Fluid Formation: Analyzing the ‘Vancouver Whitecaps staggered 4-4-2 and how Marc Dos Santos might look to tweak it going forward

With the 2021 Vancouver Whitecaps season just around the corner, we dive into the team’s tactics ahead of first kick, looking at ways that their fluid 4-4-2 might look in game action. 

Heading into the start of a new season, they finally appear to have a tactical identity. 

After tinkering with several different formations in 2020, the Vancouver Whitecaps look to have settled on a set-up that they’ll hopefully stick with throughout 2021, allowing their players to find a bit of comfort and familiarity in said set-up. 

In 2020, Whitecaps head coach Marc Dos Santos often assumed the role of ‘tinkerman’, using over a half-dozen different tactical set-ups in only 23 games, often confusing the fans (and sometimes even the players) with the different formations that he trotted out. 

While that was mostly due to circumstances brought about by the pandemic, which forced him to continuously adapt to the changing nature of his squad, those constant changes certainly didn’t aid the state of flux in the squad, only adding to the confusion. 

But to give credit to Dos Santos, he did eventually find a preferred set-up by the end of the season, using a 4-4-2 in 9 of the team’s last 10 games. That stability seemed to help his team, as they won 4 of those 9 games, which was an improvement considering they only won 5 times in the 14 other games they played in 2020. 

They may have only scored 10 goals in those 9 games (1.11 goals per game), but they only conceded 14 over that time span (1.55 goals per game), which doesn’t sound too great, but considering that they only scored 17 goals in their 14 other games (1.2 goals per game), conceding 30 (2.14 goals per game), it was seen as progress. 

Their offence may have slightly slipped up, but their defence improved significantly, making for improved results as a whole. It wasn’t good, as they’d be hard-pressed to make the playoffs only scoring 1.11 goals and conceding 1.55 goals per game, but it was progress nonetheless. 

More importantly, however, was the improvements they made in the advanced stats department, as their underlying metrics were actually better than what the actual results suggested. In those 9 games, they had 10.67 Expected Goals (xG) for (1.18 xG per game) offensively, and 12.18 xG against (1.35 xG per game), which were both better than their actual output, showing that their improvement was slightly better than it actually seemed. 

Compared to those other 14 games, where they had 14.46 xG for (1.03 xG per game), and 27.47 xG against (1.9 xG per game), it was a pretty big improvement, though, especially on the defensive end of things. 

So to see Dos Santos so far stick with a similar iteration of that 4-4-2 heading into the start of the 2021 season is good news, as it should help the ‘Caps be a much more competitive outfit than the one they were in 2020, at least in theory, that is. 

There are tweaks to be made to the system, especially offensively, but there appears to be a solid framework in place now, and with the ‘Caps bringing back a big chunk of their 2020 roster, that should theoretically allow them to take a step forward this year. 

And as seen in the ‘Caps lone televised exhibition games, a doubleheader versus the Chicago Fire and Indy Eleven last Saturday, Dos Santos has already started to work on those tweaks, which will be hoped can help fix those problems. 

Seeing that they beat the Fire 3-2, clearly, something worked, and although they lost to Indy in the second game, they went with a team whose average age was probably below the drinking age in the US, so it wasn’t a direct indication of the tactics used. 

Here are some of the tweaks that we saw in that game, as well as some other tweaks Dos Santos may implement to get the most out of his system, helping get a better idea of what the ‘Caps will look like to start this season.

Defence: The 4-4-2

And first, when looking at the 4-4-2, it’s worth noting that it’s actually the team’s defensive set-up, as they’re actually pretty flexible in the attack. 

To get a better idea of what the defensive set-up looks like, however, here’s the lineup that they started with versus the Fire. 

Without the ball, the ‘Caps would sit with two compact banks of 4 that would move based on where the opponents held possession, while the two frontmen, which in this case were Cristian Dajome and Lucas Cavallini, would press high up the pitch.  

The high-press worked nearly to a tee, helping the ‘Caps score 2 goals, and considering that they only allowed one open-play goal, the overall defensive set-up mostly did its job. 

There were a few shaky moments, especially on Chicago’s one open-play goal, as the ‘Caps sat back a little too deep after having gone up 3-1, but that could also be down to a mixture of rust and fatigue. 

What’s fascinating about this set-up is how staggered it is, as well, especially for Dajome and Russell Teibert, who are deployed slightly outside of their usual positions, but there’s a reason for that. 

For Dajome, it’s to help Cavallini press, as they’re probably the best two ‘Caps pressers at the moment, allowing them to heap tons of pressure onto opposing defenders. 

As for Teibert, however, it’s to offer a bit of a shield for the left back, who is usually Ali Adnan, who can sometimes get easily overloaded defensively. Cristian Gutierrez tends to not suffer from that problem as much, but he actually benefited from Teibert’s help against the Fire, as well, showing off the importance of his role. 

It’s worth noting that if the ‘Caps choose to swap in someone else for Teibert (which will likely be the case eventually), depending on who it is, that player could also press up top with Cavallini, allowing Dajome to operate as a winger defensively, so it’s not a completely rigid set-up. Caio Alexandre could fill that role, as he appears to be a pretty mobile player, but it’s yet to be seen how his pressing ability is. 

There is room for change within this defensive set-up, as one (or both) of the wingers are sometimes allowed to push forward and turn it into a 4-2-4 or 4-3-3, depending on how their opponents are doing in their build-up play, which would also benefit someone like Dajome if he was dropped back into that role. 

Other than that, it’s a pretty simple set-up, but one that has helped the ‘Caps settle their leaky defence, making it the focal point of the system. This was a big reason why Dos Santos stuck with this set-up, and considering the results we’ve seen, he’s so far appeared rather justified in that decision. 

