Departed Derek: Analyzing Derek Cornelius’s loan to Panetolikos and what it means for the Vancouver Whitecaps

The Vancouver Whitecaps officially loaned out 23-year-old centre back, Derek Cornelius, to Greek Super League side Panetolikos on Monday. Here is a look at what this move means for the ‘Caps. 

After an up-and-down tenure to date, they’ve elected to give him a fresh start. 

As has been reported over the last few days, the Vancouver Whitecaps have now officially loaned out 23-year-old centre back Derek Cornelius to Greek Super League side, Panetolikos, sending the Canadian Men’s National Team regular to Greece on a 1.5-year loan with an option to buy. 

“It is important for Derek to continue playing to progress in his career, and we worked closely with him and his representatives to find the best option,” Whitecaps CEO Axel Schuster said of the move in a statement. “This is a great opportunity for Derek to test himself in a very competitive league.”

Having arrived in Vancouver in January of 2019, Cornelius has spent over 2 and a half years with the club, playing 37 games over the course of his time spent on the West Coast. 

But with this move, this might spell the end of what has been a rollercoaster tenure for the young Canadian defender with the ‘Caps, one where he’s constantly been shuffled in and out of the starting lineup for spells. 

The door isn’t closed on his time in Vancouver, as with this move, the ‘Caps also extended his contract through 2022, with an option for the 2023 MLS season, meaning that should he not stick around in Greece at the end of his 1.5 years, they can bring him back into the fold, but who knows how realistic that would be when it comes down to it. 

If he plays well in Greece, Panetolikos and a few other clubs will certainly want to keep him, meaning that if he were to return to MLS, it’d be because something just didn’t work out on or off the field. 

For Cornelius, this move makes a lot of sense, however, as it’ll give him a chance to play in a really solid European league where a lot of eyeballs will be on his performances, putting him on other clubs radars, while enhancing his National Team prospects at the same time. 

Returning to Vancouver’s perspective, though, because of that, the question then has to be asked – does this move make sense for the Whitecaps? 

They certainly believe so, as head coach Marc Dos Santos has only played him 5 times in 2021, just one of those appearances coming as a starter, showing that they aren’t as high on Cornelius as they are some of their other centre backs right now. 

But on the other hand, are they fair in that assessment? As we saw last year, Cornelius had every reason to be considered in the discussion to be the ‘Caps 2nd best centre back, and it’s not as if he had much time to show off anything this year to suggest something to the contrary. 

Loaning out a 23-year-old domestic defender in a league where those kinds of players tend to make up the backbones of a lot of good teams, it’s certainly a curious move for a struggling ‘Caps team to want to make, which is why those initial rumours were so surprising.

Typically, signing a player from the Greek league would be seen as a positive move, making it strange that the ‘Caps might consider loaning one of their players there, but obviously, a fresh start was needed for all parties. 

So with all of that in mind, here is what Panetolikos should expect to get out of Cornelius on this loan, as well as where this leaves the ‘Caps going forward.

Cornelius leaves a hole behind:

And to start, Cornelius certainly will leave a hole in the ‘Caps defence, despite his lack of minutes as of late. 

Just in terms of physical tools, he’s the lone ‘Caps left-footed centre back, and is one of the better ‘Caps defenders in the air, both offensively and defensively. 

Statistically, too, he showed to be a pretty solid performer, which having played on a ‘Caps team that has been one of the worst in MLS since his arrival in 2019, reflects pretty well on him. 

First, just to get an idea of how he compares to some of his MLS peers, here is his statistical percentile chart from Football Reference, which takes a player’s stats on a per-90 basis from the last 365 days (minimum of 450 minutes played), and compares them to everyone else in MLS at their position. 

As seen in Cornelius’s chart, there is a lot of green, which means that he’s in the higher percentiles for several key stats, many of them defensive ones. 

For example, he’s in the 93rd percentile in blocks, 87th percentile for clearances, 80th percentile for tackles and 62nd percentile for aerials won, showing that when it comes to defensive actions, he does a lot of them successfully. 

He also has decent value offensively, sitting in the 86th percentile for shots, and 73rd percentile for touches in the opposition’s box, demonstrating that he can be a two-way centre back that defends well, while also getting involved on offensive set-pieces. 

His ball progression does need work, which is backed up by the eye test, but if paired with a ball-playing centre back, that can easily be mitigated, making it less of a problem. 

Otherwise, SofaScore seems to back up that sort of analysis, as their radar generator, which also takes a player’s numbers and compares it against other players at that position, has Cornelius as an above-average defender and tackler, despite lagging a bit behind in the other stats.

Plus, as seen by his heatmap from the 2020 season, even though he was a bit more active in his own box than he possibly might have liked, he was quite involved in his team’s build-up play, which on a ‘Caps team that struggled in that department, was always good to see. 

Elsewhere, he had per-game averages of just over 1.2 tackles, 0.6 interceptions, 5 clearances and 1 block over his time in Vancouver, with his clearances and block rates being among some of the best in MLS over his 2.5 seasons. 

So ultimately, it’s clear that the ‘Caps are certainly losing a pretty solid centre back, one who could be an excellent complementary piece to someone like Erik Godoy. 

