Welcome to the first edition of AGR’s analysis! In this series, Alexandre Gangue-Ruzic dives into some game film to help break down some tactical situations that stand out to him from the Vancouver Whitecaps, the Canadian National Teams and more. Today, he dives into Michael Baldisimo’s role in the Vancouver Whitecaps offence through the first two games of the 2021 MLS season.
Ever since he’s gotten into the lineup, it’s been hard to take him out.
He may have only made his MLS debut in August of 2020, and he might have only just turned 21-years-old, but Michael Baldisimo has quickly become indispensable on this Vancouver Whitecaps team as of late, thanks to his rising profile as an impactful midfielder.
For head coach Marc Dos Santos, it’s given him a midfielder that can serve as a two-way lynchpin, offering a unique mix of passing, physicality and tackling. On a team that could use all of those things in abundance through the middle of the park, Baldisimo’s been everything Dos Santos has needed, and then some, carving out a regular spot in his squad because of that.
As a result, the ‘Caps now have a record of 6W-8L-1D (19 PTS, 1.26 Points Per Game) in the 15 games in which Baldisimo has featured since the start of 2020, which isn’t all that bad considering that the ‘Caps have a record of 4W-6L-0D (12 PTS, 1.2 PPG) in the 10 games that they’ve played without him over that span.
Especially when you factor in the fact that Baldisimo only really burst onto the scene in very specific circumstances, as he was thrust into a starting spot for a game in Montreal after the ‘Caps faced a rash of injuries and absences in midfield after the MLS is Back tournament in Orlando, those numbers are pretty impressive.
Having not gotten any minutes down in Orlando, where the ‘Caps were severely shorthanded, Baldisimo wasn’t expected to get many minutes in the stretch run afterwards, so that Montreal game proved to be a big stroke of fortune for both he and Dos Santos.
Looking back at that, it’s something that Dos Santos is thankful for, as his lone regret was that he didn’t throw his young Burnaby-born midfielder into the fire any sooner.
“I think Baldi(simo), since last year, he’s grown a lot,” Dos Santos told reporters on Wednesday. “I have one regret with Baldi(simo), it’s that I should have played him more in Orlando in MLS is Back Tournament, that’s the only regret that I have with Baldi(simo). But then after Orlando, when he started to come in and play, he started growing with every game.”
Returning to the present, however, it’s been fascinating to see how Dos Santos has moulded Baldisimo’s role in this Whitecaps team, as he’s quickly become a vital lynchpin in their quest to be a team that builds out of the back and generates chances from possession.
As a result, it’s not only made him invaluable for the ‘Caps coach, but has also put him on the Canadian National Team radar, giving them yet another good option in a deep midfield pool.
Here’s a deeper look at what Baldisimo’s offensive role has grown into, using video from the ‘Caps last match, a 2-2 draw with Toronto FC from the weekend, in the first edition of ‘AGR’s Analysis’, a series that dives into all things tactics.
To start things off, it’s important to start with a look at where Baldisimo was deployed against Toronto, as he had a few different roles over the course of the 86 minutes that he played against the ‘Caps Canadian rivals.
When his team didn’t have the ball, he played as one of the two central midfielders in Dos Santos’s 4-4-2, combining with fellow midfielder Janio Bikel in a double-pivot.
With the ball, however, he played as a true deep-lying playmaker, often sliding back between the ‘Caps centre backs in possession, jumpstarting a lot of attacks with his sharp passing ability.
And it’s that work on the ball that we’re looking to highlight in this piece, as his passing range is such a big asset to this team, one that Dos Santos quickly complimented when talking about Baldisimo on Wednesday.
“He’s a midfielder that has a lot of range with his pass,” Dos Santos said. ‘He looks for the pass forward a lot.”
Diving into some of the game footage, it’s fascinating to see the sort of areas that Baldisimo likes to drift into, as well, allowing him to find that space that he requires in order to properly take advantage of his best asset.
As soon as the opportunity allowed for it, he dropped deep, and he was able to make things happen from there, jump-starting some good attacks with a solid first pass, such as the one in the clip below.