Other than the team’s penchant for dropping back too deep defensively, there aren’t too many issues with the set-up, as well, which is why the ‘Caps have stuck with it for a while now. 

Offence: The 4-3-3/3-4-3

Moving to the offence is where things get interesting, though, as the ‘Caps are a lot more flexible in their attacking positioning than they are at the other end of the pitch. 

They essentially play what can be a 4-3-3, 3-4-3 or even a 3-5-2, mostly depending on where certain players are on the pitch at any given time. 

Here’s what that looked like on Saturday, with the arrows representing the sort of areas some players tended to occupy versus Chicago. 

As seen here, the full backs were very active, giving the ‘Caps plenty of width, while Janio Bikel often dropped back when that happened, giving the ‘Caps 3 at the back. Russell Teibert would cut inside and operate as more of a midfielder, while Deiber Caicedo would join the attack, putting another body alongside Dajome and Cavallini. 

While the idea is a good one, the ‘Caps often looked a bit discombobulated in attack versus the Fire, sometimes finding themselves a bit overloaded in certain areas. That could be chalked up to a mixture of preseason rust and fatigue, but it wasn’t as fluid as hoped, which is the name of the game with an offensive formation like this. 

And to be fair, they’re missing two of the most important catalysts in this set-up, which are Ali Adnan and Bruno Gaspar. 

Last year, Ali Adnan was often allowed to run rampant, and there’s a big reason for that, as he was one of the best attacking full backs in the league in 2020.

Gaspar is a bit more of an unknown at the MLS level, coming to the ‘Caps as one of their new arrivals, but considering that he has a similar market value to Adnan, he is expected to offer up a similar impact

Adnan’s the reason why the ‘Caps originally put Teibert in that left midfield spot, and with Gaspar appearing to be more of a solid defender than him, that’ll likely stay the same until someone swaps in for Teibert, which would probably be for Alexandre or Baldisimo*. 

(*With the ‘Caps essentially deploying a 4-3-3, it’s important to picture most swaps from the Chicago game with the below formation in mind, as the imbalanced 4-4-2 that Dos Santos puts out on paper is only really for when his team doesn’t have the ball.)

But returning to the original 3-4-3, that’ll benefit Adnan and Gaspar due to Caicedo and Dajome liking to operate centrally, giving room for the full backs to overlap down the flanks, allowing them to cross to Cavallini, who tends to score most of his goals off of wide balls into the box. 

As for the midfield, it does put a lot of onus on whoever the two central midfielders are, something that Alexandre will be key for, but it’ll be hoped that the active full backs also offer support to that area of the pitch. 

Caicedo and Dajome will also have to help out if needed, with Caicedo seeming to play a bit deeper to help out in that area, showing that Dos Santos appears to be wary of that potential deficiency. 

All-in-all, there is work to be done before this attacking formation is as fluid as possible, but the framework is certainly there, and the continued integration of players such as Adnan, Gaspar and Alexandre, among others, will also make a big difference. 

Ali Adnan will be expected to play a big role in Dos Santos’s offensive set-up (Keveren Guillou)

Where does a #10 fit in?

Before finishing things off, however, it’s important to ask the question — where does a #10 fit into all of this?

After a flurry of rumours surrounding their pursuit of one in the offseason, things have quieted on that front, but the ‘Caps continue to chase names, with the hope being that they bring someone in by the end of MLS’s transfer window in 2 months. 

And when that player comes in, they’ll have to play a big role in this set-up, both defensively and offensively. 

Starting with the defence, that’ll depend on what type of player they are. If they’re more of a Jonathan Osorio-esque #10, meaning more of a mobile, second striker kind of #10, they’d probably pair up top with Cavallini in the 4-4-2, leaving Dajome to drop into a wider role. 

That’d probably look something like this: 

If they’re more of traditional #10, however, they’d probably just slot in out wide defensively, leaving Dajome to stick up front. 

Here’s what that might look like:

Offensively, however, is where things would get interesting. 

Considering they’d probably replace someone like a Teibert, they’d probably just play in midfield with Alexandre in possession, playing more of a deeper role in the ‘Caps offensive set-up. 

Another solution, though, would be to put the #10 for someone like Caicedo, while also playing 3 central midfielders. 

Defensively, he’d just fill in somewhere in the 4-4-2, but offensively that would allow them to play like this:

It’d be tough to leave out someone like Caicedo, but either way, someone good would have to sit out in both cases, be it Caicedo, Baldisimo or Leonard Owusu, so it’d just depend on what the ‘Caps are looking for both offensively and defensively. 

Without a #10 for now, though, this discussion is a bit redundant, but it’s interesting to see how that player could fit into the current ‘Caps system when they do come, as there’d certainly be a spot for them to shine. 

Looking Forward: 

But all-in-all, it was fascinating to see how the ‘Caps decided to set up versus the Fire, as well as how they plan to build off of the foundation they put down last year. 

Again, defensively there is plenty to like there, at least aside from a few tweaks, but offensively there is plenty of work to be done, but there’s certainly potential to make things work, #10 or not. 

Adnan and Gaspar are going to play a massive role in that, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how they fit into the picture, and aside from them, the flexibility of positioning that the midfield trio showed is also quite intriguing. 

So heading into the start of the season, it’ll now be interesting to see how Dos Santos tinkers with this, depending on both the opponent and the continued integration of new faces. 

Having found a bit of consistency, however, both in terms of roster and formation, he’ll hope that his team is able to start out strong this year, rewarding the brave souls who are betting on them to take a step forward in 2021. 

There’s still plenty of work to be done, but there’s certainly potential for good things to happen, with the next step being to turn that potential into results, starting next Sunday against the Portland Timbers. 

 Season Opener: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Portland Timbers, Sunday, April 18th, 2021, 19:00 PDT/22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)

Join the Conversation!