"We worked on it since day 1": New-look high press helps Whitecaps set tone in 1st game of 2024 vs Tigres
In a results-oriented business, it can be easy to ignore the value of a good performance.
Understandably so, to be fair - at the end of the day, teams are judged on results, not performances, when it comes down to how successful they were throughout any given season.
At the same time, good performances can often accompany good results, as the latter will often come if the former is maintained over a longer period.
And that’s the long-term plan that the Vancouver Whitecaps are banking on in 2024. They did so last year to some pretty good results, riding the pain of an early-season slump to what ended up being a pretty good campaign as they won the Canadian Championship for a second straight year, made the MLS Cup playoffs, and had one of the best offensive seasons in their MLS era, all while playing some great soccer along the way.
Despite that, however, they knew that they had lots to work on this offseason, such as their defensive game, being more ruthless with their chances in big games, and grinding out wins and results on a more consistent basis.
As a result, it was quite encouraging to see what they showed when they took the pitch in a competitive setting for the first time in 2024 this week, as they took on Tigres UANL in the first leg of their round one Concacaf Champions Cup tie.
Ultimately, they didn’t win, drawing 1-1 after a late goal from Tigres attacker Andre-Pierre Gignac, and weren’t as ruthless in front of goal as they would’ve liked, squandering a few chances, but they were excellent defensively on the night.
GOLAZO 👀— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) February 8, 2024
André-Pierre Gignac is a special, special talent 🤯#VWFC stunned back to 1-1 as the Tigres star hits a perfect free kick in this #ConcaChampions Leg 1 clash 🎯
🔴 Watch @TheChampions on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/U2VXg7Vgb7
And that’s key, because while the other factors will be key in helping this Whitecaps team take a step up from a good MLS team to Supporters Shield and MLS Cup contenders, as is their goal this season, their most important improvement needs to be in that defensive game if they’re to achieve those things.
Because of that, they’ll be pleased to see what they showed, as they held Tigres to just 1.23 xG on 18 shots (an average of 0.06 xG a shot), and zero big chances, not allowing any dangerous opportunities despite a high volume of attempts from the Mexican giants.
Thanks to strong performances from their back three of Mathías Laborda, Ranko Veselinovic and Triston Blackmon, and the overall shape and organization of their entire team in their 3-4-3 defensive shape, they made life tough for Tigres on the ball, and that’s reflected in those stats.
Despite playing in a very aggressive defensive shape, one that isn’t often seen in a world where pragmatic 4-4-2s are the shape of choice off the ball, they found a way to be disciplined and organized, looking like a completely different unit defensively, even when it came to defending things like set-pieces, an area they notoriously struggled in last year.
“We did very well,” head coach Vanni Sartini proudly stated afterwards. “The only ball that was creating a problem was that long ball that was played in behind our wing-backs, but we knew that they would be targeted there, as we’re one of the few teams in the world that plays with a real back three, I like to say. There are a lot of teams who play with back fives, but we’re one of the only ones with a back three, and that’s something that a lot of teams will try to expose us for, that space behind the wing-backs.”
“Despite that, our defensive interchanges were good, even though Tigres were controlling the flow, we were always able to double them wide and not concede too much through that.”
He added. “I thought we defended well, and even the defensive support was good, and we did well on defensive set-pieces, too, which were our Achilles heel last year.”
Yet, while the Whitecaps’ solid defensive shape played a big role in this performance, it’s worth noting that wasn’t the biggest factor that seemed to give them an edge - their high press.
A buzzword that has often been uttered around Whitecaps circles over the last few years, but has scantily made an appearance, it was on full display in this game, as they made sure to press Tigres quite aggressively whenever they tried to play out of the back.
First through their starting front three of Brian White, Ryan Gauld and Damir Kreilach, and then continuing when subs Fafà Picault and JC Ngando replaced the latter two, the Whitecaps seemed to never stop pressuring Tigres in this game, either.
Often triggered when a Tigres player turned his back or got close to the line in the build-up, they’d find a way to swarm them from all angles, before either dispossessing them, forcing a turnover or getting them to restart their possession with a back-pass.