Unfortunately, though, he had some bad luck in his recent appearances, as dating back to 2020, he’s conceded 3 or more goals in 3 out of 4 of his last starts, which probably contributed to his lack of playing time as of late. 

Despite that, though, the fact that he put up solid numbers in both 2019 and 2020 show that some of those games where his team shipped goals weren’t necessarily down to his play. 

There’s obviously the question of how useful stats are to analyze centre backs, as it’s probably the hardest position to judge the impact of, given that most of the best centre backs don’t need to make defensive actions, but at the same time, if a centre back tends to complete the actions that he needs to, he tends to be doing something right. 

Again, all of this isn’t to say that Cornelius has played like an MLS all-star, or that the ‘Caps are drastically different with him in the lineup, but he certainly has what it takes to be a good #2 on this team, at least if the numbers have anything to say about it. 

Logistical questions:

And because of all of that, it makes his loan move all the more surprising. 

In a league where cheap domestic centre backs are king, getting rid of your second-cheapest centre back is a bit strange, especially when you’re already benching the 2nd-most expensive centre back in Ranko Veselinovic. 

For a team that was so stretched for international spots that they sent Jasser Khmiri on loan at the start of the year, it seems a bit strange to now send their best domestic centre back on loan, especially considering that he’s still just 23-years-old, and has played well despite being young for a centre back. 

At a position where players tend to peak later, he’s still nearly a half-decade away from what would be considered his peak, meaning that the best is still to come from him, as well. 

As he’s shown at times for Canada’s National Team, both for the senior team and at the youth level with the U20s and the U23s, he can be a very good defender on his day, so for a ‘Caps team who has currently conceded the 2nd-most goals in MLS this year with 22, it feels like they could use someone like Cornelius. 

But while the ‘Caps might come to rue this move in the long run, it’s worth noting that it is a fantastic opportunity for Cornelius. 

By heading to the 20th-ranked league in Europe by UEFA’s coefficient system, Cornelius will get to test himself every week by playing on a team that narrowly avoided relegation this year by away goals in a playoff. 

Obviously, it’d have been ideal to see him playing on Greek Giants, Olympiacos, for example, but for a defender, it’s never a bad thing to be on a team that might be expected to ship a lot of chances, as it could give him the reps that he needs after only making 3 starts since October of 2020. 

Having recently fallen off the Canadian National Team radar after being a locked-down starter in 2019, not even earning a call-up to any official senior camps this year at all, this should also reignite Canada’s head coach John Herdman’s interest in Cornelius, which comes at a perfect time for the defender with a heavy slate of World Cup qualifiers coming up for Canada in the fall.

So for Cornelius, this move will have him buzzing, as he looks to return to some of the form that he showed in 2019 and 2020 for the ‘Caps. 

Playing in a good European league and playing regularly for your National Team is the dream for most players, and this loan presents him with an opportunity to do just that. 

Where does this leave the ‘Caps?

Once again going back to the Whitecaps, however, from a technical standpoint, this move does give them a bit of roster flexibility, as it frees up another roster spot, giving them 3 open senior roster spots. 

Along with the termination of Ali Adnan’s contract last week, and David Egbo’s loan a while ago, they also now have 2 international spots open, giving them all sorts of space to make a move soon. 

With 1 DP and 1 Young DP spot open, along with 1 last Young Money spot that has yet to be filled, the ‘Caps can definitely make a splash ahead of the closing of MLS’s secondary transfer window on August 5th. 

While that DP spot (and one of those international spots) is expected to be filled by Scottish International Ryan Gauld, there are a lot of avenues that Vancouver can look to go to fill some of their other roster spots, too, meaning that the possibilities for new players are endless for Schuster and Director of Recruitment Nikos Overheul to imagine. 

Needing a depth centre back, some winger depth and another full back, the ‘Caps now have the flexibility to chase those sorts of players, either chasing a starting-calibre player with that Young Dp or Young Money spot, or just getting some cheap depth if no right deal comes around. 

Yes, it’s a bit strange to send out Cornelius on loan when they could’ve just kept him around to fill that depth role, but on the other hand, he needs to play, and if that isn’t going to happen in Vancouver, kudos to them for ensuring it happens elsewhere, giving him a chance to revive his National Team career. 

So at least now they can get a depth piece that fits lower down in the pecking order, freeing up the space to get that player, helping justify the move.  

Looking Forward:

So now, all that’s left to do is for the ‘Caps to start making those acquisitions, starting with their DP #10, hoped to be Gauld, filling up some of the space that they’ve freed up as of late. 

It’ll certainly be strange to see Cornelius in new colours, but he needed a move like this, so credit to the ‘Caps for making it happen. 

Could they use him? Probably, but at least the player isn’t in limbo anymore, giving him a chance for a fresh start. 

Unfortunately, he is just one of a few ‘Caps players that might need a similar loan or transfer to reignite their careers after a tough go of things as of late, but at least it shows that Vancouver is pursuing these sorts of deals for those players. 

For Cornelius’s sake, though, this move should be a good one, and Panetolikos should be happy with the player that they’re getting, as it could help give them what they need to stay in the top flight a little easier this time around. 

Up Next: Vancouver Whitecaps vs LA Galaxy, Saturday, July 17th, 2021, 19:00 PDT, 22:00 EDT (Rio Tinto Stadium, Sandy)

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