AGR's HIGH-PRESS: How a formation tweak inspired Vancouver FC's historic 1st win
After an exciting first week of CPL action, it was intriguing to see how each club would respond to what they learned on opening day as week two rolled around.
And for the most part, it turns out a lot, as three of the four games this weekend ended in draws, perhaps either showing how much opposing coaches took note of what they watched in week one (or just highlighting some early-season finishing woes).
Thanks to that, however, Vancouver FC ended up being the big winners of the week, as they managed to get their first-ever club goal and win on the road against York United, a result that all of a sudden has them up to third in the standings.
Of course, this early on in the season, that doesn’t mean all that much, but the fact that happened thanks to their being a whopping five draws in eight games so far this year is worth noting.
Now, more than ever, teams are starting to take big steps forward tactically, and it’s reflected in some of these matches, in which coaching has taken centre stage. And that’s not a bad thing.
While it might lead to some stalemates early on, it’ll now put an onus on coaches to adapt and adjust, which for the sake of this column, is not a bad thing at all.
Safe to say, I’m only intrigued by what’s to come.
Before getting caught looking too far ahead, however, here’s a look back at what caught my eye in this week’s “High Press”.
Vancouver FC gets off the mark with disciplined road performance
Despite losing their opening match on the road to Pacific, Vancouver certainly had a lot to be proud of in that game. A hard-fought road performance against a tough team, they did well to hold their shape for most of the game, and had some decent forays forward, too.
Therefore, as they got set to play York United on matchday two, it was intriguing to see how they’d build off of what they showed in that match, especially after having faced that same York side in the Canadian Championship in midweek.
With revenge on their minds, after they’d lost 1-0 in that game to a controversial penalty call, it was expected that they’d come out strongly, too, eager to avenge that result.
And to their credit, they certainly did that in this game. In particular, they were a lot more aggressive in their defensive pressure, and found a way to impose themselves on the ball, both in possession and in transition.
Using a bit of a tweaked formation, one that started out as more of a 4-3-2-1 instead of the pure 4-3-3 they used in week one, they were able to get much more involved offensively, as the inclusion of two #10s, Gael Sandoval and Gabriel Bitar, helped better connect their midfield to attack.
In particular, Bitar really shone in his modified role. After playing as more of a left winger last week, forced to hug the left side of the pitch, he was really able to operate in more central channels in this game, as seen when comparing his heat maps from both games.
As a result, Vancouver’s attack really benefitted from that. Using his ability to navigate tight spaces and draw players to him, Bitar managed to create an impressive four chances in this game, including two big chances, while also winning what ended up being the game-winning penalty.
Plus, beyond that, he was dangerous every time he had the ball at his feet, doing well to put the York backline under pressure, as seen in the clips below.
Because of that, look for Vancouver to try and develop that partnership between Bitar and Sandoval as dual-#10s going forward, as Sandoval was also very good in this game, benefiting nicely from having Bitar to play off of.
“I think he was for me the most valuable player of the match,” Vancouver’s head coach, Afshin Ghotbi, said of Bitar afterwards. “I think he was brilliant, as he showed his creativity, played between lines, sprayed balls and connected players, but he also gave some fantastic final balls and he had that great action that created a penalty.”
“I think he's come a long way, and he’s still growing as a player, so I expect big things from him this year.”
Elsewhere, another interesting tweak was that Vancouver started to build out of the back in a 3-4-2-1 formation after they went up 2-0, as Kadin Chung shifted from midfield to right wing back, while Ibrahim Bakare went from right back to right centre back, as shown in the average positions map below.
Through that, they were able to really stretch York’s front four, who had been tightly marking Vancouver’s back four up to that point, forcing them to go more direct to try and play through that pressure.
After the change, however, they were able to get more going in midfield, which in turn led to plenty of opportunities for Sandoval and Bitar, while also offering a bit more width thanks to the presence of the wing backs.