It may not be the most complex of actions, but it allows him to get into the space that he thrives in, allowing him to play as an offensive quarterback of sorts.
Here’s another example of that, as he immediately drifted back when the ‘Caps started to build up from the back, slotting comfortably into a position between centre backs Andy Rose and Ranko Veselinovic, helping the ‘Caps push forward from there.
He might have not gotten the ball back after passing it to Veselinovic in that sequence, but that sort of move still helped his team, as he also sucked in Toronto’s Nick DeLeon in with him a few seconds later, which opened up space elsewhere on the field for when the ‘Caps did push forward.
And there was a lot of that from Toronto, as they rightfully paid close attention to Baldisimo, especially after he was allowed to roam freely the week prior against Portland, where he made 55 successful passes at an 87.3% clip, including 8/9 successful long balls.
Despite that, Baldisimo showed his impressive maturity for a youngster, as he still made 50 passes at a 90% clip against TFC, along with 7/8 long balls, showing his ability to adapt to other team’s game-planning for him.
Whenever he had a man on him, he didn’t let it frustrate him, instead choosing to suck that player out of the play whenever possible, as he smartly did with Toronto’s Patrick Mullins here.
And when he did find some space, he made sure to take advantage of it, as he did in the clip below, where he made a nice progressive pass to Russell Teibert after a goal kick.
Teibert was just unfortunately unable to pick out anyone in front of him, as no suitable passing options emerged for him, but the original pass to him was a sign of Baldisimo’s intent to play the ball forward whenever the opportunity presented itself.
And what’s fascinating about a lot of Baldisimo’s passes is that he knows that he doesn’t always have to go for the Hollywood pass, as he knows the value of a good short pass, one that can open up space and push the team forward.
Here’s another example of that.
In this clip, he waits an extra half-second longer before playing a pass to the left centre back, Rose, freezing the two Toronto forwards in the middle, allowing the ‘Caps to push forward into space.
But while a lot of his passes were smart, short balls like that one, that didn’t mean he wasn’t shy in playing a flashy progressive pass when the opportunity presented itself, either.
Here, he found himself in a similar situation as a lot of the other clips, but he sensed a gap right between the two Toronto frontmen, and he pounced, finding Teibert with a great ball in between the lines.
The ball may have been a bit too good, as Teibert almost seemed surprised that Baldisimo played that sort of ball, a ball that not many players have been able to play over Teibert’s lengthy tenure with the Whitecaps, but that just shows what Baldisimo has in his locker.
And to understand how good that last ball was, it’s important to note how much timing goes into a pass like that, as Veselinovic unfortunately learned earlier on in the game.
Returning to Baldisimo, though, we saw good things happen whenever he dropped deep, as he was able to do some damage offensively, both in terms of what he was able to do with open space, and what he was able to do in terms of opening up space for his teammates.
For a ‘Caps team that has struggled to hold possession and progress the ball in recent years, his ability to do both of those things so simply at such a high level continues to be impressive, especially considering that it’s been less than a calendar year since he made his first-team ‘Caps debut.
He might steal a lot of attention with his flashier passes (which we’ll see more of in a second), but some of the little things he does are so fascinating, as they’re a sign of his smart offensive IQ.
A positional shift?
And speaking of his offensive IQ, it was also interesting to see Baldisimo adapt to the pressure that Toronto put on him at the back on Saturday, as he adapted to that with a very simple shift.
Instead of always dropping back in between the centre backs, he sometimes swapped with Rose at left centre back, operating as the left-sided central defender in possession. By doing that, it confused the Toronto press, which mostly seemed to apply their pressure through the middle, mostly by design to stop Baldisimo.
When asked about it, Dos Santos elected to remain coy on the tactic, but he did confirm that it was a change in reaction to something with Toronto’s press, which makes a lot of sense.
“I don’t want to tell you why he does that,” Dos Santos said of the tactic on Wednesday. “Because I shouldn’t, but there’s a reason why he does it.”
And when rewatching the film, it did actually make a fair bit of sense, even despite the broadcast’s obvious distaste with Baldisimo’s positional shift.
