Every Crisis is an Opportunity: Life After Julian Gressel

The Vancouver Whitecaps find themselves in the unenviable position of having lost Julian Gressel. Gressel is hard to replace because he is very good and has a unique profile and the Whitecaps don’t have an open DP slot to replace his DP-level contributions (though he himself was not a DP). So I thought we might take a look at where the team might go from here.

Understanding What Gressel Provided:

This season Vanni Sartini deployed Gressel in a #8 role. There was a lot of skepticism around this at first, including from yours truly. Sartini had briefly attempted this in the 2022 season but Gressel didn’t look as effective as he did in the wing-back role he had been playing for quite some time. In hindsight though, this tactical decision was kind of genius. It gave Gressel a much more central role, both literally and figuratively, in the team. Gressel was able to be more involved in the team’s build-up while still having the freedom to move into the right half-space or wide areas to put in the deliveries that have defined his MLS career. The change in position elevated Gressel from an excellent support player to a genuine star.

Gressel’s output has been tremendous. He has the most xG+xA/90 of any midfielder (i.e. not an attacking midfielder or a winger) in the league. He’s in the 85th percentile for progressive passes, the 98th percentile for passes into the penalty box, and the 96th percentile for shot-creating actions compared to other midfielders. So, what you’re trying to replace is elite production, very good ball progression, and defending that is, you know, passable. Getting all of that in one non-DP player who plays the same style as Gressel probably isn’t going to happen. Axel Schuster seems to recognize this and has said that the space opened by Gressel’s departure will lead to a couple of additions (not necessarily both right away) and the team will also be looking to younger players like Ali Ahmed and Pedro Vite to step up. 

It seems likely that at least one of those additions will be a defensive player, and so not a direct Gressel replacement. The Whitecaps have been linked to Sam Adekugbe and Nigerian U-20 international Solomon Agbakala.

But even in the absence of these links, upgrading the defence is the logical move. The Whitecaps went into the League’s Cup with the highest xG/90 in MLS but were 18th in expected goals against. Additionally, it’s pretty clear that Luis Martins is the weakest regularly playing member of the squad and there is hardly any depth. For this article, we’ll focus on the other addition, who is likely to be a more comparable player to Gressel.

The Internal Candidates: 

Below is a table that compares Gressel to some of the players who I have seen suggested as being able to at least partially fill Gressel’s shoes. The table uses data from fbref. xG+xA is pretty self-explanatory. Shot-creating actions are things like passes or dribbles that directly preceded a shot. Progressive actions are the total of a player’s carries and passes that moved the ball 10 yards closer to the opposing goal. Penalty box entries are the sum of a player’s passes, crosses, and carries into the penalty area. All stats are per 90 minutes.

Player xG+xA Shot Creating Actions Progressive Actions Penalty Box Entries
Julian Gressel 0.58 5.11 8.82 2.86
Ali Ahmed 0.35 3.67 11.71 4.37
Pedro Vite 0.32 3.11 8.72 2.68
Sebastian Berhalter 0.26 3.18 6.83 1.88
Ryan Raposo 0.2 3.12 8.02 3.79

As we can see, the cadre of young players is actually pretty well-placed to replicate Gressel’s ball progression. Of course, they don’t all necessarily progress the ball in the same way. Ali Ahmed and Ryan Raposo do a lot more of their progression through carrying the ball than Gressel. So you couldn’t just plug them into Gressel’s role and expect them to play exactly the same way. But with some tactical tweaks they should be able to move the ball from one end of the field to the other just fine. 

But where all fall well short in matching Gressel’s production. This is no slight on them, Gressel is literally the best in the league at this, but even Ahmed is only running at about 65% of Gressel’s production. Some of this is due to their roles in the team. Raposo and Berhalter have played a lot as a fullback and a defensive midfielder respectively and it’s possible both could see an increase if deployed in a more aggressive position. For example, if the Whitecaps stick with this 3-1-4-2, as Schuster has suggested they will, then Raposo would have more freedom to get forward. But even then, it seems unlikely anyone is going to be matching what Gressel did. So when making an addition I think it makes more sense to focus on the scoring than on the ball progression.

