A little while back I tweeted this:
— Caleb Wilkins (@wilkins_caleb24) April 4, 2023
This prompted a lot of responses to the effect of “What? That can’t possibly be true.” Since I use the G+ model quite a bit, especially when talking about WFC2 players (I had this Manneh factoid on the brain because there is a WFC2 player with an eerily similar statistical profile) so I thought it might be good to explore it as it relates to the Whitecaps a little more in-depth. In this article, I will look at the 3 best Whitecaps players since 2013 (the year ASA started collecting data) and the 3 worst players according to the model. We will look at why the model likes those players so much and how we, as people capable of watching the games might interpret those numbers.
Firstly, a really quick and dirty explanation of what G+ is. ASA has a much more in-depth explanation that I would encourage you to read. But basically, G+ is a possession value model. It looks at a player’s on-the-ball actions, compares those actions to past actions, and tries to determine how those actions increase the likelihood that a player’s team will score. So if you do something good like dribble past the last defender to get through on goal you get a big positive score. Conversely, if you do something bad like allow yourself to be dribbled past by an opponent who is then through on goal then you get a big minus. Obviously, most actions will not have such an extreme and obvious impact but that is the gist. G+ is broken down into six categories of action which ASA defines thusly:
- Shooting: Shots
- Receiving: Receptions
- Passing: Passes
- Dribbling: Carries, Take-Ons, Miscontrols, Dispossessions
- Interrupting: Tackles, Interceptions, Blocks, Clearances, Recoveries, Contested Headers
- Fouling: Fouls Committed, Fouls Received
G+ is also scored relative to others in a player’s listed position (obviously a striker will have a lot more opportunity to receive the ball in the six-yard box than a centre-back will). Sometimes this leads to some weirdness if a player has a very different role than their position would usually entail.
We’re going to be looking at G+/96 minutes amongst players who played at least 1000 minutes so we only get players who played significant time for the ‘Caps. I am not separating seasons so we get an overview of their time in Vancouver. This way, you would hope, we will only get players who showed sustained greatness/crapness.
#1: Kei Kamara, +0.11/96
I have to confess, I slightly misremembered when I did my tweet about Manneh. Kei Kamara is actually slightly ahead of him. Kamara was only in Vancouver for one season but it was a good one, with 15 goals and 5 assists. Still, he seems a slightly odd candidate for the best Whitecap of the MLS era. I recall even at the time of this apparently legendary season, people were a bit split on him, so how could he be the greatest? Why does the model like him so much? Well, the answer is pretty clear when you look at the categories. Kamara generated a ton of G+ from receiving. Or, in other words, he was really good at receiving passes in high-danger scoring areas. If you need to refresh your memory on what that looks like, watch the clips below. Take particular note of where and in what situations Kamara is receiving these passes.
The model rates Kamara as pretty much an average player in every other area, which probably explains why there was at least some sentiment that the ‘Caps could do better. But he was such a receiving god that he still comes out as the best Whitecap according to the G+ model. Now, you are not a computer. You are a person and are therefore capable of evaluating these numbers in context. You might decide that you want a little bit more out of a striker than just receiving the ball in the box (although that is an incredibly valuable skill). A more nuanced and contextual analysis of things probably would not result in declaring Kei Kamara the greatest Whitecap of all time. But the model just looks at the numbers.
#2: Kekuta Manneh, +0.1/96
At #2 we come to the inspiration for this article. How can a player who never seemed to quite live up to his potential and who could be so frustrating possibly be the second-best Whitecap of the MLS era? Do you mean to tell me that Manneh was better than Ryan Gauld, Alphonso Davies, Pedro Morales, and Camilo?
Well, just like Kamara, Manneh benefited from being extremely impactful in one specific category. That category is dribbling. Even Manneh’s harshest critics will have to admit that Manneh was very good at carrying the ball into dangerous areas. Take a look at these highlights. Try not to think too much about if the ball goes in or not (though it does in these examples), just think about where Manneh starts and where he ends up.
Even in the highlights where Manneh isn’t going on a lengthy dribble, he is carrying it from an area where you are not particularly likely to score, to one where a goal is more likely. Now, did Manneh always make the correct decision in these dangerous positions? Did he always make the most of his chances? Obviously not. But, to quote the ASA boffins:
“G+ only looks at the likelihood of goals. It doesn’t give players any credit for actually scoring. So a striker will be rewarded for finding space to receive a pass in a good position and may earn some shot value for turning a possession into a shot on target, but that value won’t change depending on whether the goalkeeper saves the ball. This keeps the model from assigning too much importance to finishing, which statistically is almost random, and instead rewards actions that consistently lead to goals.”