Understandably, that proved to be quite annoying for Tigres, whose build-up ended up being disrupted a lot more than they would’ve liked, showing the effectiveness of that Vancouver press.
“Yeah, it's something we've worked a lot on in this preseason,” White explained. “Knowing what our roles in each position are, having our front three switch around constantly, knowing where to go, how to execute in certain spots and working as a cohesive unit to make sure that they don't pass our lines and have an easy opportunity in behind.”
Because of that, it was clear to see the defensive value that this press brought to the table for Vancouver, as it eased pressure on their defenders, denying Tigres easy access into their final third.
That’s reflected in those defensive numbers, which showed Tigres’s struggles at creating clear cut chances.
And they weren’t even the biggest beneficiary of the press, either.
That turned out to be the attack itself, as they were able to fashion together a few dangerous 3v2s, 4v2s and 5v3s through the press, doing well to push the ball forward and send numbers up when they did win the ball back.
GOAL 🏔️@WhitecapsFC STRIKE FIRST 💥— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) February 8, 2024
Damir Kreilach opens his #VWFC account in fashion to stun Tigres UANL in this #ConcaChampions clash on Van Island 🇨🇦
🔴 Watch @TheChampions on OneSoccer pic.twitter.com/sQ2WG5Ktn5
Through that, they created some of their most dangerous chances in the game, too, turning those moments into dangerous passes and shots, just coming short of turning them into goals.
So even if they didn’t ultimately get the end product they craved, they’ll be quite pleased with that, as one would figure it’s only a matter of time before they start consistently carving teams apart in transition if they maintain those levels of high pressing.
Seeing that they have players like White, Gauld, Kreilach, Picault, Ali Ahmed, Pedro Vite and more who all can be very dangerous when on the ball in transition, with Gauld always seeming most dangerous when he has extra teammates around him to find with his pinpoint through balls, one would expect them to be quite ruthless with those situations going forward.
And when asked about it after the game, Gauld admitted as much, showing his excitement at the idea of him getting put in those sorts of dangerous situations with more regularity going forward.
“We've worked on that since day one in Spain, the way we want to press,” he explained. “I think we’re a very dangerous team when we do win the ball back, so if we can do that higher up the pitch that’ll be better for us, and once our fitness comes along, and we're able to press for longer with a higher intensity, and then we’ll be even more threatening when we win the ball back.”
“I think for the majority of this game, we looked good without the ball, we looked solid to me, I don't remember giving them any huge chances, other than that great free kick, so I think we're happy with the way we set up without the ball today, and now we’ve got an extra week before playing them again, and then another couple of weeks before the season starts, so we can (grow on that).”
And now, the Whitecaps will look to do just that - grow. A tough test awaits them in leg two against Tigres, as they’ll need to score at least one goal in Tigres’s Estadio Universitario (also known as El Volcan) to have a chance at advancing, which is a tall task, but they feel confident in their ability to at least give that an honest crack.
Then, from there, they’re eager to tackle what awaits them, be it another Champions Cup tie or the start of the MLS season, where they’ll continue to chase their lofty goals, knowing that they’ve got what it takes to make them a reality.
They offered a glimpse of that in this game, and will now aim to build on that, as they try to put together the most special Whitecaps MLS-era season to date, one that they’ve been growing towards for a while now.
They’ve so far continued that this offseason, both on and off the pitch, and this first performance seems to indicate that they’re heading in the right direction.
“I think it's a good way to start our season,” White said. “Tigres are a very good team who have already played a few games in this season so far, so to come away with a tie to start this two-leg series, I think that’s something we can be happy about, making us confident about going into the second leg and the rest of the season.”
“Yeah definitely, I think it's all positive things from this one,” Kreilach added. “As you saw tonight, we can play against Tigres without a problem. We expect it’s going to be another tough game in Mexico, too, because Tigres is a good team, individually and as a collective, so it’s now up to us to play like we did tonight, to be very compact, to not allow them to create any big chances, and score the goals we need to win that game.”
“We are all winners, all of us want to win, so it’s our obligation to go there and play another great game, and then the result is going to take care of itself.”