Depth-Tested: Marc Dos Santos stresses value of tactics, work rate for shorthanded Whitecaps

Ahead of the Vancouver Whitecaps first game down in Orlando, head coach Marc Dos Santos took the time to speak about his team’s approach to the tournament. Here is what he had to say, as he and the ‘Caps expect to use their energy, tactical discipline and solid (if not a bit thin) roster to their advantage in Group B of MLS is Back. 

As they get set to kick off their MLS is Back tournament down in Orlando, the Vancouver Whitecaps still have a few tactical questions to answer. 

With their playing roster for this competition stretched thin, as several key players ended up staying back home in Vancouver for various reasons, the ‘Caps will have to get creative when it comes to trying and getting the best possible results out of this tournament. 

But at the same time, this tournament can provide an opportunity, especially to some players who might not have been otherwise considered. Thanks to their smaller playing squad, consisting of only 23 players, along with the MLS’s addition of the 5 substitutions rule that has recently debuted in European leagues rather successfully, the Whitecaps are expected to let some new faces see the field at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando. 

There are still some familiar names on these ‘Caps, with most of the squad making the trek down, but without forwards Lucas Cavallini (personal), Tosaint Ricketts (health concern) and Fredy Montero (personal), along with midfielder Andy Rose (personal) and Georges Mukumbilwa (visa issues), this Vancouver squad won’t be as bustling as head coach Marc Dos Santos would have hoped. 

That hopefully shouldn’t present a problem, however, at least when looking around at the other teams in MLS. Vancouver is far from being the only team who’s roster is stretched thin, as many other teams have seen their squad depth tested as the result of health concerns, personal absences and injuries. 

By being the only club to actually release a roster ahead of the tournament, and actually revealing and showing support for its players that are staying home both voluntarily and involuntarily, the team’s situation has certainly been a topic of conversation, for a multitude of reasons. 

While there is no doubt that the missing players will leave a big hole in the team, especially up front, if there is one thing that this team is expecting, is that their depth should play a big role. 

After seeing their team struggle for quality depth last season, they stepped up big in the offseason, acquiring several players that should shore up that problem massively. 

“Look, I’m not going to hide that I’m very disappointed not to be here with everyone,” Dos Santos made sure to stress on a conference call this past Friday. “And it’s just ironic that a lot of them (who stayed) are from attacking positions, so I still think that in the other spots, we have a lot of solutions, and we’re going to be good.”

“The question is always, okay, in the attacking third, how is it going to look for solutions, and how is it going to look when we get into the final third, where are the goals going to come from? So these are all things that we’re evaluating and figuring out.”

If anything, the criticism about this team this year has been more about star power and less about depth, a theory that will certainly be tested without someone like Cavallini, the club-record signing that was brought to Vancouver to score goals and lead the line for the ‘Caps. 

The big problem, however, won’t be that Cavallini will be missing, but that Montero and Ricketts have joined him on the sideline, leaving the club without the players that are arguably their 3 best striker options. 

After starting the year with a 4-4-2, the ‘Caps have just gone from having too many strikers to not having enough, which will force a change of plans. 

That’s not a bad thing, though, as the ‘Caps do still have some intriguing pieces to look at down in Orlando. From the continued integration of Hwang In Beom, Janio Bikel and Leonard Owusu together in the midfield, to the well-known prowess of Ali Adnan from out at left back, along with the presence of David Milinkovic and Cristian Dajome on the wings, the ‘Caps do have some solid offensive pieces to depend on. 

But when it comes to who can actually lead the line, that’s where things get interesting. 

Theo Bair can play up front, as he did quite admirably in spot duty last summer, but he’s best used as a right winger, where he’s expected to get most of his minutes. He’ll still get a look up top in what is looking likely to now be a 4-3-3, though, as he can definitely still make a big impact there for the ‘Caps, even if it’s not his preferred position.

“There’s a 100% chance that Theo can be used also in a central role, but Theo needs to grow in his link-up play,” Dos Santos explained, when asked about Bair’s role in Orlando. “We talk about it a lot to him, about when he’s in central areas and gets the ball, the #9 has a lot of that role, linking with the midfield. Right now, the thing he does the best is attacking and exploiting the space behind the opponents. When he does it from wide areas, he’s more aggressive and more dangerous, but right now, what you guys can expect from Theo is that we will use him in any of the three positions up top.”

“Unfortunately, right now we’re going to have to get away from the type of 442 that we were playing, we have to address things and adjust things tactically in a bit of a different way also because of the heat, and manage very well our references of pressure, of when and how we do (that), and Theo is going to be a player that’s going to be needed, but probably, you’ll see him more towards the right, or centrally.”

