VANCOUVER, B.C. — Midsummer friendlies have a way of coaxing top-shelf performances out of MLS teams while, at the same time, electro-shocking our European (and some Mexican) visitors into a realization that, yes, the season is approaching and no, we can’t have any more off days.
In Manchester City’s case, that was all too true on Monday night. They spent the first half of the game watching the Whitecaps starters pass circles around them looking very much like a team of 11 guys who had never set foot on the same field before. Yes, the same Whitecaps who would be in the MLS relegation zone if the league had one.
Because it was a midsummer friendly, Man. City had an excuse. But because the ‘Caps legitimately took it to them, City had a second half filled with imperative. Even then, though, they struggled to impose themselves upon the Vancouver reserves and were lucky to walk out 2-1 winners.
In the process, we learned quite a bit about both one of the Premiership favorites and one of MLS' stragglers.
1) There’s a big, fat gap between the City midfield and defense.
New Vancouver signing Mustapha Jarju (pictured above) left quite an impression in his 45 minutes in spite of the fact that he didn’t get on the scoreboard or even really threaten. The Gambian DP constantly slipped into space, creating passing lanes for the Vancouver midfield and pulling the Nigel de Jong/Yaya Touré duo ever deeper.
The domino effect from that was Vladimir Weiss having to drop and harry both Pete Vagenas and Gershon Koffie, the Whitecaps central midfield duo. The two played patient, risked nothing and completed — wait for it — 98 percent of their passes.
Ninety-eight percent. Even in a friendly going at something less than full speed, that’s a staggering number.
Jarju’s movement (and some very good play by Vagenas and Koffie, of course) had a large part in that. The ‘Caps are not a team that has created space off the ball consistently this year; after one half, it’s clear that very trait is Jarju’s strong suit.
But it should leave Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini shaking his head and questioning his tactics just a bit. Teams have gotten better and better at exploiting that gap behind the central midfield — look at what Barcelona did to Manchester United in the Champions League final, for example, or what Mexico did to the US in the Gold Cup final.
And for the coup de grace, look at where Vancouver's lone goal came from. Camilo cut inside, slipped a pass between Touré and de Jong, then ran right by them and set up shop in the gap, eventually finding himself with all the time in the world to side-foot home his goal.
If City truly plan to make a run at the Premiership title, they’ll have to be a bit more clever about how they line up in midfield.
2) Man. City have little chance of breaking down an organized team from the run of play.
The Citizens played what was essentially a 4-4-1-1 with de Jong and Touré in the central midfield and Weiss in the creative role just underneath lone striker Edin Dzeko. That’s somewhere in the neighborhood of $110 million worth of soccer players (closer to $160 million if you factor in Touré’s real value), and the only time they looked remotely threatening was on the counterattack.
Vancouver were able to stymie City simply by not turning the ball over. Adam Johnson was left all by himself on the right wing, and when he had any space, the ‘Caps simply forced him right. Ryan McGivern, meanwhile, needs more time cooking before he’ll be a contributor on the left.
3) It’s clear why the Whitecaps have targeted Owen Hargreaves.
If Vancouver don’t get Hargreaves — and even if they do get him, his health is always a question mark — then they need to get someone like him.
Neither Vagenas nor Koffie, for all their excellence against City, are pure pivots. Hargreaves is. His ability to cover ground and read the game quickly and accurately releases his central midfield partner to play higher up the pitch, creating more danger and unpredictability in attack.
Look at the “distribution” chalkboard of Vagenas and Koffie (at right, the numbered players). The only time either one was involved in a play in the City area was when Vagenas chipped in a free kick in the ninth minute. They combined to complete just two passes in the attacking third, and both of those were angled away from goal.
Having Jarju dropping deeper mitigated some of that lack of danger, but on days when he’s neutralized, the ‘Caps will need more offense from the central midfield pairing. That’s why so many Vancouver fans dearly hope Davide Chiumiento is eventually slid into one of those spots, since the little Swiss playmaker can pick a pass as well as anyone in the league.
But before they do that, they need someone like Hargreaves there to do the defensive work. It’s a similar formula to what Real Salt Lake have done over the years, and if it’s worked for them, there’s no reason not to try it in Vancouver.
Matthew Doyle can be followed on Twitter at @MLS_Analyst.