AGR's High Press: Analyzing João Morelli's fit in Halifax Wanderers attack since return
No lead is safe right now in the Canadian Premier League.
Be it in the standings, where six points are all that separates first and sixth place at the moment, or on the pitch, where there were lead changes galore in two of the four matches this past weekend, it’s hard to find an edge right now.
With the end of the season rapidly approaching, that’s worth monitoring, as a photo finish looks to be on the cards, at least if the recent trends are to mean anything.
Just when you thought the table couldn’t get any tighter, it finds a way to challenge that idea each matchweek, and this past weekend was no exception.
And with that in mind, here’s a look back at what stood out from this past matchday, in the latest edition of “High Press”.
João Morelli returning to 2021 form for Halifax:
It was a performance almost two years in the making.
For the first time since September 29th, 2021, João Morelli scored for the Halifax Wanderers at Wanderers Grounds, as he nabbed a well-taken brace to help his side defeat Vancouver FC 3-0.
Not only that, but it came as part of a complete performance from the Brazilian, too, even beyond his goals, which included a stunning first-time finish on a cross.
That’s shown in the numbers, as he completed 19/22 of his passes, had four shots, won one penalty (which he converted for his brace), completed one dribble, made six passes into the final third, had one tackle, one interception and won four out of five of his duels on the day.
Overall, not a bad showing from the 2021 CPL MVP and Golden Boot winner, who continues to look more and more like himself following his return from injury.
⚓️ The king is home 👑— Halifax Wanderers FC (@HFXWanderersFC) August 14, 2023
João Morelli with his first goals at the Wanderers Grounds since 2021 for his 8th CPL brace and set a new club record with his 22nd and 23rd goals as a Wanderer on Saturday👏 #TogetherFromAways #COYW pic.twitter.com/8JdoamrNBw
That’s coming at the perfect time for this Halifax team, too, as they’ve now won seven of their last 11 games, including four in the last six since Morelli’s return.
As they have all year long, they’ve been playing some excellent soccer, but now have really been playing with swagger as of late, and Morelli’s return is a big reason for that.
Always one to embrace the spotlight, he’s done well to take the pressure off some of his teammates, finding ways to step up as he did in this game. That might not seem important at first glance, but given how relatively inexperienced this Halifax team is despite recent additions, that has only helped grow the confidence of this young group.
Plus, interestingly, he’s done so while slotting right back into a familiar role with this team, too.
A big talking point when he returned, given that he was joining a new head coach in Patrice Gheisar after Stephen Hart’s departure, it left many to ponder where he might play. Having played mostly as a second striker and #9 under Hart, it was going to be intriguing to see where Gheisar saw him fitting in his fluid system, which was something to watch as he returned to action.
Turns out, the tactical fluidity has been to Morelli’s benefit - he’s so far played as a #10 and a #9 in his two starts.
Really, though, as he often did under Hart, which was to roam the field, Morelli’s new position can also be best described as a “free role”.
That’s reflected in the numbers, as well.
Despite a natural discrepancy in minutes and positions between his 2023 and 2021 campaigns, his goals, Expected Goals (xG), key passes, touches in the box, passing, and passes into box numbers are all very similar on a per-90 basis. Really, the only thing that has changed is that he’s generating nearly double the Expected Assists (xA), is completing more dribbles and shooting slightly less, and is tucking over a bit more to the right versus the left (as seen below).
(Morelli's heat map from 2021 on the left, and from 2023 on the right).
Given that 2021 was his MVP-winning season, where he put up some strong numbers on a middling Halifax side, the fact that he’s even in the same realm of stats so quickly after his injury is impressive.
Yet, that’s why his return to form has been so key. This Halifax team that he’s returned to is much different than the one Morelli had last played for - they can hold onto the ball and can create, but don’t sacrifice much defensively, a far cry from the past units of the Wanderers, which were very pragmatic.
No doubt, the former suits Morelli much better, and that he’s been able to slot so seamlessly back into the team shows as much.
And, scarily, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what he can do. Having only seen the field six times, he’s far from full fitness, meaning he likely still has another gear to hit.
Therefore, keep an eye on him the rest of the season, as he’ll look to be a big catalyst behind Halifax’s surprise second-half title push.
It’s yet unsure what the Wanderers' best lineup might look like in the attack (how do you pick between just four of Morelli, Aidan Daniels, Massimo Ferrin, Théo Collomb, Tiago Coimbra, Jordan Perruzza and Callum Watson up front?), but you can only imagine Morelli playing a big role.
