This tactical analysis gives a brief preview of the tactics and style of play of Vancouver Whitecaps and San Jose Earthquakes. The two teams enter the tournament in group D with reigning MLS champions Seattle and a strong FC Dallas side.
2019 was Marc Dos Santos first season in charge of Vancouver Whitecaps and his side finished 12th in the Western Conference and 23rd overall. They started 2020 with a home tie against Sporting Kansas City where they lost 1-3 but then travelled to LA Galaxy and came away with a 0-1 victory.
How they will play
Dos Santos set his side out in a 4-4-2 formation in 2020. Changing from the previously used 4-3-3 last season. One of the strikers plays deep trying to link play from midfield into attack. This was a key issue from last season where strikers had limited opportunities in the final 3rd and the side were defending for large periods of games.
Defensively, Vancouver looks to create a solid mid to low block. They set up centrally and deep, consequently limiting space between the defence and midfield. This makes them quite difficult to break down. The following table shows where they have conceded shots in the opening 2 games of 2020. The highest percentage is from outside the box. Dos Santos will hope to frustrate sides and look to improve the progressions through the thirds when in possession.
The midfield will work hard out of possession to protect the back 4 by limiting space for the opposition attack. Teibert and In-Beom are a solid partnership in the middle of midfield and will compete well on the defensive side of the game. Teibert is a hard-working homegrown Canadian International. Alongside him, In-Beom is one of Vancouver’s Designated Players. He has experience in the South Korea national side, having played a vital role in South Korea winning gold in the 2018 Asian Games.
Dos Santos has instructed Teibert and In-Beom to operate as a two-man pivot out of possession. They provide a solid and deep screen in front of the defence to limit space for the forwards in between the lines. The wingers also have defensive responsibilities and Vancouver drop into a 4-4-1-1 out of possession.
We can see that the wide midfielders have moved inside closer to the central midfielders. Dos Santos has his side force play out wide where they then look to press and win the ball back.
Overall, Dos Santos will need his midfield to contribute more going forward. Central midfielder Teibert had an 89% pass completion percentage last season. The best in the MLS was 92.3% from Osvaldo Alonso for Minnesota. Teibert was very cautious and keeping the ball with risk-free passing. The side will need to get more players forward to supply new signing Lucas Cavallini with opportunities to score.
Vancouver will do this by working the ball through the thirds and switching play to wide men when the chance to create an overload occurs. They look to move the opponents defence around with shorter passes across the field before longer switches. Below we can see Teibert identifying a chance to attack on the left side.
The full-backs often will attack when in possession, giving the wide midfielders the opportunities to vary movement utilising overlaps and underlaps from the full-backs. Below we can see the full-back has brought the ball forward, passed out to the wide midfielder and is entering the box. Teibert has also got forward to join the attack and provide more attacking threat for the side.
Vancouver in 2019 were the second-lowest scorers from open play with 23 goals. The side also scored just 1 goal was scored from a counter-attack. The speed of transitions is difficult for the team while all so deep even with an average formation last season of 4-3-3. In 2020 Vancouver started in a 4-4-2 formation. Rickets replaced Reyna as the second striker with Cavallini for the second game. He scored and was more effective out of possession. Rickets was involved in 21 challenges in his start against Reyna’s 14. In possession their contributions were similar. Rickets made 27 passes and 1 key pass against LA Galaxy. Reyna made 26 passes and 1 key pass against Sporting Kansas City. Ricketts and Cavallini starting together give the attack a hard-working and physically strong duo.
At times their build-up can be slow, 1 central midfielder will be very deep with the centre backs and full backs expected to push on to provide attacking threat. On average last season Vancouver entered the opponent’s final third 33 times per game. This is compared with allowing the opponents in 51 times per game. Adding 9 players in the off season, Vancouver have plenty of depth at each position and will look to try and press high and from the front which they did to good effect against LA Galaxy. This depth in squad will ultimately help, knowing players can be rotated in the MLS is Back tournament with less time between matches.
Expected Line Up
After a strong win in LA, it will likely be that they start with the same side in the opening fixture of MLS is Back.
Designated Player Lucas Cavallini has arrived at a club-record fee from Liga MX side Puebla. He is a strong, combative striker who will work hard in and out of possession. Vancouver struggled for goals last season and he has been brought in to change this, though the supply from midfield will need to improve. With the aforementioned switches of play that Vancouver use, Cavallini will look to take advantage of crosses coming into the box from wide areas. He times his runs well into the box to ensure he is attacking the ball rather than waiting. As well as being strong in the air he has excellent acceleration and a powerful shot. Vancouver will need to ensure the supply into their new signing is good and more frequent.