That ended up helping them a lot, as they were able to avoid getting caught in York’s press, keeping them from getting pinned into their own final third, as shown in the next clip.
“I felt that they were playing with two central strikers and then they had their wingers playing very high,” Ghotbi explained of the formation tweak. “And so I was uncomfortable playing four against four in our backfield, so without making any substitutions, and that's one of the luxuries of my team, I can push Ibrahim (Bakare) inside and drop Kadin (Chung) back.”
From there, the defence ended up doing the rest for Vancouver, as Rocco Romeo, Eugene “Pele” Martínez and Bakare led the rest of the way with some outstanding defence performances, with Callum Irving also chipping in when called upon.
Overall, it was a very disciplined road performance from the Eagles, one that they’ll be very proud of, as they showed a glimpse of why they could be a team to watch when everything comes together for them.
As for York, however, the pressure is quietly mounting up on them, having dropped two home losses to teams that many expected to be at the bottom of the standings this year. Of course, they’ll be happy to have advanced in the Canadian Championship, but a date with the defending champions in the next round is a tall task.
Because of that, they’ll need to find some solutions, quickly, as they look to avoid another disastrous start in league play. It won’t be easy, especially given their increasingly worrying injury situation, but that’s why they shored up their depth so heavily this offseason, something that’s about to get tested.
On the bright side, Paris Gee is looking very good at left back, and if he continues to ping around balls like this, could also be a solution for the team in midfield, helping maintain the CPL trend of trying to turn every full back into midfielders.
Halifax takes another step forward against Forge:
In my “game to watch” for this matchday, déjà vu ended up being the theme for both sides.
For Halifax, much like in their first two games of the year, they ended up scoring first in this game after getting off to a fantastic start, picking up a 1-0 lead just before the half.
But then, much like in those two games, which both came against Atlético Ottawa in CPL and then Canadian Championship play, they just weren’t able to turn that into three points.
The good news is that this was their best performance to date, as they held onto the lead right until the 88th minute, but in the end, they threw it all away as they allowed themselves to get pushed far too deep by Forge.
On a positive note, they showed signs of figuring out their two biggest issues to start the year, as they looked far better in the final third, and cleaned up their transition game. Along with another solid game in possession, “Gheisar-ball” is coming together nicely for new head coach Patrice Gheisar.
Just look at what they can do when they combine their fluidity in possession with some verticality, as they found a way to carve through Forge in this instance, with that final ball from Wesley Timoteo being quite enticing.
Speaking of Timoteo, however, he also stepped up big in this match, as Aidan Daniels started on the bench. Because of that, that allowed Timoteo to play as more of a #10, a role he thrived in, as seen below.
Because of that, it should be no surprise that the Wanderers' goal actually started off the foot of the 2022 Edmonton loanee, showing why he had six assists despite playing for a struggling offence last year.
Now just imagine Daniels and Timoteo playing together alongside the likes of Massimo Ferrin and Kosi Nwafornso, and now you’re cooking up something if you’re Gheisar.
Therefore, for the Wanderers, it just feels like the next step is putting together everything over the course of a full 90 minutes, allowing them to grab that first win under Gheisar, and then going from there.
As for Forge, their déjà vu came from the fact that they had to come from behind late just to get a point, as they just weren’t able to get much going in the final third until too late.
They did well to get into that area of the pitch and had a few good looks that they’ll feel that they should’ve scored, such as when the red-hot Noah Jensen smashed a shot off the bar and when Jordan Hamilton got robbed by Yann Fillion point-blank, but often lacked the final action in those moments.
Yet, as champions do, they eventually found a way, as Woobens Pacius’s hip ended up being the difference in the end. It might not have been the best goal he’d ever scored, but it will have felt quite rewarding, as Forge had done well to push Halifax all the way back before grabbing that goal.