Identifying Targets:

In his comments to the media, Schuster suggested that the team will be adding a defensive player and an additional wide player for the 3-1-4-2. I don’t think Sam Adekgube, assuming he is a target, would be that player; He has half the number of career assists as Russell Teibert. Not exactly the Canadian Marcelo. I think Adekgube would be much more likely to take Luis Martins’ spot on the left side of the back three. You already have Ryan Raposo and Ali Ahmed who could play on the right so what we’re probably looking for here is a very offensively productive left-wing-back. They can’t be a DP and you need to maintain space for a second fairly major signing so we’re looking for value here.

So I did a search of some relevant leagues on Wyscout for left wing-backs with transfermarkt values under 2 million and these are some players that stood out as interesting to me. Obviously, these are not full scouting reports, just a look at what might be out there. 

Theo N’Dicka – KV Oostende 

Theo N’Dicka is a 23-year-old who plays for Oostende in the Belgian second tier. Last season Oostende was relegated but N’Dicka still managed 2 goals and 2 assists in just under 1300 minutes. A stat I am a fan of is xG+xA/100 passes received. This should, in theory, flatten some of the difference between being on a good team or being on a bad team. It doesn’t do this perfectly, of course, some players play roles that require them to collect the ball a lot in deeper areas, and that naturally hurts them. But even still, I think it’s worth noting that N’Dicka absolutely crushed every other player I looked at in this stat, and was even significantly ahead of Gressel in xG+xA/100. To me, this suggests that he could really hit another level on an offensive dynamo like the Whitecaps (a sentence I never expected to type). His defensive stats don’t look great but that’s sort of a secondary consideration.

Shunki Higashi – Sanfrecce Hiroshima 

Higashi is a 22-year-old who plays in J1 for Sanfrecce Hiroshima. I actually covered him earlier this year for Target Scouting. Higashi has an incredible left foot and is a very productive player for Hiroshima. He likes to get on the ball a lot and almost acts as a deep-lying playmaker at times. So he could also replace a lot of the ball progression that Gressel provided. He’s put up a solid 0.33 xG+xA/90 which is not quite on the Gressel level but his ball progression will hopefully even that out. Another major upside is that the J-League is in season right now so he wouldn’t need to gain fitness. The biggest downside is his defensive play which is not very strong. 

Jiri Slama – Sigma Olomouc

Jiri Slama is a 24-year-old who plays in the Czech Fortuna Liga for Sigma Olomouc. He put up a goal and six assists in about 1200 minutes last season. That’s very good. He’s also a very efficient scorer, doing well on the /100 stats. Unlike the other two players we have looked at here, he has some solid defensive numbers (of course, defensive numbers are notoriously a bit difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions from). So perhaps there’s something there.

3 thoughts on “Every Crisis is an Opportunity: Life After Julian Gressel

  1. Against better opponents, three in the back has rarely worked. There is way too much space behind the wingbacks that good wingers can exploit when they receive long diagonal service. Rewatch the Sounders match not only for Leo Chu but also the less dangerous Alex Roldan for a refresher. You can also watch the playoff loss to SKC for further evidence of that shortcoming.

    Though he has had limitations in his defensive play at LWB, Johnson is much more of a threat out there because he takes guys on 1 v 1 consistently and can beat opponents: I think he still gets more of a look when they go with that formation. He would be ahead of Raposo for me in that regard: when you really watch Raposo closely, his numbers flatter to deceive.

    Personally, I think they look better defensively with a base of four in the back and a three man central midfield, so I take anything Schuster and Sartini say about a 3-1-4-2 with a grain of salt. That said, they’ll continue with 3 in the back because they have RBs and LBs with holes in their games.

  2. if it isnt Adegugbe- my fav choice- then i would go for N’Dicka

    the # 1 immediate need for the Caps is on left defence, a player who is good at DEFENDING and has some pace to adapt and shut-down quick strikers, especially on the wings

    thx for doing the research

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