G+ finds Manneh to be a pretty average player in all other regards but considers his dribbling to be so impactful that he rockets up to the top of the list of all-time Whitecaps. Also of note, Manneh isn’t being weighed down by any bad seasons in the data set. He was traded shortly after a serious injury changed the course of his career. But none of that decline was on display in Vancouver. This is a big reason he is higher on the list than someone like Pedro Morales, who was incredible at his peak but had been reduced to a shadow of his former self by injuries towards the end of his time in Vancouver.
Again, as a person capable of critical thinking, you probably would not consider Manneh the second-best Whitecap of all time. You know that there is more to the game than just dribbling. But I do think his time in Vancouver is a little bit underappreciated, simply because people could only see what he was not rather than what he was.
#3: Alphonso Davies, +0.09/96
This one probably does not need much explanation as Davies is one of the most obvious candidates for the greatest Whitecap of all time. So instead I’m going to focus on why, according to G+, he isn’t the best. First and foremost, Davies is being weighed down by his age 15 and age 16 seasons. Remember, it took Davies a while to find his feet in MLS before he took the league by storm in 2018. I recall some people saying the Whitecaps would be lucky to get a couple of million for him. Now, as an intelligent observer, you can see that the fact that a player is even taking the field in MLS as a 15 or 16-year-old is incredible. To even be able to tread water against grown men of that level at such a young age is a sign of a special talent. But the G+ model does not know that bit of context. So it rates Davies as a below-average winger in 2016 and 2017. Incidentally, Davies’ 2018 season is rated as the single greatest season by an outfield Whitecaps player since 2013.
Another factor weighing Davies down is that he played multiple positions. He played the majority of his minutes as a winger, so he is getting compared to other wingers by G+. But we know that he also played a significant number of minutes as a left-back. He therefore would have had less opportunity to receive the ball in dangerous areas than someone who lined up as a winger during those minutes. Receiving is, unsurprisingly, tied for his worst category. Passing is another category where the model considers Davies a little below average. Even in his breakout season, he wasn’t really the sort of player that was splitting defences open and before that he definitely had some trouble with decision-making in the final 3rd. So that all seemingly checks out.
Quick Note on G+’s Usefulness
In the above sections, we talked a lot about some of G+’s limitations. It is, of course, important to pair statistical analysis of players with qualitative analysis. We have talked at great length about some of the ways in which qualitative analysis might have provided a more accurate overall picture of a player’s level. So why take this model so seriously? Well, here is Vancouver’s top 10 since 2013 according to the model:
- Kei Kamara
- Kekuta Manneh
- Alphonso Davies
- Julian Gressel
- Ryan Gauld
- Kendall Waston
- Ali Adnan
- Erik Godoy
- 4 way tie: Pedro Morales, Yordy Reyna, Octavio Rivero, Sebastian Berhalter
You might quibble with the order, or argue the case of another player here or there. But that really is an impressively accurate list for something that is just a bunch of math. Obviously, you need to include context and qualitative analysis to get a full view of a player. But G+ is clearly useful for identifying players that are good.
Now, for a bit of fun, let’s take a look at the Hall of Shame. I will say in defence of the players we are looking at here, this data only includes players who logged at least 1000 minutes. So there were probably lots of players that were worse than them who just didn’t see the field.
#1: Efrain Juarez, -0.12/96
This one probably doesn’t need much explanation. Juarez was one of the most disastrous signings of the MLS era. Humorously, his best category was “fouling.” I guess there’s no way to code chest-bumping the referee.
#2: Tosaint Ricketts, -0.1/96
This one, at first glance, is a bit of a surprise. Ricketts finished his career with a bang, scoring a lot of goals off the bench. But, remember, he scored more goals in his final season than he did in the previous three combined. Ricketts is being docked particularly hard in three categories, receiving, passing, and dribbling. You can’t help but feel the receiving thing isn’t entirely his fault, as those teams were particularly dire. But you have to say, passing and taking players on 1v1 never stood out as particularly strong parts of his game.
#3: Theo Bair, -0.09/96
Even as an avid Theo Bair defender/advocate, I have to admit he never quite lived up to his full potential in Vancouver. Bair’s profile looks very similar to Ricketts’. He also had super low receiving numbers. His dribbling was rated slightly higher but G+ does not like Bair’s shot selection. I think Bair is also a victim of being compared to other strikers when he played quite a lot of minutes as an attacking midfielder in the 2019 season. This probably further hurt his receiving total.
(Image Credit: Vancouver Whitecaps)