Five games into the 2018 season, the Vancouver Whitecaps have recorded three wins, a draw, and a loss. One constant from those three wins? Russell Teibert was in the starting XI. The two games the ‘Caps didn’t win? Teibert was on the bench.
The obvious message to take home is: if Teibert starts every match from now on, the Whitecaps will walk the league.
Obviously, Russell Teibert isn’t the second coming of Messi, despite his Canadian Soccer Jesus moniker. And it may seem odd to lay the credit for nine points at the feet of a player who hasn’t even taken a shot this year, let alone recorded a goal, assist, or key pass. But I would suggest that Teibert has actually played a significant role in Vancouver’s wins so far, even without any obvious offensive impact.
The biggest structural issue that Carl Robinson has struggled with, basically since the start, has been his midfield. The problem with the 4-2-3-1 that Robinson has used for most of the last two years is that its success often hinges on the effectiveness of the player in the middle of the ‘3’ behind the striker—the “number 10” role. But Robinson consistently refuses to play the only natural number 10 in his squad, Nicolás Mezquida.
Not that this is necessarily a bad decision, as while Mezquida provides a welcome directness to the Whitecaps’ attack and an ability to pull off the occasional spectacular goal, he hasn’t shown the consistency that would earn him anything more than a regular spot on the bench. However, it does leave the midfield lacking in creativity.
Robinson has spent the last couple of years claiming to be seeking a number 10. He’s tried to slot his various creative players into that position — Pedro Morales, Christian Bolaños, and Yordy Reyna have all been used there, even though the latter two had spent most of their pre-Vancouver career on the wing or as a second striker.
So far this season, however, Robinson has mostly moved away from the 4-2-3-1. You can call it a 4-1-4-1 or a 4-3-3 (it’s been called both in different games), but the main change in formation has been the switch from two holding midfielders in the centre of the field to one. Both Teibert and Felipe have filled that role — the former as a more traditional defensive midfielder, the latter as some kind of (mostly failed) deep-lying playmaker — but Aly Ghazal will probably make that position his own now he’s back from injury.
This formation change may seem minor, but it allows the midfield to move away from last season’s more static set-up. Too often last year, the two holding midfielders sat deep protecting the backline, and the number 10 either constantly had to drop deep to collect the ball, or was isolated up front watching long balls sail over his head. Instead, one midfielder is tasked with protecting the defence, and the other two can provide outlets to either side.
The key to making this formation work, however, is having a couple of central midfielders who are mobile, comfortable with the ball at their feet, good short passers, and willing to put in the dirty work off the ball. This last point is key. If you’re not willing to chase back and put in tackles, Robinson won’t tolerate you for long. Just ask Kekuta Manneh, or Bolaños, or Cristian Techera (who tends to get benched in away matches when defensive work-rate is essential, even though he has stepped it up over the last year).
With this in mind, Robinson’s midfield acquisitions over the last few months seem to make a little more sense. He was looking for midfielders with an all-round set of skills rather than a specialist number 10. Felipe, Efraín Juárez, and Jordon Mutch all have some or all of those attributes required to play in this kind of (theoretically) more dynamic midfield. And of course, Russell Teibert, who can play either the DM role, or on the left side of midfield.
The way the midfield is set up when Teibert is on the field is one part of the equation. But Teibert himself has also improved this year. After the 3-0 loss to Seattle last season, I thought we’d seen the end of him in a Whitecaps jersey. That was reinforced when his option wasn’t picked up. When he signed a new deal, I assumed he had taken a pay cut to stay, happy to sit on the bench and possibly wait for the Canadian Premier League to launch. His fate seemed sealed as midfielders continued to sign during the offseason.
Instead, I would argue Teibert has been the Whitecaps’ top central midfielder this year. He’s always covered plenty of ground and never stops running, but in recent years he’s seemed allergic to forward passing or movement. That’s changed this year. He’s been moving the ball forward, and his passing has dramatically improved. According to Whoscored.com, his passing rate so far this season is 89.3%, the second best in the squad.
Too often, the Whitecaps come across as one-dimensional, relying on crosses, long balls, and set pieces to score goals. They’ve had a lot of the same issues this year, struggling to break down a weak LA Galaxy team at home, while stunning Houston and Columbus on the road where they were given more opportunities to counter-attack.
Regardless of whether you play a possession-oriented or a counter-attacking style, you need multiple ways to get the ball forward. One way is having players who can make accurate long passes. Felipe and Mutch both seem to fit that particular bill so far. But you also need players who are willing to drive forward with the ball, and who will work hard to win the ball in the opposing half. And that’s where Teibert has come in so far.
During the final 20 minutes of last weekend’s match against Columbus, we saw the most balanced and dynamic Whitecaps midfield we have seen all season. Ghazal filled the role of the defensive midfield destroyer, with Teibert and Felipe in front. During those final minutes the Whitecaps scored the winning goal and looked more in control than they usually do when desperately defending a one goal lead.
A trio such as Ghazal-Teibert-Felipe seems to be the way forward, also forming a Canadian trio on the left in De Jong-Teibert-Davies. Juárez appears to bring similar attributes to Teibert’s (plus a healthy dose of arguing with the referee) on the right side, if necessary. Meanwhile, Mutch and Felipe should be able to interchange. This of course leaves out Reyna, but he has hardly been earning his starting role lately.
The big question at the start of the season was how Robinson planned to fit Mutch, Felipe, Ghazal, Juárez, and Reyna into one midfield. But it’s Russell Teibert who has been the biggest revelation so far this year. Now he just needs to find his shooting boots, and maybe he’ll finally be the complete midfielder we all hoped to see about five years ago.