No matter what the position, he’s going to be, well, João Morelli, and he reminded people of that this past weekend.
Final 905 derby of 2023 highlights flaws for Forge, York:
From a neutral perspective, the fourth and final 905 derby of the season between Forge and York nearly had it all - back-and-forth action, lead changes, goals, drama and feistiness, as both teams were left to settle for a 3-3 draw.
As one would expect from a rivalry match, both teams were certainly up for it this weekend, and it showed across the 90 minutes, making it hard to split the two teams.
At the same time, while it was a game for the neutral, it certainly wasn’t one that either side would be too pleased with, you’d imagine.
The post-game comments from both managers reflected that - Forge’s Bobby Smyrniotis noted that the game reminded him of the circus, while York’s Martin Nash lamented his team’s inability to grind out points.
Also, Bobby Smyrniotis when asked to describe that wide-open second half:— Charlie O'Connor-Clarke (@charliejclarke) August 13, 2023
“You ever been to the circus?” #CanPL
Yet, while both managers will be frustrated with how their teams let a golden opportunity to win slip away, it’s worth noting that this game may just be a perfect microcosm of what’s both gone right and wrong with both teams’ campaigns so far.
For Forge, they had a lot to be pleased about, no doubt. Terran Campbell became the first CPL player to hit 10 goals this season (seven of which have come against York), Kyle Bekker continues to have the best offensive season of his career with one goal and one assist, and overall the team showed a good fight to get a point out of this game despite going down 3-2 to York.
On the flip side, they also had a lot to be frustrated about, as well. They once again dropped points at home (they’ve already lost more points at Tim Hortons Field in 10 regular season games this season than they did in 14 regular season clashes last year), continued to struggle defensively (they’ve already allowed the same number of goals in 20 games as they did in 28 last year), and just continue to make routine mistakes that they don’t typically make.
Then, for York, they’ve faced a similar situation on their end.
From a glass-half-full perspective, they’ll be pleased to get another road point, to see another goal from Brian Wright (who has two in his last two after not scoring in the first 18 games of the season), and just once again overall look good offensively.
GOAL🚨— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) August 13, 2023
What an individual effort from Brian Wright🔥
He's gotten @yorkutdfc back into this 905 derby vs Forge, thanks to this great run and chip, making it 2-2 in the 66th minute🦝🦝
Conversely, they’ll have to be frustrated that they dropped more points from winning positions late on in games (they’ve dropped points in the last 10 minutes of games five times this season), are conceding goals by the boatful, and have now won just two of their last 10 games.
Safe to say, it’s been a mixed stretch for the two GTA-based rivals.
They’re not in bad positions - Forge sits in third with 30 points, two off first, while York is in sixth with 26, just six points off first, but it’s felt like both teams haven’t fully been living up to their potential, at least over the course of the full season (given that both have had good stretches within that).
And now, that’s put them in an intriguing position as the end of the season approaches. Despite sitting pretty in the playoff race, it’s worth noting that even their position there isn’t as solid as what first glance might suggest, given that they’ve each played an extra game over everyone else in the race, which is less than ideal seeing how good some of the teams around them have been as of late.
Therefore, if they’re to make the playoffs, they’ll look to clean up the flaws that they’ve shown across this campaign, which were only amplified in this latest derby. If not, what had looked like potential title-winning seasons for both earlier on could end up being a battle just to make the playoffs, which could even see one miss out based on how tight the table is.
New U21 Canadian defenders continuing to shine:
It was a big win for Atlético Ottawa this weekend, as they defeated Pacific 1-0 in a vintage road performance from the 2022 regular season champions.
Yet, while it was a classic Ottawa performance, a new face played a big role in that success, as 19-year-old Tyr Walker put in a shift in his first professional start for the club.
Filling in for defensive mainstay, Diego Espejo, who was out with suspension, Walker didn’t look out of place in the 65 minutes in which he played (he left the game early with cramps), putting in a strong performance in his team’s win.
And he wasn’t the only U21 Canadian defender to see the field in that match, much less across the league, either.
Across the field from Walker was 20-year-old Paul Amedume, who has put in some solid performances for Pacific as of late to help them get U21 minutes, and will likely continue to see the pitch a fair bit over the next few games off the back of that.
