinea-Bissau midfielder, who joined the Vancouver Whitecaps this past Friday, becoming the team’s 10th international player. 

Less than a week after they had acquired an 11th international roster spot, they wasted no time in filling their 10th, bringing in Bikel, who can play both in the midfield and out at right back, shoring up the teams depth ahead of the 2020 season. 

With the ‘Caps looking a little short at both positions, making them the biggest priorities to address ahead of the start of the season, the addition of Bikel should prove to be crucial, only bolstering what is overall a pretty deep squad. 

Despite their tough start to the season, as they fell 3-1 to Sporting Kansas City over the weekend, they are now mostly two-deep at every position, with several swiss-army knives such as Bikel now giving manager Marc Dos Santos more options tactically.

As we saw during the game Saturday, two of the biggest concerns were that the midfield looked out of their depth and that the team lacked overall tactical flexibility, which Bikel, best known as a holding midfielder, should help fix. Along with the impending debuts of Leonard Owusu, Ranko Veselinovic and Erik Godoy, all yet to feature due to either Visa or injury reasons, it should give the team a much-needed squad boost, one that can help them improve on a tough opening day performance. 

At the same time, we don’t quite know what Bikel can bring to the table yet, with the former Portuguese youth international coming to Vancouver via a lesser-known Bulgarian circuit, one that consistently sends teams to top-level European competition, but besides that, one that also operates under relative anonymity.

Can he bring stability to a shaky Whitecaps midfield? Will he give the team a boost at the right back position? What are his best attributes?

Let’s dive in and see.

What does he bring to the table?

Bikel on the ball in Bulgaria (Vancouver Whitecaps)

We don’t know all of the answers to those aforementioned questions, but we can try our best to find them out, thanks to the availability of some important information. 

While Bikel doesn’t come to Vancouver via a more-known top 5 European circuit, the Bulgarian league does have some quality, ranking as the 27th best league in the latest UEFA coefficient rankings. 

That might not seem like much, but it’s important to note that the Israeli Premier League is currently ranked 23rd, and considering that SKC’s Gadi Kinda, a midfielder fresh out of that circuit, torched the Whitecaps on Saturday, it shows the quality that can be found there. 

There might be a gap of 4 rankings between the Bulgarian and Israeli leagues at the moment, but as recently as one year ago, that gap was one, which makes sense, with the leagues in and around that range mostly just shuffling around each other. 

It’s not to say that Bikel will come in and set the league ablaze, but if he comes in at the level he was playing at abroad, it’s not a stretch to imagine him being a quality MLS starter. 

He comes to North America in midseason form, having played regularly for a 4th-place CSKA Sofia side over the past couple of months, helping the team push within 2 points of 2nd place, which would qualify them to the lower rounds of the Europa League. 

So while him being in midseason form brings both pros (fitness levels are high) and cons (fatigue is a genuine concern), that he comes to the ‘Caps fresh off regular minutes at a good level with a good team is positive. 

And it’s not like he’ll come to Vancouver with his legs already burnt to a crisp, either. Be it for injury (it was not disclosed), or another reason, he did not play between late October and the new year, only returning to the CSKA squad in February as the team resumed action after a winter break, so he is actually in a similar fitness situation as many of the ‘Caps. 

He may have only played 2 games this month, but he would have had to be in good fitness for his coach to reinsert him back into a team right in the midst of a top 2 push, and he did go the full 90 in both, which surely puts his fitness levels similar to some of his new teammates, who have so far played 6 preseason games, along with their 1 regular season clash.  

That bodes well for Dos Santos, who gets a player who is both fresh and in form, which reduces the adjustment period to his system, making a sooner introduction possible. It may be a bit of a stretch to imagine a start against the LA Galaxy this weekend, but he can definitely make the matchday squad, mostly depending on how his first week of training fares. 

If not, 12 days from now against Colorado does look like a legit possibility, giving him 2 weeks to catch up to speed tactically, which considering his fitness levels, is his biggest obstacle at the moment. Unlike someone like his fellow incoming midfielder, Leonard Owusu, whos visa situation robbed him of 5 weeks of game action, Bikel’s last game came on February 22nd, so he’s facing less of an uphill battle in terms of working on match readiness. 

Statistical profile

At this point, some may be wondering: ‘yeah he’s fit and in shape, but what can he bring to the ‘Caps?’

And that’s a very interesting question to try and answer, as upon first glance, he’s got quite an interesting profile, one that provides Dos Santos with a lot of options to tweak around with. 

Take a look at his highlight reel, which you can find below. It’s hard to take much away from these kinds of videos, as they only show off 1 minute of his brightest moments, which considering he’s played upwards of 1500 minutes so far this 2019-2020 season, doesn’t tell us much, but it does give you an idea about some of his best skills. 

It might not be the most flashy 60 seconds, but it does show two things: his willingness to get stuck in, and his ability to push the ball forward. For what he doesn’t have in panache, he seems to have in gumption and technical skills, both of which should help the ‘Caps midfield, who seemed overwhelmed at times this past weekend. 

Vancouver doesn’t lack for ball skills in the midfield, with Hwang In Beom’s passing range and dribbling ability among the best in the league, while Rusell Teibert’s passing ability is nothing to scoff at, either, but neither of them are true ball-hunting generals, which is where Bikel steps in.

With the ‘Caps struggling to close down space on their opposing midfielders on Saturday, sitting way too deep without the ball, it felt like they lacked a true midfield general at times, one that could set the tone defensively. The 2nd goal they conceded was a true microcosm of their overall problems, as they failed to close down space on a shot that Gadi Kinda probably should have never been able to get off, resulting in a highlight-reel goal. 