The big thing that they’ll want to clean up next week is their play in both boxes, which is usually so sharp, but has just been a bit sloppy to start the year. Given the personnel they have at both ends, that shouldn’t be too hard to imagine them doing, especially if they keep pushing the ball into the right areas of the field, as they mostly did in this match.
If anything, the lone questions they’ll have heading into next week are 1) does Noah Jensen stay in when Kyle Bekker returns and 2) could Woobens Pacius earn a start after goals in this match and midweek?
Really, the only other thing they’ll be frustrated about is that they’ve already now dropped four points at home, something we’re not used to seeing from them, showing why they’ll be eager to change those small issues as quickly as possible to get back to usual service over in Hamilton.
Valour bounces back from cupset, while Ottawa flexes road prowess:
It was the burning question that many had heading into this crucial game - which version of Valour would show up in this game?
Would it be the one that completely took the game to York on the road, picking up an impressive 2-0 win? Or was it the side that got upset by League 1 BC side TSS Rovers in midweek, getting completely dominated while doing so?
Turns out, it’d be a lot closer to the former, as they edged out a cagey 1-1 draw with Atlético Ottawa, in what ended up being quite the tactical chess match.
Which for Valour, wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, even if they would’ve liked to get the win at home in the end. The team with the best road record in the league in 2022, Ottawa just tends to pick up results like this.
Plus, Valour showed some good growth from midweek, on both sides of the ball.
Defensively, they looked much more solid with the return of Guillaume Pianelli at centre back, after Matthew Chandler had a night to forget against the Rovers, as Pianelli had another very strong game alongside Abdou Samaké.
They’ll feel frustrated with the goal that they conceded, as they struggled to react to a long ball that their midfielders let drop, but other than that, they didn’t give up much to Ottawa, who had only nine shots for a total of just 0.73 xG.
Along with a much better performance in the middle of the park, boosted by the return of Diego Gutiérrez after he started on the bench in midweek, it allowed them to have much more control of the game off the ball than they did against the Rovers, too.
As for the attack, things were also better, as they got the movement that Phil Dos Santos felt they lacked against the Rovers, and got more runs from their full backs and midfielders. Plus, their front three was much more fluid, with wingers Kian Williams and Pacifique Niyongabire doing well to move across the front line to keep Ottawa occupied.
You combine that with a strong performance from Anthony Novak, who was making a lot stick for Valour, and that’s a lot to be encouraged about in the attack.
Things weren’t perfect, as they need more moments like the one from their goal, but those will only come with time.
Meanwhile, for Ottawa, it was another solid road performance from the 2022 regular season champions. As we’ve come accustomed to seeing from them, they were organized off the ball, and tried to break in transition whenever possible, getting some good chances that way.
Plus, after not being direct enough last week, they’ll be pleased with how they took their goal in this game, as they did well to capitalize on some open space that Valour failed to close down. Yet, that’s a credit to Gianni Dos Santos, who was very good in this game, proving to be the sort of wildcard that this team needs in the final third.
So all-in-all, not bad for Ottawa, who did this all without Ollie Bassett, who is recovering from a minor hamstring injury, forcing Miguel Acosta to step into midfield as a replacement. A road point is never a bad thing, especially when you’re without a player of that calibre, so they’ll look to build off of the desire that they showed here.
On another day, Jean-Aniel Assi puts this chance in, and it’s a whole different story (Assi has actually been very good this season but will want to forget this chance, that’s for sure).
Finishing lets down Pacific in Cavalry rematch:
After combining for a 1-1 draw in the Canadian Championship in midweek, in which Pacific advanced to the next round on penalties, the big question heading Pacific vs Cavalry part two was seeing how they’d both adjust from that result.
Two of the sharpest teams in the league tactically, it promised to be a good chess match, as these games always seem to be between these two sides.
And in the end, that proved to be true, although the result ended up exactly the same, as they combined for a cagey 1-1 draw.
Pacific will be quite frustrated by that, as they controlled most of this game after a slow start, but they were always going to be playing catch-up after going down 1-0 early, which proved to be too big of a mountain to climb.
