ANALYSIS – The Vancouver Whitecaps started their earliest-ever preseason game a week ago, and played their first match of the new calendar year against 2. Bundesliga side Hamburger SV on Wednesday.
It was a stern test to begin their preparation for the 2023 MLS season, losing 2-0 against a top-quality German side in sunny Marbella, Spain. With a few new faces, the Whitecaps looked the lesser side but came away with some key lessons and valuable experience.
Vancouver Whitecaps First Preseason Match Ends in Defeat
Gulf in Quality and Fitness
Even though the Whitecaps lost 2-0 to HSV, the scoreline is actually quite impressive given the starkly different levels of sharpness and fitness between the two teams.
Hamburg is currently second in the 2. Bundesliga, two points off Darmstadt 98. This means they are, in all actuality, probably on par with low-level Bundesliga sides, given the fact that the top German league only has 18 teams. They also had an extra month of play before the World Cup/Winter break, and have already had two friendly games since the break.
It showed in the opening 45 minutes, how much sharper they were than the ‘Caps. The ‘Caps were always a half-second behind on every play, whether that was in fighting for the ball in the air, getting second balls, or in a foot race, they were second best.
The Hamburg staff reportedly even told Whitecaps Head Coach Vanni Sartini that they played well, especially considering where they were in the season. It was a tight game for most of the match, showing how well the ‘Caps played all things considered.
Vanni Sartini said after today’s #VWFC game the Hamburg staff said to him: “It’s just your first game. You guys look very good for a first game. We are three weeks more than you in the preparation and you played an even game.” Vanni feels environment in Spain has helped them lots
— AFTN (@aftncanada) January 18, 2023
Good to Get Back on the Pitch
Overall, it was just nice to see the Whitecaps back on the pitch. The fact that they started with arguably their strongest XI, including new-singing Mathías Laborda, shows how seriously Sartini wants to take this extended preseason. This isn’t any kids’ camp in Hawaii like it was in 2019.
It was also good to see a little bit of what Sartini has been working on. He set up the team as a 4-2-3-1, with Julian Gressel in a double pivot with Andres Cubas, Pedro Vite as the advanced 10, with Alessandro Schöpf and Ryan Gauld on either side and Brian White as the lone striker. It then quickly became apparent after going behind early in the fourth-minute through a set-piece goal that something had to change.
So, after 30 minutes and subbing on the young Ali Ahmed for the struggling Luis Martins, Sartini switched to a 4-3-3 with Gressel and Alessandro Schopf as the two 8’s, Cubas as the lone 6, and Vite and Ryan Gauld on the wings beside target man White.
This tactical switch allowed them to get a better hold of the game, slow down the play, and avoid turning over the ball as much. Then in the second half, a lot of youth and fringe players had to step up after the majority of both teams got rotated.
Of note for the ‘Caps were Simon Becher and Ali Ahmed, who both had solid performances. Thomas Hasal also looked the sharpest of all the players, coming up with some big saves before conceding a second in the 60-minute thanks to a cheap giveaway. The second-string team could not respond to going down by two and ended the match losing 2-0.
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) January 18, 2023
Sartini’s Tactical Headache
While the main purpose of the Whitecaps’ first preseason match was primarily to get them up to speed fast by facing them against top opposition, it also showed a bit of the puzzle that is the set-up of the team.
Earlier in the season, Sartini mentioned his plan on trying out a 4-3-3 and employing Gressel, who is primarily a wing-back, and Schöpf, who is primarily a more attacking midfielder, as the two 8’s in the three-man midfield.
We saw a bit of this in the last 15’ of the first half, and while it allowed the midfield to better control the match, it felt like Schöpf and Gressel’s wings were clipped a bit by their more restricted roles.
Gressel is fantastic on the right, swinging in crosses and switching the play. Schöpf is historically more of an attacking midfielder, lacing through balls and unraveling defences with his precise passes. It then begs the question of if they are being employed as 8’s is the best fit for them.
The same goes for Gauld and Vite as the two wide-wingers. Both are fantastic play-makers, with the former’s best position out wide, pulling the strings, but having both of them in the same line-up seemed to have isolated White up front. He really had no one to play off of in the final third. He needs a more forward-thinking player to play alongside to bring out the best in him.
It’s clear that Sartini has a talented squad, with solid players virtually in every position. The main concern with the Whitecaps squad now is just finding a system and philosophy that can fit all these players in their best position.
Other general thoughts from the first 45:
– Gauld was lively, especially off the ball
– Not much involvement from Gressel and Schopf on the ball
– Brian White very isolated up front#VWFC
— Eighty Six Forever (@86forever) January 18, 2023
Just The Beginning for the Whitecaps
Sunday Funday pic.twitter.com/iVRHBMI6Tj
— Vancouver Whitecaps FC (@WhitecapsFC) January 15, 2023
Even with all this in mind, it must be reminded that this is just the first of many preseason tests for the Whitecaps. Tomorrow, they face Austrian side Wolfsberger AC before the Coachella Valley Invitational tournament in February.
There will be plenty of games for the ‘Caps to figure out which players to play, where to play them, and what kind of football they want to put on this season.
One hopes that it’s the kind that wins games and makes the fans happy.
Photo Credit: Vancouver Whitecaps FC’s Twitter Account on January 15, 2023.
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