From his highlight clip, it doesn’t seem like Bikel is much of one to sit back and let the game come to him, which as seen on Saturday, is something the team needs in midfield. He might not have the 30-yard pass in his locker that Russell Teibert has, but with his bite and tenacity, he can offset that lack of highlight-reel pass with his defensive presence. 

And the stats back it up. Take a look at his 2019-2020 statistical radar with CSKA Sofia, courtesy of Peter Galindo of Sportsnet (all stats are per 90) 

Last year, he entered an absurd 8.1 defensive duels, winning an impressive 64.6% of them, while also making 8.3 recoveries, as he both got stuck into challenges, but also won the ball back relentlessly. 

He might have only made 0.73 tackles a game, but tackles can also often be a sign of being out of position, and suggested by his 3.74 interceptions, he’s more of someone that puts himself in the right places at the right time, allowing him to rack up duels, recoveries and interceptions.

For a Whitecaps side lacking a true #6, it suggests that Bikel could prove to be that guy, even despite Dos Santos also touting his right back ability. 

But a key to being a modern #6 isn’t all about defending, but how you transition the ball forward, which Bikel is surprisingly good at. He played 77% of his passes forward, averaging just under 8 progressive passes and passes to the final third per game, which considering he only played 3.78 long passes per game, shows his strengths at transitioning the ball forward both in a hurry and on the ground. 

With an 86% passing percentage on around 40 passes per game, he does fit the mould of a #6 that can both break up attacks and push the ball forward, appearing to give the ‘Caps their “destroy and progress” midfielder that they have coveted all offseason.

As for how he’d fare out at right back, he does successfully dribble the ball 2.17 times per game, but only completes 1.01 crosses per game (61.5% rate), and only had 0.02 expected Assists/90, with him looking like more of an inverted passing full back. 

With the ‘Caps wingers being quite fluid, him playing full back would likely see him underlapping and tucking into midfield more often, which does fit with how Nerwinski attacked on Saturday, with Bikel bringing more of a presence defensively than the American. 

But overall, his best position does appear to be at the #6, with the stats and video seeming to back up the claim. Dropping him at the #6 not only gives the ‘Caps a ball-winner in the middle of the park, but it also frees up full backs Nerwinski and Ali Adnan to push forward more, giving them more juice both on the flanks and in the middle of the park.

Fit in squad

The ‘Caps ahead of opening kick off on Saturday (Keveren Guillou)

Yet at the same time, if he does look to be an ideal #6 candidate, will we actually see him play there? With Dos Santos saying in the club statement that: “Tactically, Janio gives us the ability to play him in a couple of different positions,” before Sporting Director Axel Schuster later added that: “He can play centrally in the midfield and recently he has played right back.”, will we see Bikel more out wide than in the middle?

But that will depend on how Bikel slots in alongside the current players and new arrivals, which will influence how Dos Santos sees his squad lines up. The current set-up, a 4-2-3-1, likely sacrifices one of Bikel, In Beom and Owusu, which could, in turn, see Bikel pushed wide, but if the team switches to a 4-3-3, a pivot of the three all of a sudden becomes possible. 

That will be the hardest part for Dos Santos to play around with. Switching to the 4-3-3 does likely remove one of Yordy Reyna, David Milinkovic and Cristian Dajome from the starting 11, which hurts considering how good they’ve all been so far, but it also gives them more solidity in the middle of the park, which could prove to be the better trade-off. 

We could also see the team stick with the 4-2-3-1, keeping on all of their attackers, while slotting Bikel into a hybrid right-back/midfielder role, or we could even see the team switch to a back 3, which could give the team more overall balance. 

There’s no easy answer to the question of how everyone all fits in now, but it shows off some of the depth that the ‘Caps will have, which after their opening day loss, will be a nice change to have. 

Dos Santos will have the team at his fingertips, able to move them around as he sees fit, giving him a chance to both maximize his system with the players, while also maximizing his players with the system.

“We’re waiting on guys that are going to start training with the team as of tomorrow, like [Janio] Bikel and [Leonard] Owusu, and we’re still waiting on Ranko [Veselinović],” Dos Santos said on Saturday. “And that couple (may) make us shift and try to maximize more when we have everybody here.”

Looking Forward

Bikel starts training this week, so it’ll be interesting to keep an eye on him for the next little while, as he looks to get up to speed with his new teammates. Along with Owusu, who started training last week, and Veselinovic, who is expected sometime this week, it should give the team a nice boost, helping them put a tough start to the season behind them. 

It wasn’t ideal the way they started, no doubt, especially considering their play in the preseason, but it was a good gut check, one that should push them forward, starting with their next match. SKC may have exposed their flaws, but the ‘Caps have some incoming players that appear able to help fix them, starting with the likes of Bikel and Owusu. 

They might have not come as early as most would have liked, but they’re here now, so it’ll be interesting to see how they fare in the next couple of weeks. As we saw here, they might have something on their hands here with Bikel, who brings all of the abilities of a modern #6 to a team that so badly craved one.

As they look to avoid sinking too far down into the 2020 MLS season, he may just prove to be the life preserver that the midfield needs, giving them a defensive presence that has lacked since the days of Matias Laba. 

Will he turn out as good as the fan-favourite Argentine? It’s way too early to tell, but at least there’s some smoke here, which hopefully for the ‘Caps, turns out to be a solid fire. 

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