They did get into some good areas in Cavalry’s box, as their fluid front three caused all sorts of problems for their defenders, but in the end, a lack of end product proved to be the story for them, with their lone goal coming off Josh Heard's back.
Of course, Pacific fans will shudder when they hear that, giving them a throwback to how things were in 2022 post-Alejandro Diáz, but it feels like they’re on the right path compared to where they were then.
Eventually, Easton Ongaro’s going to stop hesitating about taking shots in the box, while Ayman Sellouf looks like he could be the trickiest 1v1 player in the league based on early signs. Combine that with the fact that Kekuta Manneh looked energized off the bench in his debut in this game, and that Heard hasn’t yet hit full gear, there’s a lot to be encouraged with there, as long as Manny Aparicio isn’t out long-term.
Lastly, they’ll have to be encouraged by the fact that Sean Young is playing his best minutes in a Pacific shirt. Having taken a big step forward last year, the 22-year-old has looked like a man possessed in 2023, looking incredibly dynamic on both sides of the ball.
Armed with a seemingly limitless passing range, and a relentless engine, he’s been covering a lot of ground in midfield for Pacific so far this year. Safe to say, given his unique package of skills and size, if he keeps that up, he might not be sticking around for Pacific for very long at this rate.
As for Cavalry, they’ll have lots to be pleased about with this road point, even if it wasn’t their best performance, and it’s the third time this week they gave up a lead. Considering the state of their injury list, and the fact that they’ve played two of the best teams in two of the hardest road environments, they’ll take two road points and run, all while thanking the always-dangerous Ali Musse for the cross he put in on their goal.
Knowing that they return home next week, expect a big uptick for them once they get over this injury bug, getting back to the familiar confines of ATCO Field.
Player of the Matchday: Gabriel Bitar
A creative force in the final third for Vancouver, Bitar was instrumental in helping the new side get their first win, the only team to grab such a result this weekend.
Goal of the week: Markiyan Voytsekhovskyy
It ultimately came in a losing cause, but Voytsekhovskyy had a moment to remember in the first half of York’s clash against Vancouver, as he slammed home a half-volley for his first-ever CPL goal.
A 19-year-old Ukrainian-born Canadian, Voytsekhovskyy looks to be a player to watch, too, with Martin Nash noting post-game that his finishing ability has really impressed him in training, something that he certainly showed on this well-taken attempt.
You gotta see this: Vancouver FC scores first-ever goal
It might not have been how they drew it up, but Vancouver FC won’t complain, as they scored their first-ever goal in club history against York.
Coming after Shaan Hundal did well to dispossess former TFC teammate Mo Babouli before slotting home, it seemed to give life to the Eagles, as seen in their passionate group celebration that followed the milestone.
Therefore, while they’ll look to score some prettier goals in the future, they’ll be quite happy that they got it off their backs when they did.
Plus, they’ll be quite pleased that it came off the foot of Hundal, too, who after his point-game comments about the Vancouver Whitecaps, looks to quickly becoming a cult hero for his new side. Safe to say, it’ll be exciting to see what their Danny Dichio-esque chant looks like in minute six of their first-ever home game, after Hundal noted that his former academy coach's song was something that he’d always loved hearing as someone who grew up around TFC.
What I’m watching this week: Cavalry vs Valour
This time around, the match I’ll be keeping a close eye on next week will be over in Alberta, as Cavalry hosts Valour in their home opener.
Given Cavalry’s usually strong home record, they’ll be expected to come out very strongly in this game, as they look to grab their first win of the season. At the same time, they’ll be faced with a resilient Valour side, who 90 minutes against the TSS Rovers aside, look very solid defensively so far this year.
In particular, Valour have looked very strong in midfield. Can Cavalry break through that and get more going between the lines for the likes of Ali Musse, Mikaël Cantave and company? That’ll be the big quest that they’ll look to solve this week.