San Jose Earthquakes
Coming into his second season as manager of San Jose Earthquakes, Mathia Almeyda will look to be continuing to improve consistency going into the MLS is Back tournament. They started 2020 with a last-minute equaliser at home to Toronto FC (2-2) and a heavy home defeat to Minnesota United (2-5)
How they will play
San Jose made vast improvements in 2019 from 2018 despite losing 9 of their last 12 games. They just missed out on the playoffs last season, whereas they finished last in the Western Conference in 2018. The side hasn’t changed massively but analysis shows the system has. Almeyda has his team play with a high energy, man making defence that will have to cope with the quick change over in games.
San Jose will look to man-mark throughout the thirds and press high. The image above shows them tightly marking their opponents from a throw-in. In 2019 the side made on average 17.7 tackles per game, which was the second-highest in the MLS. Almeyda’s high press strategy will test his side over the tournament-style layout.
This man-marking style allows the team to press quickly and limit the space and time an opponent has on the ball, demonstrated in the above image. The risk of this system is the lack of cover if beaten. To strengthen the defence Oswaldo Analis has been signed on loan. He brings international experience to the side struggling to keep clean sheets.
With the side man-marking, as seen in the previous image, gaps can form between defenders. With a more rigid defensive structure teams can look to force opponents wide and slow attacks down. Almeyda’s set up sees his defence move with the opposition. San Jose conceded 7 goals in the first 2 games of 2020. The image below shows the shots taken positions in those 2 games. The majority of shots are coming centrally and inside the 18-yard box.
For success in this system, they cannot allow the opponents time on the ball. San Jose will press high and quick across the pitch. Players need to make quick decisions as to when to press and when to mark. The 2 central midfielders will look to screen the defence when possible if they outnumber the attack. This will be an important role in this system with the central defenders moving and following the forwards they are marking closely. With 79% of shots coming down the middle, San Jose will need to ensure this cover is applied effectively.
San Jose set up in a 4-3-3 formation with the wingers playing very wide. They look to create 1v1 opportunities on the wings or overloads using full-backs. To create these opportunities San Jose use long switch of play passes.
Even with the MLS leading all-time scorer, Chris Wondolowski, they struggled at times with difference-makers in the final third on a regular basis. With the wingers staying very wide, at times the centre forward is the only man in the box when crosses come in. This was evident last season with an average of 15 crosses per game and 23% success rate. Wondolowski will play more of an impact sub role. This will be his final season in the MLS at the age of 37. Eight of his 16 goals in 2019 came from corners or crosses from outside the box. This was a good return considering the success rate from crosses. Rios, with one goal last season will lead the line for San Jose in 2020. So far he has struggled to find space in the box as evident in the image below.
Rios will need support going forward. As we see above, there are five men forward with eight players and the goalkeeper in the defensive third for Minnesota. With the side attacking with speed, some players can be loft too far to contribute in the attacking phases of transitions.
With their direct style of play San Jose were in the top five for shots on target in the opening games of 2020. Furthermore, their pass accuracy was in the top 3.
Almeyda’s side managed 4 goals but conceded 7. San Jose start their MLS is Back campaign against the reigning champions Seattle. Both sides are able to keep the ball well, as a result, San Jose will have to be at their best to get result in this match. Defensively they must improve, though a tournament format may favour their direct style of play.
Expected Line up
Almeyda started with the same starting line up in both games of 2020. They play with a 4-3-3 formation and, as a result, will likely continue with the same starting 11.
Cristian Espinoza became one of the best wingers in the MLS in 2019. With 2 goals and 13 assists he was last season’s offensive MVP for the Quakes. He is a dynamic and skilful winger who improved the creativity in the final third for San Jose. Almeyda will look for Espinoza particularly to push on again in 2020 after making his signing permanent from La Liga side Villareal. In 2019 Espinoza was third in dribbles per 90 minutes 8.49 with a success rate of 58.43%, that was second to Aleksander Katai. San Jose will look to Espinoza as a creator and look to give him plenty of opportunities to run at defenders. With only 2 goals last season, Almeyda will be looking for him to improve on this.