Bair won’t be Dos Santos’s only option, however, because if you look down the roster, Yordy Reyna is also an option, having had some excellent stints as a #9 in games against LAFC and the Philadephia Union last season, but he’s more of a hybrid striker, instead of your typical out-and-out #9. 

He might not be as much as a presence as Bair, but his fluidity is a big reason why Dos Santos has played him up top before, as he often interchanges play with his wingers.

As a result, he’s likely expected to start the first game, with Bair the likely option to deputize him some time in the 2nd half, as they both audition for a role in the team. 

“With Yordy, it’s all about consistency,” Dos Santos said. “Yordy, at his best, he can bring a lot to the team. And I spoke to him about the referenced games that I have, like the game where he played as a false #9, if you want to call it (that), because that’s what we’re going to have to use. The #9 we play with won’t be a real #9 because they all stayed home.”

“So we have to use a false #9 to have him at the best of his abilities, referenced games are games last year like LAFC at home, the game he played against Brazil in LA for Peru last year, we showed him clips to say, why is that good, and why he did that. The problem has, that he struggles with as a player, is inconsistency. He can do it very well, but then he disappears and then he comes back again. But we hope we can get from him what he showed against LAFC last year, against Brazil last year.”

Attacking full back, Ali Adnan, is going to play a big role for the ‘Caps down in Orlando (Keveren Guillou)

Either way, there’s no bad choice for Dos Santos to lean on. Bair, who we recently had the chance to speak to, is eager to continue to showcase himself after a strong debut campaign, while Reyna is arguably the ‘Caps biggest wild card, the sort of player that can truly game on his head when he’s on. 

But at the very least, expect both of them to get a good look up top. Due to the heat down in Orlando, you’d have to expect Dos Santos to use his full disposition of substitutes now allowed to him, as having that energy off of the pitch could prove to be useful late on in games. 

As we’ve seen already in this tournament, depth is crucial, so using those reinforcements that the club worked so hard to build up this offseason is going to be important. Even despite the absences, the team is going to need to rely on its full allotment of 23 players in order to grind out results. 

Tactically, the team is also going to have to be very disciplined as well, if they expect to get full use of their roster against other teams. Especially now, when they might not be the most star-studded team, they’ll have to live up to their reputation of team that will work hard, which will be key in helping to implement Dos Santos’s strategies in each game they play. 

Already, we know that they’re going to press high, hence the likely need for 5 substitutes, and we know that that they’ll want to be fluid in attack, with their midfielders playing a big part in setting the tempo of play, while the forwards have full permission to push high and wreak havoc. 

And at the very least, most of the team’s defensive and midfield spine is in Orlando, which considering the importance those two positions have on the team’s capacity to build up and score goals, is going to be important. 

They may be missing players up front, but if they can still set the tone and press from the top, while also finding a way to generate enough chances as a team, the recipe is there to be an annoying snatch and grab team, one that might steal headlines, but one that can grind out results, even despite the heat. 

“We have a good idea of what our first lineup could look like,” Dos Santos said of his approach. “What I think is, we can get away from being the type of aggressive team that we want to be, but I don’t want us to get away from that. We have a lot of dynamic players that like to push forward and press and get high up on the field.”

“But being here and noticing what happens in training and also how difficult it is because of the humidity, we’re going to have to be smart on when we’re going to press and what are those references to do it. Because, if we want to go all-in during the full 90 minutes, well you’ll start seeing our team being very stretched in allowing a lot of space to the opponent. And we have to balance that very well.”

It won’t be pretty, but so far in Orlando, not a lot has been so far, as most teams have relied on moments of brilliance to etch out the points they desire. 

So if the ‘Caps can use their energy, tactical discipline and full set of guys, they’re hoping that they can get off to a flying start, and overcome the tough conditions that Orlando has to offer. 

“I think we’ve already seen that in some games,” Dos Santos said of the tough conditions. “If you guys looked at the last 15 minutes of Montreal vs New England, it was stretched and it’s normal, because no player is at their best right now.”

“Nobody is at their peak of fitness and match level, and then the temperature here doesn’t allow you to play in a certain way for 90 minutes, or it allows you to do it, but then the backlash is (that) it’s gonna break your team a lot.”

Up next: Vancouver Whitecaps FC vs San Jose Earthquakes, Wednesday, July 15th, 2020, 18:00 PST/21:00 EST 

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