Then, across the CPL, York’s Noah Abatneh and Vancouver’s James Cameron were among some of the other young defenders that played this weekend, earning minutes after strong performances in their most recent matches.
Plus, that was just this weekend - a look at the list of U21 Canadian defenders who have played in the league this year sees names like Matteo de Brienne, Eric Lajeunesse, Tyler Crawford, Michael Harms and more, among others.
Yet, that just shows a key aspect of what the CPL has been able to do since its inception - nurture defenders. Of course, attacking talent has and will continue to shine, that’s the nature of the sport, but the development of defenders has proven to be key, especially from a Canadian perspective.
An area where Canada’s struggled to develop players over the years, a big reason for that is that defenders take a lot more time to develop, which has made it hard for younger Canadian defenders to find minutes at clubs. As a result, clubs have preferred to get ready-made replacements from other countries, instead of practicing patience with their domestic options.
Now, however, a lot of young defenders are getting that chance to develop in the CPL, and that’s paying off from a Canadian perspective.
Of course, these players are far from the finished product, but they’re getting chances to earn valuable minutes that they might’ve otherwise not gotten, and that’s valuable.
From there, if they can build off that, big things will come.
Just look at the success of the likes of Joel Waterman, Lukas MacNaughton and Dominick Zator after strong stints in the CPL, as well as the recent interest in Halifax’s 22-year-old centre-back Dan Nimick after he emerged as a defensive rock for them this season.
Dan Nimick (22) a player I’ve been watching last few months, very interesting profile came through Leeds academy now at Halifax Wanderers in Canadian Premier League— TheSecretScout (@TheSecretScout_) August 15, 2023
6”2 dominating centre back. MLS and Premier League scouts currently watching him. Will be surprised if Canada… pic.twitter.com/LQDE6E0sEk
Now, this crop of young defenders will look to follow a similar path to that group, continuing the development of a key position of need for the CanMNT long-term, highlighting the importance of being able to provide these sorts of pathways.
Player of the Week: João Morelli
As seen earlier, it was a return to form this week for João Morelli, so it’s only fitting that he nabs the Player of the Week award for his efforts.
Looking like his old self once again, he was dominant for Halifax, allowing them to pick up a crucial victory over Vancouver.
Goal of the Week: João Morelli
It was a close call this week, as Brian Wright’s individual effort against Forge certainly had its merit, but in the end, Morelli’s opener versus Vancouver was too hard to ignore.
From the inch-perfect delivery from Andre Rampsersad, to the timing and precision of Morelli’s finish, which rippled the top corner with pinpoint accuracy, this was certainly an aesthetic goal to watch.
Fitting that it stood as the winner, too, as it was a tally to remember from the Brazilian.
GOAL🌊— OneSoccer (@onesoccer) August 12, 2023
Joao Morelli is left alone in the box and he puts it home to give @HFXWanderersFC the 1-0 lead over @vanfootballclub in #CanPL action🔥⚽️#TogetherFromAways | #VancouverFC
TUNE IN | 🔴https://t.co/7JFAUhgjL6 pic.twitter.com/WbX813KbDh
You Gotta See This: When in doubt, hug it out
It was an entertaining game between Valour and Cavalry this week, as Valour managed to claw back a 2-0 deficit to snap a six-game winless streak, keeping themselves alive in the playoff race.
Before they secured their 3-2 win, however, they had to see it across the line in the end, which they certainly battled to do.
As a result, it led to this textbook tactical foul from Diego Gutiérrez on Bradley Kamdem, leading Gutiérrez to apologize in the best manner possible - a hug.
Perhaps a hug that also was meant to take a few seconds off the clock, it was ultimately a gesture that Gutiérrez wouldn’t come to regret, as his team then saw the game over the line from there.
What I’m watching this week: Cavalry vs York
It was a hard choice this week - between a Salish Sea Derby with Vancouver and Pacific, another crucial home clash for Valour against Ottawa and a good tilt between Forge and Halifax, there’s no shortage of good matches this weekend.
Ultimately, however, Cavalry and York was the one that caught my eye, for a multitude of reasons.
For Cavalry, it’s a chance to quickly forget a frustrating road loss to Valour, one where they returned to some old habits from earlier in the campaign.
Then, for York, they’ll look to return to the winning column after a quiet stretch, as they look to avoid falling too far out of the playoff race.
Along with what should be a good tactical battle, as it always is between former colleagues Tommy Wheeldon Jr and Martin Nash, there’s a lot to look forward to in this clash.