As soon as Baldisimo went out to the left, Toronto initially didn’t react to it quickly enough, giving him way more space than before, and he punished them for it.
Just look at this fantastic line-breaking, progressive pass from him when he realized that Toronto had forgotten to press him in this sequence.
And that wasn’t the only time he did that on Saturday, either.
Obviously, Toronto reacted to that change by putting more pressure on the right wing, but that didn’t stop Baldisimo from dishing out his passes, as he continued to play some pretty good long balls.
This next clip was the best example of that, as he reacted nicely to a bit of pressure from the Toronto right winger, and smartly delivered a dime over the top of him for Teibert to chase in behind, which forced a pretty aggressive foul from Omar Gonzalez, who quickly realized he was in trouble.
That free-kick also proved to be a pretty big moment, as the ‘Caps scored their second goal of the game on that ensuing set-piece, continuing their strong start in that area of their game to start 2021.
Suffice to say, Baldisimo didn’t mind being a bit of a ghost when needed, before popping up in space to deliver that killer pass.
Just look at this next clip, as another example of that.
In this case, he ended up on the right side instead of the left, but despite being surrounded by 4 players, he played a fantastic line-breaking pass, one that unlocked a good Whitecaps counter.
How many ‘Caps have been able to play a pass like that over their time in MLS?
Not many, and credit to Baldisimo for not only knowing how to make plays like that, but knowing to shift into different areas that allow him to make those balls, even when his opponents are cued into what he can do and are actively trying to stop him.
Teammates also play a role:
But while it’s good that Baldisimo is able to do all of that, the key for the ‘Caps is not to over-rely on him to jumpstart their offence, because although he could probably do it, it’s important to note that A) he’s still young, and B) the best offence flows through a team, not an individual.
And luckily for the ‘Caps, it appears that they’ve now got a few players in the midfield that can help ease Baldisimo’s load offensively, which can only be good for both Baldisimo and the ‘Caps as a whole.
First, we’ve got Bikel, who usually does a lot of the dirty work in midfield, but has shown to be capable of picking out a pass.
Considering that his main job is to destroy attackers, you don’t need to rely on him to generate the team’s offence, but it’s good to know that he has this in his locker when the opportunity does present itself.
And elsewhere, new signing Caio Alexandre also showed off a pretty impressive passing range in his MLS debut off of the bench against TFC, which was also good to see, as he has the reputation of being a pretty good passer of the ball himself.
Considering that we haven’t even mentioned one of the best ‘Caps passers in midfield, Leonard Owusu, who is working back from an injury, and it’s clear to see that this may be one of the best ‘Caps midfield groups that we’ve seen in terms of passing ability in their MLS era, with Baldisimo leading the way in that regard.
Considering their struggles at progressing the ball forward in recent years, it’s nice to see, and hopefully this helps the ‘Caps do more damage when they have the ball in possession now, knowing that they’ve got a few players who have an eye for a killer pass.
Now, it’s going to be interesting to see the continued evolution and growth of Baldisimo in this role going forward, as he’s quickly made himself a key piece for Dos Santos to lean upon offensively.
He’s still got a lot to work on, especially on the defensive end, but seeing what he’s shown so far in his young MLS career, you’d expect those to be ironed out with time.
Plus, when you look at what he’s able to do with a ball, the ‘Caps can afford to be patient with his development as a professional, one that continues every day, according to Dos Santos.
For a ‘Caps team that has looked far and wide for attacking solutions, it’s been nice to see a homegrown midfielder from Burnaby step up and be a part of that process, and hopefully this is just the start of what’s to come from him in a Whitecap (and Canadian) shirt in 2021.
“There’s still things he needs to be better with,” Dos Santos admitted. “His transition to defence, how he reacts after the possession, and dealing with one v one situations, Baldi(simo) could grow a lot with that, and that’s what we’re trying to work with him more.”
“But I would tell you that he’s in the right direction as a player, and he has potential to grow even more.”
Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs Colorado Rapids, Sunday, May 2nd, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)